Travelling through Gambia in 2001, I came to a crossroads: four lanes converging, traffic lights at the intersection, cars and commotion. It happened to be one of the country’s latest civil engineering accomplishments and the traffic lights here were in fact the first and only of their kind in the country. However, the lights were not the only noteworthy characteristic at this crossroads. No more than twenty yards beyond the intersection, the tarmac for each of the adjoining roads simply ended, merging with featureless dirt as far as the eye could see. Only one road to the crossroads was paved and that was the road I had arrived on. Suddenly I felt lost. On arrival at this junction, anyone’s hopes for a smooth journey beyond it were severely curtailed. Either one hit the rough, Thelma and Louise style, or turned around and simply went back.
Notwithstanding this conspicuous lack of navigable road, numerous drivers approached the crossroads from various other routes, bouncing along the potholed earth to arrive at, and continue through, the only traffic lights in the nation.
Perhaps, like me, you sometimes see that the road ahead is not going to be as smooth as the road behind. At least for us who set to follow Jesus, rarely is the ‘straight and narrow’ of the Christian life easygoing. (“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me….”, Luke 9:23). An encounter with Jesus and what follows can even be rougher for the one previously travelling safely than for the one previously living dangerously. Think of the different people who encounter Jesus in the Bible: sinners are redeemed, religious elites condemned; the humble and poor are exalted, the rich turned away empty-handed; prostitutes approach in turmoil and leave in peace, priests approach in confidence and leave perplexed. Whether they chose to follow Jesus or not, people often left on a different and unexpected road to the one that took them to him.
So what of my Gambian crossroads? When I set out for them, I didn’t expect to have to turn around there. But like the prodigal son whose crossroads moment in the pig sty causes him to come to his senses and head home (Luke 15), sometimes the only way forward is back. Thelma and Louise kept going, purposefully driving off the edge of a ravine to their deaths. In doing so they turned their backs on the justice and mercy held out to them.
Some of us need to travel back. Or forward, or maybe need a sharp turn of direction. Maybe in the end it’s not about which direction we go in, rough or smooth, east or west, but about travelling with the one who can truly provide guidance, justice, mercy, peace and home.