Friday, November 21, 2014

Tourists and Travelers in God's Kingdom

A road to . . . well, we don't always know.
He had a difficult time getting a word in between the roar of passing trains (about 3-400 a day he said) and the near-equal roar of the men talking at the table nearby. It was obvious which one annoyed him more.

We had sat down to a late dinner in our last town of the European tour—Bacharach, Germany. Next to us was a lone German man enjoying his beer and, seemingly, the atmosphere, though the train tracks not three feet away didn't feel terribly atmospheric. He started to talk to us, and as time went by, we struck up a conversation that lasted the rest of the evening, until I realized we absolutely had to start our trek up the hillside to our hostel in the gathering dark.

He had worked in several industries, including tourism, had taken and taught classes in other countries, and all in all truly enjoyed sitting around meeting people from other countries. In the middle of the conversation, he paid my daughters and me the best compliment we got all vacation. 

“You see,” he told us, nodding at the four people sitting nearby, “There is the difference between travelers and tourists. Tourists go places. They take pictures. They meet other tourists, talk to people from their own country, then go home and tell people about the places in their pictures and tick them off in a book to say they've been there.

Travelers learn about where they are. Travelers want to know about the people, the politics, the history—travelers talk to the people who live there, and eat with them, and shop with them. They”—he looked at the four Americans who had just met at the restaurant but were already laughing loudly and swapping stories--"are tourists. You are travelers.”

It causes me to wonder. Are there tourists and travelers in God's kingdom? I think there are. And I think I want to be the latter.

What is a tourist in the Christian life? Maybe someone who acts like our new friend said. Someone who only talks to people who believe like him. Who surrounds herself with those who think, act, and talk the same views. Like the four Americans at the table, they swap stories of being Christians, but they don't create stories with people who are different.

They don't create stories like my friend who learns the painful truths of the slave trade and writes about it. Or my other friend who goes into the red light district to talk to the girls. Stories like the one who talks about pornography and shame and brings darkness into light. How about fellow blogger Lorilyn who is bringing books, and hope, to orphans overseas? Or my other friend who visits a prison because justice went wrong and she can stand in for right?  (I'm sure you have stories, too. Please share them in the comments!)

Those stories are difficult to create, and difficult to tell. They are traveler stories, not tourist snapshots.

Is a tourist in the Christian life someone who checks off all the “right” boxes, like sights in a guidebook? Did this, didn't do that, signed this petition, went to that movie. But delving into the depth of what Jesus meant by “Love your neighbor as yourself”? Probing the questions of why I should or should not do this or support that? Not so easily quantifiable.

Reading the book enough to know where to get on and off the boat is good. But what's there about the big, wide country beyond? Scary stuff. It's not where the tourists go.

A traveler in God's kingdom? A traveler really looks at those neighbors and says, “I want to know you.” I need to hear your language. I should eat with you, talk with you, know who you are.

Travelers stop and immerse themselves
in the moment.
A traveler in God's kingdom wants to know the heartbeat of the King. She wants to understand how the kingdom is put in motion and why. She'd rather sit with the author of the guidebook than read bits of it and pick out what she likes. He wants to get beyond the simple guidebook of daily devotional or fill-in-the-blank Bible study and discover the depths of the real guide to this country.

It's not that we can't read devotionals and Bible studies. (Hey—I write those things.) But that they are not enough to be immersed in God's whole kingdom, where we are all, ultimately, travelers or tourists.

I know that, years from now, even as the pictures in our scrapbook may be of castles in Bacharach, the best memories will be of dinner and our new friend, learning about the German government system, health care, and education, punctuated by trains, three or four hundred a day, running down the Rhine River.

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