What did you want to be when you grew up? Are you that? Has your life turned out the way you thought it would when you were 15, or 27, or 34, or 50, or 62, or 78, or 85, or 100??? Were there any right turns or left turns? Any U-turns or one-way streets that you didn’t know about until you were on them and then weren’t sure how to get off? Did you miss a few exits along the way and take a more scenic route than you planned?
I was headed to Madison, Wisconsin a few years after seminary for a 10 day seminar in a Bible study teaching program. I was by myself – days long before GPS and smack in the middle of an Atlas that gave each state map a page in an over-size book you could buy near the check-out stand in Wal-Mart. I’d mapped the route meticulously and, leaving mid to late afternoon, thought I’d probably stop for the night somewhere along the way. My route took me to Des Moines, Iowa, where I would turn east toward Iowa City, where I knew I’d need to make a turn to the north/northeast toward Madison.
Sometimes I think about a lot of things when I’m doing other stuff, I don’t know, like driving. We all do, especially when we’re driving by ourselves. There’s only so much radio (lo, those many years ago without iPods or Amazon Prime or Spotify or Panera, I mean, Pandora – always mix those up) anyway the AM stations with people shouting about Jesus and condemnation and FM stations playing heavy metal or country simply couldn’t hold my attention.
So I was thinking, evidently about lots of stuff BESIDES the map and where I was going and where I needed to turn. I kept thinking I should be running into Iowa City, but it wasn’t appearing. Then I started seeing signs for Chicago – the city, not the musical. *snort* Those green signs with the city name followed by the mileage, and the one I suddenly noticed said Chicago, 75. 75??? Seventy-five miles to CHICAGO?!!? Forget Bible study, take me to the Miracle Mile and a Cubbies game! However, I didn’t think you had to drive through Chicago to get to Madison, Wisconsin. I mean I’ve never been a whiz-bang at geography, but I was pretty sure Chicago had not been part of my meticulous Atlas mapping.
At the next exit I got off the interstate, took a look at the Iowa, the Illinois, then Wisconsin state maps in my handy-dandy atlas, and, in fact, I was right! Chicago is not on the way from Kansas City to Madison. When I figured out where I was, at least a rough estimation of where I LIKELY was, I had missed my exit at Iowa City to head north/northeast, and instead had stayed pretty due east and was 75 miles from Chicago – perhaps to find out if it was, you know, my kind of town…
What happens when we turn right when we should have turned left? What happens when we stay on the highway when we should have gotten off three exits before? What happens when the four-lane turns to two-lane, or when the pavement runs out? What do we do then? Isn’t that really the question? What happens when the life we have all mapped out in either general or very specific meticulous terms doesn’t turn out the way we planned? Either through our own choices or the choices made by those around us, something takes us off course and we’re left to deal with the after-math. Are we good at that? The after-math, the consequences, the detours?
When I realized how far off-course I was, I immediately marveled a bit at the fact that at close to 30 years of age, I was still alive given my sometimes lack of attention to what’s right in front of me. Then I thought, now what do I do… sleep in the car? It was getting late. Turn around and retrace my steps back to Iowa City? Except that I’d gone nearly 150 miles past that exit. Reroute a new way from where I was as directly toward Madison as I could find roads to take me? And maybe stop on the way if I was tired and there was a place that seemed safe and wasn’t called The Bates Motel? That’s the option I chose. And about midnight I pulled into what I later found out, as I paid the bill, was a verrrry safe 4-star hotel. So much for my per diem money for the rest of the trip, but man the room was clean and the sheets probably 500 count! I briefly thought about the places Jesus likely slept on his teaching and missionary journeys, then remembered I wasn’t Jesus. *snort* or *lightning strike?!*
What happens when we veer off-course? When life takes us on a scenic detour that we didn’t plan and that we clearly don’t control? What then? How do we handle the disappointment? With self-accusation? How do we handle frustration? With anger? How do we handle the possibility of a new situation, in a new place, with unplanned for experiences? With trepidation or even paralyzing fear?
What if we didn’t? What if we didn’t do any of those things? What if we figured that no matter how off-course we get, there will always be some way and/or some power – perhaps of grace, maybe God’s grace – still calling us to places we’re meant to be, simply by a different way?
I still got to Madison in time for the start of the conference. Looking back, I might have done better to “mistakenly” get to Chicago and find myself unable to find my way out until it was time to head back home. Remember, this was back in the day, but the leader of the conference, of a different denomination, shared that men were to come to class in nice slacks and collared shirts, and “ladies” were expected to come to class in dresses or skirts, but if pants, pressed slacks and non-revealing tops. Oh, and make-up was preferred. I’m. Not. Even. Kidding! I came so close to running out and purchasing some “Happy the Clown” face paint. But being that I was there by myself and was certain the leader could throw me into some sort of Bible study prison, I played nice…mostly. I did leave a few days early, you know, to make certain I could find my way back home.
What about the detours in our lives, the missed exits? I sometimes still feel like I’m the person carrying an Atlas in a GPS world. Maybe I’m not the only one? Not all the detours and missed exits in my life have turned out beautifully or wonderfully or without pain. Not all of them have been overcomeable (old English majors can make up words), and not all of them have “made me a better person.” HOWEVER, having said all that, all those journeys have somehow brought me to the place I am today literally and spiritually, and most days I’m most grateful and honestly a little dumb-founded, a very odd way of saying humbled I think.
See if this sounds familiar as we enter this Holy-Day season…
“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, THEY LEFT FOR THEIR OWN COUNTRY BY ANOTHER ROAD.” (Matthew 2:10-12).
There it is. Right there. Not what they were expecting, not what they were planning, led by God still toward their own country, simply “by another road.” Maybe that’s what faith is all about – finding our way, led by God, often by another road.
So enjoy the detours, the missed exits, the rights that should have been lefts and the lefts that should have been rights. And when it turns out unexpectedly and maybe humorously, rejoice! And if it turns out painful beyond all knowing, remember, there is nowhere you can go where God is not.