I ran into a black bear.
No, that’s not exactly true. What actually happened is that a black bear ran into me.
A few weeks ago I was on my way home from a Young Life meeting in New Haven. It was dusk, around 9:00 p.m., and twilight was just beginning to fade to night. I was cruising along in my little Kia Soul when not far ahead of me a hulking black shape suddenly came barreling out of the ditch to my left. Before my brain could really register what was happening I could see the round head and brown snout of a black bear. I braced for impact, but it must have slowed its forward trajectory at the last moment. It only struck me a glancing blow to the driver’s side door. As I braked to a stop I couldn’t believe what had just happened. A black bear had run into me! Looking in my rearview mirror I could see not one, but two bears in the middle of the road, one smaller and one larger. I turned around in time to see the smaller bear cross the road and disappear into the tall grass. The larger bear began running down the road away from me, turned into someone’s yard, and eventually vanished into the woods. It seemed to be okay. I hope it was. I’ll never know for sure. I continued home, surprised (a black bear ran into me!), sad (no one wants to hit a black bear!), and bewildered (did that really just happen?!).
In retrospect, I wish that I would have done something differently. I don’t know what exactly. Perhaps I could have driven slower, braked harder, swerved more sharply. In the moment of crisis maybe I could have done something different. But I just wasn’t prepared.
Looking back on the bear incident, I realize that it illustrates how I too often live my life. Unprepared. I’m never expecting the bear out of the ditch. I’m never ready. Yet bears come at me with surprising regularity. Crisis moments occur, large and small. A disagreement with my wife. Rude or mean-spirited comments online. Responsibility shirked. Unexpected interruptions. In these and a hundred other moments I want to respond with kindness and grace, with courage and compassion. But I don’t. I’m unprepared. And so, more often than I care to admit, I react in ways that don’t reflect the person that I want to be.
I pretend that these bumps and bruises of life, these incidents and accidents, are black bears rushing out of the woods unforeseen. I tell myself that there’s nothing I could have done. It all happened so quickly. How could I have known? I continue on my way surprised (I can’t believe that just happened!), sad (I don’t like the way I just reacted), and bewildered (why does this keep happening?). But the truth is that these conflicts and offenses are the stuff of life. They happen all the time. And it is possible for me to be prepared for them and to respond to them in the spirit of Christ. In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes “The disciplined person is the person who can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.” It would be foolish of me to think that I could show up at the pool in Rio and compete for an Olympic medal. I’m not prepared. I haven’t trained for it. Similarly, it is foolish of me to think that I will be able to respond with kindness, compassion, and justice to the challenges of life when I haven’t trained.
So there it is. The reason that I am not able to act in the moment is that I am not a disciplined person. In the moment of crisis I don’t act like Christ because I haven’t practiced acting like Christ. I haven’t adopted the training, the discipline of Christ. Acting like Jesus in the challenging moment proves to be exceedingly difficult when I haven’t been living like Jesus.
Shortly after my bear collision I stumbled upon a short except from Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines on the Renovaré website. He says, “It is part of the misguided and whimsical condition of humankind that we so devoutly believe in the power of effort-at-the-moment-of-action alone to accomplish what we want and completely ignore the need for character change in our lives as a whole. The general human failing is to want what is right and important, but at the same time not to commit to the kind of life that will produce the action we know to be right and the condition we want to enjoy.” In other words, we humans tend to think that when called upon we will somehow magically be able to do what needs to be done regardless of our preparation or experience.
When I go back to the Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) I discover that Jesus had a lifestyle that embraced certain practices, disciplines if you will. He had developed habits of prayer, silence, solitude, submission. And it was the Spirit-formed character of Jesus, developed through the regular practice of these disciplines and others, that allowed him to say or do the right thing, the compassionate thing, the just thing, in the moment of crisis or conflict. And it will be the same for me. I can go on believing that black bears come barreling out of the ditch every day and there is nothing that I can do about it. Or I can cooperate with the Spirit of God and train myself, discipline myself, in the lifestyle of Jesus. Doing the small, quiet, everyday things that Jesus did, so that I will be prepared in the large and small crisis moments of life to act like Jesus.
That is why I set an alarm on my phone to remind me to stop and pray several times a day. That is why most mornings find me taking a quiet walk through woods and fields with no earbuds, no distractions, just listening for God. That is why I set aside time everyday to read in the Gospels and the Psalms.
The next time that I see that big black head and brown snout in my window, I want to be ready.