The call to prayer echoed hauntingly across the tower blocks as minaret after minaret sounded out for the final time that night, far below us. We stood on the rooftop, watching across the night sky as one by one the lights went out in various apartments. It was one of the few cool places we could go in the intense heat of the summer, when even at nighttime, it was a balmy 28 degrees. Sweat was still dripping off my brow as I heard my friend draw his prayer to a conclusion:
“In Jesus name, Amen”
It was all I had heard of the last few minutes as my mind had been captured by the nasal melodies ringing out over the loudspeakers. He looked over at me.
“How do you feel?”
I wasn’t sure. I’d never had such stark reminders that this world was not my home, than the “other”ness of the sounds that hit my ears. But the city before me was little more lost than the familiar bells that tolled in my hometown, reminding me of the empty cathedrals and apathy-filled churches. Not to mention the “cathedrals” built more recently within a few hundred metres of my doorstep in Ireland, some open 24-7 to shoppers and others just crammed once a week with 70,000 adoring fans. Although here, I felt like a stranger. That night a tear fell on my pillow as I rolled over again, trying desperately to sleep. I wasn’t sure whether my feelings were from spiritual realities that lay in front of me, or just because I was finding normal life utterly different and hard in this heat, or both at the same time.
The next morning we rose early, each muttering prayers nervously under our breath as we packed our belongings and headed off to a secret gathering of believers at an unknown location.
The windows were closed and the singing was meant to be muted, but when the old songs of the native language started being played, the believers grew in passion, unable to contain themselves to the quiet whispers of joy.
“How do you feel?” he asked me again.
I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t understood a word of anything that had been sung for the last few minutes. But yet inside of me, something welled up, unable to be controlled by mere linguistic barriers. I knew I was with family. Family that I could find in increasing numbers of places in the world, whether in minaret filled cities, under cathedral dominating skylines or beside where modern day cathedrals forced comfort and apathy upon baying fans. I knew that thousands of miles from my home, I’d found a welcome of far more significance than any other you could expect from meeting people for a first time. A stranger had found a family. And I loved it.
It’s funny how it takes a trip away from home to open my eyes to things the Scriptures already have spoken about on my own doorstep, as well as the eternal realities that starkly presented themselves in the “other”ness that I met those days. Firstly feeling a little lost in a world so different to my own. Then starting to understand it more. And further down the line, sadly often becoming numb to the reality around me as it becomes normalised just like my home setting.
There’s something about travel that keeps me in a learning posture, reminding me of my place in this world as one in seven billion people, and helping me to live in light of every person, culture and people I’ve ever walked amongst. There’s something about travel which helps me see the world as only the Bible describes it: as utterly beautiful but at the same time in ruins – a fraction of the glory it once was. And there’s something about travel that makes me yearn even more for a restoration to come – a new heavens and a new earth to explore, as time after time even the ecstacy of travel only seems like a passing thrill, earnestly preserved by as many Instagram posts and YouTube videos as I can manage.
There’s so much good in travel that I never realised when I first (rather selfishly) booked that first trip away across the globe. And looking back at all I learnt about God, His world, His Church, and myself, over those days, I’m not only glad I did book such things, but I now want to stop and think twice before (like in everything in life) I am tempted to tell someone else exactly whether they should or should not be travelling. What if they could instead, see travel through the same lens that God sees it? What if they had questions to help them make the most of their travels, and stories of other travellers to encourage and to warn? What if they could travel, in tandem with God’s heart?
Travel: in tandem with God’s Heart is released on October 18th and can be pre-ordered through the publisher’s website, through my supplier in the UK (free postage to UK) or soon from my supplier in Ireland. For more details of events near you, please see the events page on this blog, or consider hosting one locally yourself, to help others around you of all faiths and none, think through this key topic.