The car I drive now has three dents in it. There are three places — one on the left side, one on the right side, and one on the back bumper — where another car has, let’s just say, come into contact with mine. Now, I know full well that everyone says (and generally believes) that he or she is a good driver. Behind the wheel, most of us are automotive Pharisees — we look around at all the other pathetic drivers who are texting, reading and shaving, and we confidently mutter to ourselves “Thank you, God, that I am not like them.” Still, like Rain Man, I continue to tell myself that “I’m an excellent driver.” This is why I am a bit perplexed that, within the last year and a half, my vehicle and I have had three “encounters” that each left a lasting impression upon us. The impressions endure not only because they are written in metal and paint, but also because they have taught me two durable lessons about life in the church.
The first relates to safety. Many of us expect the church to be a literal sanctuary — a place where we are protected from the perils and pitfalls of life in the world. The dents in my car, however, remind me that there are limits to this expectation. You see, all three of the dings on my car were received at the church. The first two occurred in our church parking lot. The third happened while we, as a church, were at the site of a local mission project. Considering all the worldly places my car has been (states, cities, interstates, gas stations, hospitals and shopping malls), it is ironic that the only physical scars it bears have been inflicted not out in “the world,” but at church. My dents bear witness to the fact that, even in the most loving congregation, humans can still hurt others and be hurt by others.
The second lesson, which is greater than the first, concerns grace. “Fault” is such a loaded and pejorative term, but if pushed I might say that the first dent might have been my fault. I’ll put it this way: when the contact occurred, I was driving my vehicle and the car making contact with mine was driverless and parked. These are the uncontested facts; draw whatever conclusions you must. The second two dings, however, were certainly not my fault. In those instances, my vehicle was the one that was parked. In those instances, I could have demanded justice, enforced my rights and collected on my debts. Except that I couldn’t. I couldn’t, because when I had been the debtor, I had received grace. When I had been the one behind the wheel, I had been forgiven. When I had left a bruise on someone else, she sent me away in love and peace. Each week, we pray this prayer to God: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Perhaps, my dents seem to say, we ought to mean it. Perhaps we should be dispensing grace to others as if we have received bounteous grace ourselves. Perhaps, especially in the church, we should be forgiving in the same way we hope to be forgiven.
In all of this, I am reminded of the lovable tow-truck “Mater” from the Pixar movie “Cars.” Mater is rusty and unrefined, but he is also fiercely loyal and loving. Nothing is more important to him than his friends. As the plot of the second “Cars” movie unfolds, it becomes clear that Mater must be an unlikely hero. He, and he alone, can go undercover, as a spy, to save his friends. As he is being cleaned, prepped and suited up for his dangerous mission, agents begin to fix the dents in his frame. “No thank you,” he says. “I don’t get them dents buffed, pulled, filled or painted by nobody. They’re way too valuable.” Mater’s dings didn’t remind him of pain or injury. Those marks reminded him of grace — the grace of friendship, the grace of forgiveness, the grace of mercy, the grace of brotherly love. So, when Mater says, “I don’t fix these… I wanna remember these dents forever,” I know just how he feels. Just don’t tell my State Farm agent.