I love travel. Not just because travel is a way for me to experience and learn about other cultures and histories, but because travel itself – especially international travel – is a wonderful tutor in God’s grace.
What you find in a foreign country is that travelers, regardless of country, gender, or language, tend to band together. A Canadian man from Denmark is the only reason that my husband and I were able to navigate the impossible sprawl of Charles de Gaulle on our forty-five minute layover to get to our flight home. In the Czech Republic, an elderly German woman – who spoke no English but apparently sensed our consternation about which train to take – grabbed my shoulder and insisted, “Nein! Nein Praha!” when I nearly stepped onto one that would have taken us to the opposite side of the country. On that same trip, two Australian women traveling together became my husband and I’s “travel buddies” on a trip to Kutna Hora that involved unmarked buses and only the vaguest of directions.
I once commiserated with a Dutch woman who was as afraid as I was to descend a rickety spiral staircase in a high tower. Once, my husband and I took a picture of an Italian marathon runner who, having finished his race, had no family to celebrate with him or mark the accomplishment. An Irish cabbie once waxed poetic to us about his memories of a rare snowy Christmas in Dublin, when the neighbors all crept out of their homes and, inspired by the weather, gathered to spend the evening together.
Even at home, these opportunities present themselves. At a rest area Starbucks, I spotted an older man whose ball cap was covered in all sorts of pins and charms. When I told him they looked interesting, he got to talking with my husband and I and we learned he’d traveled to India, Nepal, Japan, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Vietnam, and a host of other places – some of them twice! I heard all sorts of stories about his life just while I was waiting for his mocha.
I think the reason that travel is particularly apt for creating these kinds of moments is because, by the very nature of being away from home, you become inclined to embrace the unexpected. You’re in an unfamiliar place, willing to try new things, and very aware that you are, so to speak, “on your own.” In such a moment of uncertainty and expectation it’s easy to open up to others – to ask a question, to offer a smile, to disregard the language or cultural boundaries that normally encourage us to stay in our own lane.
The Bible exhorts us constantly to be awake and alert – to keep our lamps lit, to keep our eyes open. These admonitions are usually given in the context of Christ’s return, to remind us that we never know when He will come. This is true, and yet I think those instructions are also useful to apply to the current moment, as well. A conversation with a cabbie, a few kind words exchanged in a cathedral in a foreign country, a twenty-minute conversation with a valet about his hopes and dreams: these moments don’t come for those who “are asleep,” but rather to those who are “awake and sober” (1 Thess. 5:6).
Whether you travel or whether you don’t, wake yourself up from the routine of your daily life. Seek out those with whom you might cross paths – even and especially strangers, even and especially those who are not like you. Exchange a moment, if you can: a smile, a few words of conversation, a greeting, a favor. It doesn’t matter if the words lead to a ministry opportunity. God asks us simply to love, and a part of that love means sowing grace abundantly and richly wherever we can, even and especially when we may never see them again.
Pretend for a day that you, too, are a traveler in a foreign country, because you are. This world, after all, is not our home.