A few weeks ago, I took my youngest daughter, proud holder of brand new driving permit, to the Goodwill in Santa Cruz to buy a Halloween costume before a doctor’s appointment. We finished our errand, climbed into our recently purchased car and I looped around the block. There was a sign posted with the stop sign, “Right Turn Only.” I did not want to turn right. I wanted to turn left, to head back the way I’d come so I could drive across town to the doctor’s office. If I turned right, I’d be forced into the maize of one-way downtown streets that I’m not familiar with. I wanted familiarity. I wanted to do what I wanted to do.
“Argh,” I said contemplating at the stop sign. “I don’t want to turn right.”
“Then don’t,” my daughter answered.
I looked around, no cars to be seen in any direction. I could make a left turn and be on my way. I turned left, made it one block to the signal to the right turn lane that would take me across town and saw flashing lights in my rear view.
“Oh no,” I said. “Are they after me?”
The motorcycle cop pulled up alongside me, gestured and mouthed “Pull over.”
“They’re after me,” I said.
The light changed. I pulled into the first driveway and parked. I rolled down the window, cut the engine, grabbed my purse from the backseat and fished out my wallet. He asked for my license, registration and proof of insurance. Hands shaking, I slid my license from its plastic sheath and gave it to him.
“We just bought this car,” I said and don’t have the registration yet. I handed him a DMV form from the old owner. I shuffled through the car paperwork. “I don’t have the proof of insurance yet either.” I offered him my insurance card.
“This doesn’t have an expiration date,” he said.
“I’ll see if I have anything else.” I fumbled through all the cards in my wallet. Nothing else.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?” he demanded.
“Because I didn’t go right through the intersection,” I answered, too embarrassed to admit that I'd turned left.
“You made a left turn,” he said. “What else was posted at the stop sign?”
“A right turn only sign.”
“Is there any good reason why you didn’t go right?”
No, I thought. There’s absolutely no good reason. “Just that I didn’t know where I was going if I turned right.”
My ticket says “Failure To Obey Sign or Signal.” It’s my first ticket in nearly thirty years of driving, and I totally deserve it. That’s the humiliating thing. I’ve accidentally run stop signs, red lights, and have driven the speed everyone else is driving that’s above the speed limit. But, I have never before so willfully broken the law. My daughter learned a valuable driving lesson. And I’m struggling with my life lesson.
My father was a sheriff until retirement and I like to think of myself as a law-abiding citizen, a person who will do the right thing. I like to think of myself as a person who will follow God’s laws as well. Even if I don’t know exactly what I’m being called to do, there are the 10 Commandments and other scriptures that provide the guidelines for right living, for staying out of trouble. But I wonder if I really will follow them. I didn’t follow the law; I didn’t turn right because it didn’t serve my purposes. How many of us are like that? It’s a whole lot easier to follow when the path leads to where you want to go. I don’t want to be lost, confused about where I’m headed, on the road or in life.
In his famous prayer, Thomas Merton wrote, “I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.” That’s true for most of us most of the time. We think we have an idea, or a plan, we think we know, but we’re not in control. Merton continues, “I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire [to please you.] And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.”
Odd as it seems, we have more freedom to live full lives, to discover who we really are and who God has intended us to become when we follow the rules, when we try to please God. We have a structure, a grounding, a guidance for our lives that allows us to move beyond the dos and don’ts of behavior to discover our unique gifts and passions. When we ignore those guidelines for life, we spend a lot of time and energy running into trouble and trying to get ourselves back on track. We’re saddled with broken relationships with people and with God.
The law, as I understand it, will allow me to attend Traffic School and the ticket won’t show up on my record unless I get another one within 18 months. There is some grace there, and I appreciate it. Thankfully, God’s grace comes without restrictions. For that, we can echo the words of the arcade game creatures in Toy Story, “You have saved our lives and we are eternally grateful.”
©Cathy Warner 2006