Sojourners Abroad

I suppose everyone who’s ever traveled very long or very far from home has had two epiphanies in common:

  1. All my life, I never knew __________ was wonderful.
  2. All my life, I never knew __________ was pathetic.

You travel from the US to the UK and suddenly become very aware of the life-changing delight of clothes dryers. Who knew? I can’t wait to go home and do the laundry. On the other hand, you realize you’ve completely misunderstood the significance of 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Afternoon tea, where have you been all my life?

Traveling reminds me that the world is both very small and enormous; that nowhere is so far from home that it can’t be crossed off the bucket list, but that a lifetime of exploration would be insufficient to see the world’s wonders; that there are so many little things taken for granted; and above all, that I am not Home yet. Trying on destinations is like trying on outfits– “Does this one fit? Not quite, it’s a little tight here… How about this one? Nope, too loose.”

If only we could piece together a collage of all the best spots, set a table with only the best dishes, order up days of perfect weather… but of course, we can’t. So we learn to laugh under the umbrella, pile on a sweater when it’s colder than it should be, spill onto the floor when we run out of chairs, frame a poster of mountains when we’re stuck in the suburbs.

We are still abroad in the UK. Yesterday we took the kids to visit Olney, home of John Newton, a place we’d visited before and wanted them to see. Last time we were here, we started in William Cowper’s house (now a museum), wandered through his garden, followed his footsteps through the guinea orchard where he and Newton walked. We rounded a bend and saw Newton’s vicarage, and lo and behold, it was for sale. Our guide explained that she’d like to see it turned into a dedicated place for study and retreat, for pastors to spend time, or writers, for pilgrims to learn about the author of “Amazing Grace” and imbibe a bit of his theology. Would we be interested in making that happen?

Of course, it was a brilliant idea, but we knew it wasn’t meant to be. (Little did we know then that we’d be embarking on a similar adventure now, not in England, but back home. Choices always feel awfully binary when you can’t grasp God’s bigger imagination.)

At the time, it was a blue sky, a bright and hazy possibility. We walked on, down the street to Newton’s church, and lo and behold, they were looking for a new minister. We laughed, vision of another kind of life opening up before us. What would it be like to live in this quaint town, serve in this beautiful church? We walked down a narrow street between stately homes to the meadow by the Great Ouse River, and dreamed. What would it be like to raise children here, let them run free in these fields?

Yesterday we retraced our steps down that street, this time with the kids. Time, of course, has rolled by since we were last here, and any different kind of life we might have given our children is moot. It was a misty sort of day, breezy, and as we stood there watching the wildflowers sway under the church spire I felt such a pang–that life flows faster than the water of the river, that forks in the road long gone can’t be revisited.

My kids will never grow up in an English village or on a North Carolina beach or even in a Rocky Mountain cabin. They have grown up in our ordinary house on an ordinary street in an ordinary town. And I felt, as I often have, a stab of regret that I haven’t given them a different kind of life.

But then, watching our youngest run through the field, I remembered something G.K. Chesterton said:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

Someday perhaps we will grow young again. Not here, of course. We can’t turn back the clock. But maybe of the million different homes we might have had, the different lives we might have lived, we’ll still get a taste. Maybe our young Father, one day making us new and young again, will plunk us down in a wonderland and let us run and leap like wild children, let us explore with untiring legs, bright eyes, imagination aflame.

Maybe we haven’t missed out after all.

How many lifetimes would it take to cross all of the best places off the bucket list? How many lifetimes can fit into eternity?

So we travel. We add to our scrapbook pictures of the places we saw streak by from the window of a moving train, places just out of reach that we’d love to explore. We taste new fruits and wonder how many we’ve been missing. We see all of the better ways people do things and come home with a list of things to improve. And none of it’s wasted. It’s just delicious enough to make us hungry, just beautiful enough to make us wistful, just foreign enough to make us long for home.

As I believe John Newton himself was known to quote, an old Scottish pastor named Thomas Boston once said,

The traveler acts unwisely, who suffers himself to be so allured with the conveniencies of the inn where he lodgeth, as to make his necessary departure from it grievous…. Walk through the world as pilgrims and strangers…. then we are ready for heaven, when our heart is there before us.

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