Driving with the Air Bag Off…Again

By now, any remotely-attentive parent knows that kids can be seriously hurt – or even killed – should an automobile air bag deploy directly toward a child’s face (or the backside of an infant car carrier). Because we love our kids, then, we quite intentionally hit the air bag “kill” switch whenever they ride up front.

In some ways, though, it really seems counter-intuitive to turn a precisely-engineered safety device off, especially when you are placing your greatest earthly treasure in the passenger seat next to you…but most of us learn to trust the experts behind the various research studies and crash forensics. We typically pay proper heed to the ominous-looking warning stickers plastered on both the vehicle and the safety seat.

The passenger-side air bag in my 1999 Mazda pickup truck has been off for a solid eight days now. In my case, this is definitely not the normal state of affairs. It is yet another small sign – among many – that my wife and three of our daughters have been out of the country on The Crossing’s week-long mission trip to Harmons, Jamaica, and that I have sole responsibility for our three-year-old son. Normally, my pickup truck carries significantly taller people in its passenger seat, while Eli travels around Columbia and its environs in our oh-so-luxurious white Ford Econoline van. (Let it never be said that the Mayer family lacks for sweet rides…)

Unless you were walking very closely with me from 1999 to the present day, you might think it something of a stretch for me to see strong evidence of God’s grace in my life simply by looking at the yellow OFF light next to my pickup’s air bag control. However, this recent, prolonged period of factory-installed air bag inactivity has had the unforeseen side-effect of repeatedly reminding me of days long gone by, and of how faithfully and lovingly God has guided me through some pretty choppy waters in the intervening years.

Back in the summer of 1999, when I purchased this particular truck brand-new, my daughter Mackenzie was five years old and my divorce had been final for about 18 months. Just like my three-year-old son does today, she also rode in the exact same passenger seat with the air bag set semi-permanently in the OFF position. Among many other wonderful things that Mackenzie has brought into my life and memory, one of her lasting legacies is that as a young child she laughed with her entire body. During one of these glee-filled outbursts, she excitedly put her small foot clean through the upper portion of the passenger-side air vent, knocking out the three top louvers even as the truck still carried with it “that new car smell.” (As far as I know, the missing vent louvers are still rattling around in the truck’s air-handling system…somewhere.)

Kenz just recently turned 16. The Mazda now has 100,905 miles on it; obviously, it lost that new car smell long ago. The intervening years have been incredibly difficult and incredibly blessed. Since then I have lost one daughter…and gained three. In 1999, I had no sons…I now have two. Having permanently given up on women “for good” in the early months of 2003, I joyfully remarried in May of 2004. In 1999 I did not even attend church, let alone participate in ministry settings. My wife and I now facilitate divorce ministry at The Crossing, I am enrolled in seminary and Shelly is leading women’s Bible studies. When I purchased the truck, I had been clean and sober less than two years…by God’s grace, I hope to celebrate 13 years of continuous sobriety next month.

To put it mildly, I can clearly see how God has taken even the most pathetic gestures of faith on my part and multiplied them a hundredfold. Strapping Eli into his car seat today is, for me at least, like taking a trip back in time and reliving several episodes of faithfulness (God’s) and stupidity (mine) all over again. I can see only too clearly how many times in the last eleven years I have grieved the heart of God – and others – as I have gone through episodes of defiance, anger, pride and rebellion. And through it all, God has never once stopped calling me, again and again, into deeper relationship with Him. His work in my life has confounded me time after time, as He slowly, patiently unfolds a plan I could never possibly have imagined.

I would be perfectly content to drive my dumpy old pickup truck until the day I die. My father helped me pay for it during a post-divorce financial downturn in my life. This out-of-the-blue gift – itself a strong example of unmerited grace – came on the heels of years of difficult estrangement between the two of us; once again, 100% my own stupidity. The truck, in addition to whatever else it provided in practical terms, served as a steel-and-chrome symbol of our reconciliation right up to the day my father died, just a few short months after Shelly and I had married. The smashed-in air vent, which really bent me out of shape when it happened, now serves as a daily reminder that kids really do grow up fast, faster than we would like, and they won’t be around to smash in our air vents forever.

And so, as vivid memories of the past and unmistakable reminders of God’s undying faithfulness flooded over me, I strapped my young son into his car seat Sunday morning and headed to The Crossing. By God’s gracious will, his Mom arrived home from Jamaica late last night. She’ll take over his primary care today, the car seat will soon be dislodged from its perch in my passenger seat, and the air bag warning light will once again read ON.

As we drove home from church yesterday, just me and Eli, I couldn’t help but notice that it probably won’t be that much longer until his tennis shoes reach the air vent, too. Should another burst of excited laughter cause him to finish off what Mackenzie started so many years ago, the only appropriate responses from me will be awe and worship.

Romans 11:33-36 (ESV)
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

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