Everyone who travels can tell at least one nightmare travel story: "A funny thing happened to me on the way to..." But frustrating convergences of delays, close or missed calls, deprivations, and misunderstandings usually don't seem funny at the time. The 40-odd hours I recently spent getting home from Europe form a catalogue of all the above, too lengthy to recount here. From that experience, however, comes one sound recommendation: When you are stuck in an airport for several hours because of a missed connection due to a delayed flight, find the chapel and a Bible, turn to the Psalms, and get a grip.
Chances are, your place of refuge will be an interfaith sanctuary that tries to accommodate everybody: Mine scheduled Mass every morning, marked off a special praying area on the carpet for Muslim knees, and asked nothing of visitors but silence, so that fellow travelers could commune with their particular spiritual reality in peace. But the deepest imprint on the chapel was left by Christians, as I discovered while paging through the prayer journal on the lectern. Most of the entries expressed faith in Jesus Christ and went on to share their burdens or give thanks. Reading over them was like journeying alongside for a while.
These are the people crammed three abreast on Boeing jets, sharing processed air and hugging their bit of private space. The journal revealed their hearts: "Thank you Father for this peaceful place and this beautiful day." "Lord, please show me if Michelle is the one for me ..." "Please pray that this last visit with my dad will be special.... I love you Dad-thanks for everything." Amid the outcries and the gratitude, I found this fleeting prayer: "... and bless those who are in between where they need to be."
It's the cry of travelers the world over-I'm here and I need to be there. Oh for wings like an eagle, that I could soar above all the unyielding space that stands in my way. Or a divine bow to nock me like an arrow and draw me back and shoot me straight and clean, piercing the hours and the miles.
That's our wish, even while acknowledging that we'll never truly arrive. In between-heaven and earth, thought and deed, act and intention, fact and expectation, doubt and assurance-is where most of us spend our lives.
The Israelites spent 40 years in between, while God pitched His tent among them, establishing His presence and law. After their settlement in Canaan, travel became part of worship, as families selected lambs without blemish from their flocks and went up to Zion for the sacrifice. Psalm 120-134 is the songbook for such journeys (and more edifying than "Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall"). When Jesus "set His face to go to Jerusalem" for the ultimate sacrifice (Luke 9:51), every step was an opportunity. Most of the teaching in Luke occurs during this journey, including the story of the youth who traveled to a far country, squandered his inheritance, and made his painful way back home. Paul, that epic traveler of the New Testament, set out for Rome and found himself seriously "in between"-driven by contrary winds to the island of Malta, where he promptly preached the gospel to superstitious natives.
All saints through the ages understand themselves to be strangers and exiles on the earth, whose journeys from here to there are metaphors for a life lived in expectation of heaven. But we easily forget.
While I was still reading the prayer journal in that airport chapel, the door opened and an airline employee entered with a guitar. He nodded to me in the wary way of strangers, then took a seat, tuned his instrument, and began singing praise choruses. After a moment I joined in on the ones I knew, and we met as Christians should-over words of hope in Jesus. Soon three more employees joined us, then two other travelers. The songs gained energy and conviction, especially "This love (joy, peace) that I have-The world didn't give it and the world can't take it away." At the end of the session, before continuing on our separate ways, we took a moment to shake hands with peculiar warmth. Like the pilgrims of Psalm 84, "in whose heart are the highways to Zion", we had passed through the Valley of Baca and found it a place of springs. And the very place, providentially, where we needed to be.