Modern Day Idols

Several years ago, I was a very determined dirt track stock car racer. I was bound and determined I was going to make my way into a NASCAR traveling circuit as a full-time paid stock car racer. I ate, breathed, and slept stock car racing. I would work all day at my day job and go home and work all night on the car - a 1970 Chevelle.
Photo Source: The Author

One of the biggest events every year was held in Phenix City, AL - the East Alabama State Championship. It was on my calendar marked in red. It was a three day event with hundreds of cars showing up to compete. I had hotel rooms reserved and had our entry fee already sent in months in advance.
Photo Source:

Photo Source:

One Sunday, a couple friends of mine approached me at church about attending a spiritual renewal weekend retreat. After listening to them describe it, I agreed. The told me they would submit my name and it might be a while before I was selected for a weekend as it was only held once a year. ''No problem'', I thought.

One afternoon, I pulled onto our driveway and pulled the mail out of the mailbox. In the day's mail was a postcard saying I had been selected for the next retreat weekend and listed the date. I immediately recognized the date, the same weekend as the big race in Alabama. I did not give it a thought. I did not pray about it. I did not seek insight from my wife, my crew chief, or friends. I just quickly checked the box that said ''I cannot attend, please schedule me for another weekend.'' and tossed in back in the mailbox.

When the weekend of the big race came around, nothing seemed to go right. When the gates opened, four lines of waiting race haulers were trying to funnel into a single gate with no one directing traffic. When it was our turn, another crew decided they were tired of waiting and tried to move in front of us. Before it was all over we had trailer fenders rubbing and heated tempers. We managed to get the two trailers separated and everyone calmed down. Once we were signed in and issued arm bands, guess where the track officials directed us to pit for the weekend. Right next to the team we ran into at the gate. I do love a little irony.

While unloading some tools out of the back of my pickup, I jumped off the tailgate to the ground - something I had done a million times. But this time it had terrible consequences. My heel hit a dimple in the ground and shot out from under me. I heard a loud pop and immediately felt excruciating pain. I collapsed in a heap on the red clay dirt. A couple of guys next to us said they heard it pop and were sure my ankle was broke. After a few minutes rolling on the ground, a couple folks helped me onto the tailgate of my pickup. I managed to get my boot off which made my ankle hurt even worse. It was dislocated. I took my foot in both hands and relocated my ankle. The sudden pop told me it was back in place. The increased pain made me want to vomit. After lying in on the tailgate a few minutes to let the pain subside, I managed to put on my boot. I took a couple handfuls of ice and poured into my boot and resumed preparing for the qualified race. Since it was my left ankle, my clutch foot, I reasoned I was OK to race.

Once the qualifier race started, I was quickly one position from a transfer spot. The leaders got together and began to spin. I moved high and started to pass. The car behind me had jumped low when I had checked for the wreck. He was headed straight for the wreck, so he swerved to miss them and slammed into my left from wheel breaking the upper ball joint leaving my car nondriveable. In a matter of seconds I had gone from having a chance at qualifying to being hauled to the pits on a tow hook. During the race, I had quickly recognized that I did not want to use the clutch because every time I did, it felt like bone was going through my foot.

Back in the pits, we inspected the damage and determined what parts we needed to repair the car. My wife and crew chief then turned their attention to my ankle. I suggested a visit to a local Emergency Room. My resourceful crew chief got us to a hospital, managed to park our race hauler, and negotiated with a security guard to watch it for us. After two hours the Emergency Room staff declared my ankle not broken. They wrapped it, gave me a pair of crutches, and told me to stay off of it. We got to the hotel around 3am, took showers, and passed out.

Around 8am the next morning, we were up and out to a local auto parts store. We returned to the track and began repairing the damage from the night before. My ankle resembled an ASA regulation softball but purple. So, I limped around on the crutches and set on a bucket to work. We managed to complete repairs in time to make track inspection and entered the last chance qualifier or consolation race. We drew a horrible starting position something like 26th, and they were taking the Top Three finishers for the main race or as we called it, ''the show''. I think we spun or got spun five or six times over the course of the consolation race finishing a disappointing 12th. We had not made "The Show" and would collect no money for our troubles. Zero Dineros. Nada. The empty set. Null.

On the long ride home, my crew chief confided that he had not felt good about the whole weekend even before we left. I found this odd as he was always excited to go racing. He began to explain that he had felt a knot in his stomach from the time we loaded up, and it had persisted all weekend long. I had to admit that I had felt a bit peculiar when we left for the track, but I could not put my finger on why, so I had brushed it off. But while discussing it with him on the ride home, it hit me. I had gotten my priorities all out of line. Racing had taken priority over everything in my life. I had let it become an idol. I had brushed aside the spiritual retreat for racing, and it had gone horribly wrong. We had our shares of bad nights at the track, and I had always left saying a bad night racing beat a whole week at work. But not this time. We all regretted even going, and I had a messed up ankle to boot. I thought of the story of Jonah.

In Jonah 1:1-3, we learn about Jonah's situation. "The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish . He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord."

I could totally relate. I felt like I knew where I was supposed to have gone that weekend, but I rebelled and went for something that sounded more important and more fun. You probably remember the rest of the story. The boat that Jonah gets on gets in a really bad storm. The crew draws lots to decide who is responsible. It comes up Jonah, because he was. They throw him overboard and he gets swallowed by a whale. While in the whale's stomach, after 3 days and nights, Jonah realized he should have obeyed the word of God that had come to him.

Jonah 2:1 says, "From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God." During his prayer, Jonah says, “Those who cling to worthless idols  turn away from God’s love for them. But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord'" Jonah 2:8-9.

It obviously was the right thing to do, because verse 10 says, "And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land."

I have wondered what it was like to wander around smelling like the contents of a whale's stomach. I think this weekend was as close as I will get to sharing that experience. I am pretty confident I do not want to know. Getting vomited from a whale's belly, eww. I would want to shower in bleach for a month.
The following week my ankle was put in a cast which I wore for two months. It served as a constant reminder to me about making good choices, priorities, and the idols in my life to which I had been unwittingly bowing. It gave me a lot of opportunity to evaluate what I was doing and to the blinders I had been wearing. As I limped around on crutches, I was able to consider what the priorities were in my life and what the should be. Changes did not come over night. But a light had come on that I needed to start paying more attention and get things in proper order.

The next year, I received another post card in the mail for the retreat. I immediately recounted my ''Jonah Experience'' from declining the last opportunity, checked the ''Yes, I will attend'' box, and tossed it back in the mail. That retreat weekend served as a catalyst for reconciliation of my relationships with my Dad and my brother. I often wonder what it would have been like if I had gone the first year.

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