What is it about the airport? Even when I am just picking someone up or dropping someone off, I get that feeling. And what is that feeling exactly?
It makes me restless. It’s the longing to be on the move. To be free of the everyday and to be seeing something new. To be collecting stories to regale (or bore) my friends with, and to have images to post on my social media pages to say “look, here I am really living.” I went on a tour to Europe this year (it was a tour advertised in the pages of Eternity magazine) as a way of celebrating the Reformation. It was a pilgrimage of sorts. It was thoroughly enjoyable – an experience to savour.
We shouldn’t just pick on the millennials. The retirement contingent are just as likely to pursue travel…
I love to be in a place with history and to be learning as I go. I love hearing the chatter of languages I don’t understand around me, and sampling unfamiliar food. You can’t visit Germany and not eat German sausages or sample the seasonal white asparagus. You can’t go to the Black Forest and not eat … Black Forest cake! You can’t go to Switzerland and not have a fondue.
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Why do we love to travel?
There is no doubt that we do. UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics tells us that the number of students travelling overseas has increased 75% in the last decade, and that that number is growing by 12% per year. What’s more, travellers of the millennial generation make up something like 20% of international travellers and the number of trips they are making is increasing all the time.
My experience in pastoring a young adults congregation is that almost all of them would see both travelling for fun and living overseas for at least a year as items on their “must do” checklist.
But we shouldn’t just pick on the millennials. The retirement contingent are just as likely to pursue travel – not just “doing the lap” of Australia, but getting on a cruise ship or taking a tour to somewhere new.
What we are really trying to understand by going away is what home is like.
According to English psychotherapist Dr Greg Madison we often travel for existential reasons. This is not travel because we are fleeing poverty or tyranny. This is travel because we are seeking self-understanding and adventure. We travel because we are trying to address profound internal questions like “where do I belong?” and “who am I?”
What we are really trying to understand by going away is what home is like. The danger is – especially when we travel or live overseas for an extended time – that we disconnect from home, which of course changes while we are absent, and never really find a home elsewhere. We set off on a voyage of discovery but what we are seeking seems elusive even though we travel a million miles to find it.
But it’s also true that we travel to escape some of these difficult questions. We literally escape through travel. It gives us the luxury of space to think, to recuperate and to heal. As the English writer Alain de Botton puts it, in his book The Art of Travel: “Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship, or train. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts, new places.”
The experience of wonder comes to us as we travel, because of the newness of things. We see animals we’ve never seen before, landscape that is weird to us, climate that is strange. It can make us more reflective and more aware people.
Of course, a Christian will realise this. The opportunity to travel is a real blessing from God. God’s world is far more extraordinary and diverse than we imagine it to be. We are humbled as we open ourselves to new places, and have more opportunities to praise the Creator for his creativity.
We can be open to the ways God may bless us as we travel his world.
As Australian pastor and writer Steve Liggins writes in his interesting new book Travelling the World as Citizens of Heaven: “The world is an amazing place. It should be – it is God’s world … Travelling and living overseas provides opportunities to meet incredible people, learn about intriguing cultures, and witness some of the breathtaking wonders of creation. When we view all of this through the lens of Scripture and with the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit, we appreciate more and more that we’re travelling God’s world.”
We should travel, argues Liggins, “with God,” aware that there is nowhere we can go that is not his or where he is not present. With this in mind, we can be open to the ways God may bless us as we travel his world.
One of those ways may be that we meet Christians in other places who have much to teach us. But we also need to recognise our inner motives for wanting to travel in the first place. What do you think that travel will give you that you can’t find at home? Do you think that travelling or living overseas will satisfy that inner hunger, that sense of restlessness? That restlessness of heart is in fact a spiritual condition. Augustine of Hippo famously prayed: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”
The longing of the human inner being is for a home with God, that we discover only through Jesus Christ and in the power of God’s Holy Spirit. We set sail for foreign shores in the hope that we will discover who we truly are. But whatever we may find, we will not find ourselves until we are found by our Creator in Jesus Christ.
It’s worth checking that feeling, because we need to know that travel is a consumer good like any other.
In fact, there’s a grave spiritual danger in travel because we find ourselves an opportunity to try on different “selves.” We can pretend to be a different person altogether – perhaps to try things that we wouldn’t ordinarily try at home, because people would see us doing them. We may tell ourselves that “what goes on tour, stays on tour” – as if the world of our travel is a world with an entirely different sense of right and wrong.
So, if you are feeling the yearn to travel, ask yourself: why? What is it about my current world that is giving me this sense of needing to be somewhere else, even if only for a time? And it’s worth checking that feeling, because we need to know that travel is a consumer good like any other. And the consumer economy feeds off our feelings of envy and dissatisfaction.
These feelings are massively amplified by our poring over the Instagram feeds of our travelling friends. What do we see there? Images of freedom, pleasure, joy, beauty. Sheer happiness. Novelty and excitement. Is everyone having a good time but me? When will we have some great photos to share, meet an attractive foreigner, and drink a drink with an umbrella upon it? When will we get to speak knowingly about Peru, or to drop into my conversation “when I was travelling in the Balkans … ”? When will people be envying me as I am now envying them?
And so, does our wanderlust emerge from our sense of being left behind? Is it really the same peer pressure that makes us want to buy a smart phone?
We become more aware of the poverty of other places when we travel, but what do we do with that awareness?
Like any consumer good, travel is more accessible to those who have more money. Though it seems more noble, it’s a middle class accessory like any other. We often gear our whole personal economies to affording travel. It costs, and sometimes it costs big bucks. As with any big spend, a Christian should think twice about whether travel is really a wise use of all that time, effort and money. And, like anything in a consumer economy tempting us with a vision of personal fulfilment, travel can be part of an economic system that causes harm in the world. We can and do cause environmental damage as we travel. We may be causing who knows what economic imbalances as we travel. We become more aware of the poverty of other places when we travel, but what do we do with that awareness?
In the Old Testament, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and its temple was an essential part of the spiritual life of the people. How else, and where else, could you find atonement for sin and right relationship with God unless you journeyed to the temple?
The gospel of Jesus Christ means the reverse. We don’t have to go to a place to meet God. The word of God is now preached in every nation under heaven. Instead of travelling to one place, the disciples were sent to every place on the earth to preach Jesus Christ and to make disciples.
Instead of travelling the earth to find God and yourself, could you perhaps be the one who travels the earth to bring the good news of Jesus to others?
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books. If you would like to receive a daily devotional from Michael Jensen, email him at [email protected] / twitter: @mpjensen
Travelling the World as Citizens of Heaven is available at Koorong.com