We all do it.
We see a police car parked alongside the road, and we let off our accelerators.
And maybe, if you’re like me and grew up on too much Eliot Ness or “Highway Patrol,” you jokingly mutter something like, “Uh, oh, copper” and you glance down to check your speedometer.
Well, that was pretty much the scenario a few summers ago as I puttered down a side street returning to my hospital chaplain job with a milkshake designed to cool the 108-degree weather we’d had in Sacramento, Calif.
I was in a rush and didn’t notice the parked police cruiser until I passed it.
“Uh, oh,” I muttered as I checked my speedometer and then checked my rearview mirror to determine whether the cruiser was in pursuit.
Maybe it wasn’t occupied. Dared I pray that it was one of those parked cruisers used to slow people down?
I looked back again and held an extra long stare, but the glare off the patrol car windshield was too much to determine whether an officer was in it.
And that’s when I noticed something else in my right mirror. It was an octagon-shaped sign standing in the intersection I just passed through.
Apparently, I had blown right through the stop sign the police unit had likely been assigned to monitor.
OK, this time I may have muttered more than “uh, oh.”
I slowed; I even pulled to the curb in anticipation of the inevitable ticket. Waiting for the siren, I began to imagine the conversation likely to ensue:
“Officer, I’m sorry I was too busy making sure you weren’t after me to see the stop sign. You do see the irony in that, don’t you, officer? Ha, ha.”
I held my breath. From the curb, I assumed a position of prayer. “Oh, God, pu-leeese.”
A few thoughts immediately came to mind.
First, I thought of the four people killed in our county on the previous weekend when inattention caused one driver to cross the road and collide head on with another car.
I was thankful this ticket would encourage me to avoid that fate.
But mostly I thought of how often we live our lives with the thought of being monitored. While we’re looking in our rearview mirror, life happens right in front of us. Perhaps what we miss may not be as life threatening as running a stop sign, but potentially it can be.
Worried that a boss is watching our work, we miss our child smiling at us. Worried our spouse is policing our credit card purchases, we work on covering our past tracks rather than opening forward lines of communication.
We also treat God like that sometimes; as if God is the officer policing our lives. In his time-tested book, “Your God is Too Small,” J.B. Phillips describes people who see God as the “Resident Policeman.” He describes this policeman as the “voice of our conscience.”
When our conscience produces guilt, we feel caught by the policeman.
Phillips admits that while God uses our conscious to inspire “some inkling of the moral order,” our conscious is not God. God is not a patrol officer. God is not about the business of producing guilt.
People do a great job of producing guilt on their own, as I discovered staring at the police car.
From the curb, my heart raced with the moral beating I was giving myself. I studied my rearview mirror carefully. The car wasn’t moving. It likely was unoccupied. Like the scarecrows in the cornfield, the cruiser was a decoy.