December 2011

You had to be there – Part 2

by Steve Brock on December 29, 2011

 Last time we looked at how hard it is to describe meaningful experiences to others. You end up reducing an incredible trip or event down to the phrase, “You had to be there.”

This time, I want to look at one of the deeper – as in really deep, so be forewarned – meanings behind that same phrase. It’s a meaning sparked by the event we just celebrated a few days ago (but that already seems like months ago): Christmas. At the heart of Christmas is that fancy theological term we tend to hear, if ever, only during this season – the Incarnation.

"You had to be there" takes on a whole new meaning with the Incarnation

It’s a term meaning that God came down in human form as that baby in the manger. Yet within this astonishing event we can detect traces of the phrase, “You had to be there.”

God determined that he had to be here, to come down and dwell among us. God, mind you. The omnipotent Creator of everything came to be here with us as Emmanuel. He did so for reasons of atonement as our sacrifice and savior, but also for reasons of identification.

Jesus walked this earth so that he could better identify with us and for us to identify with him. The former should give us just a hint as to how vital it is to engage with people and places experientially if God himself did it. The latter, his coming so we could better relate to him is quite frankly, pure grace. But it is also a good reminder for us as well when we travel.

Our travel too is incarnational. We bear our spiritual selves with our physical bodies. We go to new places thinking we’ll learn about the locals. But just as Jesus made it possible for us to relate to him, we do the same with those we meet. Each encounter is an opportunity for a mutual exchange. Of ideas, of cultures, of ourselves and even of Christ.

Travel is incarnational not only because we bring our own spirits to a scene, but because for the Christian we also bear within us the Spirit of the living God. If TSA ever figures out what a powerful package we’re lugging around inside us, you can be assured they’ll be using more than rubber gloves on you next time you go through airport security. But the Holy Spirit is what makes our best trips so incredible: We never travel alone.

Wherever we go, the Holy Spirit goes with us, comforting, counseling and revealing. But even as he goes with us, we find that no matter where we travel, God is already there in ways recognizable and obscure, familiar and sometimes paradigm shaking.

It’s a mystery that will take more than this lifetime to comprehend, but it turns the idea of being there into a rich equation wherein we travel the world with God to find God in the world. We pursue the Lord of the universe only to discover the most amazing realization of all: that he is pursuing us and has been all our lives. He shows up in the most unlikely ways and places. Yet by being there, in a new location, we’re able to see or understand him in a whole new light.

Granted, this is a very different way to think about the phrase, “You had to be there.” But when you begin to grasp the meaning behind it, you will never travel the same again.

To be continued…

You can also read Part 1, Part 2 1/2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 of this series.

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You had to be there – Part 1

by Steve Brock on December 26, 2011

As my seventeen-year-old son Sumner and I exit the theatre, neither of us speaks. We prefer to hold private our own assessments of the concert we have just seen, afraid to leak our confidences to the passing crowds or to risk the possibility of misunderstanding each other’s true sentiments. A few blocks later, however, we ensconce ourselves within the Cone of Silence (otherwise known as our car).

Sumner is the first to venture forth and he does so boldly: “That was the best concert I’ve ever been to,” he announces, all cards on the table.

I hesitate a moment, then reply much like the young teen who has just been informed by the object of his intense crush that she likes him. “Really?” I probe, not sure if Sumner is genuine or practicing some new style of sarcasm picked up at school or, alas, learned from me and genetically modified.

“Oh my gosh, yes! They were amazing!” he says. While my youngest son Connor, who is 14, still employs the word AWESOME for all utterances of excitement or joy, Sumner has matured in his own vocabulary.

Unfortunately, at this moment, he has hit the point where no words suffice to adequately convey the height of his feelings. So tonight, “amazing” will do just fine.

Now, having vulnerably declared his position, he retreats. “What did you think?” he inquires, a hint of hesitation lining his question. I remain stone-faced as long as I can until tenderness for my son’s brave pronouncement and my own enthusiasm break me and I blurt out, “They were AWESOME!” This gives you a sense of the level at which my own emotive vocabulary is stuck.

We now make up for the silence of our walk to the car by talking over one another in our enthusiastic attempt to convince each other of what we clearly already agree on. We dissect, scrutinize and mutually praise each detail of the performance. Then, about ten minutes into our fevered admiration fest we hit a potential snag: we realize there is no way we can possibly explain how excellent our evening was to any other human being.

 And therein lies the age-old problem particularly common in travel: we come home and find we are unable to do much more than reduce an extraordinary experience down to five simple words: “You had to be there.”


“You had to be there” is our fallback position when our experiences exceed our ability to describe them or when the joke we just told goes over about as well as a hamburger stand in Delhi. But these words are more than a trite line thrown to those on the outside of a joke or travel experience. They highlight a concept rich with extended meaning, a phrase that operates on more levels than a Bernie Madoff investment scheme.

Over the next several entries here at The Meaningful Traveler, we’ll explore some of those multiple ways of appreciating the phrase, “You had to be there.” But for now, let me explain this particular incident.

Sumner and I had just witnessed a performance in Seattle by The Civil Wars, a duo who play a mixture of music loosely categorized as Americana. Don’t let the cleavage, melodramatic filming or Johnny Depp-look-a-likeness in the following video distract you from two very talented performers.


This video of their biggest hit, Poison and Wine, is by its nature, a music video. But the live performance – two singers and a single guitar for all but two songs – was something incredible. From their timing and banter with the audience and each other to their haunting harmonies and musicianship, Joy Williams and John Paul White are something to behold. Even superstar Adele (for whom The Civil Wars opened earlier this year) has stated that, “The Civil Wars are the best live band I have ever seen.”

Sumner and I would agree. But to tell you all this or even for you to check out their videos won’t quite cut it. That’s the problem with such experiences. Words, photographs or even videos only go so far. When we fully engage in an experience all attempts to convey it will come up short.

I can tell you the concert was great. But really all I can say that will do it justice is this:

You had to be there.

To be continued…

Or read the rest of the series: Part 2, Part 2 1/2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5


Still here? Then check out this other, simpler video by The Civil Wars:


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Traveling Light – Part 3

by Steve Brock on December 21, 2011

The example at the Feast of Lights, of a single candle burning in the dark whose flame then passes to others and so on until the whole of the space is illuminated, is much the same as with our trips. Each trip starts as a singular event, complete in of itself, much like that single candle. But then, it becomes much more.

Each trip is like one of these flames, burning on its own but illuminating much more

I remember a trip as a kid where we visited the Shasta Caverns in Northern California. At one point, deep in these caves, our guide warned us that he was about to turn off the lights. And so he did. He then informed us that we stood in total darkness with no possible trace of light. And so we did.

It’s a rather eerie sense, not because it is all that much darker than the darkest night or a room with no windows, but because of the realization of complete absence. We inherently fear most not what we don’t have, but what we do have that we might lose. This explains in part why sightless people when surveyed on average are willing to pay much less to regain their sight than sighted people are to prevent losing theirs. Thus, it wasn’t so much the dark that was unnerving as the removal of the light.

Then, as we were all getting sufficiently spooked out by the absolute gloom engulfing us, our guide lit a match. In a well lit room, you will barely note the light created by a match. In our dark cavern, however, that one small flame seemed like a 500 watt bulb. So much light from such a small, singular source.

And so it is with our trips. Each trip – even a short day excursion to a place a few miles from home – can encompass more than you would think. And like the match in a bright room, comparisons to the exotic destinations of other travelers may not seem to fare well. But that doesn’t matter: the experience of your trip – no matter where or for how long – is yours. As such, it blazes at the time like the match in the cave and enlightens your memories from that point on.

The best part is that none of our experiences stand alone. We do not live our trips – even solo ventures – in isolation. Like the candles at the Feast of Lights, each passes to the next, one trip building on another. Over time, a singular event leads to another and so on until we look back and come to an enlightening realization: all our trips are more than individual travel experiences.

They have become the building blocks of who we are. We are ablaze with the cumulative experience of all we have seen and become as a result.


If you haven’t read them yet, here are links to Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

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Traveling Light – Part 2

by Steve Brock December 16, 2011

The Feast of Lights at the University of Redlands helps us to understand a deeper – and brighter – meaning of Christmas…and travel.

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Traveling Light – Part 1

by Steve Brock December 13, 2011

Sometimes you just have to get away from it all – literally – to appreciate what Christmas is all about and to be…illuminated.

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Laughing with God

by Steve Brock December 7, 2011

It’s easy to laugh at God or discount the divine when things are going well. But hit a rough spot on a trip – or in life – and then see who’s laughing…

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Inside jokes

by Steve Brock December 1, 2011

As the traveling gnome/dwarf story illustrates and as I discovered recently in Portland, OR, sometimes even the most inside of jokes we encounter on a trip invite us to join in and become part of the story.

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