Moving to Dublin, changing jobs and being in a 5km lockdown until recently has made for another year of reflecting on travel, and travelling locally, rather than internationally. And during lockdown there is much that has been predicted about travel post-Covid which is sheer speculation and wishful thinking. Of course that isn’t a surprise, as predicting the future is hard to do! And it is very hard to untangle our wishes for the future, our worldview, and what is driven by what we observe around us.
But, sparked on by a competition I entered, I added to the pile of speculations and wishful thinking with this poem about the future of travel post-Covid and my journey shaped by my faith.
Bucket list ticks.
Ticks the watch.
Watches the world.
World of diversity,
Uniting in journey,
Journey into unknown
Changes me now.
(What I suggest of course, is simply wishful thinking, unless there is something in our worldview that will empower us to live in what I propose is a fairly selfless way described above. Right thinking alone will not produce the fuel of love in our hearts to look beyond ourselves.)
But I’d love to know your thoughts or predictions about the future of travel, particularly in relation to faith or your worldview. So if you have any ideas, do drop me a line and I might even be up for a guest post soon!
And as much as I can say, I’m confident it won’t be as long until the next post! 6 months of creative juices await!
Having looked around for the last four to five years at what Christians are intentionally doing in the travel industry and, more often than not, what people who love-travel-and-happen-to-be-Christian, are creating, I want to suggest a few opportunities for followers of Jesus who have a heart for travel, and something that may act as a warning and an opportunity at the same time.
[I caveat all of this with the usual footnotes, declaring that I am not able to search all the hashtags in other languages (knowing only French, English and bits and pieces of others), and much as I’ve tried my hardest with networking and asking around the globe, I’ve of course not got exhaustive reach to find everyone. Please, if you know of folk who I should connect with, pass on details or send them this post.]
To do that, let’s take a look at two videos, both produced here in the island of Ireland by (in some ways) very different people. The first we’ll dig into deeply and the second we’ll just throw out a couple of challenges to you if you’re a follower of Jesus and love travel!
A Secular Invitation to travel
What makes a travel video a secular one? And how would travel through secular humanist eyes be different to through the eyes of a follower of Jesus?
Most Christians will happily watch anything that doesn’t have overt and explicit actions of “sin” in it. For example, some might complain to the TV regulating authorities if a narrative involves particular explicit sins (sexual, violent or other). They may try to justify how that is different to watching James Bond (for example) whose treatment of females has often been horrific, and who glorifies particular views of humanity which one might find hard to sustain from a Biblical text. And there are many other actions, emphases and plotlines that Christian morals in the West have gradually excused or got used to that are far from ‘Christian’ but that Christians are quite happy enjoying (rightly or wrongly) as part of a series, show or film.
If we draw these lines for Christian travellers, then nearly everything in the travel industry will be Christian to us, or at least permissable to engage with as Christians. But let’s stop for a minute and see where that leaves us. I present to you video 1 below. Kevin Penrose is the Wild Irish Wanderer on Instagram and has his own YouTube channel. I pick one of his videos to critique, not because I have anything against him, but in fact because he is one of Ireland’s up and coming travel videographers, finding his feet in the trade. Why not enjoy the stunning videography he captures of our island below, but as you do so, ask yourself this:
Is this a Christian travel video? Why or why not? Or could it be neutral?
[Before I say anything, let me say that most of what I frame this discussion around comes stolen from the pen of Dan Strange who wrote a very accessible guide “Plugged In” which helps us think more about all of this.]
So what’s your verdict, Christian travel video or not?!
Well let’s look at the evidence (under headings you can use again in future).
a) Who made it? For many things, including this one, we can’t be too sure whether the creator is a Christian or not. Here, I don’t know Kevin and have not seen a mad amount of his creative work to say any more. But let’s remember, plenty of Christians have made things that don’t reflect the glory of God or explicitly mention faith, so knowing the answer to this question doesn’t always tell us whether it’s a Christian travel video per se.
b) What does it say? And not just audibly. What does it feel like? What image does it show us? What narrative does it scream?
Well, Kevin gives us an incredible view of [God’s] world in Ireland. Stunning shot after shot take our breath away. In this sense, one might say there is nothing wrong for us as Christians to be watching this! But listen to the narrative he gives over this. Perhaps you can see some things in the narrative that ring true to the gospel/Bible and we would agree with. Other things are violently opposed to the good news of Jesus. It’s a common narrative that you can find similarly elsewhere in famous travel videos (like this one). I’ve printed some of it here for you to see:
This year was supposed to be different. We all had goals to accomplish, dreams to chase and plans in place, but it wasn’t meant to be. Instead, we were taught to slow down, rest and recharge. Our way of life changed forever. We were given time to think, reflect and appreciate the important things in life. We always plan for tomorrow rather than seizing today. You are in control. You can make it happen. We finally have the opportunity to live in the moment. Take that trip. Do what makes you happy. Nobody knows what the future holds. But just remember, the choice is yours. So before we go any further, let me ask you this:
What will it take for you to truly live?
c) Who engages with this video and what is the intended affect? Sometimes when there aren’t such explicit words to narrate the video or show, the messages can be so much more subtle. For example, there’s another STUNNING film called “Baraka” (part of a trilogy) that is worth getting to see on a big screen. It has no words at all (for over an hour!) but is directed and crafted with the explicit intention to persuade you of pluralism and some western liberal/secular values, all done through the lens of eastern thought and powerful imagery and sequences.
Here things are more obvious. In this narrative, who are we as human beings? What place do we have in the universe? What’s gone wrong? What’s the solution? What happens when we die?
Kevin either believes this message, or thinks we’ll share his video more if he says it: We control our own destiny, should live in the moment and make every second count. The fact that the first half of the message was about Covid cancelling all our plans and showing us we weren’t in control, doesn’t seem to phase him. And besides, with footage like he has playing in the foreground, we don’t really mind what he says, as long as it sounds cool and empowers us, right??
And he’s got us. So many of the things do seem true to some extent. But this, without he or many of us realising it, is anti-gospel. It’s not good news. Us being the prime ones in our life who are in control isn’t good news – life would suck if we were on the throne ruling over our reality – what a limited perspective that would be! And how daunting to feel we had to control it all. Us living only for our immediate happiness will ruin us long-term and hurt us as we all have immature desires that we are glad we didn’t act on, at times!
Some other questions that may help you think through the connections to the good news of Jesus, and the disconnect/confrontation with the good news:
How is the message of the media we watch interpreting or reinterpreting God’s good news?
Are there things that are beautiful, good and true about what is said?
Are there things that are ugly, bad for humanity and false about what is being said?
Are there good things (that God gives us) that the creator is turning into ultimate things (when we lose sight of God)?
So where does that leave us?
Well you’ll see that some of the video connects with the good news we know, and quite a bit of it tries to persuade you of a different reality. Should we watch it? Well, personally my conscience allows me to watch it, my context says nothing against watching it, and my character is not predominantly being shaped by such things. So I’m happy. But for others who struggle with lusting after travel, spending all their money on travel or unproductively scrolling YouTube videos of travel all their working days, it may not be wise or helpful to feed their hunger with this (or other travel videos for that regard).
The trouble more lies with the many of us who see no nudity, no blasphemy and no violence in the video and think “Oh, this is completely neutral for me to watch as a Christian”. Video after video gets consumed unthinkingly, and soon we’re just eating a steady diet of secular anti-gospel, and occasionally sticking a worship video in there to be Christian. Now this may not seem like a problem, until we realise just how much it shapes us. If we unthinkingly are listening to these things more than we are gospel voices (the Bible, other Christans etc.), we’ll soon find ourselves swayed from our faith, buying the false promises held out to us in the shiny menu of secularism. Before biting into our food and finding it to be lacking any nourishment or diverse flavour at all.
You’ll see it on dozens of Insta profiles, blogs and travel sites. The word “Christian” will be there, but otherwise it looks pretty much the same as any other. Perhaps it will mention the beauty of God’s world, a Christian playlist to listen to or a short-term mission trip they were on, but otherwise it’s all the same. Similar language, similar desires. And of course some of that is not a worry! But in many ways, we’re just imbibing secularism and sticking our Christian label on top. We need to do some thinking.But before you groan and think we’re going all super-intellectual, do not fear! Thinking does not mean we can’t relax and enjoy videos. It doesn’t mean we need to have an hour after every film to philosophically analyse everything. And like many things we start to be aware of – it comes more naturally the more we get used to it.
If you’re wanting to think more about all of culture, media and things you consume, then Dan Strange’s book is a great place to start. It’s super-short, practical and gives a framework that’ll help you with all of life. I’ve linked to it further up in this post.
If you’re wanting to think more about travel, travel videos and travel culture and how it both connects to the good news and robs of us the good news, then my book is perhaps a good place to start. It’s got the advantage of being written by a travel-lover, for travel-lovers, so I hope it’s easily accessible.
But now, let me get on very briefly to two invitations to adventure which I will ask you to join me in…
2. A Christian invitation to travel:
The video above is a Christian travel company in Northern Ireland who seek to partner Christians/churches in high-evangelical populations of the world with those church planting in areas with low evangelical populations (or none). Seeing them develop some videos has been fantastic even though they aren’t with the same aim or even the same target audience as would be needed to connect with most travel-lovers. Still, these folks have a depth of theology to them and have really thought through faith and travel.
They are one of many voices that will be needed in the days ahead to lift us out of a shallow mimicking of what the world has to offer us regarding travel. Such a mimicry under the guise of “Christian travel” will simply lure many to chase after travel, make it their heartbeat, and wonder why worshipping God on his terms, doesn’t seem as attractive anymore.
So there’s my first invitation: would you become a traveller who seeks to wrestle with how their faith engages with their travel, and form a theology of travel? If not, you’re missing out. Travelling without Jesus shaping your travels will leave you with a half-hearted vision for travel. And it’ll leave you with a version of travel which hurts others more too.
My second invitation to followers of Jesus is a more practical one: would you become a traveller who seeks to apply their theology of travel to every part of their travelling? We are looking for:
Travel bloggers: who are more concerned with what they produce and how they engage with others, than in chasing blog hits or YouTube subscriptions. You will feel the freedom!
Videographers: who may develop to share top class videography, but not to make their own name great, to make themselves look impressive to the world or to repeat the many messages that are already out there, but to reflect some of the glory of God (explicitly stated or more likely not) and powerfully capture the goodness of sustainable, ethical travel under the good Lordship of Jesus.
Travel company workers: who are not completely ruined by the pandemic downfall in tourism and travel, because their identity is in the Travel-maker, and their hope is not in profit-margins, but in the creator of Travel himself, and helping others meet him.
Frequent flyers: who care passionately for the local Church, and shape their life round investing deeply in relationships of discipleship and being present in meaningful ways for both Christians and those who don’t yet know Jesus.
Travel-lovers: who shape their life round taking up their cross and following Jesus, rather than maximising their own pleasure in the same way others in the industry do.
Instagram-ers: who let God’s word and His voice shape their priorities and desires, over the stunning images which they can scroll through before even getting up in the morning.
Ordinary Christians: who have learned the contentment that comes with knowing Jesus, who are daily not just living for their Annual Leave, or the next chance they get to make a break.
Community Hosts: who host travellers from round the world either formally (through hostels and other spaces) or informally (through Couchsurfing and other networks) and shape that through the lenses of faith.
Travel writers: who write books from a Christian perspective, who write travel devotionals to help stir hearts to worship, who write evangelistically to persuasively introduce fellow travellers to Jesus.
Travel Community Leaders: who facilitate geographical communities where Christians can be developing some of the gifts above and working out a theology of travel together as a community.
And I could go on….
There’s space for everyone at the table. And like everything in the Christian life, we have to start somewhere. So don’t worry about getting everything perfect to start with – we’re here to help each other onwards with that.
Don’t know where to start?
Drop me a line to see if there are others in your part of the world, or gather a group of friends together (while travel is still limited) to read Dan’s book or my own book in a book-group (online or otherwise) to get you thinking. And let us know if you’re already doing some of these things!
I’ve been on a search for a while now for an Islamic theology of travel. I’ve written before that it doesn’t surprise me that such a thing isn’t prominent in Islamic writings that I’ve come across. But I’m sure there are individuals and movements who are bucking that trend these days and holding the exploration of this world (for pleasure) in tension with the “other-worldly” existence of many of such theologies. And so I’ve never been happy to rest with such (incomplete) short thoughts from my own ponderings.
In Ibn Battuta (1304 – 1368) we have a Muslim traveller who is declared to have travelled around 117,000 kilometres – far above the figures of other famous travellers like Marco Polo or Zheng. Here, I got my hopes up and quickly started investigating whether this would give me my much-awaited Islamic theology of travel. But like many accounts of history, they don’t always give you what you want them to! Firstly, there are questions about some of his adventures and whether they happened. And secondly, other say his accounts seem devoid of much mention of why he was travelling, apart from the mention of pilgrimage to Mecca a few times.
Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s documentary (on BBC) and book certainly make easier reading that Ibn’s own original accounts, but also provide a rather selective Western take on his life.
And so I keep my eyes open and continue onwards in my journey towards an Islamic theology of travel. I’ll be reading Ibn Battuta myself over the next few months and may come back to him if it yields anything of interest. In the meantime, do send on any suggestions!
Jim went off to university aged eighteen. He’d grown up in his hometown, been popular in school, his sports team and in church but leaving home was one of the rites of passage that he was looking forward to, even if it meant not being able to stay in touch with a few of his friends as much. At university he was thrown into halls of residence with about 200 other first year students, and soon was socialising most nights of the week with them, or with his new sports team or church friends.
“Halls” as they were known, were the social hub that couldn’t really be replicated again in life at any point. Everyone wanted to make friends, everyone felt vulnerable, everyone had huge amounts of freetime (between lectures, and particularly as first year grades didn’t really matter), and there were thousands of other people nearby, just like Jim.
3 years of his degree flew by, and soon Jim faced the reality of the working world ahead of him. Very few people stayed in the city they lived in for university. Jobs weren’t abundant and although relational roots seemed deep, the tie to the geographical place was nothing more than a fond memory, and perhaps a church community. Campus was only good when you knew the people on it. The city was only special when you were there with friends.
And so Jim moved again, off to the capital for his first ever full-time job. Settling into the capital was far harder, as not everyone was in the same position as he was and he only knew a few people and they still lived over an hour from him. Back again at square one, it felt like a lonely world without the “halls” experience, and by the time Jim made friends in a new church, a new sports team and the odd person at work, it was a year or two onwards.
One of the big challenges of that period was to know whether to embrace loneliness or to run from it. To run from it (the socially acceptable option – no-one wants to appear lonely!), would be to constantly try and live life in his previous communities – going off to visit the lads from uni, or popping home to visit childhood friends, family and church. All could be very good uses of time, energy and intentional spiritual/missional living, but none would connect him long-term to a community locally in any real way. Was he to embrace loneliness for the sake of making friends and settling in his new home?
But Jim decided that he’d never settle in a job or a place, if he didn’t intentionally make friends and connections in his new setting, even if that meant he couldn’t see so much of his uni friends and church. So he committed to being around at weekends to find a new church community nearby, and he tried his best to make friends at work (awkward as that always is) and to join a local team (even when making training after work was nigh impossible at times and friendships were slow to form).
Like many have found, he soon was surrounded by a warm, welcoming church community that felt like family to him, which was a huge relief, after months of embracing loneliness in his new setting. No longer needing to appear to be a social reject with no friends, he now had Christian friends (even if they were a little weird at times and didn’t like his politics). Occasionally he felt a bit guilty when anyone in church brought up the topic of evangelism – who did he meaningfully know who wasn’t a Christian? But quickly he excused himself…perhaps he could speak to his awkward work colleagues? And besides, had anyone tried to move to a new city and start new church, new work and new friendships all at once?
Judy also grew up in a smaller town with no university or college nearby. When she reached 18 she was the first in her family to ever go to college, as seemed the norm for everyone to do these days. As the family weren’t well-off and couldn’t afford separate accommodation in the university city nearby, she instead got the bus in and out to college each day, travelling 90 minutes each way. To finance her course and whatever else she wanted in life, she worked a part-time job with a local business who she’d worked for as a teenager.
Her friends remained the same (most of them also going to this uni). Her family were still there (even if that annoyed her at times). And her church remained constant (even if she’d rather have been treated a bit more like an adult by them). Making friends wasn’t really a priority at college for Judy, as she already had many deep friendships with old school friends and at the local sports club back home (who she still played for). In fact, between work, sport, church and travelling to college, she barely had anytime for herself, let alone anytime for adding more people into her life. It meant that although she helped at the local campus ministry’s international cafe, befriending international students, she was never really able to spend much time with any of them.
Upon finishing college, she had enough saved up from her years working part-time that she decided to spread her wings and go for a round-the-world trip on a budget, alongside one of the few new friends she’d made from her course at uni, Jordan. The world was their oyster as they thought about where to go. And there’d be no rent payments, car insurance or parents breathing down their backs – freedom! And far cheaper than staying at home. They even got to visit a few of the international students from the college international cafe too!
That year they had the time of their lives. Backpacking in Australia and New Zealand. Visiting the paradise islands of Vanuatu. Helping an orphanage in Thailand for 3 months. And a host of other breathtaking experiences. And as well as that, everyone they met on the road seemed to be quality people – just like them. Maybe travel does that too you? Makes you more open-minded and less judgmental.
Judy arrived back home after a year on the road and immediately had the travel-bug and wanted to be away again. After a few short trips round Ireland and across Europe on cheap flights, she resigned herself to her parents’ nagging – better get a “proper” job! No-one seemed to understand how amazing her year had been, and she didn’t want to be “that” person who never shut up about it. But she really struggled to settle back into life at home. Even some of her close friends seemed to have moved on a bit, although they welcomed her in again of course, as much as they saw her between her trips.
For many winter evenings, Judy would while away the hours chatting to friends she’d met all round the globe. Many of them were Christians and gave her a taste of faith that went beyond her culture. At times her church at home seemed quite dull compared to many of the vibrant flavours of Christianity she’d experienced round the world – was this really all church was meant to be?
Jim and Judy’s stories are combinations of stories I’ve heard, seen and experienced for years in the student and travel world. Hyper-individualism is combined with the online world opening up boundaries, and good intentions for living out our faith. It often leaves many of us with questions that don’t appear to have easy answers. Here are just a few statements I’ve regularly encountered:
“I’ve just too many friends. How can I keep in touch with them all? I certainly don’t want to meet anyone else.”
“I’ve thousands of followers, but I seem to have lost the deep friendships I had in childhood. Strangely, despite this, I still lack the motivation or mental strength to get out to meet people in person.”
[full-time Christian worker] “I feel like I have to stay in touch with all these hundreds of people – they support me in prayer and I hope some of them may financially support me. But it exhausts me. I’m paralysed by it all.”
“I’ve moved cities several times now, and my work are talking about moving me again – I feel like a nomad who struggles to form deep friendships, because people know I will move on soon.”
“I feel like I have to keep trying new things and playing new circles if I’m ever going to meet someone I want to marry – there’s soo many people in the world, and I know everyone in my town already.”
“My family want me to do this, but we don’t get on amazingly well – I’d far rather spend the holidays with my friends.”
“Church people are so naff. I mean, they’re lovely and I love them, but I’d never introduce them to my friends in life – they’d make them run a mile!”
“God’s given us amazing church community, and I really struggle with the things my colleagues talk about and do, so I’d rather just focus on the few friendships I have in church.”
Society has changed.
Previously, a few generations ago, you might have grown up in the same town, with the same people and not had a choice in what job you had. The questions about friendship probably would have been very different. Elsewhere I’ve noted how the same individualism that brings us choice, also paralyses us. Amidst the great benefits from the freedom to travel, come the hard consequences for friendship that I’ve never really heard anyone offer us any help with. What truth might there be in the statements above? But what problems are arising or might arise if we fully went with any one of the statements?
I’d love to hear if you know of any good resources on friendship that speak into our individualistic western culture and help us grapple with what true friendship should look like for traveling people.
Or does travelling fly in the very face of having true friends?
Answers on a postcard! Creative guest posts welcome.
My travel goals are already looking unlikely for this year. About as soon as I’d drawn them up, they were in part decimated by new government restrictions limiting us to 5km from our home for all of the month of January. But with a vaccine being rolled out across the globe (or at least to the bits which can afford it), it looks likely that 2021 may still allow some travel at some stage. At least more than 2020 did!
But although 2020 may have gone down as your least favourite year of your life so far (at least for those of us who haven’t lived through wars, epidemics, famines or natural disasters yet in our lives), could I (perhaps bizarrely) suggest that the Christian traveller could have a different perspective?
Let me explain.
A flying 2019 You see September – November 2019 looked MAD for me with my travels.
2 trips to Edinburgh to help a new bookshop start up
1 trip to Oxford as part of an IFES cross-cultural network I’m part of
1 trip to Glasgow with the same network
1 week to Inverness to help my sister’s family redecorate their home before they moved back to Africa.
2 trips back to my old stomping ground in Munster with work projects
3 or 4 trips to Dublin to visit my (at the time) soon-to-be fiancée
2 house moves (including one change of country)
By December my housemate had realised that the maximum amount of consecutive nights I’d been sleeping at home was 4! All of that while being present every Sunday at my local church, helping serve on 3 teams in the church, and building friendships with local non-church people too. With all of this, even a travel-lover like me was exhausted and so I cancelled my travel plans for another couple of work trips that month.
Little did I know that it was going to be my last ‘proper’ travel until 2021
Down to earth with a bang Doubtless even if 2020 wasn’t so bad and you managed a fair bit of travelling (I take my hat off to you for being able to dodge the government lockdowns, travel bans and border closures!), or if this year is looking more optimistic for you, I wouldn’t let your year’s expectations ride on your travel goals, regardless how good a year it may be for them. And I’ve said that on a normal year. We as Christian travellers can enjoy a more free-ing perspective.
Undefeatable 2021 plans You see, much as I find it fun to travel, and much as many good things can be achieved through travel (as none of my 2019 travel listed above was purely ‘pleasure travel’ per se), Jesus would have us know that we would be fools to stake our worth in whether we will get to travel this year. Why not instead root our year in the God who made travel? Why not find our satisfaction in Him even when we don’t get to travel? The questions he asks us are completely different ones (aren’t they always!) to what we might naturally ask of 2021. And each one leads to consequences in the next.
What will you yearn for most this year in your heart? It is probably a glimpse of what you worship. Is that the God who made travel, or is that your travel plans with god in your pocket?
Will you let this year primarily be shaped by scriptural convictions – by God and his good plans and gentle heart? Or by your other desires, justifiable as they may be? They care nothing for you and will be harsh task-masters if you let them shape your year.
What will you measure success by this year? Travel destinations ticked off your bucket list? Or growth in godliness in your response to whatever this year has in store for us? One will give you contentedness in all circumstances and a purpose that will never be frustrated.
Are you committed to investing in a local church community and having others invest in you this year? It will mean sticking around somewhere long enough to be known by them, and to know even the people you don’t really want to know or spend time with. This is where growth in Godliness will occur.
Enlarging your joy Unsure of what your year would look like differently? Not sure whether it sounds so appetising to do this? Well if you want to have more space to think about it this year, why not grab my e-book “Travel: in Tandem with God’s Heart” for £0.99 (available at this price until the end of January) and read it with a friend? It’s an easy blend of travel stories, bits of stuff from Jesus’ words in the Bible, questions to help you think and things that might help you respond. And I pray that it might help you see that far from robbing you of your 2021 travel joys, having the God who made travel at the helm of your life will be like arriving at a destination in real life compared to only having experienced it through the brochure and Instagram pictures of it.
Something to sing about But for now, why don’t I leave us on a positive by saying: of course none of this (committing to Godliness via a local church community) completely limits travel. As we’ve seen plenty of times elsewhere, travel is a great gift of the creator to us. In fact, in recently reading a book that Keith and Kristyn Getty wrote about singing (sadistic I know, given we can’t sing in our church buildings for a few more months until the virus passes – I wanted to find out what we’re missing when we don’t sing), they suggested that one of ten things that would most fuel our kids’ hearts for singing is….travel! Or more precisely:
“Cultivate high opinions of all types of art: teach them to be lifelong students of discovery in this amazing creation God built all around us and in us. In the Getty and Lennox households we both benefitted from lively artistic discussions on classical music, books, travel and faith that encouraged curiosity, sincerity and creativity.”
“Sing: How worship transforms your life, family and church” (Getty, B&H Publishing)
Because out of the overflow from the joyful heart, comes worship.
Happy New Year!
And may we enjoy knowing the God who made travel, more and more.
“A unique book that blends the author’s travel experiences with a whistle-stop tour through the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible. It’s a curious blend of travel writing, theology and personal testimony. I found it strangely gripping and thought provoking. It certainly opens doors for wide discussion on the Christian life, liberty and mission. It’s an easy read that’s both sincerely enjoyable and seriously challenging.“ Bob J (Amazon reviewer)
I’m always devouring resources, whether books, podcasts or videos and 2020 has been no different. In fact, with Covid19, it means there has been more opportunity to stop, reflect and read (though I haven’t used that to the full!). There have been several requests for me to list what I’ve read here, though I have to admit I’m a little reluctant. So instead I’ll draw up a few resources I discovered this year that I think travelling people should be aware of, combined with a few resources that Christians who travel might like to engage with to give themselves a good foundation in their faith. Discovered useful resources this year that might help the traveller? I’d love to hear from you!
[For those that are books, please support your local bookshop and not the richest man in the world (Amazon) or the big corporations online who seek to control the market and decide what gets stocked.]
In no particular order:
The Meaning of Travel (Thomas, 2020) Not often does a title come out specifically about a philosophy of travel, so when it does, I jump on it. This was a stimulating read for myself, and also as a global book club during lockdown. For the average traveller, it’ll raise fascinating questions but also lots of relatively obscure philosophy that you may or may not want to engage with! Emily writes from a secular point of view, as a lecturer in Durham.
Don’t Go There (Fletcher, 2018) Sometimes you just want some fun travel stories that will mention things you didn’t know, show you new angles on old places, or just give you a chuckle. Fletcher writes well, and if you can put up with a few minor digs at religion (which I hope you can), you’ll find some juicy quotations randomly appearing about all sorts of things. One about true community being found in not just living for the next travel adventure. You’ll not find much new here in the travel writing market, but a few quid on Kindle was worth the chuckle. I’m sure there are many similar options out there!
Prayercast world prayer video resources You don’t need to agree with every word on every video in order to find these a superb way to gain insights into places and people of the world, and how we can best pray for them. Watch one each day, use them in prayer meetings, or pop on to get insights into a country you’ve just started thinking about – these videos will fuel your prayers and help you worship. Rather than prayer meetings praying for random places that no-one knows anything about and praying “God bless place X”, you can now pray in more informed and imaginative ways for God’s glory across the globe. Check them out!
Prisoners of Geography (Marshall, 2016) I’ve come late to this one, but this book on political geography from an ex-British army/intelligence worker, really started to open my eyes to some world events and why some countries are getting away with horrendous abuse of power, and why others seem to be scrapping over nothing. Have a world map open next to you as you read, and you’re sure to learn something new. It’s written from a very western point of view, but granted that, it has shaped my understanding considerably.
The Book of Bivvy (Turnbull, 2007) Many people (if you’re like me) will not have heard about “bivvy bags” and those who have, may quickly move the conversation on and see no desire in the world that would make them try sleeping in a bag under the stars. Tents are already a step too far for some! Turnbull writes well and helps us see why many ‘Bivvy’ and how to go about that. We’ll see whether it remains simply a read book on my shelf, or a manual which I take and use!
Microadventures (Humphreys, 2014) I needn’t say too much about this, having penned about micro-adventures alot this year. But there’s been no better antidote to being stuck in a 5k lockdown, than seeing our local world with new eyes and not getting disgruntled.
Church in Chains updates I would hope that no Christian traveller can be passionate about travelling the globe without an awareness of our brothers and sisters in Christ across the globe who are persecuted every week for His name. Does this reflect how we travel, where we spend money and how we live? What a privilege to learn from their example, to be shaken from our comfortable western existence, and to bring them before our Heavenly Father. Church in Chains is an Irish charity who does that, but there are others across the globe near you – perhaps Open Doors, Release International, the Barnabas Fund or others. They all have fractionally different emphases, so take a look around and see who you can connect with to help shape your perspective on travelling the world as a Christian.
Manage your money like a ******* grownup (Beckbessinger, 2019) (Please excuse the title.) A book that every student should receive upon graduation. So why do I include it in here? Well, although travel need not cost much, I do know many of my travelling friends who, in their dream to travel full-time, not be the wisest about investing for the future. Equally I know many who don’t travel, simply because they think they don’t have the money. I don’t agree about everything in this book, but I don’t really know another like it to help us all see clearly what may or may not be wise.
The SpeakLife (YouTube) Podcast (but in particular this episode and this episode) Glenn Scrivener has hit lockdown gold! In attempt to get back to a great confidence in the foundations the Bible lays down in Genesis 1-3, he interviews a range of Christian, secular and religious figures from round the world. Of particular note (to me anyway) are Tom Holland and Douglas Murray. Secular historian Tom Holland has written “Dominion” this year, which makes the case that the moral foundation for our whole liberal society and worldview is only found in the Christian message and can be traced back to that period. Quite remarkable, if true.
Douglas Murray’s interview is remarkable for other reasons. Glenn helpfully brings out that in the (post?) post-modern world, where there is no longer perceived to be an objective moral standard or way of seeing the world, then something will always try and replace god/God or the thing that used to give us those standards. So now we see politics trying to fill that role more and more. And that has huge dangers. One being that whatever (version of politics) seeks to be top spot will always try and vilify the “other” in order to succeed. Thus one of the key things for the next decade will be to help the church navigate how to engage well in politics. Stay out of it, and you not only lose a voice, but can’t speak to anything of the current worldview. Go in with the wrong priorities, or for one party only, and God’s word get mightily confused with human priorities and good news gets drowned.
The Equip Project Podcast (Season 2 Episode 5 – the Future of Evangelicalism) When you’re on the road it’s easy to react to what you were brought up with, or become a Christian who is quicker to say what they aren’t (‘we’re not one of those type of Christians’) than what they are (we are in Christ, we experience the scriptures as the word of God, we confess our sinfulness to [God and to] each other, we look to the cross, resurrection and ascension etc.). We start to become consumers rather than partakers. We get the best of world Christianity and leave the rest behind. In this podcast episode, the Chairman of the organisation I used to work for, chats to his church intern about the future of evangelicalism in the West. Setting aside specifics of timeline and personality, I think the main points of this deserve to be heard by a far wider audience. As travellers, we must admit the extreme risk of not committing to a local church community. Having expectations of smallscale suffering in a “1 Peter” way may help us as we otherwise may seek affluent lives, devoid of suffering.
“Majority world” theologians Increasingly I’m enjoying reading far more church history and authors from past years, as well as authors from across the globe in places that radically change my western blindspots, and teach me lots about what the future of the Church will be like. Doing this more and more this year has humbled me to realise just how God is working across the globe, how western individuals like me aren’t indispensable (duh!) and how glorious God’s picture of a multi-ethnic family of God is. As I don’t enjoy living that out as much as I ought, I’ve been enjoying lots of resources from the Majority World this year. Here’s one from The Global Church Project (interviewing Harvey Kwiyani) which I discovered this year. I also try and have one Langham Publication on the go every few months, as they seek to develop the voices of lesser-known indigenous authors. In a year where many have raised “race” issues, one of the ways I’ve tried to respond is to better shape my life round sitting at the feet of those of other races in the Church (and outside of it), both in person and through my learning.
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Trueman, 2020) This will doubtless be one of my top reads of the next few months (I’m hoping Santa will bring it!). But Carl can be found helping us think through this key topic of the “self” in video format too. On the Gospel Coalition he summarises the book in an hour-long interview. And if you want more, there’s a full series of short lectures here. With the travel narrative using “finding ourselves” as a main reason to travel, a robust theology of the ‘self’ is needed as we work out what is cultural and what is Biblical about the self. Carl is an academic, but these bite-sized chunks are hopefully manageable. Books like this would also have been excellent for undergraduate me, before I started trying to grapple with philosophy from a Christian perspective.
It does come with a warning from me though – for travellers, you’ll not be able to read this without being profoundly challenged and realising that lots of what you think about travel, is not helpful (or true) as followers of Jesus. It is not a light, practical “how to travel better” book, but one which examines the very embedded structure of our lives and seeks to speak into that. But the great thing, is that Carl doesn’t write polemically. He seeks to best represent the people he is talking about, putting their arguments in the strongest ways, so that even those who disagree with him, will be nodding along all the way until the final chapter. In that way, I am already thinking I might give this book to a few non-Christian friends who are also are thinkers and have lots of thoughts about ‘identity’ politics.
Mission Hits – From Every Nation (mission resource round-up) I love Twitter for all the world resources that it connects me too, but particularly as I could never be aware of everything and it connects me to those elsewhere in the world who are. This year I discovered Chris Howles (a seminary leader in Anglican circles in Africa) puts together fortnightly mission resources from round the world which would be of use to any person interested in mission across the globe.
The Christian Travelers’ Network podcast and resources The CTN has been around a couple of years now, and Sarah has done a great job from the US in growing the network and keeping content flowing. Like anything run by one person (this blog included), it will only ever reflect what that person (and guests) can bring to the network, but none-the-less, I’ve been delighted to see something with such scriptural aspirations, develop. Apart from the regular podcast, community on social media, and resources on the website, the CTN is expanding to be a travel agent who will service the Faith & Travel industry (largely from America). Although it’s ambitious to start such things at the tail end of a pandemic, and when travel companies have been shutting doors across the world even before the pandemic, I wish Sarah all the best for the next steps – do connect with her to see what she can offer you for your 2021 travels. One way you can do that is to join her at either of these two events online:
Once you’ve been blogging for years, the older posts tend to get lost into the back end of the blogosphere never to surface again. So here’s a pinned mini-library for those of you here for the first time, or those wondering where to begin. Doubtless it’ll be an incomplete list, but I hope it may highlight the main thrust of content on here and save you hours of scrolling past irrelevant content.
Firstly, my main purpose in writing was to help myself explore the intersection of faith and travel. To that end I put a short (Christian) theology of travel together here, before I wrote the book. It itself is a mini-library, organised according to Biblical theology and Systematic theology, though not updated since well before I wrote Travel. You can find it here. Of course some of the most popular material I have written is not on this site either – things like this where I was interviewed by Andrew Wilson for Christianity Today.
Secondly, I have been told that some other series I have written would be useful to have linked here prominently. Often nonsense gets the most internet hits (sadly blog posts with words like “sex” in or blog posts that just tell people what to do on controversial topics [people seem to secretly love being told what to do]), but these are significant not for the number of blog hits they get but for the reasons stated.
A series on Unengaged People Groups (UPG): if you’ve never heard of a UPG, aren’t regularly praying for UPGs and wonder why the western church doesn’t speak much about them, despite God’s heart for them, then you may like this series. It takes work done by others and applies it locally, but it may well still apply to some of your setting too.
A stolen series on unity in diversity: courtesy of Dave Bish (now the pastor of the church I went to during university days), there’s some thoughts on Christian unity. His models have caused many a conversation with pastors when I’ve been on the road, and have been very helpful in work. Other posts on unity also can be found here and here.
A series on how western mission agencies need to change: Like everything I write, it generally stems from work that others have done. This time taking from my experiences and from Eddie Arthur (@kouya) and applying it to the Irish setting. This series has helped round-table discussions amongst agencies on the island.
Thirdly, you may not like me hand-picking what I think you should read, and would prefer to walk into the blogosphere and climb a ladder to the fifteenth shelf and pick a blogpost that better interests you. To do this, most will know how WordPress blogs work:
There is a simple search function on the right-hand-side.
I have an unusual love of books. You can find all my book reviews and blog posts that resemble book reviews over under the topic heading “book reviews” on the right-hand-side.
All my posts about ‘faith & travel’ I tend to categorise under the two tags “theology” and “travel” – you can bring them all up using the right-hand pane. There are far more than just the ones in the section mentioned above.
Guest posts are also available through that “tag” on the right-hand-side. You’ll find more varied opinion in there than simply that of a young Irish lad.
Finally, there are some blog posts on here that fall into categories far away from anything about faith and travel but still seem popular. Here are a few of them:
The Irish 4 Peak Challenge: could you climb the highest mountain in all 4 Irish provinces in 24 hours? Not many have done this challenge, but having completed it in 2019 I’m willing to help any others who want to give it a go.
Tales from round the world: some of my blog posts I write simply for the joy of writing and telling (true) stories about things that have happened to me. You’ll see a few samples here:
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!