Jesus and the Art of Automobile Maintenance
His unreliable Ford helped Gordon MacDonald understand brokenness.

Leadership's editor-at-large, Gordon MacDonald, is back with further reflections on life and faith. This time he addresses the nature of spiritual brokenness - a truth incarnated by his temperamental 1950 Ford. (Sorry, I have a weakness for bad puns.)

My first car was an 8-year old 1950 Ford (stick shift on the steering column) purchased for $200. Its mileage was north of 100,000. To call it a lemon is not an exaggeration. The starting motor was a fifty-percenter, meaning frequent pushes. The radiator leaked like a sieve. The fuel gauge was accurate to the nearest 25 gallons. The engine drank a quart of oil every 200 miles. The tires were bald, and the muffler was absent without leave.

On cold winter nights, I had to park the Ford at the crest of a hill near my college apartment and drain the water from radiator to prevent a freeze-up. In the morning I would refill the radiator, nudge the car downhill, release the clutch and hope that the engine would leap into life. No amount of prayer seemed to directly affect the success of this process.

I used to imagine that the Ford talked to itself when it saw me coming. "Looks like he's in a hurry today. I'll slow ?em down." Or, "he looks like he's dressed for a date. Probably wants to impress a pretty girl. He's toast." I tell you, it was not hard to believe that the Ford despised me.

The Ford was, in a word, broken, and I had to accept its mechanical eccentricities as a normal part of my life. I couldn't fix it because I wasn't a mechanic, and I couldn't afford someone who was. Add to that my suspicion that the Ford didn't want to be fixed because its brokenness gave it a strange kind of "control" over me.

Today, decades later, I drive a relatively new vehicle (a Suburu Outback). Every time I turn the ignition key and the Outback starts, I am freshly surprised because I still (to this day!) instinctively anticipate the "click" of a balky starting motor. I believe that, unlike the Ford, the Outback likes me and thinks nice things when it sees me coming. It appears committed to my happiness.

Nevertheless, if I had to liken myself to a car, I'd have to identify with the broken Ford and less the friendly Suburu (this side of Heaven anyway). I know I'm supposed to say that I'm a sinner (because I am), but it's more helpful to me to regard myself as broken - a person far, far less functional than God designed me to be and in possession of the same rebellious spirit I once imagined to be in the Ford.

Perhaps we are all like broken Fords who sometimes start and sometimes don't, who may make it to an intended destination but, then again, maybe not. We'd like to appear as if we just came from the showroom. But the truth is that most of the time, we deserve to be towed to the junk yard.

April 03, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 11 comments


April 15, 2007  7:08pm

I don't think it's a very good analogy to talk about being "broken" in this sort of way. It falls short of the truth. I think it might be better to realize that we are all "off spec", and since we are ALL in the same situation, we have no point of reference to be able to tell the difference between being off spec or being on spec. To use a more biblical way of describing this, we have not way of knowing what it was like to be Adam before the fall. There is no capability in our fallen imaginations to even come close to understanding what God's righteous requirements demand of us in the first place, and for us to believe we know what is required is the height of sinful arrogance. The only thing we know for sure about all of this is we are guilty. And more importantly, although it's true that Jesus takes great delight in restoring us spiritually in this life (something we can't discern properly either), what he has already done on the cross is his greatest and most perfect achievement this side of his second coming. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. And even though we are still sinners and have no grasp of what it would take to measure up, he still holds us in his hands.

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Bill Whaley

April 12, 2007  2:47pm

My first car was a 58 Ford, much like yours. Only mine died much earlier of transmission failure. I tended to favor Fords because my Dad and Grandma drove them. Whenever I heard the sewing maching sound of their motors as a child, I grew excited. Grandma's Ford heralded the baking of cookies and a general cheering of the atmosphere. I grew up in a divorced home. Dad's Ford took me places stepfather's Chevy never went: to the Owens Prairie Church, where we sat on theater seats on hardwood floors and sang old songs about the Old Rugged Cross and heard Sunday School lessons about a mighty God, who delivered His children from Egypt. My perception about Fords is different from yours. Yes, I identify with the fact that as a sinner, I'm no better than a broken-down '50 (or '58) Ford jalopy with a "hillside" starter. But when the angels come to take me home, it won't surprise me a bit if the chariot smokes a little, has noisy tappets and tiny tail fins.

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Jeff Chandler

April 11, 2007  3:34pm

While I agree with the spirit of the article and the blogs, and identify with the "failure to launch" experience in following Christ, I wonder what kind of vision we give if we live in the land of the broken? Was Paul really a card carrying "roberts rules of order" guy or an aggressive fighter for saving, equipping and launching grace? I worry that we end up giving people permisson to stay broken rather than pursuing the work of healing toward faithful following. It's a fine line, I know - that crossover from patiently working in people's brokenness while conveying the high expectations and potential in Christ. There's a lot to MacDonald's line about his suspicion "that the Ford didn't want to be fixed, because its brokenness gave it a strange kind of control over him."

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Brian Francis Hume

April 10, 2007  2:46pm

Great article! I read another posting by a first-time blogger on a similar note concerning automobile maintenance. This excellent piece highlights the tendency as Christians to ignore the "check engine" light that comes on to warn us of lurking, hidden things within. Check it out at:

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Matt Dabbs

April 05, 2007  12:35pm

I think one of the biggest reasons we have a hard time doing this is because we know if we do we will get shot right out of the water by a bunch of folks who are really no better off than we are but who just can't see it themselves.

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Kriston Couchey

April 03, 2007  8:37pm

It's great to read a blog with something that addresses the great need of leadership in the Body of Christ today. How about some more blogs on the need for transparency, humility, brokeness and laying down your life for the sheep. THESE are the attributes of true leadership in my book. Thanx Mr. McDonald

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Dennis Mullen

April 03, 2007  1:04pm

Well done. Reminds me of my '84 Escort which was only a few years old when I started in ministry but still had enough "brokenness" to keep me loaded up with sermon illustrations for many years. :)

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brad wright

April 03, 2007  11:24am

Thanks for this article... I tried to say some of the same things in a recent post, but yours is much clearer and more memorable.

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Carl Holmes

April 03, 2007  9:00am

My first car was a Ford...a 73 LTD painted banana yellow..although I more likened it to a lemon. What I find in thinking about that car is that I could have taken the lemon yellow paint off and painted it a nice fiery red, or blue...but it still would be a lemon. How true it is that I need to chip off the old paint, but I also have to do some of the interior maintenance to be able to show others the new paint job. If it is broken and in the garage I can bring people in to see the new paint, but I can not show it to as many people as I could by driving it.

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April 03, 2007  8:22am

This is a great illustration, it certainly challenges me on my reliability towards God and how hard it must be when we refuse to start. Liam "Running to be a Subaru"

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