• Craig Mueller

Leave It Behind: Reflections on Travel

The disciples are in for quite a journey. Jesus calls them to follow him and to fish for people. And there is a sense of urgency. Everything happens quickly in Mark. He uses the word “immediately” 27 times in his gospel.

Did you notice how the disciples drop everything to follow Jesus? And what do they leave behind? They leave their fishing nets behind. And James and John leave their dad Zebedee right in the boat!

I remember my family going on a long vacation in our camper. We travelled from Colorado to California to see Disneyland, Hollywood and other things. My brother and I were told that we could only bring one stuffed animal each. But it was impossible to choose one and leave the others behind. So we narrowed it down to three each. And as the tripped progressed we gleefully popped animal by animal over the seat to show our parents.

Since our first trip together Ernest has insisted that we pack lightly and travel only with carry-on size luggage, whether we are flying for two hours or going to Africa! That means leaving behind a lot of things that you think you might need. Better to have a wardrobe to choose from so there is just the right shirt for the weather, the occasion, and your mood for the day, right! Wrong! I admit it works better in warm weather when you wear a lot of tee-shirts and shorts. And sometimes it comes down to this. If the shirt doesn’t stink you can wear it another time! Even with such a ration of underwear, socks, and pants, Ernest will still say later that he took more clothes than he needed!

We gain a lot through travel. We gain a lot through our journeys through life. We gain a lot through experience. An accumulation of memories! But today’s gospel has me thinking about the things we leave behind or are called to leave behind.

Now this is counterintuitive, isn’t it? We want our stock portfolios to grow. We want the list of our Facebook friends to grow and our posts to get as many “likes” as we can. We want our resumes to grow. And hey, don’t we want or need the number of members in this church, to increase? Sometimes it’s call exponential growth.

More money, more friends, more clothes, more shoes, more stuff, more gadgets, more downloads, more apps, more cable stations, and most of all, more options. The more options the better, right? Until we are wearied with all the things we carry with us on our journey. The literal things—and the emotional baggage, mind you.

Regardless of how full our suitcases, travel invites a kind of letting go, a suspending of the way we think about things, about places, about people. Whether traveling to a new neighborhood in Chicago, an unfamiliar place in the USA, or a country across the ocean. Gilbert K. Chesterton put it this way: “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”

When we were in Africa, we asked people their impressions of politics in the U.S. and tried to imagine their perceptions of our country. Even watching the CNN World channel or Aljajeera made me curious to hear the news through another perspective. Reflecting on apartheid and race in South Africa revealed similarities and differences with such struggles in our own country. But one thing seems similar—whether there, in Cuba, or here—there seems to be an intrinsic prejudice against people of color. The fact that my Namibian friend Scobie said he has never seen a black Jesus still haunts me.

And following Jesus, maybe it’s no different. Perhaps we are called to leave behind the ways we used to think about things, think about people, even think about God. Life is not static. Faith is not a once-and-for-all thing. Every day we are called to leave behind our old perceptions, even of ourselves. Lord knows we’ve lied to ourselves enough as defense mechanisms. How freeing it is to leave it all behind, to let go, and to travel more lightly, open each day to something new—to fresh views of who we are . . . and how vast and diverse our world, not to mention the universe. Simply looking up at the stars in the dark sky of Namibia in the Southern hemisphere, with different constellations was . . .

both mind-boggling and liberating!

In some airport somewhere I saw this quote by Henry Miller: “One’s destination is never a place but a new way of looking at things.” And in today’s political climate, we all could use a dose of the quote from Rose to Finn in “The Last Jedi”: “That’s how were gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.”

At first glance, St. Paul’s words today don’t seem relevant. He seems to believe that the world would end at any time. So let those who have spouses live as though they had none. Let those who buy as though they had no possessions. Yet, the world as we know it is always passing away. The journey toward transformation involves leaving something behind in order to embrace the new, the present moment. In worship we learn over and over to rest alone in God, to wait in silence and hope, as the psalmist puts it.

And as we remember the losses and all we are called to leave behind, it is the poets who help us pay attention. Such as Mary Oliver, favorite of many. Her poem “Backwater Woods” speaks of trees and cattails and nameless ponds. But it is the ending that is often quoted.

Every year everything I have ever learned in my lifetime leads back to this: the fires and the black river of loss whose other side is salvation, whose meaning none of us will ever know.

To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.

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© 2017 Craig Mueller