Let Go, Let God, But Drive Defensively by George Merrill


‘Faith moves mountains,’ the saying goes. Tectonics too, but faith can do more than that; it serves as a constant companion on our journey. It keeps us on an even keel through weal and woe.

I read a story recently about trust; some call it faith.

Christopher Warren, a former Secretary of State, told a story of driving one night on a two-lane road at about sixty miles per hour. A car coming in the opposite direction was doing about the same speed. They passed each other. For about a second Warren had a fleeting glance at the other driver’s eye.

Warren writes; “I wondered whether he (the other driver) might be thinking as I was, how dependent we were on each other at that moment. I was relying on him not to fall asleep, not to be distracted by a cell phone conversation, not to cross over into my lane and bring my life suddenly to an end. And although we had never spoken a word to one another, he relied on me in just the same way. Multiplied a million times over, I believe that’s the way the world works.” An unremarkable story perhaps, except for its implications; we live by faith even as we remain unaware of it.

To live life with a reasonable amount of equanimity, having faith is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. A necessity, that is, if we don’t wish to become chronically fearful, suspicious or cynical.

In America today, there are approximately 276 million cars on the road. That includes me which ups the ante, considerably. There may be as many as 8 traffic signals at any major intersection. They have to be negotiated safely.

Considering the number of people driving, the estimated 6 million accidents annually is remarkably small compared to the volume of vehicles, the hours on the road and the wildly different temperaments of the people driving them.

American drivers implicitly trust their fellow drivers. They have faith in people they don’t even know.

Lacking self-confidence is a faith-related challenge and not uncommon. For many of us who’ve struggled with self-confidence, learning to trust ourselves is an incremental process. In my experience, it usually begins with a defining incident involving someone who has shown faith in us.

My first parish assignment after ordination was in a wealthy suburb of Connecticut. The people of the parish were kind and open. The rector, under whom I served, was not. His insecurity led him to be distrustful and excessively controlling. I felt intimidated by his lack of confidence in himself and in me. It undermined my own self confidence.

When my time was up at that parish – ‘served my time’, as the saying goes – I went to a new assignment in New York City. All Angels Church was on Manhattan’s West Side, a rapidly changing neighborhood where Manhattan’s elite once met to worship. It was a stunning church aesthetically. The congregation was socially and racially mixed. It included young, aging and pensioners living marginally in single room occupancies. Actors and day workers worshipped side by side. It was a humming community – real and vital. The church happened to be around the corner from Zabars, the city’s premier Jewish delicatessen that made tongue sandwiches to die for. It was there – not Zabars, but All Angels Church – where I developed faith in myself and in the God whom I served.

Being in a pulpit had always terrified me. I felt no confidence in myself as a preacher. I was obsessively concerned with “getting it right.” Anticipating preaching, my hands grew cold like ice, my stomach taut. I wanted to be an inspiring preacher. I never thought I was pulling it off. My preaching was pedantic and uninspired.

The rector was an amiable man. He was never critical, leaving me all the slack I needed. I’d been there for about six months and one day he commented casually that he noticed that I read my sermons from a manuscript and was always quoting famous theologians. “Ever think of trying to write a few notes and then just speak from your heart?” he asked one day. Jumping off the Empire State Building seemed more attractive to me. He never pushed his suggestion, saying only that it might be fun trying it one Sunday.

I thought off and on about what he’d said. A few weeks later I had a dream. It went something like this; I was stepping up into the pulpit. The church was packed. I looked out into the congregation and saw a multitude waiting expectantly for me to speak. A wave of panic shot through me as if I’d touched the third rail on the subway track. I looked down at the manuscript I was to preach from. In what I can only describe as divine intervention directing me in the most ungodly way, I said to myself, “Oh, the hell with it.”

With those words, I pitched the manuscript to one side and watched the pages fall like autumn leaves from the pulpit. I looked directly at the congregation and began to speak. My voice, which I always thought sounded strained and hoarse, in this dream now sounded pleasing. I felt confident, the calm kind of confidence that’s gentle and sooths, not the cocky kind that one might feel making slam dunks with every throw while fans cheered. When I awoke, I felt free as if a muzzle I’d worn for my whole life was taken off and I was free to bark or howl or even growl, whatever it may be that my heart dictated. In the dream, I had an abiding sense of kinship with the congregation I’d not felt before. No wonder, really, as I had been so preoccupied with the inadequacy my own performance, I probably never looked directly at my parishioners.

In that dream, I experienced the freedom to be as I was, to say what I felt. It became a defining moment or as the theologian Paul Tillich once described, ‘finding the courage to be.’

I’d love to say that the week after the dream I ascended into the pulpit with a few scribbled notes and preached. I didn’t. Months after, for reasons I can’t exactly recall, I did. I was, of course, apprehensive. The sermon was unremarkable. I saw some parishioners reading the bulletin as I spoke, others looking around as if bird watching. But it was a sermon spoken from the heart and I knew it. I spoke with a measure of spontaneity, even confidence I’d not experienced before. I was sure of this at least; that if my job was to preach good news of Jesus Christ, unless I could speak it from my heart, I’d just be mouthing pious clichés.

A footnote about how the holy spirit guided other pastoral duties at All Angels. I’d visit shut ins and hospital patients, getting around the city in my old VW Bug. I confess I never could mobilize faith in New York City drivers, especially cabbies. I scrupulously followed the exhortation of scripture written in I Peter: “Be sober, be vigilant; your adversary the devil walketh (driveth) about, seeking whom he may devour.”

I took this as God’s message for me to drive defensively.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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