To the Irish, the pope, the bishop of Rome who was successor to Saint Peter, was a kind of high king of the church, but like the high king a distant figure whose wishes were little known and less considered. Rome was surely the ultimate pilgrim’s destination – especially because there were so many books there that could be brought back and copied! But if your motive was holiness:
To go to Rome
Is little profit, endless pain;
The Master that you seek in Rome,
You find at home, or seek in vain.
Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 181
There’s some New Covenant common sense in this ancient Irish verse. Worshiping in spirit and in truth means there are no longer some mountains holier than others – nor cities. The presence of the Spirit in all of God’s people means physical pilgrimage is no longer necessary. The presence of God is just as near in Ireland as in Rome, in Melanasia as in Jerusalem.
On the other hand, having lived in frontier places without ready access to good Christian books, I fully understand a willingness to go to such tremendous lengths to acquire them.
We just traveled back to the US for a medical leave. Once again, when crossing worlds from Central Asia to the States I was struck by a peculiar flipping of the condition of bodies and infrastructure. I wanted to write about it while the contrast is still fresh to my eyes, knowing that sometime in these first weeks I will lose that ability to notice the stark contrasts as my immediate surroundings register in my brain as the new normal.
For an interesting experiment, ask those who are newly visiting or moved to your area what jumps out at them, what their senses and mind can’t help noticing. It’s a reliable way to get fresh perspective on your immediate surroundings – surroundings your mind has already lost some ability to “see” as they have become the proverbial water the fish is surrounded by.
In short, when traveling from Central Asia to the West, the bodies get more broken, while the infrastructure gets less so.
The shift in infrastructure happens quickly. Most of the building supplies and goods available in our corner of Central Asia are a lower level of goods made in Asia for export to the developing world. You have goods made in China for the West. Then you have goods made in China for places like Central Asia. These are not the same. Disposable plates crumble into your kebab, headphones bought in the bazaar last a week and zap your ears with electric current, playground equipment cracks and warps. While Central Asian culture cares more for a certain sheen when it comes to its infrastructure – such as shiny door knobs and fancy ceiling panels – shortcuts in quality mean things fall apart remarkably quickly. One starts longing for solid everyday things – like toilet seats – that would actually last for decades. Yes, the quality of toilet seats does indeed have serious implications, and is one area where you very much want to get the Made-in-China-for-the-West variety.
Essentially, the infrastructure gets firmer as you transit through the Middle East to the West, getting broader, thicker, and simply less easily broken, culminating upon arrival in the US where even the luggage carts look like they have been working out, compared to their frail foreign cousins. You may catch yourself admiring a metal fence and wondering about the foresight of those willing to spend so much money on something so solid. Buy once, cry once, as a wise American deacon once said to me.
The human bodies seem to move in the opposite direction. In general, the population of Central Asia is on the younger side. The “baby boom” peak of our local area are those born in 1990. The diet is also significantly healthier. Fresh fruits and veggies are cheap and a central part of the local diet. As are fresh yogurt and pickled veggies, full of good probiotics. This seems to balance out all the bread, oily rice, and sugary chai locals consume on a daily basis. While some of the younger generation is being raised on fast food and beginning to develop obesity, most of the population would be in healthier weight ranges. Fathers and Grandpas typically have a bit of a stomach, good for resting their chai saucer on. Mothers and grandmas end up naturally a little heavier as they age, bearing children and caring tirelessly for the household. In short, bodies develop and age in a way that has been typical for much of human history.
However, moving Westward means moving into a world where the bodies are significantly more broken. Weight and diet are a big part of this (why are fresh veggies so crazy expensive in Western societies?), but are not the only one. It seems like a strange disrespect for the body accompanies the West’s public infatuation with model-standard physicality. When you’ve lived outside North America and reenter, it’s not unusual to be hit with a sense that something is deeply wrong with our body culture when getting on that first plane with other Americans, or when being hollered at by that first wave of TSA agents. It’s as if in the West we either worship our bodies and fight to preserve their youth for as long as we can, or we come to neglect and hate them. I myself have struggled with a spiritual form of this neglect, believing for many years that I could ignore the body if I was sacrificing it for ministry. My struggle is easier to hide than many of my fellow Westerners, since I atrophy when I neglect my health, rather than putting on weight. But we share in the same root malady. Something about the Western experience has caused us to believe we are no longer actually embodied.
Along with this, the West is also aging. The average traveler in American airports is at least middle-aged, if not older. There are very few children in Western airports. And those that you see are usually those of immigrant families from other parts of the globe. Even flight attendants and airport staff have a different posture toward children, with those of Central Asian or Middle Eastern culture being far more likely to happily accommodate the needs of those with little ones, whereas Western staff are not unlikely to find such families an inconvenience. It goes without saying that older bodies are more broken bodies, although this is a more natural brokenness, as opposed to that caused by the Western lifestyle.
The bodies get more broken, while the infrastructure gets less so. I notice these things not really knowing what they fully mean. But for a student of culture, the path toward understanding significance starts with observation, and then a long-term chewing on those observations until clarity suddenly drops. At the very least, noticing these weaknesses of culture keep us from an unhealthy pride in either one. Every watered valley has its jackal, as one of our local proverbs wisely says. Post-fall, our brokenness will manifest not only on the individual level, but also on a scale culture-wide. This should sober us and keep us from both culture despising and culture worship.
There may be cultures that have the moral capacity in this age to care for the physical body as well as well as the quality of the things we build around us to serve the body. Unfortunately, these things seem to currently be a trade-off of sorts. For now, it’s for the Church to seek to model this kind of stewardship, strangers and exiles though we are. For though the temporary physical things of this world will pass away, we are still to plant gardens in our Babylon. We do this freely, knowing that we have a city, and bodies, that are coming and that will last forever. Long after the finest body – or luggage cart – has turned to dust.
I’ve posted another version of this proverb in the past, but I believe that this version is the older one. In the local culture, they used to appraise gold by scratching it with a special device. The appraiser was able to tell the quality of the gold from the scratch made in its surface. In this proverb, the gold represents a person’s character. So in essence, travel and business, like a gold appraisal tool, reveal a person’s character.
As one who has traveled for my entire life, I testify that the travel part is certainly true. When a trip is long enough (and it doesn’t have to be that long), people are unable to keep up appearances. Sooner or later, they will get tired or stressed or sick or inconvenienced in some way. And at that point, character will spill out.
Every time we travel internationally, I am reminded of the difference the new birth makes in when it comes to simple kindness. In the dehumanizing environment of a crowded airplane, most want to protect at all costs the few rights and the small space they still have. Those who are kind to families with small children or to the sick or the elderly stand out. And often, turns out the kind and sacrificial ones are those who know Jesus.
In an age where we often lament the lack of difference between the Church and the world, I am happy to say that travel truly can reveal the reality of the new birth – and that it is a golden, wonderful thing.
“You have to leave tomorrow. There’s a chance the other faction of the government will take control of the border and your exit visa will no longer be valid.”
The land border was the only exit we had left. During a political crisis the airports had been shut down. Other borders were shut or went through territory too dangerous to traverse as Westerners. We had been stuck in-country for a while, hunkered down as we watched political powers slowly tighten the grip on the region we were living in.
One colleague wisely counseled us in that season, “There’s a unique stress to being stuck out of country, and there’s a unique stress to being stuck in. Which one can your family better handle right now?” It was time to risk the stress of being stuck out.
We handed off our responsibilities to local believers and partners and consulted maps together. The tense uncertainty of our ability to return meant it was a sweet goodbye with the little core of our local church plant. Early the next morning, we set off.
The journey to the one border crossing left meant a six hour drive through the mountains, then leaving our vehicle with some friends. From there we would take a taxi one hour to the border, go through the border processes, and then drive another two hours to an airport city in the least unstable country of our region. We looked forward to a two-night rest in a hotel once we got there. We would need it to be ready for the long flights back to the US with two small children.
The drive through the mountains went well. It was spring and the bright green carpet of grass was already creeping over the mountains. We drove by ancient cities and villages I still hope to visit someday. Everything was strangely quiet for the six hour drive. The vehicle drop-off went well. The designated taxi was waiting and we made the trip. So far so good. Now for the border – the most unpredictable part.
Had the other faction taken control and would they block our exit or fine us? Would the border even be open? Would there bathrooms – or chai?! I had crossed this land border once before, but that was ten years previous. We were at the mercy of our taxi driver, who thankfully was very adept at shuffling us and our documents from one window bureaucrat to another. He also had TV screens for the kids in the back seat, which played several Tom and Jerry episodes in a loop. This would prove to be remarkably helpful as we jumped back in the car and drove to join a massive line of vehicles. After managing to pull into line, we sat. And then proceeded to sit for seven hours.
It wasn’t that we were totally still. We probably moved about one centimeter per minute. In front of us was our country’s security checkpoint, then a bridge across a river – maybe 100 meters long – and the neighboring country’s security checkpoint on the other side. We thought we had gotten there with plenty of time, but before we knew it the afternoon was spent and the sun was setting. The only exit left was one massive bottleneck.
We sat and sat and inched forward and sat some more. We made it through our country’s security checkpoint without too much trouble. No sign anywhere of the rumored takeover. Sometime after sunset we made it onto the bridge itself. An encouraging development, to be sure – until our three year old daughter needed a bathroom. There was no way back. And we couldn’t access the bathroom on the other side of the next security checkpoint, down at the other end of the bridge. So we tried, in vain, to create a shield with the car door and to help her relieve herself there on the pavement of the bridge. What else was to be done? We had at least another two hours to go sitting on this bridge. However, the strangeness (security spotlights and all) was too much for her three year-old-system, and in spite of her full bladder, she simply couldn’t go anymore. My wife decided to see if we could get an exception for a cute kid desperately in need of a potty. She headed off toward the end of the bridge with our daughter in tow, and was able to make eye contact with a female border agent standing at a side door – who mercifully gave them illegal bathroom access. Technically that toilet existed on the territory of a country we had not yet been cleared to enter. But common grace still exists, and cute kids can secure all kinds of exceptions in Central Asia.
We had a lot of time that day to be still and notice our surroundings during the seven hours it took to cross that river. We started noticing something curious. Some people were milling around up and down the bridge by foot. As they would pass our vehicle and others, some would tap twice or three times on the metal siding of the car. It wasn’t aimless. It was some kind of pattern. We started noticing small packages being slyly passed up the line of vehicles and individuals ducking behind cars as the security spotlight hit, and running up behind the next car once it moved on. We were witnessing a robust yet seemingly common-place smuggling operation. All the taxi drivers – judging by the tapping system – seemed to be in on it. Including our own.
We had been clear with him that as Christians, we were not going to be able to take part in any cigarette smuggling that is typically expected of taxi border passengers. Taxi drivers will stuff passengers’ bags with bulk cartons of cigarettes and have the passengers claim them as their own. In this way the drivers and their associates are able to buy cigarettes cheaply on our side of the border, and sell them for a profit on the other. We simply would not participate in the part where we said they belonged to us, we had insisted with the driver. And he assured us that he was OK with this and wouldn’t try any funny business with the smokes.
Late at night we finally made it to the security checkpoint. I checked our bags as they were taken out of the trunk. No bulk cigarette packages. But I did notice some had appeared in the trunk. Fruit of the car-tappers, no doubt. We shuffled our bleary-eyed children away from their hours of Tom and Jerry on repeat and made our way to the X-ray machine. As soon as we put our bags on the belt, a young man ran up out of nowhere and placed the cartons of cigarettes alongside our bags.
“What are these?” the security agent asked us.
“These belong to them!” said the young man.
“No they don’t, I said in the sister dialect of the local language.”
“These foreigners don’t understand our language,” he said, “I assure you these belong to them.” And he smiled at me with a please play along now kind of look.
“No,” I said, “these are not ours!” I was grateful that these sentences were more or less intelligible across the dialects. A look of worry flashed on the man’s face as a couple of burly security men came and hauled him off. The security officer attending us just shrugged. I shot a look back at our driver who was scratching his head some distance from us, trying not to look disappointed that his sneaky plan had failed.
Around one in the morning we finally made it to the hotel where we were staying, after leaving our house around 5 a.m. the previous day. We slept hard.
Upon waking and heading down to the breakfast buffet, we immediately felt the stress lifting now that we were no longer in a country under political siege. I sipped my Americano and enjoyed the bright light coming into the hotel dining room. After the long season of security crises and our crazy border crossing day, we could now breathe deep for a little bit. Then it was off to the US for our first trip back since moving overseas.
My wife was staring at me. She started mouthing some words. I am positively terrible at lip reading, so after I tried and failed to understand what she was saying, she gave up and just blurted it out.
I nearly dropped my coffee. And that’s how I learned about our third-born.
Around 3 a.m. last night we arrived in our Central Asian city after five months in the US. The return journey was unexceptional in many ways, though trips like this with multiple small children always come with their fair share of challenge and misadventure – He’s eating pretzels off the floor again. Gross. I should stop him, but is it worth it at this point? And yet travel in 2020 is unique enough that I thought a few observations on our trip would be of some interest.
On an encouraging note, we enjoyed seeing airports such as Dallas-Forth Worth and Doha, Qatar humming again with activity, even if it’s less than half of what it was last year. Five months ago when we took the repatriation flight the airports were deserted shells of themselves, dark, empty, and sad. This time travelers and airport staff seemed genuinely happy to just be out and involved in travel again. “Don’t apologize, we’re just glad to be doing some work for a change!” said an elderly counter agent while dealing with our complicated tickets and destination requirements. Alas, all of the Starbucks were still closed. We were hoping for one more American-style cold brew. We did manage to get in one last classic burger.
The planes were all very full, which was a bit surprising for us. Yet all the passengers seemed to don their required face masks and face shields without protest. We didn’t encounter any of the conflict over these requirements we’ve read about in the news. Most seemed happy to comply, glumly resigned, or already adapted to a new normal. Even on 14-hour flights, humanity is remarkably flexible. I mused to my wife about how our youngest might remember these flights. In a few years when we all travel once again with unveiled face, he’ll think back and recall all the space-age face equipment worn, perhaps wondering if that actually happened or if his memory is playing tricks on him. For some kids, returning to “normal” might actually feel like a bit of a loss. No more cool face shields and ninja masks. Bummer.
American Airlines for its part has not adapted to the extent that Qatar Airways has. Qatar brought with it both higher Covid-19 precautions (staff in full PPE, mandatory passenger face shields plus masks) and an almost complete return to pre-pandemic in-flight service. Qatar has never stopped flying during the pandemic, strategizing that it’s better business to make a name for itself as one of the only carriers still going strong. Their flights to and from our region have been a lifeline for us and our organization. I hope it will work out well for them when the industry gets back to normal.
Even with all the restrictions, Qatar Airways also managed to be remarkably child-friendly, ushering our family to the front of lines and showing special attention to the kids during the flights. As usual, this contrasted sharply with the way Western staff tend to treat families with small children. It’s sad to be reminded every time we travel between hemispheres how the East values children while the West views them mainly as an obstruction. “We have a connection to make!” one flight attendant huffed while we fumbled to get off the plane with our kids and our extra bags full of childhood diabetes equipment.
However, this kind of comment was the exception as most travelers and staff, Eastern and Western, seemed more appreciative of simple human interaction than they might have been before. The world has been starving for social contact. There was joy to be found for many just in the simple act of being in a small traveling crowd again. The language barriers, the seat negotiations, and the screaming/laughing kids seemed to be met with a measure of greater patience. Common grace is a wonderful thing. There was potential for a refreshing solidarity, room for conversation where each party gets to share how they’ve been affected by this global crisis. I imagine we’ll be swapping stories about 2020 for decades to come – not a bad thing at all for Christians eager for common ground that leads to conversation about deeper things.
Another trip halfway around the world. But likely one of our more unique journeys – the first one to require face shields and airport nose-swabs at least. Today we are jet-lagging something bad, but our hearts are overflowing with gratitude. Our three kids did great on a difficult journey. We were able to juggle our daughter’s new diabetes and a squirmy almost-two-year-old without any major mishaps. Our oldest son is at the age where he can now help push luggage carts and pull small suitcases! (Game changer). That airline food and coffee was pretty awful, but how wonderful that the long flights served coffee and meals at all. After a canceled flight we even got some rest at an airport hotel (last room available), just enough to keep us sane for our 3 a.m. arrival. God is so good.
So here we are, back in our adopted city, unpacking our bags, coming up on two years of almost-constant transition. Our hope now is for a season of stable presence and ministry. Like so many, we find ourselves largely in the dark as far as the details of God’s purposes for seasons of transition like this. Yet we do not trust in stability or in our ability to piece it all together (much as I might try). Our God is the God of sojourners and pilgrims, the God of wanderers like Abraham. He just saw us through another two day journey around the world… during a pandemic. He’ll see us through whatever longer journey we might yet face. In the end it will all weave together for glory.
I read this week that Qantas has retired its last Boeing 747, the plane known as “the queen of the skies.” The queen retired with flair, drawing a kangaroo in the sky.
Since I grew up in Melanesia, the first 747 I remember seeing belonged to Qantas. It was a rainy night, probably in the Sydney airport. I was an almost five-year-old. I remember staring out the huge windows at an airplane of mythical proportions, a large red and white kangaroo logo emblazoned on the tail, shining in the rain and the flashing lights of the airport’s activity. In the mysterious ways that memory works, I actually remember it being a triple-decker plane, not a double-decker as it must have been. I spent years wondering why I no longer saw any planes with three levels, like I had seen in Australia. Eventually I realized that I must have seen it as larger than it actually was, time inflating the size of things in the style of the film, Big Fish.
I believe it was also a 747 that we took back to the US on that trip. My father had just passed away and we had packed up and left our host country without knowing what the future held. The pilot somehow heard about our situation and let my brothers and me come up and see the cockpit during the flight, an awfully kind and pre-9/11 gesture for him to make. At that age everything about flying was magical, the in-flight meals, the little toothbrush kits, and the ability to sleep curled up comfortably on the floor. I still love flying, though now I often feel less of the magic and more like an awkward T-rex crammed into a small metal tube (Plus we now have three little rex-lings to keep occupied, or at least kept from dumping their food trays and throwing up, which certainly changes the experience a bit).
I remember stepping onto the jet bridge in my flip-flops as we disembarked from that flight, crunching the snow let in at the jet bridge seam. I had never seen snow before. I took one last look back through the window at the front of the huge plane. Alas, it may be too late for me to ever get to fly on that mysterious upper level of the 747. But I am grateful for how that plane was used to ferry so many missionary families like mine back and forth from the field. Who knows how many thousands arrived safely to their fields of service through the common grace of the 747.
Farewell, graceful queen and sturdy vessel of my childhood travels. Like the steamships that took a previous generation of my forebears to their overseas labors, you also will be missed.