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A Drive Through America

I’ve just returned home after spending a week in the United States. I travel to the U.S. quite often—easily 8 or 10 times a year, but more often than not I am there for just a day or two and I often see nothing but an airport, a convention center or church, and a hotel. This time was different. Over 8 days we drove 3400 kilometers, from Michigan, through Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee and down into Georgia. We stopped often, drove around the cities, did a bit of shopping and spent lots of time with people. When I got home, I opened a word processor and just began to write and ramble, trying to think through this journey.

I am very comfortable in the United States, having been there so often and in so many different cities and states. I love America and I love Americans. But still, it is not my country and there is always a sense in which I am an observer just as we all are when we are in a place that is not our own, like being in someone else’s home or being a first-time guest in a church. It has been a year since I spent any significant amount of time in the States, and especially time traveling through the States.

Media around the world has spilled millions of gallons of ink on describing the American economic woes. I returned home to find a copy of Maclean’s (Canada’s answer to TIME or Newsweek) with the cover story discussing the looming double-dip recession. The words “America is Doomed” are plastered at the top of the page. I knew that I was going to be looking for evidence of all of this; I wanted to see if this was just the media creating the news or if there is truth to it.

America has always been the land of extraordinary wealth; the malls and theaters are always packed, the stores always thriving, new neighborhoods always springing up. This is how we, the rest of the world, perceive America—as a nation that loves to own, that loves to spend, that has immense wealth. Yet according to the media, this is exactly what is being threatened today.

And I quick saw that something was different this time. Something had changed. Have you ever met a friend, a friend you haven’t seen for a year or two, and looked at him and just known that something wasn’t quite right, that he was sick or struggling or just plain different? This is the feeling I had in America. It wasn’t the same as it had always been.

I was amazed at all of the empty stores, the abandoned malls, the derelict homes. On our way south we looked for a Chick-Fil-A to grab some lunch and found that the first two locations on the GPS were gone—one in a business area that had shut down and one in a mall that had been mothballed. Even in prosperous places like the suburbs of Atlanta there were so many stores boarded up or just abandoned. At times we drove through business areas and counted the empty storefronts, surprised to see how many businesses had failed.

And then there were the neighborhoods. I was amazed to see newly built 5-bedroom, 4-bathroom homes selling for less than $250,000—homes that in Toronto or any of its suburbs would easily fetch more than twice and probably three times that price. But here in the suburbs of Atlanta the homes were being listed at $250,000 and no doubt selling for less. Almost any neighborhood seemed to have an abundance of “for sale” signs, with many also saying, “foreclosure.”

Even the infrastructure seemed strangely out of date in many places, with highways and roads marked by divots, cracks and potholes (I’m looking at you, Michigan). This was by no means universal, but there were many times that I was driving over roads that had not been resurfaced in many, many years. This was foreign to my experience of America, the land of wealth and affluence.

Of course it wasn’t all bad. I traveled through Ringgold, Georgia where my sister lives and where a massive tornado recently carved a path through the heart of the town, missing her house by only a block. It was shocking; it was humbling. Though several months have passed, though much of the destruction has been cleaned up, though rebuilding has proceeded quickly, there was still plenty of evidence of what had happened. What immense power to take massive trees and snap them apart like twigs—whole forests flattened and left piled like matchsticks. But the people were working hard, rallying to rebuild their town, to replant the forests, to return to normal.

Despite so many empty storefronts, many other stores—most of them, I’m sure—continued to thrive, the parking lots full of cars. And the American people were as friendly and open and welcoming and generous as ever. I always feel welcome in the United States and people are always so eager to serve and to please. It still felt like the America I know and love.

As I traveled home, as I reflected on this, I thought, “So what? What does it all mean?” Coming back to the same neighborhoods I’ve been to so often showed the sharp contrast in before and after. It is clear that America is not as healthy today as she once was. The downturn is real. People are hurting. The country is hurting.

And i suppose the takeaway for me is this: America has been humbled (or is being humbled). A country that has been the envy of the world is struggling, a country that has generated such wealth has begun to fall prey to that wealth. I often hear people repeat the old adage “Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness.” And maybe that has been true of America—that her wealth, her overwhelming wealth—has led her to this point. Now we’re not going to stick a fork in America and say that she’s done. The country is not at the point of collapse. But her wealth and her nearly insatiable desire for more has brought her closer than we might have thought possible. And this downturn isn’t nearly through yet.

And then I think of the church, Christ’s church, at least as I know it here in North America. And I wonder if we’ve got a lesson to learn. We have also benefited from immense wealth. Even small churches like my own have the ability to pay salaries for pastors, to rent a building, to send money abroad in support of missions, and on and on and on. Our wealth is one of our great strengths and it can be a tremendous blessing. It drives ministry, it employs millions, it generates a whole industry meant to feed our own desire for more—more music, more books, more buildings, more conferences, more, more, more. But are we being faithful with what the Lord has provided? Have we used it wisely? Will we use it wisely? Could it ultimately lead to a kind of collapse?

I guess this is the appeal of books like Radical and so many others, books that challenge the infiltration of the American dream into the church. And this is in large part why I intend to spend a good bit of time this fall thinking and writing about money and possessions—these things that can prove such a blessing and such a curse, that can be such a strength and such a weakness. I feel the need to try to figure it out, to try to come to some kind of conclusion on how the Lord would have us respond to the immense privileges that are ours.