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Travel Light

“Travel light,” says Jesus to his less than straight A disciples. “Do not pack lunch or dinner or even an energy bar.” “Do not bring a change of clothes, even socks or underwear.” “Leave your money in the bank.” “Wear sandals.” “Carry a walking stick and get going.” That was the first ordination sermon preached in the New Testament. It was preached by Jesus to his disciples on the verge of their graduation from Galilee Seminary. The rest of the story is sparse on details, but Mark makes one point clearly. The disciples, who throughout Mark are a dense and bumbling lot, for one fleeting, shining moment trust in the sure provisions of God and do exactly as Jesus says, and the results are breathtaking.

“Travel light.” Those missionary instructions from Jesus must have made little sense then and they make even less sense in our market economy. For perhaps, the three most important words in a market economy are – “just in case.” In this vacation season, those three simple words inevitably lead to bulging suitcases that require all our strength to lug around. I heard a young couple interviewed on NPR who were vacationing in Yellowstone National Park. They had their apple phones and i-pads to make calls and check email. They had also packed an extra generator, along with a combination TV/DVD, a refrigerator, a microwave, and they towed a car behind them – “just in case” something went wrong with their RV. They had travelled to Yellowstone to “get back to nature,” but they brought with them every contrivance of modern society – “just in case.”

Lest we be too hard on this well-equipped couple, most of us pledge allegiance to “just in case.” We carry a phone that doubles as a flashlight, Kindles or I-Pods to read our books, bottled water, insulated bed rolls, bug spray, sunscreen – you name it, we have got it – “just in case!”

“Travel light.” Carried across a couple of millennia, these travel instructions from Jesus grate against my “just in case” education and instincts. For I have learned the “just in case” philosophy not only from society, I have learned it in church and in seminary. “Gary, learn to write well, ‘just in case’ a grammarian in your congregation tries to pick apart your best efforts.” “Gary, learn to pray well, ‘just in case’ someone in your church doubts that you are spiritual enough.” “Gary, learn to speak well, ‘just in case’ weary members are tempted to sleep through a sermon.”

“Travel light.” For the best of reasons, my seminary professors taught valiantly to prevent any of us fledgling new pastors in training from ever “traveling light.” They applied their best teaching wisdom so we would enter the church sufficiently trained for ministry’s many “just in case” situations.

After four years of college and after two years of Seminary, off I went to serve an intern year as pastor of a rural congregation in south central North Carolina. I was fully armed with a compendium of biblical and theological knowledge and was ready to use it. Asked a Bible question, I had the answer polished and ready to deliver. Asked about an ethical quandary, I could recite the complexities of the issue and suggest a definitive solution. Asked how to provide the best pastoral care, I knew all the right counseling phrases. I was armed and ready for ministry, packing a bulging suitcase full of handy wisdom, prepared as the best theological scout – “just in case.”

The first week there, the office phone rang. I was told to come quickly and I did. I jumped into my speedy VW bug and headed to their home, ready for action. I rang the doorbell, the door opened, and a body literally collapsed into mine, exploding into a pool of tears. “Why?” was the only word he could utter and he uttered it between every gasp for breath. Faced with a senseless, accidental shouting of his young child with a handgun he kept in the house for “protection,” “just in case,” all he could speak through his tears was “Why?”

I fumbled through every nook and cranny of my fully-prepared, “just in case” theological mind and pastoral bag of assurances, but it was as if my mind was no longer connected to my lips. Every pat phrase I had ever heard sounded like so much rubbish and every theological concept felt far removed from this devastating field of pain.

I must have uttered ten thousand prayers to God for help during that one embrace. And, thank God, those prayers did not return unanswered. They were answered not with the right words for me to say, but with a true sense of calm that God was somehow present in the midst of this storm. As I held this broken soul and he dampened my shirt with his tears, I learned that God knew both my panic and his pain, and in those silent moments I learned firsthand that the promise of Emmanuel, of God with us, is not a promise to be packed away the week after Christmas. I learned that no matter how light we travel, we need always travel with the assurance of Emmanuel.

“Travel light.” By any standard, then or today, Jesus sent the disciples off sorely unprepared. They had little education and even less theological education. But Mark’s point is that Jesus had given them what they needed in that moment and would not have sent them off otherwise. He had given them the promise that they already had enough. He had given them the promise of Emmanuel.

“Travel light.” In these contentious times in the church when we argue about how to read the Bible, if and how the church should engage the political scene, whether the church is on its last leg or about to be resurrected, what would it mean to “travel light,” to set aside our agendas and arrogance long enough to trust that those on the other side of the aisle are also accompanied by Jesus?

I can already hear the objections. “Don’t be naïve, Gary, it is the biblical and theological ignorance of the other side that have created these problems in the church. We have already got enough unprepared Christians and pastors taking ill-informed, intractable positions on church issues; we surely do not want to encourage any more leaders in the church to ‘travel light’, to be even less prepared that they already are.”

I urge anyone who fears a 21st century call from Jesus to “travel light” to read the rest of Mark’s Gospel. Such a reading will show that to “travel light” is not a call for naïve simplicity; it does not eschew a sound and comprehensive theological education or confuse narrow dogmatism with well-equipped Christian faith. After their first mission tour, every disciple of Jesus had much more to learn and Jesus had a great deal left to teach them. To “travel light” does not call us to jettison what we have learned or to dull our curiosity about how much more we have left to learn.

To “travel light” does call us to trust first and fundamentally in something more reliable than our carefully honed positions and the often insidious “just in case” principle. To “travel light” is to trust that our lives consist of more than the degrees we earn, the stuff we accumulate, the job we do, the title we hold, the place we live, the gadgets we manipulate, the Bible verses we memorize, or the church fights that we win. To “travel light” is to trust that Jesus has not yet taught us or anyone else all there is to know, and to believe that God never sends us out alone and ill-equipped to love and heal and fight every vestige of evil in the world and in the church. To “travel light” is to trust that you and I can hold God to God’s Word, to learn as did the prophet Ezekiel that God’s Word is as sweet as honey.

The 16th century Heidelberg Catechism begins with this profound question: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” The answer to that question has nothing to do with where we are located on the theological spectrum or how many right answers we can get on Bible Trivia or how many “just in case” tools we have packed in our Christian ministry bags. The answer has everything to do with God and how God’s Son could send out disciples equipped with so little, but with absolutely enough. The answer to that first Heidelberg question is: “That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”

When you and I know to whom we belong and when we know this not as a dry intellectual assent, but know it in the pit of our guts and in the deepest place within our souls, then and only then will you and I be able to put all our theological knowledge and church positions in their due place and “travel light” to where darkness and despair still rule unchallenged, “travel light” with those just like us and those vastly different from us into the mysterious and grace-charted way of our Lord.

Well, it is time to get of here and get on with the Christian life. Here is some good advice I once heard: Travel light!


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