“What if God is greater than we imagine He is? What if life is simpler than we think it is? And what if the Bible is truer than we live like it is?”
“Wait,” our long-time family friend held up his hand. “Try putting more emphasis on the if. ‘What IF God is greater than we imagine Him to be?’”
“Okay–thanks.” I leaned forward a little in the chair I’d pulled up beside my laptop. Here goes. “What IF God is greater than we imagine Him to be?”
That DOES sound stronger.
“What IF—” I tried to pause a speakerly pause, “life is simpler than we think it is? Because—WHAT IF…the Bible is truer than we live like it is?”
Our friend nodded. Much better.
“These three questions hint at a great secret I had the chance to glimpse while backpacking around the world in 180 days,” I continued, “which I hope to convey to you today through telling stories. See, when I was a teenager, some of the greatest influences which activated my faith were missionary biographies. Reading stories of ordinary people who went on extraordinary adventures with God made me want to know God that way myself. Now, I pray that the stories I’m going to share today will encourage your faith the same way.”
I turned to advance the PowerPoint on the chair beside me. This would be the second time I’d delivered this presentation in someone’s living room, having also recruited my cousin to let me lecture from her couch the evening before. Considering that I’d be delivering the real thing for a homeschool convention’s teen program in less than 24 hours, I appreciated all the practice I could get!
Certainly, the presentation would include the take-home lessons I’d learned about how Christian students around the world equipped themselves for secular university. But for the most part, I’d just share stories. Stories about getting lost in Turkey or staying with a stranger in New Zealand might not sound like serious apologetics, but the lessons they’d illustrate were more exciting than anything an academic talk could convey. Here are just six of those lessons, which six months of solo backpacking taught me about life and God.
1: Material possessions weigh us down
In Matthew 6:19 (NIV), Jesus talks about not storing up for ourselves “treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” A fading earth is a terrible investment opportunity compared to a lasting heaven. Moreover, channeling our life’s work into earthly pursuits displaces our heart from its real home, eternity.
This is all spiritually quite practical, but there are physically practical reasons not to stockpile possessions on earth too. At no time is this clearer than when you’re carrying those possessions on your back for six months!
Backpacking altered my approach to consumerism. Whenever I considered buying something, I’d have to ask myself—How long do I really want to carry this around? Do I need it? Do I have space for it? Is there something else I could substitute for it that I already have?
These questions are a good test for anything new we might want, lest we progress through our earthly walk as unduly burdened pilgrims, weighed down by years of accumulated clutter that we never really needed. Living on the light side is also especially freeing because…
2: God provides exactly what we need, when we need it.
“God is your provider,” said a lady next to me on a train one evening. We’d just begun a long-haul ride across eastern Australia, and—shortly into our conversation—discovered that we were both Christians. I hadn’t told her that only about 12 hours earlier, I’d whipped out a calculator in concern about financing the rest of my travels.
“Sorry, Ma’am,” said a ticket agent, suddenly stepping near to check our passes, “you’re in the wrong seat.”
As she left, she turned back to look at me. “You know that verse about God providing for the sparrows? That’s for you.”
A couple of weeks later in New Zealand, I began to realize what those words really meant. Since food and transportation were especially pricey there, I specifically prayed for ‘daily bread’ while walking to church my first Sunday. I meant it figuratively. But after the service, a lady gave me a bag with two loaves of bread in it. I’d heard that God is a good, good Father and has a sense of humor, but that was like a loving “dad joke!”
Then, in an unrelated incident a few days later, a man I’d been talking to walked away, mumbling something about free coffee. When he returned, he placed a loaf of bread on the table in front of me. “Is that for me?” I asked. “Yep.” When I went to put it in the freezer, I realized that the last of the other two loaves were gone. Like He provided manna for the ancient Israelites going to gather manna every morning, knowing that it wouldn’t keep over unless the next day was a Sabbath, God gives us exactly what we need when we need it. I guess that’s why it’s called daily bread.
Just to drive the point home, a few days later I was wondering what I could buy to eat for the next three days of travel between New Zealand and the Philippines. I’d be sleeping in different airports for the two nights in between but didn’t want to depend on overpriced airport food. That very morning, I’d also run out of the protein powder which I usually paired with instant oats for breakfast. But after I’d finished that last breakfast, the new friend I’d been staying with spontaneously gave me a whole box of high-protein energy balls. They were exactly perfect to sustain me for those next days of airport life.
Isn’t God amazing?
3: God often shows His faithfulness to people through people.
How I ended up staying with her is another story, which you might have read if you saw Staying with a Stranger: Final Stories and Interviews in New Zealand. I’d already walked over 15 km that day, public transport being a bit tricky, and still had an hour left to go. That’s when I felt the first rain drops.
Soon, torrents of water were free falling from above, seeping through the collar of my saturated jacket and turning my shoes into squishy puddles personalized for either foot.
“Do you need a ride?” a voice suddenly called.
I turned to see a lady peering at me through the open door of a silver car.
“That’d be great!”
“Where are you heading?” she asked as I slid my sopping self into the left front seat. When I mentioned the road, she named the ministry I’d been staying with there. “I’m a Christian too,” she shared, “You’d be welcome to stay with me, if you like.”
Later I learned she’d felt God’s Spirit prompting her to offer me the ride when she first passed me on the road. So, she’d pulled over into a side street and waited for me. She ended up welcoming me into her home for two days!
All throughout the rest of the trip, God’s provision and faithfulness often continued to show up through His people who He brought me into contact with, like the campus ministry leader who took me in when I had nowhere to stay in Belgium. That means by listening to God’s Spirit and obeying His commands—like love your neighbour as yourself—you and I have the chance everyday to let God use us to prove His faithfulness to someone. Cool, hey?
4: God encourages us through His people
The night before my last Sunday in Canada, I lay looking at my massive green backpack as discouragement about the weight of my project seeped through me. Was I really prepared to strike out for six months seeking allies among unknown people in unknown places, far from everything familiar, alone, keeping up with writing about it every week? To what sort of madness had I committed myself?! But that Sunday, I heard two different sermons in two different services by two different pastors in two different churches. But the messages matched exactly. They even cited some of the same scriptures. The exhortation? Use your God-given gifts to serve His kingdom.
God’s given me an ability to write and a sense of adventure, I decided, so spending those fully in His service is the least I can do. Throughout the rest of the trip, God continued encouraging me through words from the people whose paths He allowed mine to cross. Again, this means that by staying sensitive to His voice and leading, we can be vessels of His encouragement, love and grace for others too, making every day a mission trip of its own.
5: God knows the way when we can’t see it
“So what other countries are you going to?” asked the guy strapped into the next seat on our plane bound from the Philippines to Japan.
“Thailand,” I replied, “and *Genovia.* But beyond that, I’m not actually sure. Europe somewhere?”
“Oh,” he responded. “You might want to figure that out soon.”
“I probably should.”
As you’ll know if you’ve been reading this blog for long, logistics are not really my thing. Some people flock to planners, calendars and organizers like mosquitos to a hairless cat. But not me. I’d rather be the hairless cat than plan a detailed itinerary months in advance. So, I often ended up needing to find my next accommodations on short notice—like weeks…or days…or hours. Sometimes—like when I wound up homeless in Belgium, scrambling to find a place to stay the next night in France or London or SOMEWHERE—God really did prove He will make a way where there seems to be no way.
6: Life is meant to be simple
The fact that God did make a way for me time after time, leading me safely around the world when I rarely knew what I was doing, hints at something wonderful: life probably isn’t supposed to be as complicated as we make it. Like Jesus said in Matthew 6:31-34 (NIV):
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
What if these verses were truer than we typically live like they are? It would mean that life is less complicated than we think it is.
* * *
The Moral of the Story
“All these stories point in the same direction,” I concluded, gazing out over the rows of youth at the homeschool convention. Whether speaking in a living room, on a couch, or at a convention centre, I’ve never grown tired of telling these stories. No matter where we are in the world, no matter what’s changing around us, the truth these lessons illustrate will always stay the same: “Maybe life really is simpler than we think it is. Maybe God really is greater than we imagine Him to be. Because maybe—the Bible really is truer than we live like it is.”