The following is my processing and recording some of what I learned during my Christmas travels. Enjoy.
Staying in another country can feel like living in a parallel universe. Everything you know is there in some form, but it’s all just a little bit ‘off’. Transport, but with a different look and ticketing system. Food, but not food you can always name. Language, but one you don’t have access to. Shared cultural experiences, but with different reference points. Chocolate, but no Cadbury’s (sorry, I have a problem). Life operates along the same dimensions even if all the variable have changed.
Having to go with it is a really good place to be in. I’ve read before that unless there’s a point in which you feel uncomfortable, you’re not travelling – you’re only on holiday. I think there’s definitely something in this. I learned so much in having to constantly be trusting other people. There were points that I could tell my friends were working through some sort of issue with our plans, but often these were points where I had no clue as to the severity of said issue. I was so dependent on them for everything, it’s a dependency I want to know in my faith also.
The long way round is still a way round. On Jan 2nd, when we visited the Imperial Palace Gardens, we were trying to work out which entrance to actually go and use. From what I saw on the map, I came to one conclusion, but my friends came to the other. Being unable to communicate my reasoning I decided not to question this, despite concerns mounting as we walked on through lots of people coming in our direction… In the end it turned out that all suspicions I had were in fact correct, but, really, it did not matter. We ended up where we needed to be. I like to be as-efficient-as-is-possible and not waste time, and essentially this trip continued my thinking that I place too much importance on this.
This world is not really my own. One time we were on the train, the emergency brakes were used. My friends, in response, questioned whether or not it was a Monday. It transpires, rather chillingly, that they are used to sudden stops at the beginning of the week – as people throw themselves under trains being unable to face the week of work ahead. It was one reminder of many that life has no form of guarantee written onto it. This, alongside very much being aware of having a ‘visitor’ and ‘guest’ status being communicated by the mere fact of my pale skin and blue eyes, made me reflect on a fair few passages from scripture. This is what Hebrews 11:37-38 (a passage all about what it has meant for people to be of faith) says:
37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins,destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.
The gospel is not meant to give you an easier life. If you want comfort and familiarity, it is not the way to go. But if you want a richer life, then the gospel is for you – amidst the discomfort and hard choices you will find peace and joy, and life in its fullness. Feeling like you are apart from the world’s ways therefore isn’t a bad thing, being aware of a ‘visitor’ status is to be more able to hold loosely to the things of the world and more tightly to what is beyond it. Again, another bible verse, this time Mark 8:26:
36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?
This is why I value and pray about having ‘a pilgrim spirit’, I want to know where it is I belong.
I am the ‘contemporary person’ that I used to blame. This came up mostly from my trip to the DMZ in South Korea. I used to think about Nazi Germany and about the response of ordinary citizens, thinking in my mind how I hoped that if such circumstances enveloped me, I wanted to be like Sophie Scholl. Now I realise that the courage and faith I wished that I would exhibit in such times isn’t for counterfactual situations but for the horrors currently unravelling themselves right now – in North Korea, in Syria, in Yemen and in so many other countries.