For someone whose parents truly thought she might never master driving a car, I have spent a lot of time driving. I happily drove across the country by myself for a seminary internship. The year before I was married, I routinely made the 12-hour drive to visit my then-fiancé (now husband). In my first call, I commuted an hour each way to church. In my second, I drove an hour and a half each way, but luckily that one was only part-time. Last month, I managed to survive an 11-hour car trip by myself with my 9-month-old daughter.
During the time spent in the driver’s seat of my little car, with hands at 8 and 4, I have had a lot of spiritual experiences. Particularly ones that involve listening. Like many people, I struggle with the part of prayer in which we are to simply listen. It’s hard to listen between making dinner, doing laundry and running errands. But I find it’s much easier to listen when I’m alone in a quiet car. In periods of discernment, I have come to understand the direction in which God is leading me as I drive by rolling hills and towns tucked into valleys. Perhaps the forward movement of the tires helps me figure out how the Spirit is pulling me ahead. Perhaps that time where I can be only with my thoughts is a time when I can finally hear God through the din.
As I made the long trek to my previous call, I spent nine of those months anticipating the birth of my baby. I talked to her (telling her she needed to be a good car-rider, which she is!), wondered about her and allowed myself to trust that God would guide me on whatever kind of journey was ahead. Through those conversations, I sensed God’s support. I had room to breathe deeply and trust the breath of the Spirit. After she was born, while she slept soundly in her car seat, I listened for guidance about whether continuing to serve there was what God and my family needed from me. It was ultimately in the car that I felt God urging me to try something new – not out of a sense of trying to get out of the long drive, but in order to use my gifts in a new way. On my road trip to a conference last month, as I prepared to move into a new kind of call, I listened and felt a deep sense of God’s peace. Although there is a higher (or at least different) degree of uncertainty about the future in interim ministry, I felt safe as I traversed those miles. Though I never claim to hear God saying actual words, it was the scriptural sense of “do not be afraid” that I experienced on the road. Thankfully, that sense seems to be sticking with me as I enter my new church.
Now that I am only commuting 15 minutes to work, I am grateful for the savings on gas and glad that my daughter doesn’t have such long Sundays in the car. But there is a little part of me that misses my long drives – in addition to the friends I had at that church. I will miss having the time to listen to whole episodes of “Freakonomics” and “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” podcasts. I will miss the space to think through sermons ideas as I pass over the familiar roads. I will miss that time and awareness that helped me focus on discernment and listen to God’s voice.
EMMA NICKEL serves as interim pastor at Beulah Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. She is passionate about congregational ministry, trying new recipes and keeping her baby’s naps on schedule. She lives in Louisville with her husband, Matt, and their young daughter.