Commuting Commemoration

A Look Back

Not long ago, I held a contracting job within the Federal government. Despite its boasting of telework initiatives, the ability to work from home was an elusive privilege pursued in a Sisyphus-style struggle, filled with training courses, paperwork, management whims, prolific policies, and yes, even politics. In spite of numerous managers fighting valiantly, by the end of my tenure, teleworking was expressly forbidden on our contract (unless the government needed our help during off-hours, in which case it was demanded).

And so, mine was one of commuting to the office every day in what’s considered to be some of the worst traffic in the country. Based on some quick calculations, it’s possible I spent an estimated 3,100 hours commuting to and from work, or 129 days of driving. The length of my daily commute put me in the top 8% of American workers!

Looking back, it provided plenty of memories, some wonderful, some amusing, and some downright awful. Before time and age have their way with my memory, I thought I should capture some of those memories lest I never forget.

Looking back on The Merge
Looking back on The Merge

The Audible

When enduring dreadful commutes, having something good to listen to is often the only escape.

  • Early on, I did not own an iPod or any sort of podcast player. My solution? I burned podcasts to a Read-Write CD-ROM the night before, and listed using a portable CD player. (Did I forget to mention the car didn’t have a built-in CD player?)
  • Playlists and podcasts were a must. By the end, I had it down to a science, knowing precisely how many of my favorite podcasts I could listen to during a typical commute, some of which required listening at 1.5x speed in order to fit in a full episode.
  • While carpooling successes ebbed and flowed, the successful commuting collaborations were an opportunity to expand my musical horizons. One fellow commuter, in particular, could spin up everything from Flo Rida to Johnny Cash. I am indebted to him for my love of the Man in Black.

The Unexpected

When commuting every day, there are bound to be some surprises along the way.

  • It's hard to "move that bus!" when you're stuck in D.C. traffic
    It’s hard to “move that bus!” when you’re stuck in D.C. traffic

    Deep in thought one afternoon on the way home, methodically stopping and starting in the bumper-to-bumper traffic, I suddenly realized I was staring at the back of the Extreme Home Makeover bus. They had just finished taping an episode in D.C. I have to assume the regulars on the show were smart enough to fly to their next destination rather than parking on I-95 with the rest of us.

  • Occasionally some of us would forget that carpooling wasn’t everything it’s cracked up to be, and would go through the hassle of coordinating schedules to achieve the magical 3+ people needed to take the HOV lanes. One morning, we fell short by one person (no doubt due to a last-minute back out), dooming us to the regular lanes for the commute. And yet, as the HOV entrance approached, my fearless co-worker merged on, and there we were enjoying the wide-open freedom of HOV … illegally (and let’s assume unintentionally). It didn’t take long before he realized the mistake. However, these lanes are separated by jersey walls and once you commit, there is no off-ramp for more than 10 miles, a stretch littered with State Police enforcement points. More than a few prayers were said (did I mention he’s a pastor now?), and in the end we made it through unscathed.
  • Google Maps Cards, waiting to be unleashed
    Google Maps Cards, waiting to be unleashed

    One commute home I drove alongside a trailer full of Google Street View cars. It reminded me of a Multi-Troop Transport, ready to unleash its battle droids on some unsuspecting town.

  • On a rare morning drive when traffic was actually flowing smoothly (it must have been a delayed departure), I noticed a white bird flying alongside my car. I was easily traveling at 60 mph, and the bird not only kept pace, but also course, flying in the lane next to me for at least a couple miles. It was quite surreal, and I half expected to see Roma Downey appear in the passenger’s seat.
  • When cold weather AND precipitation were in the forecast, VDOT’s massive salt truck plows would appear in pairs, parked along I-95. Yes, I said parked. They strategically chose locations along the highway … and would wait for the first few flurries to fly. At first I found it silly, but I suppose it made sense. If they waited for the weather to arrive, they’d be faced with the same traffic woes as the rest of us, with no hope of actually reaching the highway now in need of clearing.
  • While at first unexpected, I eventually grew accustomed to seeing rather large motorcades usurping one direction of I-95, either for a military funeral procession or official transport of some sort.

    Start of motorcade

The People

Oh, the people. Have you ever gone to the mall and people watched? Commuting in bad traffic can be similarly entertaining, but on a whole new level. People somehow think they’re alone when they are sitting in their car, exposed by clear windows on all sides. The things people do when they think they’re alone. Of course, others are only too aware they are stuck in a mass of vehicles and people, and seek help, assuming surely this congestion isn’t normal.

  • I was stuck in the usual Thursday-afternoons-during-the-summer traffic nastiness. A honk from the car in the lane next to me grabbed my attention. I looked over, and the driver clearly wanted to talk with me. I paused my podcast, and rolled down my window, and this happened. Welcome to Virginia.
  • Other interactions while parked on I-95 included people asking me, “Is it always like this?”, and “Where’d you get that bumper sticker? I’ve been looking for one of those.”
  • As for the people who thought they were alone, there were plenty nose pickers, and women applying makeup or aerosol hairspray, but one efficient mother wisely spent a portion of her commute using a breast pump. Yes, you can get a ticket for texting while driving, but I guess lawmakers hadn’t considered that possibility yet.
  • Slugging was sometimes a decent option when heading into D.C. Think of it as “Instant Carpooling” or “Casual Carpooling,” where you meet up with total strangers and combine forces to achieve enough passengers to use the HOV lanes. The majority of time the people were helpful, cordial, and friendly. There were, however, some people that violated etiquette and shared their wacko thoughts on anything and everything. My brother’s been slugging daily for over a decade. I wish he’d write a book.

The Strategy

Many techniques were used to try and get around the horrendous traffic. For months I tracked each day’s commute: departure time, weather conditions, day of the week, length of commute. Surely I just need to leave early enough, and exercise or eat breakfast once I get to work. There was never an early enough. Then there were the traffic cameras, available real-time on mobile devices, as long as you didn’t consult while driving. Maybe I can time things just right. Or maybe if I take public transportation, driving the wrong direction to get to the train station, which takes me to the bus, which takes me to work.

In the end, this was the only strategy I found to beat the traffic:

  • [footage not found]

The License Plates

I-95 is the only thoroughfare along the East coast, so there are many out-of-staters just trying to pass through every day.

  • Some of my friends played license plate games. Not the usual “see who can find all the states first” kind, but the “let’s make up a mathematical formula using all the numbers on a license plate” kind, and would see who could do the calculation quickest for each plate. “Oh, there’s another 19,” they would say.
  • One summer day on my commute home, I saw plates from ID, FL, MS, IL, OK, NC, MD, MA, NJ, NY, MO, TN, MI, PA, CO, and UT. That’s 16 states, in a 30 mile stretch, in 1 commute.
  • With the tens-of-thousands of commuters taking the same route each day, it was amazing to me that I started recognizing individual license plates. Apparently we kept similar schedules.

The Sights

Virginia is a beautiful part of the country, with gorgeous changing seasons, rolling hills and mountains, and towering trees. On occasion I was able to look beyond the congestion surrounding me, and take in some awe-inspiring sights.

  • Leaving early in the morning provided some incredible sunrise views. Often, if you timed it right, you could be parked on I-95 at one of the higher-elevation points with a clear view East. A brief interlude to the madness.
  • National Museum of the Marine Corps
    National Museum of the Marine Corps

    Each day I was fortunate enough to drive by the magnificent National Museum of the Marine Corps. It’s not only a wonderful architectural site to see, but a fabulous museum to visit, if you ever have the opportunity.

  • While I-95 is the only main thoroughfare, it was possible to take residential back roads through Occoquan and around Quantico, and avoid the highway all together (though not always its overflow traffic). I took this route infrequently enough that maps were in order. This alternate approach home was an automatic doubling of my “normal” commute time home. When traffic reports indicated above average problems (there were always accidents, so they needed to be severe or numerous enough), then I’d do the math as traffic reports emerged and diverge if back roads showed the potential for saving time. Once I accepted the additional time I’d be driving, those back road commutes (when I didn’t get lost) bordered on the enjoyable. The rolling roads, the landscape, the rural farms and white picket fences, were refreshing to see, especially compared to the asphalt and bumpers of a normal commute.

The Sustenance

When you’re settling in for what could easily be a multi-hour drive, you want provisions. Be careful, however, lest you end up triggering the need for a pit stop whilst stuck in traffic. You’ve been warned.

  • Coffee, black gold. It was a must. Once a week I’d treat myself with a stop at a local filling station, either Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts. If I was looking for straight-up coffee the choice was Dunkin, but the Americano fix was SBUX. All the other days it was a travel mug. Eventually, I began using a Stanley Classic Field Green Thermos. You know the kind. It was less convenient for use in the car, but worked great with the coffee mug in my cube.
  • Beverages while driving are tricky. Have a large stash of napkins in the car, and a Tide stain stick waiting for you at work.
  • Coffee was a must, but the rare food purchase was  extravagance. The Breakfast Burrito from Anita’s New Mexican Restaurant for $1.69 was enough to make the commuting misery (almost) melt away. More common was the free donut that came by doing the survey on my Dunkin Donut’s receipt from the previous visit. Amazingly, the cycle was never ending, and the survey was becoming nearly automatic.

The Grind

While commuting had its moments, more often than not it was a day-to-day battle.

The I-95 Merge
The I-95 Merge
  • Early on, as I was still becoming familiar with the area, before I had a GPS, I would venture off the beaten path. “There must be a better way that these tens-of-thousands of suckers sitting on I-95 don’t know about,” I’d say to myself. The result? A call to my personal OnStar service, otherwise known as my wife. Invariably, the conversation would end with us trying to figure out how the same two roads could interest at 5 different points. Only in Virginia.
  • Getting lost or being stuck in traffic is frustrating. Remembering you are paid hourly in those situations, and are therefore losing income with every passing moment, is absolutely infuriating. Occasionally I’d be shaken from the monotony of the commute by a work-related phone call requesting assistance with the escalation of an issue, or have the good fortune of a scheduled conference call during the commute home. While both meant being paid for time on the road, I eventually grew to value the time alone and preferred not having the calls.
  • One particular stretch of the drive home that was always enjoyable was the backup where the highway “merged” 2 car pool lanes and 1 on-ramp into an already full 3 lanes of traffic … at the bottom of a hill so the tractor trailers had to start from a complete stop. This spot is referred to simply as The Merge. There’s nothing quite like inching along in a 2 mile backup on hot asphalt in 98 degree weather. Memories of the merge are enough to make my stomach churn and palms sweat, even to this day. Since you’re likely to stay awhile, you can even check-in at the I-95 HOV Merge on Foursquare, if that’s your kind of thing.
  • Virginia summers are hot. And humid. Virginians also care about the environment, and what better way to demonstrate that than to declare Ozone Action Days! One particular steamy summer afternoon, the traffic congestion was worse than normal and continuing in spots where there was generally some relief. I wasn’t too surprised, as anything can cause this volume of traffic to slow down (e.g., a parked car on the side of the road, a new sign, rain, too much sun, not enough sun). This day, however, the additional slowdown was caused by one of the electronic overhead traffic signs. On it was a flashing alert that we were under an Ozone warning, encouraging us to reduce traffic by carpooling. Keep in mind we’re already on the highway. As soon as we passed under the sign, traffic resumed to normal speeds. In an effort to help the environment, a law was passed requiring VDOT to display these signs. The end result? Tens-of-thousands of cars idling on the highway for 30 minutes longer than usual because of a pointless sign. How is that helping the environment or keeping traffic moving?  It seems to me it’s doing quite the opposite.
  • After driving the same route for long enough, you get a feel for traffic patterns. It became second nature to change lanes at certain points along the commute, anticipating the normal congestion points. Certain lanes flowed better than others at some of the backups, whether due to the configuration of merging traffic, or the driving behavior of the majority hoping to avoid an upcoming merge. The key is knowing when to change lanes, ride out the benefit as long as possible, and switch back before you’re stuck with newly merging traffic. Countless hours of my life were no doubt reclaimed with such deft maneuvers. So ingrained were these lane changes I began to find it hard to ride with others who either didn’t share this crucial life skill, or simply didn’t care about commuting efficiency. As a corollary, it is almost never worth changing lanes on the spur of the moment simply because one lane appears to be moving more quickly than another. Such lanes will suck you in with their appeal, and immediately grind to a halt the moment you join. Don’t fall for it.

The Enjoyable

Commuting was not all heartburn. Looking back, I have plenty of wonderful memories, as well.

  • Traffic alerts on a vacation day.
    Traffic alerts on a vacation day. Bliss!

    It was imperative to receive traffic alerts. There were few things as enjoyable as receiving those traffic alerts on vacation days. I might as well confess, I also checked traffic reports during rush hour on days off. It was a guilty pleasure.

  • During one stretch of work, I was able to telecommute for an hour or so each morning before hitting the road and driving into work. This allowed some flexibility in trying to allow some traffic to clear. But it also allowed me to wake up my children before I left, say a prayer together as a family, and drive away with them all standing at the window waving. There’s no greater send-off when leaving for the day.
  • In all my time commuting, I was never involved in an accident. It was not uncommon to see at least 2 or 3 accidents in each direction every day. There were so many distractions, and times I was nearly asleep or lost in thought. I’m so grateful for God’s protection during all of those commutes.

Hiding Under Halloween’s Bushel

Candle Piercing Darkness

Remember the song This Little Light of Mine that you sang as a kid in Sunday School?

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

As another Halloween was drawing to a close, I sat alone with a depleted bowl of candy on our front porch, waiting for any remaining neighborhood children to come by. It was quiet, almost too quiet. As I surveyed our street, I counted 7 consecutive houses next to us that were completely dark. No porch lights, no sidewalk lights, and no light spilling out from the front windows.

With no street lights in our neighborhood, that type of darkness is noticeable. Our street relies on the lights of each home to keep the neighborhood lit. And on any other night of the year, whether they’re home or away, these families do their part to illuminate the neighborhood. So why not on Halloween, when everyone knows there will be families with children out and about after dark?

Some of these families have told us they don’t do Halloween. They go away for the evening to avoid the Trick-or-Treaters, and make it a family outing. I understand they may not want their kids to have all that candy. Or maybe after being gone since 4:30 a.m. and commuting for a couple hours, they’re just not in the mood to come home and spend an evening dealing with (someone else’s) rude and ungrateful children. I get it, I do. But I suspect there are deeper reasons for their absence on this evening.

Of the families that chose to keep their homes dark, I know at least 5 of the 7 are Christians. To one degree or another, these families are intentional about sharing their faith through their words and actions. That outward expression of their faith on every other day of the year is a stark contrast from their absence and darkness on this night. Why the retreat on this one day?

The case can be made that Halloween, with its ghosts, goblins, and candy, is a secular holiday. But there is no corresponding boycott of Valentine’s Day, or the non-religious aspects of holidays such as Christmas. And how do I reconcile a spiritual justification for skipping Halloween when it’s countered with a celebration at church earlier in the week? There the children donned costumes, played games, and received candy and prizes. I don’t have a problem with churches using the holiday as an opportunity to engage the community, but then it seems the same effort should be made within our neighborhood on the night when people are willing to come to our homes and knock on the door.

We spend the other 364 days a year relying on God’s grace, striving to live an attractive life, looking for opportunities to share our faith with those around us. As neighbors came by on Halloween, I couldn’t help but wonder what message they receive from a home that has been intentionally darkened? How is it being perceived by those walking the streets? Do those who don’t share our faith understand the spiritual stand being taken, or is there a chance the avoidance of the neighborhood on only this one night of the year is feeding some Christian stereotypes? As one who shares your faith, I know I have found it hard to understand.

People close to me, that I love and respect, have made the decision to avoid the usual festivities of Halloween. I share these questions not out of judgement, but simply because I know I’m making some assumptions and I’d like to understand. I readily admit my life is full of inconsistencies. You won’t have to look hard to find a weak witness, or frequent failures in loving my neighbor, likely on all 365 days of the year. Is Halloween a modern day example of Romans 14 (regardless of which viewpoint is exhibiting the stronger faith)?

The second verse of This Little Light of Mine starts out with, “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine.” Personally, I enjoy an evening at home, alone with my family, more than you probably realize. I dream of opportunities to hunker down within the safe confines of our home and isolate myself from the world around me. But in a neighborhood where many homes have two working parents making long commutes, rarely is there a time when the neighborhood is intentional about being outside together.

For me, Halloween seems like a fabulous opportunity to get to know them and their children better, to build community, or at the very least to keep the light on for them. Your neighbors are out looking for you. Be engaged. Be visible. Redeem the night. Don’t hide under the Halloween bushel. Let your light shine.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

You need to read the book, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.” Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, SpyI was introduced to the book during a couple talks [1] [2] by the author, Eric Metaxas. Admittedly, I was a bit intimidated by such a lengthy, historical biography. But his stories and wit captured my interest, and thankfully he did not betray that style while writing the book.

Despite knowing the way Bonhoeffer’s life ended, I found myself eager to continue reading as the story of his life unfolded. This was due in part to the engaging writing of Metaxas, as well as the contagiousness of Bonhoeffer, himself, and the fascinating life he lived. My historical knowledge was enhanced, and my faith was immensely challenged.

From an historical perspective, I confess there were numerous aspects regarding Hitler and his ilk that I had not previously known. So, too, regarding the plots against his life by those determined to put an end to his tyrannical reign. It was sickening how the Nazis were able to use a bastardized version of “Christianity” as propaganda to win over believers in their cause.

Likewise, the helplessness of watching the church (both within Germany and without) struggle to be faithful and uncompromising was saddening, to say the least. I realize such an assessment comes from a safe distance afforded by historical perspective. Bonhoeffer was sickened by the rationalization of some leaders within the church to justify acceptance of, and in some cases support for, the Third Reich. Others within the church believed the church should avoid any involvement. Metaxas summarized Bonhoeffer’s frustration with that view when he wrote,

When the state is trying to encroach upon the church, this is a proper sphere of concern. But for Bonhoeffer, the idea of limiting the church’s actions to this sphere alone was absurd. The church had been instituted by God to exist for the whole world. It was to speak into the world and to be a voice in the world, so it had an obligation to speak out against things that did not affect it directly. (p. 280)

“At the end of the day I can only ask God to give a merciful judgement on today and all its decisions. It is now in his hand.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The prolific writing of people during Bonhoeffer’s lifetime enables us to get to know them far better than we often know people today. Sure, our generation often reveals far too much superficial information about ourselves online, but rarely do people have the discipline to express their innermost thoughts, longings, struggles, and emotions through the written word, as did Bonhoeffer and his contemporaries. Metaxas copiously integrates many of these letters into his story of Bonhoeffer’s life.

It’s hard to summarize how fervently Bonhoeffer lived his faith, and strived incessantly to know God more intimately. It wasn’t something he did, it was who he was. Studying Scripture and praying were not religious habits he strived to do on a regular basis, they were a way of life for him. Perhaps the best way to give a sense for Bonhoeffer himself is through his own words. I end with just a few of my favorite Bonhoeffer quotes from the book.

  • A Christian community either lives by the intercessory prayers of its members for one another, or the community will be destroyed. I can no longer condemn or hate other Christians for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they cause me. In intercessory prayer the face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed into the face of one for whom Christ died, the face of a pardoned sinner. That is a blessed discovery for the Christian who is beginning to offer intercessory prayer for others. As far as we are concerned, there is no dislike, no personal tension, no disunity or strife that cannot be overcome by intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer is the purifying bath into which the individual and the community must enter every day. (p. 90)
  • Where a people prays, there is the church, and where the church is, there is never loneliness. (p. 69)
  • Do not try to make the bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic…. Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…. Trust to the Word. (p. 272)
  • … extemporaneous preaching can be done by anyone who really knows the Bible. (p. 272)
  • Theological work and real pastoral fellowship can only grow in a life which is governed by gathering round the Word morning and evening and by fixed times of prayer. (p. 271)
  • I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian (cf. Jer. 45!). How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind? (p. 484)
  • Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words. They should remain open. Our only comfort is the God of the resurrection, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who also was and is his God. (p. 349)
  • It is remarkable how I am never quite clear about the motives for any of my decisions. Is that a sign of confusion or inner dishonesty or is it a sign that we are guided without our knowing or is it both …The reasons one gives for an action to others and to one’s self are certainly inadequate. One can give a reason for everything. In the last resort one acts from a level which remains hidden from us. So one can only ask God to judge us and to forgive us…. At the end of the day I can only ask God to give a merciful judgement on today and all its decisions. It is now in his hand. (p. 336)

Talks By The Author

[1] Eric Metaxas at Family Research Council (October 2010)

[2] Eric Metaxas at Calvin College, January Series (January 9, 2012)