On the Road Again
Is there something we can learn of God on the road that we can’t discover at home? Many of us will find ourselves living out of a suitcase at some point this summer – be it for work or study, vacation or a family visit. Could our journeys – no matter our original goals - have some theological purpose as well? The Bible suggests as much. Think about the great biblical figures we meet as they’re journeying from one place to the next – Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Paul…just to name a few. All of them learn something they never would have learned if they had simply stayed home.
They learned, in part, what all of us learn when we travel – that there are limits to what we can control. Sometimes, as with Abraham, we learn that God can be found in the most unfamiliar of places. Other times, as with Moses, we learn to rely on a God who refuses to stay still. We may, as with Ruth, discover that our capacity for faithfulness to our fellow travelers is stronger than we (or they) ever would have known had it not been tested. Or we may, as Paul did, learn that no great journey is ever accomplished alone. (I’m struck in reading Paul’s letters just how many people are needed to get him wherever he’s going.)
Our motives for travel, of course, may not match those of our biblical ancestors. Many of them left their homelands with no expectation of return. Some, like Abraham, were migrants; others were missionaries like Paul. Still others, like Moses and Ruth, were essentially refugees fleeing political oppression or economic distress. They left home because they had to. That might be true for some of us as well.
For many of us, though, our travels tend to be more voluntary. Our journeys may have some explicit spiritual purpose; we might call them mission trips or pilgrimages for good reason. But does that mean that our other reasons for travel carry any less potential for a life-changing experience? Is it possible that a family reunion, a work trip, or even a long-awaited vacation might also throw us into a life-altering encounter with God?
Enlightenment isn’t inevitable. It is possible to see even the world’s greatest wonders and walk away unchanged. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in fact, called traveling “a fool’s paradise.” In his words from Self-Reliance, “I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from…My giant goes with me wherever I go.”
In a certain sense, of course, he’s right. If we’re using travel as an occasion to escape ourselves, then we’re bound to wind up disappointed. Whatever we’re running from will catch up with us eventually. We take ourselves with us wherever we go.
But that’s not necessarily bad news - because the God who calls quietly within us at home is the same God of power and wonder we encounter elsewhere. Travel, with all of its disruptions of our routines, can help us to hear more clearly that “still, small voice” that often gets drowned out by our everyday sirens. In his book Faith on the Road, theologian Joerg Rieger talks about how travel can help us recover something we’ve lost at home – that Voice of comfort or conscience who has been with us all along.
This summer may we discover as this fellow traveler did: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me…You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely…Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast…I come to the end—I am still with you.” (Psalm 139)