What a Day in Traffic Court Taught Me About Sacramental Living
It was a sunny Tuesday morning and I was on my way to staff meeting when I saw the blue lights. My heart skipped a beat as I quickly looked down at my speedometer: 55 mph. The problem? The speed limit was 40. Gulp.
The officer came to my window and peered at me through his dark sunglasses. He didn’t care that I had been having a rough morning and was doing my best to refocus my attitude. He didn’t care that the song on my Spotify was a REALLY great song that made me go a smidge faster than I normally would have gone. He didn’t care that I didn’t MEAN to speed. Nope. He just cared that I WAS speeding. Without delay he gave me a speeding ticket along with the instructions to appear in traffic court one week later at 8:00 a.m.
So, on the morning of Tuesday, July 2, instead of going to staff meeting, I made my way to court. My plan at the beginning of the day: Be the first to arrive, the first to sign in, the first to have my name called, the first to see the judge, and therefore, the first to leave. I would pay a fine and my day would be mine again.
My plan was going great. I got a fantastic two-hour parking spot on the street directly across from the courthouse doors while others were having to park around the block. I was the second one to enter the doors of the courthouse and the third one to sign in. “Not bad,” I thought. “I’m the third name on the list. This should be quick and easy.” A sense of satisfaction over my well-played plan filled me with confidence.
Within just a few minutes the entry area of the courthouse was full of people. When they finally opened the doors of the courtroom, I was the first one to go through security and the first to make my way inside. I picked the seat I wanted and made myself comfortable.
And that’s how far my genius plan worked.
The courtroom proceedings started about 15 minutes late, at which time we were given a synopsis of how the day would go. The only thing I heard was this distressing news: “Your names will be called in random order.”
So much for my idea that they used the sign-in sheet to call you forward. Did I mention that the courthouse was full? This was not good. It could take two minutes, two hours, or all day!
One by one they called our names. I looked at my watch: 8:45. “Okay, I have another hour on my parking spot. I should be good.” About thirty minutes later the realization was setting in that this day might not go by as quickly as I had planned. Minute by minute and name after name went by. My stress levels were picking up, and my patience was growing thin. What if my time ran out on my parking spot—and then I got ANOTHER ticket for having my car there too long? I could feel the muscles in my neck and back tensing up with that thought and with every name called that wasn’t mine.
And then I had an epiphany—a moment of clarity.
I had just shared about an idea called “Sacramental Living” in my sermon the previous Sunday. The basic idea behind sacramental living is that you see everything you do and everything you experience in the material world as a sacrament: an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In other words, you go through your everyday experiences in a way that allows the presence of God to become unmissable. Going through life with a sacramental perspective can change ordinary activities into spiritual moments—whether it’s cooking dinner, paying the bills, going to work, how you view others, or even how you experience traffic court.
I sensed that this was a nudge from the Holy Spirit to see this less-than-desirable experience as an opportunity to practice what I just preached. “Okay,” I prayed, “what if I made this unwelcome circumstance—which is undoubtedly the result of my own guilty action—a sacramental moment? What if I choose to experience this in a sacramental way instead of viewing it as an unwanted disruption to my life? What if I choose to let this be a means through which I can be reminded of and experience anew Your presence and the working of Your grace in me?”
As I sat in the courtroom waiting for my name to be called, I had plenty of time to practice my new mindset. My initial focus was on my physical responses. I thought about how my attitude would easily be reflected in my facial expressions, so I began to practice keeping my muscles relaxed, having a pleasant look on my face, and taking deep inhales and exhales.
This was a bigger challenge than I thought, but I knew my physical state would affect my mental state and vice-versa, so I kept at it. What I realized was that I was actually doing two things: I was choosing over and over again to allow the experience to be sacramental, and then intentionally relaxing my body—my face, neck, shoulders, and upper back, as I practiced slow, intentional breathing. This cycle of choosing my perspective and then relaxing my body continued for the rest of the morning.
I soon noticed that this new mindset opened me up to the people around me. As I practiced having a pleasant look on my face—even a smile—people around me started talking to me. Even the ones who were the most bitter about their circumstances would start talking to me and telling me about why they were there. With my spirit relaxed and at peace, I was suddenly available in a way I hadn’t been before.
I began practicing gratitude for the blessings that were coming my way: The officer out front told me not to worry about moving my car, that I wouldn’t get a ticket. While we were on a break I had a fun conversation full of laughter and smiles with an officer and some other people who were standing around. One woman I was talking with on our break later told me that I was pretty. Another woman told me she liked my shoes, and we chatted about where I got them and how comfortable they were. Each of these encounters lifted my spirits, and I thanked God for every one of these little blessings.
As the morning went on, I was increasingly aware of God’s presence and grace surrounding me. I was aware that…
—even though I was nowhere I wanted to be
—even though I was guilty and deserved to be there
—even though I was embarrassed because there were people working in the courtroom that I knew
—even though this was “eating up” my morning and keeping me from my work
…God was with me and was blessing me in the midst of it! Choosing to have a sacramental view made all the difference. A day that could have been miserable and full of stress and embarrassment turned out to be a day that brought me great joy.
Just before noon my name was finally called. I stood up from my seat and approached the judge’s bench. “So, how do you plead?” she asked. “Well, I was definitely speeding,” I told her. Then one of the clerks chimed in. Apparently my ticket was not in the system, and I was the third one that morning that they couldn’t find. Another courtroom attendant spoke up and said, “And, actually, Judge, I wanted you to know that Mrs. Eaton has been my favorite person in the courtroom today.” The judge looked at me and said, “Well, aren’t you blessed!” She marked “dismissed” on the court docket, and I was free to go with no fine. That was nothing I deserved. It was simply a beautiful grace.
J.R.R. Tolkein called instances like this a “eucatastrophe.” This is a word he made up, but I like it! “Eu” is the Greek prefix for “good.” He attached “eu” to the front of the word “catastrophe” and defined it as “a sudden and happy turn in events.” You thought one, terrible ending was the only option, and then suddenly everything turns around for good.
How might things have gone had I not chosen to have a sacramental view of the whole situation? How miserable could that morning have been for me had I not chosen to be aware and thankful for the presence of God? What if I had not allowed the Holy Spirit to have access to me? I had such peace and joy that, even if the blessing of the dismissed ticket hadn’t happened, I would have still counted the day a blessing because of God’s presence with me and the joy that filled me as a result.
Later that night I told my family about the whole experience. For my children’s sake, I added this bit of advice: “Learn from my mistake. Don’t speed. You don’t want a ticket. It’s not worth it. It takes a lot more of your time than you will ever want, and more than likely you will also have to pay a fine, or go to court, or possibly driving school.”
My daughter quickly chimed in. “Wait. I thought you said this was a sacramental moment, and it was a great day. Now you’re saying it’s not worth it?”
Her comment made me think. Was I being hypocritical? I thought about it and said, “Why can’t it be both? It’s both a consequence I am going to do my best to avoid in the future, AND it’s an experience with the Spirit that taught me and blessed me in a transformational way. It’s both.”
I want my kids to avoid getting speeding tickets, yes. I want them to avoid having to have their own day in court. But I also want them to know that when they end up in undesirable circumstances—even circumstances of their own making—God will meet them there. Even those times can be sacramental moments—an outward and visible sign of the constant love and grace of God, their Father, working in them for good.
This is how the Holy Spirit works to transform our circumstances and us. Our negative life experiences don’t have to remain just that—negative. God’s presence in any situation can transform our entire experience of it. The circumstances don’t necessarily go away, but He gives us a new heart and mind in the midst of it.
How can you practice this today? Will you see through sacramental eyes? Will you allow your everyday experiences—even the most ordinary ones—even the tough ones—to become a means through which you are increasingly transformed? What will you do to help you discover the always-available grace and presence of God?