Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Failing Brakes and Faltering Faith

Most things I worry about never happen anyway. 
                   -from “Crawling Back to You” by Tom Petty

I sat in the booth, facing forward, looking out the panoramic windows at the front of the bus.   While Sammy napped in the bed in the back room, the three older kids sat beside and opposite me, noses pressed to the glass of the side windows.  They "ohhhed" and "awwwed" over the green and white landscape rising and falling around us like some interactive cyclorama. 

Beauty can overwhelm you sometimes; it bowled us over that day.  The road to these mountains had winded through valleys and brief prairies that reached out and grabbed the breath right out of my lungs. 

“This is too beautiful,” I kept saying, hand over my mouth, trying to keep a little air for myself.

Then we began the climb up Teton Pass.  While we gasped and pointed at the arrowhead shaped evergreens standing like a majestic army at attention and spanning the snowy peaks of the mountain, Willie wheezed and puttered up the 10% grade road leading always up and always higher.  We marveled, not giving thought to the path down this mountain.  

We’ve managed to do that this entire trip: not look too far ahead.

When the road crested and began its steep and windy descent, Shawn pulled Willie back to the lowest gear, easing Willie’s heavy frame slowly downward.  But soon Willie whined and lurched forward to the next gear, gaining speed one quick mph after another.  So Shawn would press the brakes pulling the reins in, the brake light on the dashboard blazing orange.

My eyes forgot the scenery, the soldiers saluting us outside.  Instead, my eyes rested on the orange light flashing on and off from below the steering wheel.  I don’t know much about vehicular mechanics, but I know that you can’t ride your brakes on a mountain.  Shawn knew that, too. At the next gravelly pull-off, he eased Willie over and put on the parking brake. “We’ll just wait here till the brakes cool off a little,” he announced from the front seat.

“Yeah, good idea,” I replied.  We’d just take it slow and easy down the mountain; we were in no hurry.  

So we waited.  The kids chattered about the snow, wishing for boots and gloves, eager to frolic in the last remnants of winter.  I sat there, eager for the valley at the bottom of the mountain, for flat roads, for the sight of a small Wyoming town blooming with bustle in the spring.

With a high whistle from Willie, Shawn released the parking brake, inched back onto the road. But soon Willie began complaining and jolted into the next gear; again the orange light flashed on the dashboard.  We saw another pull off coming up on the right.  Shawn steered Willie toward it, his foot pressing further down on the brake pedal, but we felt it’s effect less and less.  Shawn pulled the parking brake once we reached the gravelly patch.

Nothing. The parking brake didn’t work. 

I saw Shawn’s second foot join the brake pedal, his full body weight pressed upon that rectangular piece of metal.  But still we moved forward, gaining speed slowly and steadily.

“Can you stop?” I asked, trying to disguise the panic in my voice from the children.  He shook his head, bracing himself between the black cushion of the driver's seat and the brake pedal solid against the floor. 

And that’s when the shaking began, inside of me and outside of me.  My hands began to tremor, my legs jittered as I stood up from the booth and walked toward the front of the bus.

“Hey, guys, why don’t you take a seat, okay?” I said nonchalantly to the kids, eyes never leaving Shawn’s two feet. Eager questions unraveled from their mouths, but I paid no attention.

It’s funny but my first thought was, “How can I get the kids off this bus?”  Sometimes I wonder if I’m a good enough mom, if I really love them like I should.  And then a moment like that comes and they are my first concern; I know I must protect them.

But getting off the bus was out of the question.  We were moving too quickly to open the door and jump out. While my eyes scanned the road before us, my mind was already a mile ahead, imagining the worst.  But while my mind ushered our souls through the pearly gates of heaven, my eyes spied the emergency runaway ramp that appeared to our left. 

“Babe, what about the runaway ramp?” I suggested as calmly as possible.

“I’m gonna have to use it,” Shawn replied, still straining against the brake.

Traffic came towards us on the left, so we had to wait for a clearing, hope for a clearing, before veering over. 

Then it came. In seconds, Willie’s unhindered wheels came to an abrupt stop in the deep stones on the runaway ramp.

And there we sat, the engine running, the bus still, and the kids smiling. I sat down at the booth, the wobbly foundation of my legs unable to hold me up any longer.

I don’t even remember the words we spoke after that.  And I don’t remember relief or thankfulness rushing over me.  No, I just felt scared.  Really, really scared.

Later on we drove down the rest of the mountain in our minivan while a tow truck pulled Willie to safety in the valley below the Teton Pass.  As we coasted around the remaining 2 miles of curves and steep grade that the mountain offered, we realized how close disaster had been.  If Willie had given out just 40 yards later than he did, we would have crashed, either into or over the side of the mountain.  There were no manageable pull-offs or runaway ramps to help us for the rest of the way down.

That was a sobering thought.

Funny enough, you would think that an experience like that would bolster my faith.  But it actually left me questioning a lot.  The next day, I would write this to God in my journal:

“I try to explain away instances like yesterday.  Immediately, I excuse it to 'chance' because there are a lot of people in this world who don’t have an emergency ramp show up just in the nick of time.  So Your love is either fickle, or had nothing to do with yesterday, or doesn’t exist. Because here’s the hard part: I don’t know if I could have found Your love in the scenario that would have presented itself if that ramp hadn’t been there.  That thirty seconds was lonely, God.  It was scary.”

So here I now sit in this tension: awed by the beauty of this world yet terrified by its ugliness, ceaselessly thankful that we made it safely down the mountain yet baffled by a God that sometimes doesn’t provide the emergency ramp.

I want to understand that God.

So here is my question to you:  How do you reconcile a good and loving God with the pain and discomfort that has occurred in your own life?


  1. Oh my. I love this. I haven't been reading blogs this month and I'm so glad I stopped over here. Because this. My friend. This is beautiful and aching and I'm so glad you're okay and you're right, sometimes God doesn't provide an emergency ramp and today oh how I needed to know that sometimes He does. Love. Love. Love.

    1. Lore, thank you so much for your kind words and for breaking your hiatus to read my little ol' blog. Much love to you...

  2. What a terrifying experience Maile! Your question is a good one, and one I asked myself many times. Here is how I have reconciled it: His Word tells us that God is love, perfect love. He is also our Creator, making Him the author of our lives. Defining His perfect love based on our personal experiences limits it's perfection to just that, our feelings and expectations. Psalm 115:3 says "Our God is in heaven; He does whatever pleases Him" This can either make me angry, or provide me with the peace I need to understand that His purposes for and in this world are beyond my personal experience. I believe that trusting His Sovereignty requires more than we sometimes want to give. However, deciding to trust His heart and intentions has given me great peace. There are countless believers who are on a journey with no emergency ramp who inspire, amaze and humble me.

    1. I really appreciate your perspective here, Karen. I think what stands out to me is this line: "I need to understand that His purposes for and in this world are beyond my personal experience." I think that's the concept that is hard to wrap my mind around, but the sooner I can, the better. However, it's a tough idea to grasp in our egocentric culture. Thank you so much for this.

  3. whoa, major chillbumps here!! I have struggled to reconcile that in my life, but have had to continue to trust that He is refining me through the trials and cliff-like experiences. So glad you all are safe.

  4. p.s. read my blog about removing captcha off blogger. will make it much easier for people to comment. http://bumbersbumblings.blogspot.com/2012/03/blogger-friends-please-read.html

    1. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Amber! Already made the changes so hopefully that will make commenting easier--thanks again!

  5. Awesome post, Maile. You definitely outdid me on this one :)

  6. Oh Maile! I'm so glad you are all safe!

    As to the answer to your question... I don't know. At one time, I thought I could... but now I'm not so sure. It's still a work in progress.

  7. What a beautiful, harrowing account! I'm looking forward to some Maile Smucker books someday. :-)

    I think, for me, the answer to your question lies in "shared agency"--how do I let God redeem the hard things that happen to me? It may seem cold comfort, but in Hebrews it says that Jesus learned obedience through his suffering. So if Jesus himself was not exempt from suffering, is it reasonable to expect that we will be? I mean this is the same loving God we're talking about here--the one who spared not his son. He promises that in this life we will have tribulation. Which means: scary things happen, bad things happen, but God somehow--through our partnering with him--redeems these things.

    I realize I sound far braver here than I am--believe me, I am no fan of pain. I just think that the view from God's aerie is such a paradigm shift from our own that we can't wrap our minds around it. Anyway, great post!

  8. Maile, I am shaking just READING this and Shawn's posts this week. So glad you guys are okay and just in awe (horrified awe) of the 40-yards-later-is-too-late timing.

    Beautiful description of the tension in our lives, too.

  9. This is powerfully good story-telling, Maile, and deeply thoughtful reflection, too.

    When I was in seminary, my preaching professor would tell the story of how when traveling on a preaching mission in Australia, his 11 year old son landed in the hospital, seriously ill. He began to turn the corner to health at the same time his congregation in Scotland was in prayer for him. It seemed a miracle of grace, one for which he continued to thank God until the day he died a dozen or so years ago.

    BUT he never ever preached about this without also telling the story of his son's roommate, also the son of believing parents. That boy was not as seriously ill as my prof's son, at least initially. People were praying for him, too. But that little boy did not make it back to health in this life. He died.

    Somehow, we have to live with the two truths - and it's hard to do, isn't it? But in this situation, you were NOT 40 yards further down the road, you were at exactly the place you needed to be. Take it as a gift of grace, say thank you - and keep asking those good, good questions. Learning to hold the tensions of truth is an essential part of the faith journey, I think.

  10. Wow, Maile, wow. I had already read Shawn's account, but this, yours, was ... WOW. I fought back tears when I read your journal entry. I think this is one of the fundamental questions of faith.


  11. wow...what a story. so thankful you guys are okay! appreciated your honest thoughts with God...good to know i am not alone in wrestling some of that out!

  12. Wow what an experience!Thank God you're ok. I've been enjoying your posts, and look forward to hearing about your trip. Trucking with my husband gave me the opportunity to see our great country, and I've seen those run-away ramps all over the country. Thank God we never had to use one, and thank God it was there for you when you needed it. "angels all around you" as you travel.

  13. And in answer to your question, I guess because we live in a fallen world we can expect to have our share of trouble, but the good part is,God is the blessed controller, and sees "the big picture" of our life, and as we turn our trust to Him, we can have peace,even in troubling times.(Easier said than done)

  14. i don't expect a complete reconciliation in this life.