Trouble on the Turnpike

Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out (Acts 3:19).

When you move to a new town one of the first things you have to do is learn your way around.

This is a basic survival skill. You learn how to get from your house to the closest grocery store. You learn how to get from your house to the place where you work or the school you attend. With the passing of time confidence grows. You find the names of streets becoming familiar and the sights of certain intersections or landmarks becoming almost unnoticed as you repeatedly traverse the routes that give shape to your days.

Sometimes, however, learning your way around happens most effectively when mistakes are made. Nothing teaches the right way better than a wrong turn, and sometimes getting lost can be a powerful way of truly coming to know where you are.

So I came to understand on nearby Interstate 476 – a local stretch of highway also known as the Pennsylvania turnpike.

My Eighteen Mile Error

We came to live in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania right after the Fourth of July holiday. A couple of weeks later my son flew back to Atlanta to join some friends for a trip to the Gulf Coast. We booked him on a flight from the Philadelphia airport, a travel plan that required a one hour drive down I-476.

Getting there was no problem. Traffic was manageable. The route to the airport was clearly marked and my phone GPS made it even easier. We got to the Delta terminal, said our farewells, and within seconds I was headed back to Bethlehem. The hour drive back passed fairly quickly with the help of a few good podcasts.

Then my error. Maybe the podcasts were to blame. Maybe I just failed to pay attention. Whatever it was, I didn’t see the signs for the Lehigh Valley exit off of the turnpike – the route that would put me on the highway that goes directly to Bethlehem. That’s not such a big deal. I’ve missed exits before. But remember – this is the turnpike. A ‘controlled access’ highway. Controlled access is a nice way of saying you’re in trouble if you miss an exit.

Once I had missed the exit I saw a sign telling me that the next exit was eighteen miles further north. That might not sound like it’s that far – but when you’re accustomed to seeing an off-ramp every two miles or so, eighteen miles feels like a prison.

There was no turning around. There was no way to go back. There was no recapturing the careless moment. There was nothing to do but move forward and come to terms with the eighteen miles that stretched out before me.

Mercy at the Toll Booth

The exit I missed taught me something about how things work on I-476. I made the same trip a week later when I took my mother-in-law to the airport. I didn’t miss my exit that time. But what has stayed with me from those unwanted eighteen miles isn’t really a lesson about driving on the turnpike.

I think about how I felt angry and embarrassed. When I missed my exit and realized what the mistake would mean for me I wanted to blame something or someone. I was angry at the lousy signage and the people who designed the highway. Mostly, I guess I was angry at myself. I felt stupid for what I had done. And neither my shame not my anger did anything to change what had happened.

I can look back and see that nothing spared me the eighteen mile consequence of my mistake. I never wanted to miss my exit, never intended to let the right way get by me. It didn’t matter. The consequence of doing so was mine to deal with, and as noted above, my protests didn’t change that.

But I also remember that at the end of those eighteen miles I found mercy that allowed me to get back home. At every on-ramp and off-ramp to the turnpike there are toll booths. That’s what makes the turnpike a controlled access highway. When I was finally able to exit I-476 a kind attendant listened to what I had done, assured me that I was hardly the first to have made that mistake, pointed me to a small parking area near the toll booth and allowed me to turn around and go back the way I had come. Yes – that meant another eighteen miles, but at least I was headed in the right direction.

Command and Gift

In scripture ‘repentance’ is the word that is most often used for that turn-around moment and the eighteen miles back to where things went wrong. At times we are commanded to repent (Acts 2:38; 3:19). But repentance is not simply an act of will – it’s a gift. Repentance is granted to us (Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25). Repentance doesn’t erase our mistakes or spare us the eighteen miles of consequence that those mistakes might bring. But we can get home.

The mistakes do not forever prohibit us from being where we were meant to be. And God can use those eighteen miles for our good.

Indeed, nothing teaches the right way better than a wrong turn, and sometimes getting lost can be a powerful way of truly coming to know where you are.