This is Faith in Play #31: Magic Roads, for June 2020.
Some years back I was playing in a game in which the city was ruled by chaotic gods who objected to anything being orderly or sensible. This was particularly noticeable in connection with the roads: it was impossible to make a map. I secretly believed that this was because the referee didn’t want to make one himself and so thought it was easier just to pretend that he knew where everything was and how to get there, and make it up as needed. In play, though, if you wanted to get somewhere in the city, you asked for directions from a non-player character who knew, and you followed them precisely. These directions were as much ritual as geography–you might have to go around a block and find yourself on a different road when you returned to your starting point, or go halfway down a road or into a cul-de-sac and then return before continuing, or walk under an arch or between the columns on the front of a temple. If you missed your turn, you hoped you could get back to wherever you began and try again.
I was reminded of this last night as I was driving home and came to the intersection pictured in that satelite view (courtesy Google Maps) pictured to the right. Coming down route 109 from the west northwest (top left corner) you bear left when 109 curves right into Cape May (The Lobster House, one of the best seafood restaurants in the state, is right below the map) and come to a traffic light. This is the onramp for exit zero on the Garden State Parkway, which runs off to the north northeast. There is a conspicuous sign there that says No Turns, so you continue straight across the intersection onto that loop that goes around and returns you to the same traffic signal, where again you go straight to merge with traffic coming over the bridge on 109 from Cape May to get on the Parkway northbound, which begins here and goes off the top right corner of the map.
I’m sure that the intersection is designed that way because during the day, and particularly during the summer, traffic is crazy and someone trying to make a left turn would just hold everything up. As I sat there around midnight on a late February night with no other cars in sight waiting for the light to change, an odd thought struck me. It wasn’t that there would be no harm in simply making the left turn and cutting out the loop. It was wondering about a road where if you made that left turn instead of taking the loop it would take you somewhere else.
I sometimes use my Global Positioning System to direct me to places I already know how to find. I do it partly because I am interested in whether Google thinks there’s a better way to go than the way I know, but also partly because I know that the system is updated in real time for things like traffic jams and accidents, and have more than once had it send me by a different route than it usually does because the usually longer route will be quicker.
All of this comes to me now as illustrative of divine guidance and intervention.
Like most people, I am often annoyed when a traffic signal turns red as I am approaching. I am annoyed enough that I often watch the pedestrian signals–at least here in New Jersey they’ve begun installing “Walk/Don’t Walk” signs with countdowns which turn to “Don’t Walk” when they reach zero and usually also change the green light to yellow at the same time, so I can estimate whether I’m going to make the light. When I don’t, though, I sometimes remind myself that God might be stalling me to avoid a potential accident or incident ahead. My father often said “Don’t be there when the accident happens,” and it may be that our Father takes these little steps to prevent such events–obviously not always, but sometimes. There is somewhere a book of stories about people who called out of work or were delayed on the way to their offices in the World Trade Center on that fateful day in which so many died.
And so I wonder about our path through life, and whether God sometimes takes us to the place we always expected to go by the route that we never could have foreseen, because it was the best way to get us there. It might even be that “straight down Main Street and make a right on Broad Street” won’t actually get you to number seven South Broad Street, because that address won’t be there unless you go a block down thirteenth and come back up fourteenth before continuing. Like the home of Sirius Black, if you don’t take the right steps to get there the destination can’t be found.