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.
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.