You can teach an old dog new tricks, but it usually involves pain. Here’s my story.

I got my driver’s license when I turned seventeen. I learned to drive on my father’s 51 Chevy – stick shift, of course. It was a great moment. Right away I became attractive to the girls.

My driving habits were already deeply entrenched when they started putting seat belts in cars. At first, around 1960, some luxury imports offered them as options. It wasn’t until 1968 that manufacturers were required to install them. By then, I was a confirmed non-seat belt driver. They were for women, children and less-than-macho men. My tough-guy stubbornness continued long after. When California passed its first mandatory seat belt law in 1986, I was definitely an old dog who was not about to learn any new tricks. Until that day in 2009.

I was driving the church’s old Toyota pickup truck south on El Molino, with granddaughter Tianna in the passenger seat. Several unfair circumstances conspired to lead to a sad result. First, when I stopped at Woodbury, there was a California Highway Patrol car stopped on my right-hand side. I went first, and he followed me. What attracted him to this truck? My conspiracy theory is that it was the kind of vehicle a Latino gardener might drive, and the officer saw an easy target. Maybe not. But unfortunately, this pickup was old enough to have completely untinted windows, so the officer could clearly see inside. And what he saw was Tianna in the passenger seat, unbelted.

As he looked over my license and registration, he asked how old Tianna was. Without thinking it through, I gave her true age, which was sixteen, even though she could pass for older. Under California law, the fact that she was a minor added significantly to the fine I would have to pay. There was a final factor that added to that day’s tragedy: the officer had had a serious fight with his wife over breakfast that morning. I don’t know this for a fact, but something made him immune to my poor-pastor-just-trying-to-do-the-Lord’s-work routine.

Bottom line, the fine we paid was $500. That hurt, but not as much as it might have hurt for Tianna to be in a serious traffic accident without her seat belt on. Since that day, I’ve become a seat belt convert. If I start the car and put it in gear, I actually feel partially unclothed until I click my seat belt on.

As I reflected on my resistance to the laws about seat belts, the Bible word that came to my mind was “stiffnecked.” That’s a quaint King James Version word, but it’s a pretty literal translation of the original Hebrew. Most modern English versions update it to “stubborn,” but “stiffnecked” better describes my resistance to buckling under to the buckling up law. I was not going to yield to some new-fangled limitation on my driving freedom. At least, not until it cost me $500.

It struck me that all the Old Testament verses where this word is used come from passages about God’s giving the Law to his people (Exodus 32:9, 33:3,5, 34:9, Deuteronomy 9:6, 13). The people felt the Law was an infringement on their individual, personal will, and they reacted as a young ox might when the farmer first breaks him in for work by putting a yoke on his neck; he stiffens his neck in resistance. God is making the point that they will never function properly as his people until they accepted the yoke of his Law. It was meant to limit them, yes, but in a way that would keep them from many dangerous forces that could harm them. Following the Law might hurt a bit, but not following the Law could lead to much more pain and suffering. Putting on a seat belt may seem to be a pain, but not putting it on could lead to much more pain and suffering.

And so, I learned not to be stiffnecked. For now.

— Pastor George Van Alstine