Just when you thought all the microadventures had slowly wound up at the end of the last lockdown, they’ve made a reappearance! Here in Dublin, with our 5km limits, we’re realising that we’ll no sooner be out of our lockdown than we’ll be back into it again in January. So here’s another fun idea for families, couples, housemates or bubbles.
Tuesday night adventures
Or Tuesday night something-or-others. We still debate the meaning of what an adventure is (and thus what a micro-adventure could be allowed to be), but the bit we’re more sure of is that these happen on Tuesday nights. Of course if you choose to adopt such activities, they needn’t occur on Tuesdays, which means the continuity between you taking these ideas and us doing them, is simply that you’ve read this blog post and thought “I haven’t a clue what this Irish guy is wittering on about, but we might try something similar”.
They came about because we often work all day at our desk inside and soon realise that it’s past sunset (16.15 here at the moment) and we haven’t got outside or moved all day. Our motivation to leave into the dark, cold and wet is not often abounding, and so we figured we might need something to help us.
And so last Tuesday, just before I finished my Zoom call, I heard someone at the door and got up to investigate. I was too late to find anyone there, but did indeed find a letter from a local resident, Mr On. A strange name, I must confess, and one from whom I’d never received any personal correspondence before. Mr On was a well known character in the area, although sometimes considered a wandering nomad, far from home. Far from home, not because of his German roots (for which we should really call him Herr On, out of respect) but because he was nowhere near his normal abode.
But although far from home, he seemed to know how to write a good letter more than most young people do these days (a great travesty, if you ask me). I attach his charming address below:
And so the stage was set for what would soon be known as the first ever Tuesday Adventure. Of course, somewhere in the world (perhaps even my world) before, there had indeed been an adventure which had happened on a Tuesday, but for these purposes we ask that you allow us some generosity as we recount the great feat of that first Tuesday.
And off we went on the first of our 10-step adventure, all to be completed in a mere 90 minutes, without ever straying out of our 5km lockdown limit.
It was fear-invoking, outrageous acts like this that for me, were the reason that this was definitely an adventure. Just seconds before this photo was taken in fact, I was mere seconds away from being run over by a passing van, who for some reason did not understand that I was not crossing the road, but was obeying orders to stand in the round-a-bout in the middle of the road. (Perhaps this is why the US was so slow to adopt such madness as the modern-day roundabout.)
But this was not even the most challenging act of the evening. A request to get a photo of a dog being walked in the area was a challenge more suitable to an adventurous man like myself.
Forgetting all the controversy of the definition of a cul-de-sac and leaving it behind me, I set off for Eamonn Ceannt Park, in the dark! For even considering such acts of bravery, I hoped I would soon be rewarded by exactly what I was after.
Sadly it appears that during lockdown, not many people are venturing out of their houses at around 10.45pm on a Tuesday evening to walk around the streets. One kilometre in, and my hopes were raised by a person in shorts, moving from west to east across Clonmacnoise circle. The only moving target in many minutes. Desperate as I was to return to my warm bed, preferably having completed my adventure, it did seem a little ambitious to ask said shorted runner to find for me a dog in the local area and run back to me with it so that I could have a photo. So I moved on. And much to my delight, before even crossing the road to get to the dark park, I found what I was after!
My recent learning via the Photography Ethics Centre meant that I was uneasy with taking photos of people (and their dog) without their permission and posting it online on what might become a viral blog post (I always dream).
And so I was left with a dilemma. Here was indeed my one opportunity in perhaps the whole night (for who walks their dog after 11pm??). My options were limited.
And so, determined to do the ethical thing, I approached the man with the dog. He was the type of man, who, if I’d been someone prone to making stereotypes (which of course I’m not), I would have said he was a rough drug addict, just out of jail and walking home (you can tell by the look in their eyes). And so I didn’t feel as bad about what I was about to do.
In what would be later described by a local paper as an act of extreme gentrification, I subtly walked towards the man (and his dog), looking simply like I was off to take part in an adventure that a local heron had given me. The man suspected nothing.
In a flash, without him realising, I had his dog and had disposed of the owner. I turned, realising I now had what I needed. A way of getting my photo of a dog walker, without needing to ask for permission, by becoming the very thing I needed. Moreover, the dog I had commandeered (or shall we say, offered to walk), was none but a local German Shepherd dog. Herr On would indeed be impressed.
And so, our grand Tuesday night adventure was completed for week one. Little did I know the traditions that would come about following such an adventure.
Inspiring? I would say so.
But please don’t all go out on Tuesday night for your Tuesday-night-adventure. Lest it all get a bit much on the streets and I get questioned by the Gards for the craze.
I continue my reflections on my past campus work with a third post that follows on from this one (1) and this one (2). The connections here to travel, apart from the obvious mentions, are the culture of individualism that has given rise both to travel and perhaps to some of the drive for activism. Keep an eye out and let me know what you think!
“Travel is wonderful. A near-perfect state of surprise, wonder, and excitement. A chance to challenge your assumptions, defeat your prejudices, and write a new story for yourself. As a traveller. An exile. An adventurer. An explorer. As someone with great stories of struggle, survival, curiosity, courage and reinvention. But the pursuit of those narratives can be harmful, too.
Everything in life is about dosage. I’d gotten the dosage wrong. I felt ready to reprioritise, to commit to [a place], to [a partner], to my job…, to staying when things got hard, instead of running away to some romanticised, mirage, wanderlust new.”
Taken from chapter 13 of ‘Don’t Go There’ (Adam Fletcher)
There are great dangers of parachurch ministry amongst students. Firstly that the ‘parachurch’ bit can often come unstuck from the local church (we’ll come to this at some other point). But also that it is amongst students.
Students are deemed the next generation of world leaders, culture changers, thought shapers and activists. Increasingly much of society is encouraged to think about going to college – what perhaps once before was something just for a certain section of society. The student world is a fast-paced, fast-changing world, full of possibility, challenge and adventure, where the average student is impressionable and has plenty of free time (even if they don’t think so).
And so the role of the CU Staffworker is both a joy and a challenge. A joy, because very few other roles in ministry see so much change so quickly, so much fruit and such quick forgiveness (or memory) for mistakes made. And a challenge, for the same reason as the travel writer above articulated. Just as there are problems when the traveller lives for the romanticised travel-blog life, shaped by wanderlust and living every day as an their own adventure. So the staffworker when not grounded in the ancient gospel narrative, surrounded by the global church and embedded and submitted to a local gospel-preaching church, can quickly get the dosage wrong and forget the calling to which they are living. Let me explain how that looked in my life at times over these years.
“…the staffworker when not grounded in the ancient gospel narrative, surrounded by the global church and embedded and submitted to a local gospel-preaching church, can quickly get the dosage wrong and forget the calling to which they are living.”
One of David Bebbington’s four key characteristics of evangelicalism is activism. Evangelicals are activists. We love living out the gospel and letting it shape everything in life. This, unsurprisingly, is a very popular thing these days. Here are 3 examples in the Irish church at large:
Within the Church we are having vast swathes of people move from saying “God is building His Kingdom” to talk about how “we bring in the Kingdom of God”. We emphasize our action.
Within a very young and fragile Irish evangelical Church, students are often infuriated by the lack of zeal and purity and so break off into activist groups who seek to live a ‘more authentic’ life (often seen in groups like The Last Reformation, some Torah-emphasizing ‘Christian’ groups, the lure of subtle cult groupings currently having sway in Ireland, and sometimes just in lone-wolf evangelists, burdened for the lost).
And in a progressive theological scene which seeks to constantly find new things we missed in the Bible (like every PhD is designed to do), the New Perspective on Paul speaks into the vacuum that occurred when western individualism injected toxins into much of evangelicalism, and seeks to claim that free grace found in being united with Jesus and justified by faith alone is not good enough a motivator to propel us into bearing fruit. (Mr Vanhoozer gives a far better summary.)
So what about when we get the dosage wrong?
Well in each of these three things we’ve seen the disasters that have happened in the wider Church.
In the first, we often had many quick converts – the promise of God’s Kingdom here on earth as it is in Heaven is a juicy one. Glimpses can be seen. But soon people get fed up of how hard life is, how slow spiritual change is in our hearts and others, and many grow disillusioned with all they were promised and wander from the faith. There are better activist groups out there, they think. I have seen this in the many churches who do such wonderful work in communities, and use language like the aforementioned.
In the second, the newly formed ‘authentic’ groups often die off quickly. Partly because they have no identity other than being the “radicals”. And that identity is a fragile one. Either they find flaws within the group and need to split again. Or they start drawing different lines and emphasis to what the scriptures emphasize, and so forsake the gospel. Sadly they often do so having already ruined young believers – giving them a deep disillusionment about faithful gospel churches, or even worse in the case of some cults operating in Ireland currently, also giving them a suspicion of their own family and friends, to the point of cutting connections with them.
In the third, those who fully embrace the NPP, perhaps as a right reaction to this over-individualistic reading of the scriptures, often end up unable to clearly articulate the gospel in a way that doesn’t lose the assurance of faith that the New Testament writers seem to have, and succumb to a bland ecumenism (which seems a wonderful unity until you arrive at it and try and figure what gospel you have left).
But as well as these general trends in church life in Ireland, I found the tug of activism on my own heart as a Staffworker.
As a lone staffworker in Munster, I was tempted to think that I needed to work harder and longer, particularly with such short campus semesters. Campus X would not have a gospel presence unless I got there this week and met with strategic leaders and got everything done. That perhaps was true to some extent, and there are indeed times for sacrifice and hard graft (like in any part of life). But living on high doses of such activism without deep gospel roots would soon make me think more of myself and my role that I ought, and would soon lead me to burnout, cynicism and fatigue (as sadly happened with quite a proportion of staff who I served with, in different ways).
The more I lived like the above, the more I would be tempted to start trying to take short-cuts to make life/ministry simpler and easier. Instead of shaping student convictions by discipling with God’s Word open and letting them lead (even if that meant in weakness or with failures), I would be tempted to primarily give my (good) advice, turn up to every meeting and try and maybe implicitly control the direction of things by my presence or reasoning. Instead of seeing that the longterm way that faithful gospel witness might be on a campus was to develop a sustainable model that didn’t depend on me, I would be tempted to run round trying to be the hero in some ways, receiving praise from many Christians for such “radical, sacrificial living”.
And the more I was tempted to give myself to activism in small ways and big, the more exhausting it became, and the further from enjoying God’s heart I would drift. His yoke being light and his burden being easy were not recognisable to me in the day to day life I sometimes lived. And if His heart was not that of a generous Father, why would I pray?
…if His heart was not that of a generous Father, why would I pray?
I found prayer was the first thing to disappear when my hands crafted activism, my heart was enveloped in busyness and my mind chose reason. When I was weary or tired, I was filled with cynicism and bitterness. When I was unsure, my mind replayed scenarios again and again. When I had not completed my task list that day, my hands applied to work longer hours.
None of it brought it to our Heavenly Father in prayer. None of it brought it to our Servant King ruling on the throne. None of it brought it to the Holy Spirit for Him to be at work even when we couldn’t be. None of it enjoyed the freedom of the gospel which meant things weren’t resting primarily on my shoulders. None of it basked in the gentleness of Jesus. None of it modelled a life, communing with our Triune God.
I must say that through it all, none of this may have been obvious to the outsider that I was battling and wrestling deep within me to decide each day who I worshipped. I prayed with everyone I met. I filled in work monthly report logs which showed my working hours. I sat under fantastic gospel teaching which sought to persuade my heart that people did not need my good advice (primarily) they needed to meet the living God and hear Him speak. I knew that team life was the ideal. And God graciously seemed to be powerfully at work in the region on the campuses, drawing many to Him. But the tug of activism was still strong.
If you want to hear my full story of how I ended up broken by my own activism physically, I tell it in my book (chapter 2). [Ironically my thoughts on travel were part motivated from long hours living the “activist” life on the road between campuses! How gracious He is to bring good from ugly times!]
It took many car journeys to turn my cynical thought cycles into hours of prayer on the road.
It took many prayer letters to persuade myself that I was not the hero telling my story, but that God was building His Church through His ordinary people and their prayers.
It took many months of realising that God could, would and had raised up many to follow Him, even on the days I felt most alone in that role.
It will be many years before I will ever be as content as the old ladies in many of my supporting churches, who sit in their living room and pray all afternoon, with sparkling joy in their eyes as they do so.
I am thankful for the life of my praying mother, always starting each day in prayer over breakfast.
I am thankful for the life of my praying father, leading the family to rhythms of prayer and worship in different ways over the years.
I am thankful for praying churches that I was part of who always valued corporate prayer.
I am thankful for those in other churches I learned so much about prayer from, as we prayed for the nations together each month.
I am thankful for the example of many fellow-labourers, like the Cork campus workers/lecturers prayer group that met once a week to pray together without fail.
I am thankful for my first ever supervisor, who suggested to me to take working hours (sometimes days) to spend in prayer alone.
I am thankful for an older worker from another organisation who took me away on silent retreat to show me just how entwined my heart was to the noise and busyness of life.
I am thankful for individuals and families who have lifted me (and the work in Munster) up to God for years upon years in faithful prayer.
I am thankful for those on our island who for generations have been praying for the gospel to go out everywhere.
I am thankful for those in other parts of the world who have been praying for Ireland, unbeknownst to me, not only in historically Christian parts of the world, but in places like China, burdened for unreached Europe.
And I’m thankful that the good news of a Triune God, played out over all history across all peoples, is a wonderful corrector against individualistic activism done from a restless heart. This, of course, is the evangelicalism I grew up with. A deep-rooted, apostolic faith, founded on God and His words (in the scriptures) which gives us much strength as we live out our faith in light of His finished work on the cross and his intercession on our behalf, and as we act together as a Church on our knees. Will the young church scene here embrace it and grow to participate in that tradition, contextualised to Irish life today? We pray onwards.
It was a scary enough evening, that in all honesty, I had no intention of putting pen to paper to tell anyone about it on here. But as several friends later said to me – “Peter, sharing such a story may help an awful lot of people who are similarly ignorant as you.“
Ah friends, eh?! They know how to keep me humble. And so I write this for those who are willing to admit to being as ignorant as me, or for those who are more enlightened but still want a chuckle at just one of the times I’ve been involved with the emergency services in the past few weeks (don’t ask about the other ones).
Finally before we begin, I should probably give some form of minor trigger warning, for those erm, who’ve had bad experiences in nighttime in the woods. You might be better reading some other blog posts instead.
I’ve recently moved to Dublin or the “big schmoke” as I liked to call it. The biggest city I’ve ever lived in and the biggest in Ireland by about 10 times. Still, since I’ve moved here I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much green space exists everywhere and how close the Dublin hills are to the city.
In fact, I won’t lie, I didn’t even know there were Dublin hills, before moving to Dublin. And so as a mountain runner, I was thrilled. The perfect type of hills to play around in on an average weekend – big enough to gain respect but gentle enough slopes to be at least able to pretend to run up without stopping for ‘photo opportunities’ every few minutes.
And so week by week I’ve been venturing further to explore, as well as running with my weekly running club gatherings which happily have survived all but the latest (most strict) lockdown regulations. Not only does Dublin have the local hills and the Dublin Mountain Way, but they connect across the border into Wicklow to proper mountains and the more famous Wicklow Way – a well established trail with 131km of good paths and moderately good signposting.
I say moderately good signposting because it was that night that I found myself lost on the Wicklow Way, alone in the dark. (Since then, I’ve been told that the Wicklow Way actually has really good signposts everywhere, and that it was just not meant to be run alone in the dark without a map or any awareness of the route. But as I was alone in the dark without a map, I can assure you that this standard of measurement for defining whether somewhere is well signposted or not, was not useful to me. But I digress…)
It wasn’t the fact that I was lost that particularly bothered me. I knew the route back to the car, up 3km of winding trails through forests, along a few kilometres of relatively flat paths in the forests, and then down the other side for a few more kilometres into the valley and along the river to a bridge where my car was safely tucked up waiting for me, as the only car that hadn’t found a farmyard lane to park itself in, for miles around. It was the route I’d just traversed (in reverse) to get to where I was now (wherever that was). I also had all the supplies I could ever need – extra food and water; my (rather old) phone with GPS; another ‘brick’ mobile in case my other battery died; a headlight; a compass; extra clothing and also the knowledge that I’d told someone exactly where I was going (well, as exactly as I knew, which given how lost I was, was not very exact at all).
What bothered me, was what had happened just a few minutes before I realised I was lost. It was dusk, and darkness was falling quicker than lockdowns were being anounced in the city. The autumnal evening was getting cooler as the sun had long since set across the city. As I came down the winding trail through the forest, my legs still feeling relatively fresh after the seven kilometres of up and down across the rocky terrain, though I realised that for every step I took, I’d to take another back in the other direction. My goal was still a few kilometres away – the next section of the Wicklow Way that I hadn’t yet done – eminently doable on a pleasant evening. And a pleasant evening it was. However it was a goal I was sadly not going to reach that evening after all.
It was still light enough that I hadn’t yet turned on my headtorch to see the uneven trail infront of me, but with the forest encroaching on both sides and snuffling out the sight of any starry skies or the moon overhead, it was certainly getting towards the level of dark it would soon be needed. And so, quietly padding my way through the forest trail, the only thing that could be heard was the steady rhythm of my breath breathing in the sharp, cold air of the autumn night – in through my nose, out through my mouth – and the occasional tumbling rock, shifting underneath my weight as I moved further up and further along the path.
Although I had not seen anyone for over an hour, amidst the incredible feeling of freedom and of being alive, I also had become aware that I had some running partners in the woods alongside me. More nimble and lightfooted than me, they barely made any noise as they darted through the trees, sometimes in view, sometimes not, and waited further up the trail for me to catch up. Wild deer. Occasionally and gracefully gliding over the trail path at unexpected moments, barely touching the path before propelling themselves upwards back into the forest on the other side of the trail. They were my mentors in running. My support team on the night. If only I could bound over the mountains with the ease of the Stag before me. If only I could navigate the twists and surfaces of the terrain as nimbly as their feet could, without any perceived worry at all. I ran on with joy in my heart, eventually losing them (or perhaps they, losing me) but still caught up in the joy of their presence with me for the few kilometres they had been alongside.
It was much later though while still in such higher planes of ecstasy (that only those well versed in hill-running will know well), not shackled by any time I (or Strava) ought to be somewhere, that the presence of something else in the woods caught my attention quite abruptly.
Three shrieks rang out from the forest – as if someone (most likely a female from the voice) was under great duress.
I kept running, mentally doing gymnastics to try and figure what could be happening off to my left, deep in the woods. My breathing got heavier.
Perhaps I was closer to civilisation than I realised, and this was some teenagers fooling around in the woods?
Perhaps the spirit-worshipping witches and other such people were out in these parts of the Wicklows, just as they were on the Dublin hills, which have long had a history of witchcraft and dark spiritual forces?
I wasn’t sure, but most likely it was nothing, I supposed, and so I kept on running, in a slightly more disturbed mental state, not able to shrug off the thought of it, even as I found open wide, downhill slopes to enjoy as the path wound down towards a (very) minor road – one of the many in Ireland that are classified as two way roads, but perceivably couldn’t have anything more than motorbikes passing both directions.
At least the road gave me the idea that perhaps the deep woods were more accessible from another side – where whoever or whatever it was, had entered. One car sat parked at the side of the road, lights out, the bonnet not completely cold to touch, although it felt like whoever had parked there had been gone a fair while.
Although the shrieks haunted my mind, a more prominent problem emerged from the woods. I didn’t know where The Wicklow Way continued. I hadn’t seen any signposts for over a kilometre, and although I was fairly certain I took the main trail down the hill, there had been several cross-roads and paths that left it at various points. Hitting a minor road did not give me confidence, nor did the fact that this “car park” (not that you could really call it that) which had an information board at it, had nothing that mentioned the Wicklow Way, nor any arrows to point me onwards. Resigned that I may have missed an arrow in the dark further up the trail, I turned round to retrace my steps.
Taking a left further up, I hit a well worn grass trail and ran for another kilometre, passing the remnants of a camping spot and fire pit used by others before me, before turning left downhill into some more woods and soon coming to a dead end, fenced off by some private property of someone who doubtless lived on the minor track I had previously hit. There was nothing I could do apart from go back. And so I did.
Now not knowing whether or where I had missed the Wicklow Way markers, and still slightly unsure about what I had heard just 20 minutes before, I decided to just go back, finding myself on the main trail, which looked surprisingly different under the light of my headlamp, and surprisingly longer than I had remembered when running downhill the other way.
Coming back up the hill, my headlight bobbing with every step I padded, the shrieks came again loud and clear out of the depths of the forest for the second time. Three cries, again from the voice of a female.
Surely this was in response to seeing my headlight through the woods? Was it a cry for help? Should I phone the Gardai (Irish Police)?
I took stock of where I was. I was alone. In dark woods, miles from my car. I did not know the area well. I kept running, more for my own comfort of knowing I had energy aplenty to expend and to get beyond any immediate danger. I checked my phone – no reception. Should I have been confident enough to deem the situation an emergency, I probably should have risked my voice cutting through the silence of the forest as I phoned the emergency services (something you can sometimes do even with no signal – on another mobile network’s signal). Instead I ran on, unsure on what I was experiencing, and not willing to stop to take time to think.
Back through the flat of the forest trail I ran, with now no sign of my support team anywhere near me. Down into the valley, heart pounding at irregular speeds as I pushed onwards. And finally round the corner in to sight of farmyard lights in the distance, and into view of my little Volkswagen Up, tucked into the cleft of the bank by the river.
After a quick glance around me to check I was still alone, I got into the car, locking myself inside and forgetting to stretch. Safe at last. Irrationally still perturbed despite no evidence for miles now of anyone around me or anything wrong.
Winding round tight bends up country roads, soon I hit the main road and the lights of the city glowing overhead. In 30 minutes I was home.
But after recounting the story to my wife, she was alarmed. “Did you not ring the Gards yet?”
Still not 100% convinced on what I had just experienced, and aware it was now coming on over an hour and a half later, I phoned the Police station closest to where the incident occurred. Such stations I was to find out, are only open a few hours each day, and so I phoned the regional headquarters another half hour away.
Their response was remarkable. Believing my story to be of utmost importance, within minutes they had cars scrambled up to the minor track I had stumbled upon. But more than that, a heat-seeking helicopter unit was soon circling overhead above the woods (seen by friends who live at the end of the Wicklow Way), trying to see what was going on, if it wasn’t too late already. The search was on.
Forty-five minutes later, they called again to re-check some details of where on the trail I had heard the noises, and assured me that they had everyone out. That was the last I heard, as I left my phone on loudspeaker overnight incase they called again.
In the morning I kept an eye on the news to see if anything would be reported. But no, nothing at all.
In fact, it was another two days before I unexpectedly learnt more about the curious incident in the woods at nighttime. Given how disturbing such a story might be to people, in an otherwise very safe area, I decided to tell very few people. But my intrigue did lead my to quietly ask 3 people. And I’m very glad I did.
It was 10.30am on Saturday morning, just when the rest of Dublin is starting to awake from its slumber, but when some of us hill-runners had just finished our second run of the morning. Standing around in the car park afterwards (socially-distanced of course), contentedly tired, we were chatting as we stretched and enjoyed the fact that the rest of the weekend was still to come. Realising I was in a small circle of local people, all more experienced in the hills, I dared briefly recount what had happened to me on the Thursday before. Had they ever heard of the woods being misused by people up to no good? Is it safe? Could the two sets of skrieks just be coincidence as I passed the same point, or teenagers messing around miles from their home?
The circle went silent.
“Have you ever heard deer mating calls or a vixen?“
The simple question had me thinking.
No, no I hadn’t.
“Just go home and search the internet and see if it’s anything like you heard.”
And so commenced one of the strangest searches I have ever typed into my keyboard. But sure enough, a few searches yielded the unexpected results:
A vixen can sound very like a human screaming.
In fact, so much so that some other local young woman I’ve since recounted my story to, had called the Gards on something moving in her back garden which screamed too! And again, they had responded in force, keen to check that it wasn’t something horrific.
And so, I believe my curious incident in the woods at nighttime to have been solved. A sense of shame hangs over my head at the wasted resources of a Gardai helicopter search and the wild goose chase (or rather fox chase) that the officers will have been on that night. Goodness knows what came up on their heat-seeking equipment.
But a sense of pride also comes from knowing that our Police force in Ireland are willing to believe reports and act on danger, even at great cost. If it had been a human in danger (and there, to my knowledge has rarely if ever been any major incidents of such varieties along the Wicklow Way of such, despite many people running, walking and camping along the trails in the dark), they were well prepared to respond, for which I am exceedingly thankful.
So there it is. A curious incident in the woods at nighttime.
May we all know for next time you hear a human-like shriek in an unexpected place. Particularly for those of us who have foxes living in or near our garden like we do!
No-one ever admits they’re addicted to things. Just the way that no-one ever publicly admits to being lonely. Socially we don’t do that. I remember once confessing the fact that my heart was sometimes a little racist in some of my reactions in life. There was uproar at such a thought! There appear to be some things we are not allowed to admit. The ultimate sins of the age.
And then there are the things everyone is addicted to, so we don’t even call it addiction. Checking our phone notifications or social media (probably many times per hour for those with iPhones/androids). Sadly for our culture, even watching porn probably comes into this category – many we know in our society would struggle to stop.
But how can we tell if we’re addicted to travel? How do we know if it has gripped our hearts more than Jesus? I was caused to think through this questions by a recent article I read online:
People not only paying for flights that don’t go anywhere (return to the same destination as they leave), but paying to eat aeroplane food, on a stationary aeroplane! Now given the fact that most aeroplane food is atrocious, and some might want to pay to not receive it, this bizarre phenomenon must be explained by other reasons. Why would people pay sums of money to eat on a stationary plane?
Well obviously because they miss that aeroplane experience. They are so used to flying, or dreaming of what the conitation of flying evokes in their memories and desires, that being back within the shell of a plane, even if it doesn’t go anywhere, is worth the cost of the food alone. No one pays large sums for plane food by choice. People pay for what their hearts crave for – the feeling of freedom that travel gives – the longing for the ‘normal’ to return.
Now admittedly, in these weird times, one could pay for the novelty of such things, even when one has no attachment to travel at all, but it is unlikely. So is anyone who steps on that plane addicted to travel?
Our trouble with this is that we can justify away anything. Our hearts are fantastic at the “justification game” – making up excuses to justify our behaviour and claim that it is acceptable, even moral. And on the other hand, we also love to point at other people and declare them to be at fault (in this case, addicted to travel) based on our preconceived and cultural notions of what is healthy and what is not.
So I’d want to be careful in my broad brush-stroking everyone who does a certain thing, with an assumed heart motive. But at the same time it got me thinking. What would signify that my heart was addicted to travel?
when I spend more money on pleasure travel than I give to world mission in a year?
when I go into debt or borrow to finance my travels?
when I can’t give to some sustainable project in a place I’m visiting because I’ve budgeted every last bit of money to suit my travels/needs?
when my bucket list dominates how I spend my annual leave or my free time?
when my friends say they don’t see me much because I’m away travelling all the time?
when I turn down helping on a Saturday night rota or Sunday in church because I am hoping to be away weekends?
when my social media feed causes me to long for travel more than praise the God who made travel?
when I’m more aware of the travel destinations or tourist attractions in a country than I am aware of the state of God’s people (the Church) in that country, or the great needs of the country?
when I seek to justify my travels by using mission, visiting people or short-term volunteer projects as an excuse?
when I don’t act to counter the ethical affects that my travels have on the environment and on the most impoverished in the countries I visit?
when I don’t have the energy or heart to regularly serve a local community of believers in some ways each week? (whether formally or informally)
when I don’t have the energy or heart to regularly reach out to local unbelieving community each week?
when I think of this period as the ‘waiting time’ before real life returns?
when I relish saving lots of money over this period (from not eating out, not travelling, not spending much) because it means I can travel far more for my own pleasure in future?
when I long for travel to return more than I long for Jesus’ return?
when I start paying for meals on stationary planes?!
Now don’t get me wrong. This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it a perfect list. You may object to some of my questions and may do so rightly (though I’d be interested to hear from you which ones). You may also think I haven’t touched on some areas which we could ask questions about (please do send your heart-revealing questions in!). But even for those who have started working in the travel industry (as travel bloggers or otherwise), I hope these questions are still fair ones to ask.
This also is not primarily meant to be a list to spiritually beat you up, make you feel bad about your faith and demand you do more good stuff to make up for it. But if you feel really bad, or even feel a bit angry at me writing such a list, I might suggest that perhaps it has touched a sore point in our hearts where we realise we may fall short on an awful lot of these suggested things! We don’t need to be addicted to travel, for us to feel the increasing tug of it on our hearts day by day. Could this be a time to take stock and re-orientate our hearts towards the God who made travel?
The good news, is that the response is better than simply taking a pledge to abstinence. You are not required to sign up to a Travel-holics Anonymous class. You don’t have to bathe in shame for the foreseeable future either.
“If we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
(1 John 1:9)
In coming to Jesus as creator of travel and asking him to help us glimpse the his goodness and the One who is transforming it all under His good rule and reign towards a new heavens and earth one day, our hearts can be captured by infinitely better dreams than anything travel could give us.
Now to help us see this, and to help us see Jesus’ good news for our lives as “an easy yoke” and “a light burden”, you may still find it easier to grab a close friend in church and chat through your struggles or questions with them, and let them help you establish perspectives and patterns in your life which help re-orientate your heart to an infinitely bigger and better gospel than the gospel of travel (alone) can ever provide.
And why not do it now, while we have time to think during Covid and when we realise how unsatisfying living for travel is, during this season?
It’s why we need to talk about travel, at the time it seems most silly to talk about travel – when no travel can happen.
This is a continuation of my reflections on my 7 years in Munster (Ireland) working with IFES. You can find part 1 here. This post is part book-review, part reflection – perhaps a bit of an unusual combination for anyone else but me, who does quite a bit of my reflection through reading, and quite a bit of my work while also selling/giving away hundreds of books.
It was the summer before moving to Cork after my Relay internship in Nottingham, and I had a whole 2 months to spend as I wished. My new employer (Christian Unions Ireland) suggested that I don’t pack my summer madly full of teams and exhaust myself before such a big transition, but I still think I found a few weeks to co-lead a Beach Mission team for the first time in Tramore, County Waterford. What was one to do with the remainder of time?
Well, an invitation came up from a Cambridge University lecturer to chauffeur a visiting family, prominent in evangelical circles in America. Having not driven a car since passing my test, many years before, my desire to meet this family, and to live alongside them in a 5 star lifestyle for a week or two, outweighed any common sense that would have said no. And so there I was. Many travel stories could be told about those weeks, but as this is a book review, I better get to my point. At the end of that holiday I was sent a book by the family “A hill on which to die” by a Southern Baptist evangelical man who had stood strongly against liberalism in the church and had fought to swing the denomination back from error, by holding out the Bible as the inspired word of God.
If the account contained in that book was anything near the truth, I could be very thankful for such a stand of truth made in challenging and bitter circumstances, even if I did not always agree on the spirit in which the battles were fought – but who am I to know how I would behave in such heated years of debate and political gameplay?
It made me think a lot about what was worth spending my life on. There are so many good causes clamouring for our attention that affect millions of people. There were about to be many things I could spend my time and energy on, in a region which didn’t have much student work and still (despite much growth) only had a young and fledgling church scene.
Some groups that year would try and persuade me that creationism (6 day creation) was worth going to the stake for. Because if one loses that, they said, one loses the very trustworthiness of the scriptures.
Some individuals that year would try and persuade me that Luther was completely wrong to have a theology of the cross, and that a theology of glory (abundant miracles, over-realised eschatology etc.) could be radically different to that of the cross and still be the perfect way to walk as a Christian.
That was also the year that settling in a Baptist Church also meant I couldn’t become a member and have any voting rights or part in the leadership of the church, as I was a Presbyterian by conviction. Should I be baptised, just because they wouldn’t have me in? Or did I have to go to the Presbyterian Church or set one up anywhere I went in life?
Soon in my time, I was being labelled an egalitarian (in terms of the role of women in church life), simply because I spent time discipling and investing in women and making sure they had opportunity to grow in Bible handling and exercising their gifts in various ways. Similar assumptions were later made about my (lack of) trust in the Holy Spirit, as I had not been ‘baptised of the Spirit’ in the way a second-blessing charismatic might be happy with, and so I was assumed to be devoid of true spirituality.
Sadly even recently, it was me who jumped very quickly on things that a pastor wrote on social media, not understanding his friends or the context into which he was writing, and instead sensing an opportunity for my heresy heron to find something to publicly challenge.
And for every hard story, there have been encouragements and much grace shown to me. My Baptist church in Cork who (although denying me membership) let me lead a homegroup at times, preach in the church, shape the evangelism strategy at points and lead services regularly. And having been invited to lecture at a Pentecostal (Nigerian) Bible College for a few days, it was the organisers who persuaded the students to listen to me, despite me not having been baptised of the spirit at a second point in life (post-conversion) – that was a secondary issue, according to them – I had all I needed for life and Godliness already. And even those who would try to persuade me that creationism was an essential doctrine, would let my agnosticism (along with firm convictions on God’s word and God having created out of nothing) in to their fold in the end.
And these are just a few of the theological positions that one is encouraged to have strong views on. I am thankful that I have been nurtured in a gospel church all my life (in Belfast, Nottingham and Cork) that valued Godly character perhaps even more than agreement on secondary beliefs. I have been raised in a family where listening to diverse opinions on non-central issues was encouraged and demonstrated – where holding various beliefs in tension was not a problem. The heritage of Christianity that I have been brought up with, and the warm gospel heart of grace it came with, has let me explore theology and drink of the deepest wells and most profound literature. It has left me able to spend hours, days, weeks, even months exploring some debated topics, and even then not always coming to firm conclusions straight off. “If I just read this one more book, then I’ll make up my mind…” went my line of thought normally. One book later, I was often just as perplexed!
Of course when jousting with the world’s experts (or at least watching them joust, thinking I am gallantly riding in with them!) on topics that I am reading about for the first time, it is not a surprise that I was not immediately able to see a clear position to take on some of these issues. But I have appreciated the chance to wrestle for years with these topics and gradually increase my convictions on where I stand on many things.
But I am a rare case (in many ways, you might say). Not many have such theological resources at their fingertips (in English and in wealth). Not many spend years delving into finer points of theological nuance, before they have to make decisions in order to get on with life.
It is into this that Gavin Ortlund writes, and writes fantastically.
What is a primary issue? What is a secondary issue? Do secondary issues matter? What is a tertiary issue? Do some theological truths change from being one level to another level depending on circumstance? What churches ought to put aside differences and unite? What theological truths are important enough to be wiser to stay apart?
Gavin comes from an unashamedly reformed position (not that it is obvious throughout the book), though interestingly has found himself outside of normal denominational parameters in the convictions he has reached on various points. He therefore is a good sparring partner and hopes to get us flexing our theological muscles and our generous spirit, rather than agreeing with him on everything he believes!
He helps us firm our convictions on some major points (he follows Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, amongst other things) but is beautifully experiential in realising that not everyone can state theology or understand theological statements on primary issues, yet may still believe them in their heart (quoting John Owen and others on that topic). But on other points he aims to persuade us that there are more grounds for diverse views within a faithful church that many of use care to believe or practice on a day to day basis.
His work was a rare gem on a topic I rarely see tackled, that fits perfectly into one of the great strengths of the Christian Union movement in Ireland (and IFES beyond) where the Doctrinal Basis that speakers and committees are asked to sign-up to, is as broad as the gospel allows on primary issues, but as narrow as the gospel demands also. Figuring out what is primary and what is secondary (or tertiary) is indeed what every young leader spends a lot of time wrestling with. Some need to stop being heresy hunters in every meeting. Others need to learn to take a stand against theological error (even at the expense of friendships and other costly things) that will destroy God’s people long-term if it is allowed to persist.
But beyond the CUs this book is one that is hugely needed too. As the Presbyterian Church in Ireland perceivably go to loggerheads with each other over whether female leadership is a primary or secondary issue, as the Association of Baptists in Ireland recently debated at a leadership gathering whether to let paedobaptists like me into membership, and as the Church of Ireland and Methodist Church in Ireland face battles against liberalism, this topic is a timely one. Not to mention the need to increase theological conviction in many within the new independent and charismatic churches in Ireland, and the increasing secularism in the north which will mean unless similar church denominations agree collectively on a strategy to shut (and plant) churches, many resources will be wasted and the Church will suffer at the hands of reluctant denominational committees, all holding out on their precious secondary (and tertiary) beliefs, unwilling to budge.
The awkward thing is, that when one starts to realise how much of the gospel is of primary importance, and how much we hold dear is actually just cultural or tertiary beliefs, one starts to realise that one has spent an awful lot of life living ungenerously towards others, choosing to not love them well, by not seeking to better understand them and their position.
And indeed it can be one of the greatest blessings of travel too. It opens one’s eyes to the whole world, to vastly different cultures, and to the persecuted church. And when one sees with new eyes, with the voice of the persecuted church in one ear, and the many Unengaged People Groups in the other ear, it is very hard to start fighting theological battles constantly over minutia of doctrine that don’t appear all that central in scripture.
But without leaving Munster, I am indebted to several (unofficial) mentors, who demonstrated several principles to me so well and bore with my naïve understanding of this topic with incredible grace:
Is what you are opposing really what the other person believes? Is your articulation of their belief the fairest or most generous account you could give of it?
Is this the hill upon which to die?
Am I the person who ought to do this?
Is this the right time?
Is this the best spirit in which this can be done?
Perhaps two small areas which I felt Gavin (in a marvelous book) could have spent a bit longer on:
How God has sovereignly used mistake after mistake, mis-emphasis upon mis-emphasis, to still bring about his good purposes in this world
The difference between heresy and mistaken belief (or convictionally being different on a secondary issue)
The first is as much because I feel the weight of it on my own heart – what glorious grace that has brought me to where I am, and what grace I will need to go any further. The second perhaps because the word “heresy” is chucked around an awful lot, when we actually mean “if he were to continue in that belief and not hold it in tension with other doctrines, one would logically be heading down a path to heresy”. Such ultra-logical frameworks often over-exaggerate the way someone arrives at convictions in life, but sometimes can be helpful to perceive where something could lead.
But having promised my wife (recently married) that I’ll sell some of my books, and having lost my student audience to loan and sell second-hand books to, I feel bad to say that I think I may buy five copies and give them away. But I really might. This one is just so helpful.
Whether you’re a ParkRun fanatic, a Couch-to-5k starter, a pavement pounder or a trail-runner, we all run for a reason. Much as it may be rumoured that I run off jelly-babies, for me as a trail-runner here’s my story why I think joy is the best fuel for running, and what gives me that fuel.
Fuel yourself with joy Running at its best ought to be inherently joyful. ‘Why would you get up from the sofa and put yourself through the pain of exercise?‘ many ask. For the joy that comes from it and through it, would be my reply.
Many will testify that guilt is a bad motivator (Paul O’Connell’s rugby biography being one) and fear too (as rock-climber Alex Honnold discusses with psychologists here). But there’s an endorphin rush you experience deep inside you after you’ve finished that gives you a ‘bounce’ for the rest of the day (even if you’re tired). There’s a delight in the achievement of what you have just done. The thrill of feeling free as you arrive at the peak of a mountain ridge, or stick in the earphones to run and forget the day’s worries. But what about when we feel more drudgery than joy? When we see the next unbearable slope ahead, or after the brief moment of elation on the podium has passed?
Our trouble often is that we think that habit or duty is the antithesis of joy. So as soon as we don’t feel like something, or think it’s too hard work, we give up. Those first few weeks of starting running. Those weeks you seem to be plateauing and not going anywhere. Those days you look at the weather outside and just couldn’t be bothered.
But joy is more than a feeling we get when we muster up a good performance or work hard for all to see on Strava. Such joy would be very short-lived and not a good fuel for running, let alone the rest of life.
Could there be a more deep-seated joy within us that gives us energy even in injury, mental doubts and hard times?
Listen to your body It’s what has turned many to find greater purposes to generate joy within themselves. Are you running to get away from the problems and worries of work or to escape for a few hours from a relationship going through a rough patch? Are you running to prove to yourself that you can reach the goals that you aim for? Are you running to keep your body or mind in shape?
Many internal reasons motivate many of us, as we search for the joy to run inside of ourselves. And as we do so, the phrase “listen to your body” becomes a repeated mantra in many circles. Physically and mentally this can be liberating advice. Instead of being chained to training regimes, this gives the freedom to realise when we need to slow down, or when we can push ourselves more. Instead of choosing to try to push our body beyond actual pain in training, we can stop and think why we’re feeling pain and how to combat it.
But like many things in life, “listen to your body” alone won’t get you anywhere. We often deceive ourselves to what we are capable of (either not pushing hard enough or pushing too hard), we don’t understand our body to the extent we think we do, we don’t have the time to be an expert in everything in order to flourish as a runner, or quite simply, we don’t have motivation within ourselves at many times in life. True joy can still escape us.
Running unites And for when looking inside and listening to our body doesn’t do the job, many of us have turned to running communities to help us. ParkRun (local 5k runs once a week in a local park, run by the community, for the community) has exploded across many areas to the extent that there are more people wanting to do it than some parks can host!
Others join running clubs that cater for all standards. Many of these have been able to keep meeting, even with tighter Covid restrictions. What better than to have a weekly rhythm to motivate you and give you people to provide some kind of accountability and support? What about people with huge experience in running alongside you to help when niggles start, or someone who knows what you’re going through mentally, to spur you on?
I find that running unites me with people who I never would have thought about hanging out with before. Something about persevering in hard miles together, side by side, is the perfect way to see each other as fellow humans and to help each other out, even if you have radically different backgrounds or thoughts about life and politics.
Someone could be your enemy at work 9 til 5, but when met out in the mountains, they become a fellow runner. We’ve even seen it in the Refugee Team at the Olympics. Running can unite.
And it can unite us even to the extent many runners realise how it even mimics religious communities. #sundaychurch is a hashtag not altogether uncommon around those who head out for their long run on Sunday mornings, or #parkrunfamily for those who embrace the ParkRun community week by week. It’s a beautiful joy, that the lone runner (although accessing more freedom and flexibility) will struggle to ever replicate in any meaningful way.
The trail is unknown
But ultimately the unity brought by running communities and the wisdom of listening to our bodies is still not where joy can be truly found to fuel us for our running. I myself have learnt the hard way but many others have had similar hard lessons.
I was up running in the Dublin hills not so long ago, and found myself taking a “wrong” turn and losing track of the lead group. I slowed down to see if anyone was following close behind, and sure enough one runner soon caught up with me. As we ran for the next hour together, sometimes in silence (going up the hard slopes!) and sometimes chattering away about everything in life, it soon became evident that our stories overlapped to some small amount, even if he was a 50 year old Dad, and I was only just 30.
There was a day he feared, when the track would run out, and the community would die. A day when listening to his body would do no good. He told it in two ways.
The first was of a friend of his, one of the fittest people he knew. Jumping in the waves on a beach in Wexford with his daughter, he felt his leg snap when he landed on the soft sands of the beach. Somehow, he’d developed brittle bones, and his femur had just snapped. Brittle bones which would plague him for the rest of his life and make even the simplest of things hard. The running community would gather round him to help for his time in hospital and for many weeks, but after the news grew old, he was left alone, no longer fitting into the club that were once his family.
Dramatic as that sounds, this story was echoed in the man’s own life. During Covid, as fit as a fiddle, but suddenly developing a bad case of gout, becoming bedridden and unable to perform many functions in normal family life for weeks on end. The loneliness and lack of purpose was palpable for him.
This story, was also previously mine (with a different condition) which had me in Intensive Care in hospital for several days, having only just come from enjoying a few days running in the Mourne Mountains before that.
Ultimately listening to our bodies in any of these instances wouldn’t have helped – we either couldn’t have told what lay ahead or didn’t recognise the signs. Ultimately the running community could only do so much, before we were left outside the weekly gatherings. Ultimately, joy again would be snatched from us, if we had placed it within ourselves or within our communities.
Could there yet be a runner’s paradise from where could flow a joy that would transcend even these fairly unalterable problems? Or are we as runners just on a lottery, investing our joy like eggs in many baskets, in the hope they won’t all be snatched from us?
It’s something scary to most people, that they don’t want to think about. But for me, I want to find a fountain for my joy that will not run dry during hard times, even when the tears come. A joy that is more durable than most surface-level emotions. A joy that will fuel me when no mountain ridges are mine to run along, when no friends are there to support me, and when nothing inside of me (whether self-knowledge or self-motivation) could keep me going.
And that logically for me, could only be found in the transcendent – outside of this world. A joy given to us by something or someone outside of ourselves.
For me, I’ve met One who claims to have made us to enjoy running, and also has made our playground of the mountains to explore. One who removes guilt and fear, and helps us respond in joy to all He has done for us. One who would give us more self-knowledge than we could ever muster ourselves alone. One who gives us a united community (Church) more inclusive than any running club. And one who knows every turn of the track, and can be there with us and for us even in the moments that ought not to happen – the tragedies of this world. Knowing and experiencing Him, is a fountain of joy that fuels all other things in life, running included.
As I come to the end of 8 years working in an official capacity with Christian Unions (as staff worker, team leader and then part-time project manager for Christian Unions Ireland), and 12 in CU ministry of one sort or another (including my uni years and Relay internship), I’ve been deeply impacted and changed over this period. Doubtless for the worse in some ways, but hopefully for the better in far more. Although the EQUIP festival (now largely online) for hundreds of Irish students was a final ‘hurrah’ for me which left me busy till the last day of contracted working hours, I have been acutely aware over the last few months of a need to reflect on these years, to learn from them, and to give thanks to God for all He has done, both in me, through the student-led mission teams on campus (CUs) and also through my weak and fragile witness.
Doubtless, even for my own reflection, I may well write a few blog posts to help me process some of these years as what would have been known as a ‘travelling secretary’, and to amplify stories of God’s grace that may not have been heard in a remarkable era for the Irish Church. [To those who are here for only travel reflections, I apologise for the short detour – but perhaps it will give you a flavour of what God is doing in another part of the world]
To be around during these years in Munster and Connacht, has been a privilege that I don’t think I’ll fully comprehend. In the early days, any time I came home frustrated, weary or in tears and phoned my parents (without whose support I could not have done this job), I was reminded of the big picture – not only the big eternal picture of the gospel, but the big picture of where God has taken Ireland from in recent history.
Perhaps only 45-50 years ago, when Mum lived in Munster, a gathering of all the self-identifying evangelical (Bible believing) Christians in Munster may have only filled one hall of a church in Cork (albeit of course there are many who believe outside of those who self-identify as this). Now, in the same city, the several thousand who worship week by week in evangelical churches are constantly hunting new premises in the city as they overflow in number on a regular basis, and grow in depth and maturity. And that’s not to mention across the region.
Of course more gloomy pictures could be painted. Numbers do not mean true Biblical, deep, historical belief, and many have been burnt by the immaturity of the young and rapidly growing church scene we see today. As well, the Ireland of today that is steeped in Judaeo-Christian ethics and framework (albeit some of it horrendously applied in ways that we are glad to move on from), is rapidly trying to recover from some of that abusive ‘Christian’ past and seems to lack foundation for where to go. The effects of this on the days to come will be harrowing and deep, depending on what directions are taken. But at the moment it does not look promising.
In addition, one senior figure on the university campuses (an academic) would instead say that this is a wearying time of moving heavy stones off the fields, before any sowing (of God’s Word) is possible (humanly speaking). Doubtless both perspectives have great truth in them. As a culture departs from the good rhythms that God has set up for the world to flourish, there will be painful days of reaping consequences. And as that non-Judaeo-Christian system embeds itself into the fabric of society and into the air we breathe, there will be far more to “undo” before humanly speaking there is any chance of reciprocity of the good news of Jesus.
Holding gospel tensions may be one thing during my staff years that I have learnt is essential to the Christian walk. For two things may at first appear contradictory, but yet still be completely possible to both be completely true.
And that’s the way I came to what I have been privileged to call my “job”. I hesitantly stated in my early years of working, holding that tension in this way – I thought Ireland was ripe for the gospel for a short window of opportunity, perhaps a decade or two (humanly speaking), before a stoic-pagan fusion (or whatever follows – most definitely different to the secular trajectory of other neighbouring European countries) took over more fully.
You can decide whether such an outlook was accurate or whether such optimism was naïve (perhaps reading far too much into the years I would be around serving) but I would hesitate to rebuke my younger self completely for such analysis now (perhaps I have repeated it too many times to myself!). The power of God to use the vacuum in Irish society post-Catholicism to His glory was not to be underestimated. The temporary nature of thousands coming to know Him, will be proved true or false in due course, but may already be somewhat evident in the slowing of such a church growth rate (amongst native Irish) in Dublin, where faster shifting from a Judaeo-Christian framework has taken place (than outside of Dublin). For although God is of course free to work outside of human constraints and circumstance (and delights in doing so at times), the regular pattern in history seems to be of Him using such human circumstances by His Spirit.
Regardless of analysis (for which we can spend hours debating and which will doubtless be affected by our eschatology and personality amongst other things), it was those early days that in my first article for the CUI Irish Prayer News, I wrote of a desire to reflect God’s heartbeat for all peoples, that the CUs would soon be in a place where every student could get a chance to hear and respond to the gospel of the Lord Jesus, faithfully spoken and lived out by their fellow students. That prayer got people chuckling when I first arrived in Cork. “Who does this guy think he is? He’ll soon find out how far off that reality we are” some were heard to quietly say. Yet thankfully the same voices often were the ones who joined me in praying bold prayers for the campuses – our God can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.
Of course, for this to happen, it would need far more than a quick evangelism lesson and weekly splurge on campus. Convictions deep inside of us would need changed. A full-bodied ‘good news’ would need to take shape in far more than just our evangelistic zeal. Our hearts, often so comparatively cold to the love that God has for the world, would need warmed by His love until a flickering reflection was visible in every area of life – academic study (9am lectures!), social life (midnight mischief!) and church community (including being sent on to campus to reach out) – to mention just a few. Particularly, a young, restless and arrogant staffworker, would need humbled and reminded that God was not in the job of using supposed ‘heroes’ who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
The stories and thoughts that follow (in future blog posts) will echo some of how I’ve seen God to be more kind in answering that prayer of early days, than I could imagine. But will sadly also tell of one (writing) who learnt the hard way that God does not need any individual to be a hero, but blesses ordinary people and calls them to enjoy glimpsing His hand at work in the world through His Church.
All things written of course should be held lightly, given how limited my perspective is, and how much history will tell whether seeds sown bear long-term fruit that lasts when Jesus returns. But none-the-less, I do want to share a perspective to tell of His goodness, that the Church may rejoice all the more in our God of the gospel.
It seems appropriate to end this first reflection with the words of one student who asked me a question:
“Peter, why do you think God seems to be doing so little in Cork and on campus these days?”
To which I could only smile, knowing that they were only one of numerous students to have come to faith that term (a few years ago now) on that one campus, and knowing how God had used such young believers to go on to reach hundreds, if not thousands of other students with the good news of Jesus through their leadership of the Christian Union. Not to mention the comparatively recent explosion of the Irish church in size.
That spiritual hunger in the heart of that student (and many others) to see the glory of God, manifested in people responding to the person of Jesus as He walks off the pages of the Scriptures, by the power of the Spirit, was one I would never want to quench. And that hunger I hope informs these stories too – no matter what imperfect analysis of the past I do, I pray that it will not quench a great expectancy for more as we look ahead and are brought to our knees to pray for God’s people in Munster (and Connacht), both those who follow Him now, those who will follow Him, and those that will be One with Him and each other because of the latter’s witness too.
(Spending 5 years opening John’s eyewitness acount of Jesus’ life on a regular basis with students and staff, made passages like John 17 an even richer feast to enjoy!)
[Please excuse the break in blogging for the last month – I’ve been taking a hiatus from time online, partly as I settle into a new city/country/marriage/church, and partly as we’ve no WiFi yet at home. Reflections from the last month, on the last 8 years in Ireland are to follow. However I’m delighted to keep connecting with others who have a passion for Jesus, who have found themselves travelling His world and loving every second of it. Here Hannah Rasmussen (Kenya) shares a some reflections flowing from her studies of bi-cultural characters in the Bible:]
We often think of travel as a choice expressing independence. Gap years. Young adults on backpacking adventures. Exotic beach vacations. Travel has been idealized as a coming-of-age experience or luxury for those who can afford it.
But what about when travel is forced? Whether moving as a child, facing closed borders, or fleeing armed conflicts, there are many times travel can be outside our control. What about when you feel stuck where you don’t want to be instead of free to go where you’d rather be?
What about when you feel stuck where you don’t want to be instead of free to go where you’d rather be?
This has become the reality for many people during the COVID pandemic. People were stranded en route to their destination or locked down where they didn’t know anyone. Refugees’ and immigrants’ visas were stalled. International students wondered where they would live. Family members wondered when they would be reunited.
Travel was often forced in the Bible, too. Joseph was a trafficking victim. Moses ran away from Egypt as a fugitive. Daniel was taken into Babylonian captivity. Paul’s travel plans changed due to shipwreck, persecution, and imprisonment. Jesus’s first trips were in utero for a census decreed by one ruler and then fleeing another ruler’s massacre.
Where is God in the “bad” travel?
These characters might well have asked that question. I doubt they ever truly felt at home where they were (Hebrews 11:13-16). They weren’t readily accepted; Joseph and Moses were neither Hebrew nor Egyptian. Daniel was trying to be devout serving a government who wanted to erase his identity and replace it with a culture infamous for sorcery. Paul was a diaspora Jew, Roman citizen, and Gentile-loving former Pharisee. And Jesus must have been lonely knowing his home was with a Father no one could see (Luke 2:49, John 14:8-10).
But these biblical characters believed, as we must, that God is right where we are, wherever we are. As Psalm 139 reminds us, even when we feel out of place or abandoned, there is nowhere we can go from his Spirit, whether in outer space or undersea, east to the sunrise or on the far side of the ocean. Nothing can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39).
Instead of bemoaning their ill fate, these biblical examples trusted God. They chose to learn about and adapt to the place they found themselves, without losing their identity or faith. They all experienced rejection, but they kept identifying with “those people” anyway. They followed the advice Jeremiah gave the exiles when they found themselves in a place they didn’t want to be: to settle in, pray for, and “seek the peace and prosperity” of Babylon (Jeremiah 29:4-7). They didn’t realize it, but by doing so they positioned themselves to be used by God right where they were.
“Bloom where you’re planted” may sound cliché. But if we believe in a God sovereign over our botched visas and cancelled conferences, he may have a reason for planting us just where we are.
In fact, God may be planting us there for a harvest. These biblical examples each ended up playing huge roles in God’s mission. Because they had adapted to their new contexts without letting go of their original culture or faith, they ended up communicating between parties as mediators. Joseph revealed God’s plan to Pharaoh and saved Israel from starvation. Through Moses traveling back to Egypt and then through a wilderness, God displayed his power to all nations and led Israel to create a new culture in a new land. Still in exile, Daniel’s interpretation ended up in empire-wide proclamation of God’s reign. Through both Paul’s persecuted travels and his restricted movement in prison, he communicated the inclusion of the Gentiles to both them and to Jewish Christians. And Jesus traversed great barriers, first of incarnation and then of death and hell, to reconcile God and humanity.
None of these people could have achieved their mission in God’s kingdom if they had not been forced out of their comfort zone. To be effective, they had to keep identifying with their captors, their betrayers, and their persecuted minority groups. Not only did they go, they also stayed faithful and stayed long enough to become a bridge.
How does this apply to us?
You may not have time to learn a new language or marry into a local family where you’re stuck at the moment. I certainly hope you won’t be in exile or separated from family for years.
But perhaps being stuck is the time to ask ourselves if there’s anything we’re trying to escape when we travel: our own destructive habits, our unkept promises, the relationships we’d rather run from than reconcile. Moses accepted his calling by travelling back to messy relationships and his worst insecurities. Paul and Jesus walked into persecution knowingly. If our travel is motivated by fear, we’re not following in their footsteps. If we crave an adventurous escapade, maybe we can bravely confront what’s got us spiritually stuck.
Or perhaps we might think of small ways we can be present where we’re placed. Instead of spending all our time reconnecting with faraway friends via Zoom calls, perhaps it’s time to go on a walk with the neighbour. Perhaps we read up on the history of our town or find out who is stranded far from home in our city.
If we believe God is always on the move, this dislocation may just be part of his mission for the nations.
For those of you who regularly follow along on here, you’ll perhaps be surprised to hear that there’s still very few people talking about faith and travel. Although we’ve had the rise of the Christian Travelers’ Network from the States, the River Communities worldwide, and other smaller groups across the globe, the conversation as it stands, hasn’t progressed a huge amount yet.
With Covid19, does it really matter?
That’s a question I’ve been given a few times in rhetorical form recently, with people stating that travel does not matter at all, and that such pandemics focus us on what really matters. But with all due respect to those ‘asking the question’, I want to propose that it does indeed matter. And it matters a lot.
Yes, Covid19 would take away travel for a few months, but already countries have opened up their borders again, yearning for economic freedom via tourism. Already, thousands have been counting down the days til they could book flights again (days which have now past, with many having booked their first trips already). And already, measures to circumnavigate the Covid restrictions, have been thought about ten times over. Travel is not disappearing for now, even if many travel companies and airlines, went under. New ones will soon pop up to replace them.
In fact, until collective responsibility for things like the environment, sing sweeter songs than the freedom of individualism, I could imagine that the dream of travel will always remain with us. What a 3 month break did, was allow the traveller some time to regroup, reflect on past travel experiences, and tweak the plan for the journey ahead. For if Alain de Botton is to be believed, part of the travel experience is heightened, by the suspense of the build-up to it, not to mention the kindling of the fond memories of past trips, reminiscing of great days.
The traveller’s delight is not just in feeling the warm rays hitting our skin as we lie in pools of Caribbean sun, but in finding ourselves again loitering in such places, long after we have left, still seemingly enjoying the same rays conjured up by nothing more than the longing heart resting again on an Instagram photo, a firmly lodged memory or a sensual experience brought back up from deep within us where we hide our pleasurable moments we don’t want to release.
So it was with great joy that I found two Australians realising that this is precisely the time we must talk about travel, while we are in a time of reflection, analysing and planning. In fact, there is no better time, before our travel pulses start to beat at an uncontrollable rate, leading us to take off again across borders and boundaries.
“This is precisely the time we must talk about travel”
And in most situations that I’m heavily invested, most topics which my emotions are aroused and most times in life when I’m going through something evocative, I’m not in a good place to take a step back and see things through an accurate lens of whether it is doing me any good, or whether I indeed am falling far short of what I was called to be or do. I’m too invested in certain outcomes.
And so despite the yearnings for travel of this Covid season, and despite the warm fondness in which I scroll Instagram, I still think it is this season that will allow us talk about travel in a far more constructive way than before.
How will we re-build the travel industry in healthier forms?
How can we make countries less dependent on our (somewhat colonial) travel?
How can we make the most of travel, in God’s eyes?
Are there sweeter songs we can dance to, than the travel songbook can provide alone?
Are there patterns of life or of our hearts, that the last 3 months have challenged or revealed?
[These two other Christians in Australia who I mentioned, joined in engaging with the topic of travel during these days. They too, saw no better time than the present to open up our hearts and see what we’re missing out on. Catch Michael Jensen (Anglican) and Megan Powell Du Toit (Baptist) on the “With All due Respect” podcast here, interviewing SMBC lecturer Stephen Liggins about the topic here.]
Fancy using these next months to think about travel?
The lockdown period has been different for everyone. Even different for the same person on different days. How easy it is to know that the gospel should give us perspective in all of this. Yet how hard to bear that in mind when our world collapses in on itself and we feel stuck in a rut.
Some days I’ve felt capable to try new things, to imaginatively create new patterns of life and to grow in godliness. Other days one is satisfied if a half-day of work has been done and one is able to fall asleep trusting a sovereign God, looking forward to better days!
But there are opportunities to look outwards and upwards, that may help us as well as grieving what we have lost. The road ahead could be hard for churches – social distancing will make things hard, and even when we have social distancing, it still appears we may not be able to have congregational singing for a while, if our recommendations are anything like other nations. The volume of air projected out of us when singing is bound to be different to when we’re sitting quietly apart from each other. For those longing to get back to congregational singing, this will be a painful realisation.
But its been encouraging to hear of one church in Italy who are seeing opportunity in this adversity. An adversity, I must add, that is not unique to this season for the worldwide Church – many settings will not be able to belt out Christian anthems together, due to fear of being reported by Police (secret or otherwise).
Rather than campaign for us to be allowed our rights far quicker (which may be questionable health-wise), or having people focus on the vacuum that is left by not singing (or for that matter, disobeying potential guidelines and singing anyway), this church have decided to do something positive:
Learn a new language
What?! How is that replacing singing? And why on earth would one expect a whole congregation to learn a new language? Isn’t that a bit unrealistic?
Well, a church near Turin have decided that they can sing congregationally, if they use sign language! Perhaps “learning a new language” is a bit of an over-statement. I’m guessing it’s learning some basic words from a simple song or two, or perhaps a chorus that can be repeated. And before anyone tells us that they could never do that, let me suggest that we learn plenty of similarly big things as whole churches, without batting an eyelid. What a humbling thing that brings parent, child and single person onto an even footing as we learn things together – in fact, I would fancy the chances of the young ones being far better at this than we are! What joy!
Here’s 3 other ways I think they’re on to something!
We can raise awareness of some of the neediest communities in the world for the gospel. You see, although the Church is gradually awakening to the great needs of the gospel amongst Unengaged People Groups and God’s heart for the outsider – the least reached – the population of said groups is growing fast enough that it’s a hard task to ever make a dent into the numbers. And then in most of those people groups, one has subsets like deaf peoples, who sometimes (depending on culture) are dis-connected from the dominating culture of those around them (given they don’t share a common language). It means many like the Joshua Project, count them as separate peoples.
But what are the chances of them being reached? Well even if the main predominant culture within that demographic is eventually reached with the gospel (which we’re still far behind on), the chance of a small sub-section of that community (one that tends to be quite insular, for obvious reasons) being reached, in this different language, is hard to imagine in many places. So many of the deaf communities fall high up on the least reached lists. They may not be the most strategic numerically, but then again, when was Christ’s Kingdom ever primarily shaped by reaching the most people, as quick as possible? King Jesus has a very different outlook on life, which by many of our models, seems weak, ill-advised and utterly frustrating.
What a great way to engage or to make ourselves aware of the deaf communities on our own doorstep too. Who are they? Where do they meet? Do any churches in the local area provide sign language interpretation or assistance? One small church in Carrigaline, County Cork has been giving their devotionals on Facebook with an intrepretation too (they’re uniquely equipped to do so, but have shaped lots of life round being able to serve the deaf community as well).
In learning some basic words about the gospel in another language, you’ll often find yourself thinking afresh about the meaning of it, and how best to communicate such. Could we be brought to marvel at the gospel again, by being children and struggling to learn some basics in another language like this? For those that wouldn’t be keen on this taking place in service, I suggest we teach other new forms of language and communication to people already, in our services, and expect them to pick it up and learn. Taking it slowly shouldn’t disrupt the tone of the service.
But wherever you are, and whatever your congregation may be able to manage or not manage, can I encourage us to look outwards and upwards, and to perhaps in doing so, start to see opportunity, amidst the adversity and loss.
In the meantime, let’s not forget what we lose: it is massive.
May this international collective warm our hearts as we reflect:
PS: Thanks Kim for flying the Irish flag in Sydney!