29 September 2011

How a GPS is like, and unlike, God

by Dan Phillips

Driving in Scotland was far too exciting, and not always in a good way.

As you may know, relative to American (and almost all other) driving, those good folks drive on the wrong side of the road. To deal with this, the driver sits on the wrong side of the car. And it just feels wrong.

It felt wrong to poor Jonathan, whose heart stopped a couple of times when my dear wife, sitting on the front left, would lean back and fold her arms. Since that was the side the driver sat on for all of Jonathan's twelve years of life, and since the car was in motion, his first thought was that Valerie would get us all killed. Then he recalled that it was all backwards, I was driving (on the right), and he started breathing again.

I ran up or close to the curb (on the left) many times, because Scottish roads are just a hair broader than a single lane is in an average California street. The cars hurtling past (on my right!) seemed like they were all right up in my lap, so I'd list left, brush a curb, Valerie would gasp or cry out, I'd lurch back... and hilarity would ensue.

Our constant companion was Clarence. This was the name we gave to our GPS. Clarence was illiterate and had a speech impediment, which was obnoxious because he was worse than Claire, his predecessor, from whom he was supposed to be an upgrade. He couldn't manage the simplest words, let alone the hopeless yet beautiful Gaelic names of some streets.

We growled at Clarence a great deal, but he cared about none of these things. The traffic-circles (or "roundabouts") were a constant challenge. It would not always be clear where Clarence wanted us to go. I think the single question my kids heard me ask most often came after each ambiguous turn: "Is Clarence happy?" I had to ask that, because my dear wife had to watch him since I did not dare take my eyes off the careening deadly nightmare of the traffic on the streets. Sometimes, before she could even be sure, we'd hear the dreaded, infuriating word:


That was the signal that I had taken a wrong turn. So we'd groan, or growl, or both; and wait for the inevitable "Drive 1.4 miles, then turn right."

Clarence was infuriating and frustrating, and the company will get a complaint from us about the speech module. But we were glad we had him. Though he'd vex us, he always got us where we were going... eventually. And Valerie (a brilliant strategist and planner) said several times that it was better than if she'd had to be paging through maps over and over, instead of enjoying (most of) the scenery (when she wasn't fearing for her life from the stone wall inches to her left).

God is like, and unlike that, I had occasion to reflect.

God is a little like Clarence, or vice-versa, in that Clarence usually gets his charges where they need to go, and usually tells them what they need to know, and his route will often seem a bit... complex, or even indirect. But that night when I was driving us back from a music festival, in the dark, at 1-2 in the morning, in the fog, Clarence wasn't confused or lost, and told me right where to go.

(He didn't help me deal with all the frogs that were hopping across the road, though. I had to work that part out myself.)

God is unlike Clarence in that He invariably knows where He is going, He invariably gets there, and He tells us everything we need to know, with crystal clarity (2 Timothy 3:15-17; I write as one who really-really believes in the really-really sufficiency of Scripture; leaky-canoneers, sadly, will be unable to say "amen" to this truth.)

Further, we tell Clarence where we want to go, and he has no choice but to show us how to get there, best as his programming enables. Clarence never says, "Bad idea, please reconsider." Nor does Clarence simply send us to another location because he knows it is better than our own idea.

God, by contrast, is the grand planner. He takes us where He wants us to go. Even our necessary and proper plans and decisions are taken up into His grand plan (Proverbs 16:1, 9). It cannot be otherwise (Proverbs 19:21; 20:24).

God never has to say "recalculating," because God has no Plan B. It is all Plan A (Psalm 115:3; Eph. 1:11). But God's Plan A is indeed very complex, involving many turns and traffic-circles. When Israel spent forty years in that vast, arid traffic-circle, it was still part of the grand plan (Deuteronomy 8:1-5).

We were glad to have Clarence helping us make our way through Scotland and England.

But we're glad there's no celestial Clarence steering the universe in the same way.

Dan Phillips's signature


Kay said...

It always amuses me to see an American take on the UK. Aren't roundabouts fun? :-D

Robert said...

How wonderful it is that, unlike with the GPS, God is in control of everything. Although I guess one could say that even in our silly thoughts of controlling our paths while using our GPS systems, God is still in control anyways.

Brad Williams said...

Do not trust Clarence. He can lead you to a horrible death in the desert.


Tom Chantry said...

Right after my wife got her GPS, we decided to have it guide us to church one morning. (We figured it was safest to try out the new technology in a place where we would never get lost.) The infernal piece of equipment pointed us out the driveway in the opposite direction from our usual route, and then seemed determined not to correct. We had a bit of extra time, so we decided to humor it. My reactions, in chronological order:

This is not the way we go to church.

This is not any way to go to church.

Why are we taking so many strange turns and driving down so many side streets?

Well, I suppose after all these turns we are headed generally in the direction of church.

OK, I guess this is is a way to church, but it is certainly not the fastest way.

Hey, look, the church! We never got here this fast before, did we?

So, yeah, there’s a parable there.

James Scott Bell said...

God, however, does not make us turn the wheel. He leaves that in our own hands. We make wrong turns (there is a word for this: sin). It is conviction (the work of the Spirit) repentance and attendance to the Word that gets us back on track. Insist on staying on the wrong road, though, will lead us to a cliff. See Hymenaeus and Alexander under "Infamous Shipwrecks."

threegirldad said...

By the time I got to, "God is like, and unlike that...," I was laughing so hard that I was crying. And the part that came after was golden.

Stuart Brogden said...

This was tooo funny - with a wonderful grounding in Truth. Our own experience with GPS devices is similar - my wife has one that has a neurotic squirrel voice that is funny but comprehensible to my middle-aged ear. A previous GPS didn't know the Texas for an "FM Road" was "Farm-to-Market" and announced one such as "Federal States of Micronesia" - which drove our attention (once home) to a globe :-)

We took the children to a vacation in Europe in 2005 and our rental car (on the continent only) had a GPS that was in-line with your experience. I do not put others at risk by attempting to drive in England and other places that are on the wrong side of the road. Crossing streets on foot is dangerous enough! It is nice of the English to print on the sidewalks, "Look RIGHT!" - saved my life a few times.

When on the right (that is, proper) side of the road, traffic circles are FUN!

Sir Brass said...

Then again, Dan, the open theist god is EXACTLY like Clarence.

And the molinist god says something like, "In soviet russia, clarence manipulate you".

Or is this too early for things which would be quite funny in a H&T? :)

Robert Warren said...

Right Dan, and when God send us down a dirt-road, it's because He meant it (for good).

Also, traffic-circles aren't originally from England, Scotland, or elsewhere in the Old World; they're straight from you-know-where. And the leaders of cutesy-towns in the US who have implemented them should be summarily recalled.

Tim said...

Great story and great application, Dan. Can the analogy be extended to apply somehow to the fact that Jesus is the Way and the Holy Spirit is our guide?


P.S. As you talked about Clarence's speech patterns and roundabouts, I couldn't help but think of TomTom's gps commercial with Star Wars characters in the recording studio. Funny stuff.

DJP said...

Manfred, we had a similar chuckle when Clarence was baffled by something like "St. James Road," which he read as "Street James Road."

My BSIL had what I think is a brilliant idea that could make someone a millionaire.

Design a scale-model simulated British road-driving experience and put it in airports and rental agencies. Five pounds for three minutes. Put the user through turns, parking lots, roundabouts, single-lane roads with turnouts.

You'd retire within a year to a castle you'd built for yourself.

Susan said...

"Celestial Clarence"...sounds like the one who got his wings in It's a Wonderful Life!

Word Verification: laugh

Wamalo said...

Ah, the 'Magic Roundabout' in Swindon, Wiltshire. Negotiated it many times while living there. So thankful now for the wide open roads of Colorado.

I would love to hear any GPS system instruct a driver on how to get through that one.

Canyon Shearer, DMin said...

In Scotland they drive on the CORRECT side of the road on the CORRECT side of the car. :-P

I highly recommend everyone to download the "Squirrel" voice, he says, "I won't drive you nuts, but I might drive you too them." It's hilarious.

And last, Alistair Begg says that every Christian must visit Scotland at least once before they die in order to be adequately prepared for Heaven. :-)

FX Turk said...

Isa it me, or does the voice that says "recalculating" sound a little miffed at you for being unable to follow directions?

FX Turk said...

I'm saying I don't like it's tone.

Tom Chantry said...

Yes, Frank. And that GPS took me to task for my wrong turn in front of the entire family without offering me a private cup of coffee first!

Jerry said...

Did you have an automatic or a standard in your rental car?

During our stay last month in England we went "in for a penny, in for a pound" and rented a compact with a standard.

Fortunately I never once tried to shift the door handle, but the two most disconcerting aspects of English driving was looking in the wrong place for my rear view mirror and wanting to bring my seat belt over my left shoulder. After tapping the curb twice in the first mile coming out of Heathrow I didn't have any trouble keeping the car on the road.

Did you ever master the use of your turn signal while navigating the round abouts?

DJP said...

Dear wife took pity on me and got us only automatics.

I think I was OK on the turn signal, but busy roundabouts themselves — specifically the ones with 3+ lanes going in — remained a challenge. Though I'd prefer a good roundabout to some of the perennially-red signals around here.

What I never got over was looking at the person sitting on the (my) left side of approaching cars, thinking I was looking at the driver.