A theology of travel: summary so far

So far in our theology of travel:

  • We’ve experienced the thrills and joys of travel being declared “good” by God
  • We’ve felt the fallen-ness of travel in the loneliness and fragility of it all
  • And we’ve now countered the claim that travel should help us restore our faith in the goodness of humanity
  • We’ve painted a picture that we’re made for more than just travel in this world and seen that the New Heavens and New earth that we’re made for is an even sweeter song to our ears than the current one
  • And we’ve just gone out and got some top practical tips for travel, as the Bible is not a travel handbook!  Photos can be found largely under the “Cork” category on the sidebar or by searching for “Ireland”.

But in every theology of travel, it should not only be guided by God’s revelation of Himself (primarily in the Scriptures), but it should be cross-shaped and cross-centred, for that is exactly what the Christian message revolves around.

I was sent Francis and Lisa Chan’s book on marriage by a friend recently (recommended for people even like me, who don’t have marriage on the horizon any time soon).  I came across this:

“’Christians’ have come up with clever ways to explain why the followers of a suffering servant should live like Kings.”

What does a travelling suffering servant look like?

Well, as we attempt to submit not only our answers/experiences to the scriptures, but also to let the scriptures shape our questions, over the coming months we may take a look at some of this:

All a grand auld plan, if it weren’t for the fact that I’m back on the road for most of my working term.  In the meantime, if you know of anything good to read on the topic, do get in touch.  And if you really don’t think it matters, check out this!

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Lichfield, England 04/01/17

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Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide

“I feel heartbroken for your country.  It is so safe, and the people are so warm and friendly.  Your food is a treat and your landscape is beautiful.  But none of my western friends will come since terror attacks in this part of the world”

The words clearly struck a chord with my Amazigh (Berber) student audience in North Africa as I attempted my first ever seminar on travel in such a context.  The looks in the eyes of those I was speaking to spoke volumes.  “Why won’t people come to our country?  Our tourism suffers.  People are scared of us.  Our country languishes without income.”

And for once, I had few words to reply.

“I don’t honestly know.”

Their hurt was real.

But despite the safety that I still proclaim to everyone, wherever I go, I had just 5 days earlier been held at gunpoint while on holiday in a neighbouring county.  And not for the first time.

I had decided to venture down to see the lesser known pyramids in Egypt.  There are the Pyramids of Giza – everyone knows them.  If you visit there, you’ll get constantly hassled by guides wanting your money, people trying to flog their wares to you, and take photos with tourists in that thousands of others have taken before you.

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Trying to get the Giza Pyramids without tourists is hard, but like everything, is doable off the beaten track

Less known, but as old, and just as impressive are the pyramids south of that just 40 minutes by car.  So for around 6 euro in an Uber, I set off there first before the sun got too unbearable.

My Uber driver, although not by any means conversational in English, still managed to convey international sign language to indicate “I’m puzzled and I think you’re crazy” when he saw the destination that his phone sent him to.  In the middle of the desert.

But nonetheless he obeyed, because he was being paid to do so.  On arrival in the desert, he was still just as puzzled, though admittedly more because he has been so intently following his Uber maps that he hadn’t noticed the giant Pyramids looming large to his left.

“Do you really want me to drop you here in the desert, miles from any civilisation?”

Or at least those were the words I could imagine he would have said if I’d understood enough Arabic, or he, English.

I pointed to his left out the window.

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His jaw dropped.

“We have pyramids here?!”

And so I happily opened the door and clambered out, glad that I could help a local discover his own country.  And a beautiful country at that.

2 hours later, and I’d largely finished my meandering around the pyramids, separated by about 4km across the sand from each other.  During that 2 hours I started to understand how baffled he had been – I had not seen anyone else.  These were in the tourist books ok.  This was the oldest pyramid in Egypt.  But there was no-one for miles.  Perhaps around 15 cars in a car park a few miles back signalled that there perhaps was life here that I hadn’t met.  But then again, perhaps they were parked for the only other building within miles around – something that looked like a research centre over beyond the car park.

As I walked back towards the first pyramid, I noticed a track going up the side of it to an entrance half way up.  Perhaps a last stop before I leave?  And it would be a welcome respite from the searing heat that was starting to build.  I’d forgotten that although in Cairo the 43 degree heat didn’t burn me because of the pollution in the air, that out here, I wouldn’t be so lucky.

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Arriving at the top of the winding stairs to the ancient doorway to the tomb of the Pharaohs past, I was greeted warmly by the usual “Guide”, who seemingly spoke only 4 words of English, and had used them all within his first sentence greeting me.

“Welcome!  You welcome.  Where you from?”

Such “guides” are normal everywhere in this culture and many others.  A means of employing poorer members of society without giving them “dole” money, assuming they’ll get tips for their “job” off passers by.  Call it tipping or bribery, depending on what culture you grew up in, the Arabs have a beautiful word “Baksheesh” to sum it up without the many words.  This man clearly hadn’t got the news that the Tourist Board had decided to not promote these pyramids this year, and was waiting for his rich pickings off the hoards arriving that day: me.

To show my thankfulness at his attempt at English and warm welcome, I exchanged his four words for around 10 of mine in Arabic, but quickly gave up.

“Ana men Irelanda!  Ana Irelandi” (I come from Ireland, I’m Irish)

“Ahh. Landan!  Landan great city!  Sun Landan?”

And much as I wondered whether he’d strayed back into Arabic, I was fairly certain that this was English, and he (like many others) had not heard of Ireland.  What was I to expect when their colonial oppressor had also been ours?

At my disappointed look, he knew to quickly change the topic.

“Tathcara!”  (ticket)

I was glad I paid attention in my last Arabic class the day before.  I smiled at him, knowing this game well.  He asks me for a non-existing thing.  I look alarmed and ask him how much.  He states his price and I pay him lots of money.  I’d been here many times before.  But something dawned in my head triggering memories of Lonely Planet saying it was 80 Egyptian Pounds (4 euros) to enter the pyramids.  Perhaps I should pay after all.

“How much?”

“Tathcara!!” he said more firmly, not liking that I was clearly playing a game with him.  A game that he had seen all too often before.  I shrugged and showed him I had no ticket.  He sat in silence, perplexed, and quite baffled at how I could get here without “tathcara”.  I sat similarly perplexed, but more wondering how anyone could actually have “tathcara”!  And just when I thought we were united in a beautiful perplexed state, and nearly friends, he lept up, cupped his hands and let out a low horn sound from his mouth, which carried across the sands into the bare nothing-ness of the desert expanse before us.  I smiled at him, delighted to see no doubt, a local tribal call.  He called again, and I sat back to finish my water, in my platypus pack on my back.  A rich cultural experience.

That is, until a Police car appeared through the dust, quite out of nowhere and came to rest at the bottom of the steps I had climbed to get here.

“Come here Sir!” the voice called out below.  And so I ventured downwards to explain, glad that someone had arrived who had more common language than my Baksheesh collector friend.

“How did you get here without ticket?”

“By taxi”, I honestly said.  My next question was as much tongue in cheek as anything, as quite honestly, there was nothing for miles around.  But I felt I should probably ask.

“Where is the ticket office?”

“Back there, 4 miles.  How did you drive through roadblock?”

And then it dawned on me.  My Uber driver had indeed driven through a roadblock.  But as he was Egyptian and Uber vehicles are not obviously designated so, he was let drive through without me buying a ticket from the “ticket office”.

And so he looked at me quite angrily, as if I was a monster, robbing them of their only tourist wages of the day, which, in all fairness to him, I probably was.  And so he called a cab (why drive me himself, when he could make me pay a local “taxi-man” to do the honourable duty?) and sat me down with the train of his gun nudging me in the right direction, and then fixed on me as I sat.  I reached into my bag to get something.  Foolish move.  The gun swung round to a more threatening position.

Well wasn’t this a nice way to end my Pyramid experience.  Me, a friendly gunman, and 35 degrees of sunshine.  I thought that as an Irishman I should at least make the most of one of those.  So I rolled my sleeves up and lay back to enjoy the warm rays on my skin, much to the annoyance of my newly found acquaintance, who twitched his gun at every minute movement.  Little did he know I just didn’t want my biceps browner than my triceps.

And so my taxi arrived, and I was escorted firmly into the back of it and deposited 4 miles later at the “ticket office” where under gunpoint, I was made to pay.

“Six hundred Egyptian Pounds please”

Or so I could imagine he said, given that he typed the same on the calculator.  The price had clearly gone up a bit since Lonely Planet was last written, or my fines for trespassing were larger than I had thought they might be.  I opened my wallet to reveal the barren extent of it.  Not wanting to smile, but realising the hilarity of doing it, I passed him my debit card instead and looked hopeful.

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He grabbed it from me, spent three minutes fingering it and looking over it, as if a new toy had just been given to him at Christmas (only I could imagine probably not at Christmas, given the country I was in).

He called his Police friend over but quite quickly shook their heads.  No card payment here.  But at least I had offered to pay, right?

Seeing this as the most advantage I would ever have in this exchange with gun-wielding ticket-office Policemen, I asked him a polite question.

“Where is ATM?”

And again, after his blank stare:

“Cash….money?”

He looked blankly at me.  I gave the international sign language signal for an ATM (or at least, what I thought was a good shout at pretending to be an ATM, as a human) and pointed off the opposite direction to the pyramids, down the road.

“I go?”

“You need taxi?  You not survive desert.”

I shook my head.  Cautiously taking one step at a time away from the desk and past the Police officers, I nervously walked off into the desert, not intending to return.

The one who showed the most alarm for this whole ruse of finding an ATM was my “taxi driver” from the pyramid who clearly saw his return passenger walking off into the desert without paying a single iota, and correctly understood that he wouldn’t be getting any fare that day.  But by the time he piped up, it was too late, an I was beyond the perimeter by which anyone would care and safely off into the wilderness.**

1 kilometre down the road I stopped to look back, to check I was not being followed.  From here, I would hide and order my Uber (which, of course, does not need cash), and head off to the next adventure – The Tourist Pyramids of Giza – where thankfully no gunmen were to be seen.

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**If it had been possible to give them the normal entry fee, or the taxi fare without having been given far greater fines and risked my safety, I would have done.   This is not to encourage avoidance of fees or payments, which many local people will dearly need to survive.

Travelling “In Search of Ancient Roots” (Book Review, Stewart, Apollos Press)

On my annual leave this year I travelled to some of the ancient Christian sites of the Bible (in Athens) and of the early church (in Egypt and North Africa).  Experiencing such reminders of history, of the global Church and of ancient roots, was a powerful thing that got me thinking.  Is what I believe now, what they believed then?

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Reading this on Areopagus Hill, looking up at the Greek Acropolis.

Living in a fast changing, post-(Roman)-Catholic Ireland has its challenges.  I could imagine that when any culture comes out of a period living under a particular way of life, that it takes a while for people to stand on their own two feet and consider where they are going next.  All the energy was poured into divesting ourselves of the old way, without much thought to where we’ll go now.  And much as we like to think we’re rational creatures, always logically assessing what to believe and how to act, I think we’d be hard-pressed to paint that picture.

Some are very perceptive in that way.  One student who met me last year said

“I’m on my way to becoming an atheist.  That’s where I want to be, because of what I’ve experienced of the [Catholic] church, but I haven’t honestly done enough thinking to defend my position.”

And equally that’s what we find when we come to churches as well.  Thousands have decided that Catholicism is not for them but that they still find Jesus attractive and true, and want to worship Him.  And so how do they do that?  Well they start their own church.  And start it with everything that Catholicism was perceived not to be.

Was it perceived that Catholicism had too much structure?  Start a church that claims to have no structure and is just led by the Spirit!

Was it perceived that Catholicism didn’t allow room for questioning?  Start something where you can question everything.

Was it perceived that Catholicism had such a majestic view of God that you could never know Him?  Start something where Jesus is very personal and the intimacy of the Holy Spirit is emphasized in all the services.

Was it perceived that Catholic doctrines of infant baptism, the Mass and liturgy were too much like institutionalised religion?  Get back to the “early church” and have baptism upon belief, breaking of bread round meals and informal worship in houses.

And so that’s what we’ve had.  Tens of new churches popping up in this city, all who look to correct the ways of old.  Perhaps before moving on to say how this book is very helpful at speaking into that situation, we’d do well to note one final cultural thing that plays a great weight in this setting.

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Exploring what the ancient pillars of the Church were, and how to stay in line with them.

As individuals decide to start new churches (many claiming Divine mandates), many of them will refuse to look outside themselves to do it.  Traditional denominations like Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian and others are perceived as foreign (and in some cases, are culturally foreign, given most of their leaders are trained abroad in a very different culture and some struggle to differentiate between culture and gospel).  And so much of the resources in the English speaking world, do come from British culture (and America).  But partly because these cultures are different, and partly because we, as Irish people, have our hearts set against learning from those who ruled over us (whether perceived Catholicism or British rule), we struggle to do anything but experiment with our churches.  We would rather do this, and see what works in Ireland (pragmatism) than learn from others.

Now there are some advantages of this.  But also, we’ve hit some pretty major problems.

In our experimenting with claiming its the Holy Spirit who leads us (outside of human means), we’ve let church leaders get away with poor leadership, abuse and have seen churches where the priest-like-figure has just become another personality or extremely gifted individual.  Church discipline is no-where to be seen.

In our reacting to a system that struggled to allow room for questions, we threw the door open to everything and start to question everything without limit.  You’ll find some leaders who don’t think God is sovereign over the future, some who expect Heaven to be realised now on earth, some who claim to be above Doctrinal statements, some who think they have found the keys to reforming the church that no others have found before and others who think they can emphasize that God speaks to them in so many ways outside of scripture, that scripture takes a back seat.  Heresy is rife, and largely under the radar of most of us, who all see the great heart of those making such statements.

In our wanting to escape a picture of God as a grey haired old man in the sky, who had little to do with everyday life, we’ve sought to make God entirely comprehensible and relevant, bringing him down to our own image, worshipping Him as if He was our best mate sitting beside us at the GAA and shunning anything that seemed too grand or majestic.  That was the old way of life.  We’ve got a new covenant personal Jesus now.  The creator-creature distinction in our theology, that emphasized how “other” God is, how mysterious some of His being still is to us, and how above our way of thinking His purposes are, is now lost.  Every service, we have lost a sense of His majesty and our finite nature.  We are on the same plane, in a way we never ought to be.

Finally, in our desire to run from institutionalised sacraments, we have bolted to the only other extreme we thought there was.  Instead of saying baptism has some influence on our salvation (as Catholicism does), we declare it to just be an outward symbol for one service where we invite all our non-Christian mates in to hear our story.  Instead of receiving grace (for salvation) through the Mass (as Catholicism teaches), we abandon any relevance of the Lord’s Supper, pretend they are only symbols and even mull over whether they need to be bread and wine at all (why not baked beans and banana, in a meal together at home?).

Given we’ve come to this “reactionary Christianity”, it’s no surprise to me that many who seemingly came to faith are falling away from it, and that so many who abandoned the Roman Catholic Church actually come back to seeing its extreme advantages compared to the experimental fellowships they’ve encountered since.

To those who’ve encountered any element of this shallow “evangelicalism” (which I would argue is no evangelicalism at all), I can recommend reading Kenneth Stewart’s book “In Search of Ancient Roots”.

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Kenneth starts out by outlining the perceived beauty of a system (like Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy) that purports to believe the same thing throughout all ages, across all nations.

His main points in the book to me, were that:

  • such systems aren’t really as united as they appear at all, across all parts
  • such systems aren’t really united across history in what they have believed
  • there is great historicity in evangelical doctrine all the way from the early church

Now given how complex a topic this is, I’ll not delve into how well I fell Stewart makes his case here.  You can grab a coffee with me for that.  But it’s well worth the read, particularly for those of us in our Irish setting.  It does however, come with the warning that it’s not for the faint hearted.  It’s a meaty book with many a juicy morsel that will kickstart an interest for you in reading church history, if you haven’t ever had one before!  But don’t be put off.  Why not let it challenge you, let it raise questions for you, and let it provoke you to worship a God who has always been faithful throughout history, even (and especially) through a messy Church.  Why not grab a friend and read it together?

The Lone Piper Played. We wept.

[*A brief detour into how the same history of values/philosophy that have shaped our travelling generation, have also shaped our nations far more than that.  The context to this post can be found here and here]

When I saw the predicted polls of the Irish referendum on the 8th amendment [abortion] on Friday night on the Irish Times website after polling closed, I was in disbelief.  Was this another poor attempt by the Irish Times to slant things, like had happened all along in the Irish media?  (The only lone pro-life voices allowed in the year coming up to the referendum were Breda O’Brien’s short snippets in the latter pages of the Irish Times and David Quinn’s column in the Sunday Times.  In the last couple of months, a few solitary voices were added with the aim of giving a semblance of balance.  In reality, speaking up against all the main political parties, all the main media, hundreds of thousands of euros of illegal foreign money, and some political leaders advocating civil disobedience, was always going to be hilarious to try.)

But as we examined the methodology and sample size, it became clear it wasn’t.  And looking to my pro-choice friends, they were also nearly in disbelief and not ready to yet celebrate, until they saw the concrete results.  From a country steeped in tradition, the steeple had toppled years ago, and now the building was leaning towards collapse.  And there was no reparation funds left to do anything about it.

Irish Times exit poll

And so I fled.  Fled to County Kerry for a Stag party of a friend.  Not particularly looking forward to the frivolity of such an affair, but pleased to get mental space from over-analysing results, county by county, as they came in.  And it’s just as well I left, as doing it by county would have made no difference to the results, because if you’d shown me a list of them, I wouldn’t even have been able to pick out the constituency I was sitting in, in the rural west, as all apart from Dublin were much of a muchness.  Donegal, the lone dissenter….just.

While we were away, on a rare warm summer evening sitting on Castlegregory beach with the moon shining overhead and a tiny fire to keep us warm, the storm hit the rest of the country, like rarely seen before in Ireland.  The thunder and lightning displays rumbled on for hours.  Many awoke and couldn’t get back to sleep.  Numerous party-goers of “Repeal” celebration parties were left sheltering inside, or deciding to call it a night.  A small blip on the ecstacy of the celebration.

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Returning to reality a day later, I stumbled through a Sunday service, not yet having time to process anything emotionally.  It was only alone that afternoon that it all started to sink in.  Heading out for the evening to a pro-life social gathering of the Life Institute in Cork, there was a sombre mood amongst us all.  A few comments struck me over the course of the evening, informally chatting to many who I had never met before:

“Even our Priest told us we couldn’t canvass outside Mass any week.  The next week, they were canvassing for some other charity to help disabled people.  But Pro-life stuff?  Not at all!  The Association of Catholic Priests had told them otherwise.”

 

“Our [evangelical] church leaders only mentioned it once briefly from the front and invited us all to a central meeting not organised by the church.  As if it wasn’t part of the Church’s concern.  As if ending tens of thousands of human lives isn’t something Jesus speaks about much.”

 

“We just don’t know how it went from us hearing far more ‘nos’ on the canvasses to such a concrete ‘yes’ in the vote.  Were people lying on the doors?  Were only old people in their houses in the evenings?  Did people change their mind at the last minute?”

A canvass leader who had connections to canvass leaders up and down the country.

 

“I’m not religious at all, but the timing of the lightning storm last night was creepy.  We’ve never in our lifetime seen anything like it.  Do you think it was connected?”

(On a sidenote, no, no I don’t.  Jesus’ reply in Luke 13 is a helpful place to go to respond to similar questions and superstition)

 

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And as the chat died away, and the two eulogies were made, mourning the coming effects of the result, thanking everyone, and urging us to offer better choices for women, so they never had to choose abortion, even if now available.  We stood with tears in our eyes.

Tears, not that the steeple was gone or that the building was following, because that was not what many, if any of us were caring about.  Owning the skyline of a city is fairly meaningless unless one lives out a warm moral fabric in beautiful communities to go with it.  Particularly for the many atheist pro-life campaigners in the room who don’t even identify with the skyline at all, but were still weeping.

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From one bridge further along, 8 church steeples can be seen towering over the city.

The tears were more because of what replaced those communities inside.  Communities that once oozed with a sacrificial love for humanity, in light of the sacrificial, servant Saviour they claimed to follow.  Communities that were quick to confess their short-comings to each other and forgive, and would never hold any human on a pedestal without account.  Communities that made inroads into developing education, healthcare, legal systems, charities, family life.  Communities that most in Ireland have not seen for many a generation.  Their downfall was first inside:

First came the religious elite in powerful positions, able to put on a good show, but underneath not all was well.  Moral corruption.

Second came those who were happy to keep the show going at any cost, despite knowing all was not well morally.  No questions allowed.  Shame the unbeliever.

Third came those who, when knowing the show was not going well, were gradually consumed by apathy: is this even real?

Fourth came those still who would see the nice things in the show, but not want the uglier side and would pick of what they indulged.

Fifthly came those who wanted rid of it all, seeing that the constructs woven into society originally by these communities had become decrepit, purposeless, for power hungry men to defend, and running contrary to the needs of society.

And losing an awareness at each level of anything bigger than themselves, many (including the religious elite) would see they had easier options than to sacrificially love another.  At one end of the scale, the scandals that rocked the church when self-gratification in a lonely role, overtook sacrificial love.  At the other, a misunderstanding that being moral was the message of Christianity and shaming those who weren’t perceived to be – a message that is the exact opposite of the true good news of a sacrificial Saviour who died on our behalf as we were not moral enough.

At each stage we started to doubt and then remove the very basis of sacrificial love and so our individualised rights and choices became the defining factors.  “Do not harm” replaced the far greater call to “love your neighbour”.  Communities that are now even prepared to take other human lives, on the altar of choice.

At what point should the constructs of the old community, so hewn into society and life, be torn down brick by brick for our own good?  And to what cost on the passerby, would falling bricks be, before the constructs of new communities arise?

Afterwards, cutting through the quiet rumble of voices, and the backing of a trad band playing in the corner, a lone piper started his drone.  And after hauntingly working his way through Irish airs, the famous Scottish anthem rang out:

“Those days are passed now
And in the past they must remain
But we can still rise now
And be the nation again
That stood against him
Proud Edward’s army
And sent him homeward
Tae think again”

We seem to be good at defining ourselves on what we are against.  The past.  The English.  The Church.

What awaits to be seen is what will replace the steeples on our skyline, and whether we can ever move beyond anger, to a positive rubric for Irish life.  For the meantime, I fear much more anger to come and many more innocents suffering the consequences of our anger.

The lone piper continued to play.

The room went silent.

 

We wept.

 

On the writing of books

It is finished!  Or close to it at least.  Taking a few moments away from writing this book on faith and travel, my heart has been struck by two things in this process.  Firstly, as my phone vibrates at yet another social media notification about a debate on the eighth amendment (about abortion) in Ireland, I think that my time is wasted on such trivial pursuits.  The thousands of unborn lives at risk through such huge legislation and vote as this, seem to speak with far greater volume that any need to write a book on such a topic.  But secondly as I see the nature of how the debate on such a referendum in this country goes, I realise that perhaps book writing isn’t such a bad form of persuasion after all.  Let me explain.

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On information and paralysis

Social media, that seemed to promise to put so much information at our fingertips, has failed us as are overwhelmed with alternative narratives of colour and sound, thrust in our faces for all our waking hours, as we interact with others and spend far more hours than we would have been reading a book, paralysed toing and froing between arguments that first seemed to have great appeal, before we put our hands towards them to find they’re only soapy bubbles: no substance at all.

The written page however, rarely has the luxury of colour and sound, has only the impact that the reader will allow it when picked up, and must carefully and persuasively articulate each step of the narrative it wants to portray, or else it will find itself relegated to the charity shop shelf with all others.  Where the more adept reader could be paralysed still by all the wealth of literary knowledge out there, the trained mind will be able to assess a weight of evidence by reading proportionately little (to what is written, which may still be a lot).

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On time spent preparing

Social media has huge advantages in being immediate.  It is on your knee.  It is whispering in your ear.  It takes what happens that we feel entertained by in South Korea and lets you know about it in seconds.  It posts content in the light of what has just happened.  It prioritises the present often at the expense of past examination.

The written page however cannot have such luxury.  If any thought, line or sentence were to go against the flow of reasoned thinking from one century or another, it would ring alarm bells for any with awareness of general thought patterns of history, and immediately be put down on the coffee table to be investigated further, to be meditated upon more, or scoffed at thoroughly.  The written page has been formed over months of crafted writing, and perhaps years or decades of thought.

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On treating others as humans

Social media has no regrets.  To the anonymous audience behind their keyboards, anything can be written.  In the referendum campaign, if you met most of those in the public square who had taken you to task on social media, they often wouldn’t say boo to a goose.  Because removing the anonymity is disempowering.  To know you are speaking to tens, perhaps hundreds or thousands of humans with lived experiences, is daunting.  But in that instantaneous click of a button and heat of the moment, those lives are forgotten.

A problem the book does not solve

But it’s where the written book doesn’t quite solve the dilemma.  I mean, most books speak far better to the full human spectrum of experience and remember their audience well.  But all is not perfect in the land where letter flows across page, and story after story paints a whole lens in which to explore other worlds.  So much power lies within the reader’s ability to close that book, that every chapter must ring true.  Every paragraph capture the heart.  Every sentence intrigue more, or else….or else the reading experience will end, slammed shut and abandoned to a shelf, to be reluctantly picked up, perhaps once more, should the weather permit.

And so, compared to broadcasting a message to a diverse range of people and worldviews, many of whom will find it’s message unappealing but yet still read it, the book must woo its reader first, with an enticing glance, before learning to speak in a language that is understood and appreciated, not just relying on soft touches of the elbow.  The book must sit with the reader so much in the chair, sharing the very intimacy of the reader’s lounge, that it’s ability to speak is somewhat harnessed.

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The hard-hitting truth must have first won its audience.

And that’s where a book can never quite say as much as social media could.  Or a talk.  Or a blog post for that matter.  Because the levels of ecstasy that are required to coax a reader to the point of opening a package of hard truths, generally take far too much doing to make them possible.  The social media account can jump out and slap a user in the face with a short, sharp blast, before returning to its place, to nearly be forgiven with a roll of the eyes.  A book does not have such privilege, without it being abandoned forever.

Should an author manage to craft a work to bring about such hard change, they should stop right there, and not attempt any more.  For each book will rarely have more than one main thrust that it can persuade towards, in any meaningful way.

Our hearts are less logical and more emotional than we thought.

And so the purist will always be disappointed.  There will always be more that could be said.  There are always either more direct or more persuasive ways to say them.  But similarly to social media, the word count is limited and the audience is to be persuaded one step at a time.

It’s where I’ve found saying anything negative about travel trends, to be very difficult, even when they’re necessary.  But it’s a useful lesson for life: to be able to say hard things in persuasive ways to diverse audiences.

And it’s why this book will not be liked by some.

“You never preached the gospel”
“We thought this would correct person ‘x’ out there, but barely does at all”

And other such critique, are things I will expect to hear in the next year.  And that’s where it’s even harder to take, knowing the long hours spent preparing and crafting each phrase.  To know that for many, it won’t be good enough.

But I’ll eventually learn that it’s also fine.  Because I’m not justified by my readers.  Nor by my writing.  And I must remember that the change that a book can bring about to the limited few who indulge, is long-term, deep-seated change, to a level that a social media post will rarely bring.  Books will bring about referendum campaigners that won’t budge.

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Praying while we travel

PrayerMate is a great App for us as travellers.  I used to keep a prayer journal and carry it round everywhere with me, so I could make a note of things to pray for and see how God had answered prayer.  Now I use PrayerMate!  It means that while on my travels, I’ve a Bible, a prayer App, a devotional guide on my Kindle (check our LiveDead Joy Bible reading planner for 1 pound) and catechisms, all in my pocket without thinking.  Does anyone have any recommendations for one for good hymns or Christian songs?

It took me an hour or two to figure out how I was going to best use it, and to input a weekly prayer cycle of my own prayer points that I wanted to pray through, but once I’d done that, it was easy!  And many organisations also use it, so you can hear all sorts of encouraging stories that will inspire you to pray.

For many of a younger generation, it’s transformed our prayer lives.  I could imagine that for a few, the discipline of staying away from your phone for things like this may be more valuable that accessing it all through the device that we’re already using too much!

All of this means I can be hiking up Irish mountains and can stop to pray, or to remind myself what I can be praying for as I hike, without taking out anything apart from my phone.  Or alternatively I can be stuck on a bus or in traffic, and, if it is legal to do so, check prayer points to make best use of the time, instead of getting frustrated.

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For those who want to sign up for my work daily prayer updates, you can click on this link: http://praynow4.org/craicfromcork

Not all those who wander are lost?

[Guest Post: Alex is a small-town extrovert who loves to travel and meet people with the hope of building genuine relationships to the glory of God. He lives in Louisville, KY, USA with his wife, daughter, and son, where he drinks coffee, makes too many references to Middle Earth and Hyrule, and prays for a future ministry of equipping redeemed repenters for the ministry of the saints throughout the world. 

If you would like to Guest Post, I’d love to hear from you.  We take all sorts of angles on faith and travel, as long as they stay within the rough ethos of the blog (you don’t need to agree with me on everything!!)]


When I was attending university, I noticed a trend in social media and popular culture where people who loved to travel or experience the great outdoors were posting, tweeting, or even wearing the phrase, “Not all those who wander are lost.” At first I was excited, thinking that I had suddenly discovered a host of kindred spirits who shared my affinity for High Elf culture. I was disappointed to find, however, that most of them did not realize the egregious error they were making (to my eyes) in taking that passage woefully out of its original context in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The full excerpt is actually:


All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.

The Lord of the Rings, p. 170 (emphasis mine)

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Photo (C) mine.  Carlingford Lough, February 2018

What popular culture was using to exalt an often self-seeking version of wanderlust was actually a poem about a man whose family and kingdom were stripped from him yet spent his days patrolling and “wandering” the land in order to protect people who didn’t even recognize their own fealty to him, all because this man believed in a prophetic poem, a poem that promised he would one day sit on the throne that was rightfully his and dispel the shadows that oppressed his domain. This excerpt is not an advertisement for hiking in your local park but is a phrase about trust and perseverance being rewarded with a rightful inheritance. In fact, it reminds me of another passage about a man and a promise:

By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed and set out for a place that he was going to receive as an inheritance. He went out, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he stayed as a foreigner in the land of promise, living in tents as did Isaac and Jacob, co-heirs of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

Hebrews 11:8-10 (CSB)

Abraham, too, was a man who wandered, “even though he did not know where he was going.” He did this because God told him to leave the land of his fathers for a land where he would become the father of “a great nation” and he would receive blessings from the Holy Creator God — in fact, “all the peoples on earth” were going to be blessed through Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). He left the comforts and joys of his homeland because he faithfully believed in the goodness and mercy of God, not even dwelling within permanent buildings or walls because he was looking forward to the City that only God can design and build. His wandering was one of obedience and service because he not only followed God’s command to sojourn in a foreign land, but he also blessed people along the way by his sheer proximity. Sure, his travelling blessed people financially, but every time someone joined his household they were brought into the spiritual blessings of God (Genesis 17).

Like Abraham, we ought to travel while recognizing that we are only able to do so because we have been blessed financially and spiritually by God. Without the providence and provision of God Almighty we would not have the means to leave our front doors, let alone our countries. Every cent in our bank accounts is there purely by the grace of God. On top of that, He has blessed us spiritually so that now we are free from any self-seeking desires to “escape” the hum-drum rigor of daily life in pursuit of romanticized greener lands. We can enjoy our travels through the lens of Christ, knowing that all those who confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead are now foreigners in the world, citizens of a Kingdom still to come, and are being upheld by the promises of Jesus to be with us always, “even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b). We can enjoy and appreciate the gifts of grace found in meeting new people, trying new foods, and the countless “sub-creations” (to borrow a term from Tolkien) of image-bearers of the Creator without becoming enslaved to those things. What’s more, we can share that same freeing message of the gospel with people in other countries.

I am not arguing that your salvation or sanctification and growth in godliness is directly proportional to the amount of travel miles you have stored on your credit card. While I do encourage others to travel and experience new cultures and countries, I recognize that it is simply not feasible for some to take time off from work or dip into their savings accounts to travel the world in pursuit of broader horizons. And I am not suggesting that we should “sanctify” our holidays abroad by making them into evangelistic events (Peter wrote a post addressing that kind of mindset here).

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Photo (C) mine.  Belfast Bible College, February 2018

I would like to suggest, however, that we broaden our definition of travelling: instead of relegating the word only to transatlantic trips or cross-continental excursions, we can view travel as any means of moving from one place to another. Since this world is not truly home for Christians, we are effectively spending our lives at a hostel called Earth, which means that we too are constantly travelling and living in temporary housing like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob before us. We do not have to leave our towns in order to possess a theology of travel because those same truths are evident to us wherever we lay our heads. But once we do have a theology of travel, then every trip that we take to the store, every holiday we take to Spain, and every Saturday we spend at home with the family becomes a part of our mission to genuinely love and serve the people around us. When our love is sincere, then making disciples of all nations is not a spiritual checklist for clergymen but a natural, authentic, and long-term outpouring of our hearts, wherever we may find ourselves that day.

Whether we leave our homes or stay where we are, we should remember that e are still sojourners in a foreign land, working and waiting for our King to return and fulfill his promise to take us to our true Home. If we hope and trust in the return of the Light to chase away the shadows in this world and in our souls, we too can wander and not be lost.

The music of the nations!

Christian Union talent shows are always ridiculously good in standard due to the music and public speaking training many church-raised kids receive, and beautifully shameless, as no-one ought to have their identity on their performance or making a fool of themselves!  They also are devoid of harsh categorisations and insults, constant sexual innuendo or needing alcohol to fuel the fun…brilliant!

But still this year’s one made me smile inside between the stereotype of Irish life in Robert, through to the flavours of the world from students who felt free to express themselves and their culture in incredible ways.  The ladies below wanted to teach everyone how to sing “Afro-Irish style”!  Who needs travel, when you have the Christian community on your doorstep?!

 

 

Business as mission

I’ve had the privilege of travelling Ireland recently with someone who is an expert in business as mission.  Working in major corporations for his whole life as he travelled the world, he’s decided to spend the last ten years of his career encouraging Christians to take business seriously, to take mission seriously and to do them both together, whether here or abroad in lesser reached places.  You won’t find any of his friends in business just doing it to get access to places.  No they’re serious and authentic business people.  And I many of us should be too – not having to abandon business to serve Jesus.

What a great way to use travel!

Here’s one website he recommended:

http://www.bamedu.com/

 

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Photo copyright Peter Grier 16/03/18

 

Sleeping in your car in North Africa

Having just finished the first draft of my book on faith and travel, I thought I’d include a story here for the fun of it, that didn’t make it into the book and has nothing to do with anything specific.  Thanks to everyone for your support and prayers throughout this process!

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North Africa:

Night was falling and we’d been on the road for a week already.  We had hit a part of the country with 3 major cities near each other and our usual sleeping arrangement (camping in a 20 euro festival tent we bought on the internet a few days before going), wasn’t going to get us anywhere in these rough cities.  Enter the brainwave from Dan!

“Peter, have you ever slept in a car before?  I think it’d be quite fun.”

I groaned inwardly, wondering how I was going to get out of this one.  I had indeed slept in a car at various points in life, and despite it being in pleasant locations, I cared little for the cold, uncomfortable, stuffy, public nature of choosing such fine moments to get some “shut-eye”.  Seen through other lenses: I cared nothing for adventure.

He didn’t seem put off.  And so we continued, finding a spot on a “business park” on the outskirts of rough suburb of the city we were nearest to.  Pulling in to what looked like a place where some had parked cars before, we put on the breaks and set in to brushing our teeth.  The trouble with brushing your teeth in the car, is much like the problems associated with anything to do with sleeping in your car: your car is not designed for this.

And so the door was opened to dispose of the toothpaste filled mouth into the gutter nearby.  But as if they had smelled the sweet aroma of minty freshness, at that moment, a pack of wild dogs had decided to come past scavenging, and just as quickly as the door had been opened, we jumped back inside, slammed it shut and breathed a sigh of relief as the dogs, after surrounding the car, decided there was easier things to scavenge that two scrawny Irish-men locked in a pile of metal.

After that brief excitement, we settled down to sleep, reclining the chairs of our tiny car to full stretch.  We were still a little nervous at how public that cars make sleeping, and were a little annoyed at not being able to open the window for air, lest some mosquitoes or bugs came in.  But eventually we started to settle down.

That is, until our next interruption, this time more unexpected.  Dan was the one to spot when the bright light started shining out of the dark and gradually getting bigger and bigger, as if it was coming towards us.  Our plan was just to lay low and hide there – it probably wasn’t anything, we convinced ourselves.  But the light did indeed keep getting brighter and brighter until it was close enough that we were panicking.  Who was this?  And why did they care about our choice of sleeping venue?  Catching small glimpses of a  figure outside moving through the darkness, silhouetted against the light they were carrying, we could see that whoever it was armed.  Hostel anyone?

And without further a-do, when the figure was still approaching the car, Dan stuck it into reverse and accelerated hard, leaving our first choice of sleeping venue in a cloud of dust behind us.

The fact that my clever idea of a hostel wasn’t much better, shall be left for another story.  Asides from saying that for about three euros, a night in a “prison cell” far worse than any in the west, was an interesting experience.

But it was enough to rest, and in the morning we were on our way again, laughing over the things that were panic moments of the previous day.  Everything in hindsight seems rosier.

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