In The Trunks of Our Cars

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Zach and Dusty, 1994

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One day, about fifteen years ago, my mom realized that their beloved dog, Dusty, was missing. He was the sweet Springer Spaniel my parents had adopted as a puppy after my sister and I left home.  He was smart and gentle–a great companion to my younger brother as a teenager, and a patient playmate for the grandkids that came in quick succession during the 1980’s.

I’ll never forget the panic I heard in my mom’s voice on that fateful day when she called to say that Dusty had disappeared.

“When did you see him last?” I asked.

“When we got home from the store. He ran out and greeted us as usual, but that was hours ago and we haven’t seen him since. He’s not in the yard, anywhere. I’ve called and called for him–even went into the woods, but there’s just no sign of him!”

Mom was really upset. Dusty was Mom’s constant companion during the day, and Dad’s walking partner in the evenings. He had eased their transition to empty-nesters by simply being his friendly self.

“Are you sure he’s not in the house, hiding somewhere?”

“I’ve searched every room, and besides that, he always comes when I call.”

“Do you think he’s run off, farther away?”

“We’ve already driven up and down the road for miles and called and called, but nothing. I’ve talked to all the neighbors and they haven’t seen him.” Her voice broke, making my heart hurt for her. “Oh, Willow–I hope he’s okay!”

I hung up the phone, feeling helpless from my distant location on the other end of Montana. All I could do was pray.

The next morning, I awoke thinking of Dusty.

The phone rang a little while later. “He’s back! Dusty’s here!” Mom’s tone was jubilant.

“Where was he? How did you find him?” I asked.

Mom and Dad’s old Nissan was similar to this one. The trunk was actually quite roomy.

Mom giggled in a rather odd way and then hesitated. She cleared her throat before going on to tell me that prior to leaving for work that morning, Dad had opened the trunk of their little Nissan sedan to put something in and out jumped Dusty. It seems he had been in the trunk of the car all along. For something like a terrible eighteen hours.

Apparently, Dad had walked by the car after unloading it the day before and closed the trunk lid without looking inside it. Looking back, he figured Dusty must have jumped inside, but didn’t protest when the lid slammed down. Dad and Mom both felt horrible.

Especially considering that the whole evening before, while they were driving the back roads, searching the ditches and calling for him from the car windows, the dog was right there–right behind the back seat, in the trunk. Being a patient fellow, he hadn’t made a noise, at least nothing that could be heard above the hum of the engine.

My parents’ immense relief was mixed with immense guilt. They might as well have been Mafia bosses driving around with a silenced informant stuffed in their trunk.

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The Pharisees, along with all the Jewish people, were watching and waiting for the arrival of the long-predicted Messiah. They were desperate for God to raise up a mighty leader who would deliver them from Roman oppression and re-establish the nation of Israel as a kingdom under a Messianic kingship. As a defeated people, the Jews were expecting a political reformer to lead them to national victory, not a humble carpenter’s son who, shunning politics, was there to lead them to spiritual freedom.

And so it was, when Jesus came and lived among them, most of the Jews (especially the Pharisees) refused to believe that he was the one they were looking for. But Jesus stated his identity plainly from the beginning of his ministry:

“Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached…’The time promised by God has come at last!…’The Kingdom of God is near!'” Mark 1:14-15 (NLT)

And,

“…the Pharisees asked Jesus, ‘When will the Kingdom of God come?’ Jesus replied, ‘The Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you. “‘Luke 17:20-21 (NLT)

Of course, most of the Pharisees were blind and deaf to Jesus’ truth. Rather than humbly opening themselves up to the possibility that their presumptions regarding the Messiah’s return were too narrow, they dug in, refusing to see Jesus as anything but a threat to their authority.

In the end, their search for something they already had would result in Jesus’ agonizing death.

Dusty, too, would have eventually died if Mom and Dad hadn’t discovered that, all along, while they were diligently and frantically searching for him, he was right there with them…only a few feet away.

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One of the more aggravating symptoms of my Pharisaism disease was a bout of unhealthy expectations. Most likely related to the larger problem of presumption, these expectations became chronic and damaging over time. They caused me to narrow my perspective on the purpose of church, and caused me to expect that the way I did church was the way that God had universally prescribed for all Christians.

I expected that every church should be housed in a clean, respectable facility, should conduct regular Sunday morning services, should have pleasing worship music, should insist on literal word-for-word bible studies, and be led by a qualified, professional pastor. Anything less could put its members in danger of heresy, or apostasy, or any number of other dangerous conditions ending in –sy.

I expected that the kingdom of God was populated with committed, sober, upright people whose good behavior was the vehicle that allowed them to bring Jesus to their community. That it was every Christian’s duty to whip our culture back into shape–to get people to all live respectably, as I defined respectability, that is.

I fully expected that the American Christian Church model was the only true representation of God’s kingdom to society and I needed to do everything right in order to keep God’s displeasure with America at bay, and then be first in line to receive my reward for doing so.

The problem was, though, that I wasted a ton of time preparing for something that had already arrived.

I was driving around in my religious institutional vehicle, calling out for Jesus, searching for him, longing for him to come and show himself to the pagan culture, not realizing that he was already with me and everyone else.

I didn’t realize I had locked him up inside my sick presumptions.

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Concerning the whole Dusty ordeal, Mom later said the worst part was hoping the neighbors wouldn’t press for specifics when they asked if the dog had been found. Dad said the worst part for him was when the the poor dog leapt out of the trunk and started running around on three legs so he could pee while still running. Practically flooded the yard, Dad reported.

But everything turned out okay in the end. Dusty survived just fine.

And, as a diseased church person, so did I…

…but only after I opened my mind.

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