Do you remember that song1 from the 2006 film “Cars”? It plays while Lightning McQueen, the protagonist race car hits the road in Mack, his transport truck. They’re on the freeway to California, where the Piston Cup Championship race will take place. The chorus starts with the line “Life is a highway, I want to ride it all night long” and its uptempo optimism serves as an ironic prophesy about Lightning. He’s a racecar who’s full of himself and his accomplishments. He’s made a name for himself by going fast in circles. He imagines that in doing so, he is doing something and getting somewhere. He’s on the highway of life and he’s going to ride it where ever it takes him.
It takes him to an unexpected place. En route to the championship race, he gets separated from Mack, his caretaker, and is lost in the forgotten little town of Radiator Springs. There a series of unexpected encounters and serious setbacks bring him to his metaphorical knees (cars don’t have knees) and show him how vapid, directionless and self-absorbed his life has been.
Radiator Springs becomes the place of Lightning McQueen’s repentance, his change of heart. He comes to a new way of thinking and being. In the movie the circle track, a busy freeway, and the all-but-abandoned Mother Road serve as metaphors for various ways of living one’s life.
Pixar didn’t invent the road trip movie nor the highway metaphor for life. Travel or pilgrimage have, for ages, been ways of thinking about it. The Bible provides some of the oldest examples. God’s people are frequently going from one place to another at God’s bidding: Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and his family, Moses and the Children of Israel, and Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. In every case, it’s not just the trip or the destination that’s important, but what the trip means about the lives of those on the road. The road represents their whole lives.
We’re days away from spring break and while not everyone at Valpo leaves town, a large portion of our community gets on the road, inspiring thoughts of travel all around. For Christians, this spring travel happens in the middle of Lent, often thought of as a 40-day pilgrimage toward Jesus’ cross and resurrection. Here are lots of lessons that thoughtful travel can provide for the road of life. Here are a few:
Every trip has a destination: Even if the journey is its own reward, as is often said, there’s always a destination at the end of it. Travel with intention pays attention to the destination and plans an appropriate route to get there. Our lives aren’t just a series of random events with no pattern. Experiences provide lessons that inform future experiences. Over time, we tell stories about our lives that can become the stories of our lives. For Christians, those stories are spun together with the story of Jesus’ resurrection to such a degree that our own resurrection becomes the ultimate destination of our lives and we chart our route as ones with that hope. St. Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Philippians, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
The journey is its own reward: Even though there’s a destination that serves as the motivator for travel and influences the route, there’s joy in journey itself. Students returning from spring service trips talk about the community that forms among those who serve together. Frequently, those little communities are formed in the vans on the road during the hours of travel together. Maybe we meet new people on the trip, maybe we try new foods or see new things. Maybe the route takes us by someplace familiar but with new companions. These moments are worthy of our attention because they are what we have in the moment. Later in his letter to the Philippians, Paul encourages his readers to pay attention in the moment to things of value and joy.
Expect the unexpected: Anyone who’s travelled knows that things don’t always go as planned. There’s road construction and the weather changes or we happen upon a new discovery, we meet someone we weren’t expecting to meet. The unexpected is to be expected, even welcomed. None of us are living lives that are going exactly as we planned them. We suffer setbacks and deprivations. Other times opportunities that we hadn’t anticipated suddenly seem to present themselves to us. St. Paul was a model of resilience, largely because he was so convinced of his hope in Jesus. Of his own life he wrote “In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”
The road awaits. I wish you travelling blessings.
1“Life is a Highway” was recorded for the Pixar Movie “Cars” by Rascal Flatts, however the song was written and recorded in the early 1990’s by Canadian singer-songwriter, Tom Cochran, inspired by a trip he took to east Africa with the Christian development organization, World Vision. You can read the story of the song’s inspiration here.
Feb. 28, 2018
Rev. James A. Wetzstein serves as one of our university pastors at Valpo and takes turns writing weekly reflections.