Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: A Theology of Travel
When you embark on any kind of journey, the first step is to make travel plans. As someone who loves to travel, I always look forward to the thrill of “getting there.” Road trips. Boat excursions. Plane rides. Hey, even layovers can be fun (well, some of the time). Part of the adventure is, of course, the actual traveling.
Missions is no different. As you board a plane or load a van, you do so intentionally, with your heart set on your destination, knowing part of your journey is getting from here to there. There’s a theology to traveling. As we move from one place to another, we do so with our hearts and souls aligned.
I’ve always found it kind of thrilling to travel to a new place. You prepare by packing your bags and setting your sights on where you want to go. But this is so much more than a trip. A trip is just going from one place to another. This is a journey.
It’s important to make a distinction between the two. A trip is merely meant to get you somewhere–moving from point a to point b.
A walk to the store
A flight home for the weekend
A quick detour.
A journey, however, is about growth. It’s about change. When you go on a journey, you are embarking on an adventure, the admission that this process will leave you different than you were before. Another word for a journey is a pilgrimage.
This is a deeply significant word and idea. To be on a pilgrimage is to willing journey onward to advance your own understanding of life or God or both. It was both a going and a becoming. A literal journey of going to a new place, but with spiritual implications.
Judaism, in fact, taught that there were several of these spiritually significant journeys. People were commanded several times a year to make the trek back to Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem was the highest elevation of ancient Israel, these journeys were incredibly symbolic. You were going up the mountain (literally), but you were also setting your sights on God to complete your quest.
These pilgrimages were also not made alone. You traveled with family, with friends, with community. It was a calling for God’s people to participate in the journey together.
And it always had the same result: you wouldn’t be the same when your journey was completed.
If we can draw a parallel to the modern day, we might say that any kind of mission trip is like a journey. It’s a process of going and becoming. We prepare before hand. We pray and seek support from our church. The trip cannot happen by our own merits or strengths. It takes the community.
We pack bags and make checklists. We write letters. We tell others about our vision and plan for the trip. And then the day comes. The journey begins.
A journey means transformation. Every missions trip is about change. And typically, this change isn’t going to happen to the people you’re going to see–it’s going to happen to you.
There’s a theology to travel. It’s an ancient practice that we can still participate in.
We gather together and head onward and upward. We’re not sure, of course, what we’ll encounter on the other side. But we know that our hearts are ready to receive as much as they are ready to give.
Sometimes in life we make a decision to step out of what we know and what is familiar. And God works in those vulnerable situations. When someone is willing to trust God, to actually trust Him in the process, He does something pretty incredible. Growth and change happen when we’re willing to do just that.
Things will look different, smell different, taste different, feel different on our journey. With these few slight changes, we’ll begin the process of change and transformation. God has been working for a while on this trip and what happens next is all part of the plan.
Sometimes we go on missions trips because of what we believe we can offer. It’s about our expertise and skills, our competencies and gifting. But the inescapable truth is, it’s not about us. Not even a little bit. God orchestrated this whole thing. It’s about Him. What He’s doing in this part of the world, what He will do in and through us, and perhaps most importantly, how this experience will teach us.
I’m constantly humbled and amazed when I go on trips to discover that it’s not what I came to do, but rather what God does in my heart during my time there.
So the travel is part of the journey. We open up ourselves to listen, to see, to taste, to touch, to feel. We open our hands to receive from our hosts and friends, but also our hearts to be touched by what God is doing.
I thank God that He allows these kinds of connections to take place.
Eugene Peterson wrote this fantastic book on the Psalms called “A long obedience in the same direction.” It’s an accurate description of what following Jesus is. It’s not a sprint or a dash. Nor is it a quick fix, easy process.
It’s about traveling. Intentionally. Slowly. On pace, following His lead. It’s a long obedience in the same direction.
So missions is a journey, a pilgrimage to another place to learn, to grow, to share, to understand. Maybe one could say all of travel is spiritual in nature. For when we leave behind what we know, undoubtedly, we will be stretched to grow and thrive and to behold what God is teaching us.
I’m writing this as we fly. We’re on a red-eye, bound for the first stop of our journey. I have no idea what the next few weeks will hold for myself or our team. But I know the one who has called us to this place.
I love looking around the plane and out the window, praying, dreaming, and hoping for what is to come.
God is with us in the coming and going. We have a God who calls us to travel so we might see more than would have if we stayed behind. This trip is about going and becoming.
I’m excited to see what God does during our time in Ecuador.