by Nancy Freeman
Last December, I experienced a revelation that shifted my thinking and affected how I respond to the world. I mean the ah ha moment was big, huge. The cause of this life-changing revelation? A bumper sticker.
It was two days before Christmas 2021, and I had had a morning that began when I’d gotten mad at my husband, Scott. Not the kind of anger where I expressed my feelings in a calm, measured way, but the kind where I was angry yet told him everything was fine while I inwardly seethed. Unexpected work deadlines had come up for Scott, and he couldn’t run some basic holiday errands, like going to the Post Office and grocery store. I was going to have to run them, adding yet more tasks to my already packed pre-Christmas schedule.
After my annual gynecology exam, with its own special kind of fun, I drove over to our church, St. Augustine’s to deliver gifts for the clergy and staff. I needed to be there by noon when the office closed. As I barreled along in heavy holiday traffic, I kept glancing at my car clock, frustrated. So, there I was in the season of peace and joy, totally stressed out and thinking decidedly un-Christian thoughts about my husband’s job, on my way to a place of worship to deliver Christmas presents to church people. Hello, irony.
Halfway there, I pulled up at a stoplight and noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. Respond with Love. I laughed out loud, “Really, God, really?” and even looked to my right. I half expected to see God, whatever God might look like, in the passenger seat holding the gift bags. And smiling! At me!
Bolt of lightning, an ah-ha moment of clarity. “Respond with love” did not mean seething crankiness about my husband’s work deadlines, nor did it mean stressing about time and bemoaning traffic while delivering presents. I immediately relaxed.
The prophetic car turned to my left at the next light as I drove on. “But wait,” I thought, “Could you just keep in front of me?” That’s when the idea of a pilot car came to me. The pilot car operates in construction zones and guides vehicles behind it, with a large sign on its back that states Follow Me, through the roadwork, back to regular traffic.
I realized I needed my own personal God Pilot Car. Metaphorically, life can feel like a construction zone. I go along on the highway of life and, every now and then, I hit road construction. Whether it is minor life stresses such as holidays or significant events such as illness, death of a friend or family member, I need guidance. In my life’s construction zone, I’d change the giant sign on the back of my God pilot car to read Respond with God’s Love, shifting the phrase to reflect God’s unconditional love and remind me how to approach life.
God’s love involves grace and acceptance. My thoughts that cranky December day were not loving, with grace and acceptance were far, far away. It was easy to blame my mood on holiday stresses, I’m afraid I’m often crankier than I like to admit. I can become overwhelmed by life’s daily stresses and the world’s problems; impulsive and when tired, angry, or scared; sarcastic when things ought to be left unsaid.
Regardless of the situation or problem, life comes down to offering one action: Respond with God’s Love. That means I listen more, or I don’t jump to conclusions. It means I take a deep breath and don’t say out loud the first thoughts (sometimes unkind), that come into my brain. Responding with God’s love helps me to change my actions. I can’t change others; I can only change my behavior and actions.
When I shift how I view a situation and how I respond, the interaction becomes grace-filled and accepting. The anger or feelings of frustration come way down. It’s as if the wind of grace swoops in and blows everything out of the way but leaves a breezy grace to hang gently in the air. 99% of the time, responding with God’s love positively changes the interaction with the other person. That remaining one percent of the time? That’s on me.
I suppose we all struggle with how to Respond with God’s Love to events and situations that seem far, far out of my control. Take events such as the seemingly endless war in Ukraine or the ongoing worries about covid, flu, or whatever virus is prevalent. From my home in Skokie, Illinois, there are many national and global problems that seem insurmountable. On a bad day, I think little can be done, but on a good day, I realize I have power and can do something, whether it’s donating money, praying, or volunteering. Responding with God’s love is bounded only by the limits I set. God’s love is infinite.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not perfect about remembering to “Respond with God’s Love” on my highway of life. I could use a remote-control car pilot car in my house, zipping in front of me, with the sign on the back. Or a small Matchbox metal car with a tiny sign so that I could take it with me in my pocket or purse. During 2022, I even wondered a few times about getting my first and only tattoo with the phrase inked on my wrist so I’d always see it. That’s how much I need a reminder and how much following the phrase has changed my life. When I Respond with God’s Love everything and everyone in my life is better.
During the Prince of Peace season and beyond, it can be quite difficult to remain calm, to focus on the true meaning of Christ’s birth. This Christmas, perhaps everyone needs a prompt to change individually and, in turn, change the world. May you have your own God pilot car to remind you that Respond with God’s Love is the way to go through the construction zones of life.