Interstate 71 connects the top and bottom of Ohio, bridging the gap between Lake Erie to the Ohio River. For 252 miles, it meanders through busy cities and remote cornfields.
My life has played out on the two-lane road. I’ve traveled major sections of it more than any other highway – nearly 200 times, I’d estimate.
The first trip came when I was only 16 and visited Ohio University for a tour. A year later, we packed my stuff in the family station wagon and headed down the interstate again, bubbling with anxiety and anticipation on the trip from my hometown of Cleveland to my new dorm address in Athens.
During my four years there, I retraced that route many times, visiting home for holidays and breaks. After graduation, I got a job in Cincinnati and made the four-hour trip regularly.
I traversed it for baptisms and birthdays, weddings and funerals, reunions and goodbyes. I drove it as a young single person, a married person, a parent with two kids in the back, an empty-nester, a retiree.
The road hasn’t changed much – it’s expanded to three lanes in places and the rest stops have been upgraded, but it’s much the same.
By contrast, I’ve changed from trip to trip. That ribbon of road has been a backdrop for my life’s journey.
People on the go
It’s almost cliché to talk about our journey, but it’s one of the most common themes of our lives and our faith traditions. Scriptures are full of stories about people on the go: leaving for a promised land, heading toward a manger.
Our faith traditions remind us we’re meant to be people on the move. As Rachel Held Evans puts it: “Scripture doesn’t speak of people who found God. Scripture speaks of people who walked with God. This is a keep-moving, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, who-knows-what’s-next deal, and you never exactly arrive.”
It’s important to travel well, and our faith traditions offer advice.
First, travel light.
In the synoptic gospels, Jesus tells his followers to hit the road and share the good news of love, reconciliation and healing. He tells them to carry no money, food or traveling bags. Instead, they’re to stay wherever they’re invited and eat whatever they’re given.
Same applies to us. We need to travel light, especially in our consumer society where accumulating, storing, maintaining and showing off our stuff is a priority.
We also need to be careful not to overpack other stuff: grudges, insecurities, judgement, expectations, ideas that things should be a certain way. It slows us down and gets in the way.
But why should we travel light? This brings us to the second piece of advice: Travel together.
When you don’t carry much, you’re more open to people helping you along the road. And that’s the whole point! We’re not individuals accessing a common road; we’re one traveling party heading down the road together.
This is the heart of true religion: Love one another and care for everyone because they are your neighbor. We’re traveling together.
The famous parable describes a person traveling alone who sees someone bleeding by the side of the road and stops to help this fellow traveler. The Samaritan and the injured stranger complete the journey together to a place of healing.
As Ram Daas puts it: “We’re all just walking each other home.”
A final bit of advice: Travel openly.
Make the journey with an open mind and an open heart. Pay attention to those around us – don’t just walk past. Embrace the mystery, the uncertainty, the surprises.
Don’t fixate on the destination. Let the journey take us places we wouldn’t choose. Remember, it’s about the traveling, not the arriving.
Bethlehem wasn’t a final destination for any of the characters in the Christmas stories. It was a stopover where they met, had an encounter that changed them, and then headed for the road again with a different outlook on everything.
Same for us. Each stop, each encounter, every step should bring us closer to the truth of who we are, connect us with others, and lead us together into the heart of God, which is ultimately where the road wants to take us.