We often think of travel as a choice expressing independence. Gap years. Young adults on backpacking adventures. Exotic beach vacations. Travel has been idealized as a coming-of-age experience or luxury for those who can afford it.
But what about when travel is forced? Whether moving as a child, facing closed borders, or fleeing armed conflicts, there are many times travel can be outside our control. What about when you feel stuck where you don’t want to be instead of free to go where you’d rather be?
This has become the reality for many people during the COVID pandemic. People were stranded en route to their destination or locked down where they didn’t know anyone. Refugees’ and immigrants’ visas were stalled. International students wondered where they would live. Family members wondered when they would be reunited.
Travel was often forced in the Bible, too. Joseph was a trafficking victim. Moses ran away from Egypt as a fugitive. Daniel was taken into Babylonian captivity. Paul’s travel plans changed due to shipwreck, persecution, and imprisonment. Jesus’s first trips were in utero for a census decreed by one ruler and then fleeing another ruler’s massacre.
Where is God in the “bad” travel?
These characters might well have asked that question. I doubt they ever truly felt at home where they were (Hebrews 11:13-16). They weren’t readily accepted; Joseph and Moses were neither Hebrew nor Egyptian. Daniel was trying to be devout serving a government who wanted to erase his identity and replace it with a culture infamous for sorcery. Paul was a diaspora Jew, Roman citizen, and Gentile-loving former Pharisee. And Jesus must have been lonely knowing his home was with a Father no one could see (Luke 2:49, John 14:8-10).
But these biblical characters believed, as we must, that God is right where we are, wherever we are. As Psalm 139 reminds us, even when we feel out of place or abandoned, there is nowhere we can go from his Spirit, whether in outer space or undersea, east to the sunrise or on the far side of the ocean. Nothing can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39).
Instead of bemoaning their ill fate, these biblical examples trusted God. They chose to learn about and adapt to the place they found themselves, without losing their identity or faith. They all experienced rejection, but they kept identifying with “those people” anyway. They followed the advice Jeremiah gave the exiles when they found themselves in a place they didn’t want to be: to settle in, pray for, and “seek the peace and prosperity” of Babylon (Jeremiah 29:4-7). They didn’t realize it, but by doing so they positioned themselves to be used by God right where they were.
“Bloom where you’re planted” may sound cliché. But if we believe in a God sovereign over our botched visas and cancelled conferences, he may have a reason for planting us just where we are.
In fact, God may be planting us there for a harvest. These biblical examples each ended up playing huge roles in God’s mission. Because they had adapted to their new contexts without letting go of their original culture or faith, they ended up communicating between parties as mediators. Joseph revealed God’s plan to Pharaoh and saved Israel from starvation. Through Moses traveling back to Egypt and then through a wilderness, God displayed his power to all nations and led Israel to create a new culture in a new land. Still in exile, Daniel’s interpretation ended up in empire-wide proclamation of God’s reign. Through both Paul’s persecuted travels and his restricted movement in prison, he communicated the inclusion of the Gentiles to both them and to Jewish Christians. And Jesus traversed great barriers, first of incarnation and then of death and hell, to reconcile God and humanity.
None of these people could have achieved their mission in God’s kingdom if they had not been forced out of their comfort zone. To be effective, they had to keep identifying with their captors, their betrayers, and their persecuted minority groups. Not only did they go, they also stayed faithful and stayed long enough to become a bridge.
How does this apply to us?
You may not have time to learn a new language or marry into a local family where you’re stuck at the moment. I certainly hope you won’t be in exile or separated from family for years.
But perhaps being stuck is the time to ask ourselves if there’s anything we’re trying to escape when we travel: our own destructive habits, our unkept promises, the relationships we’d rather run from than reconcile. Moses accepted his calling by traveling back to messy relationships and his worst insecurities. Paul and Jesus walked into persecution knowingly. If our travel is motivated by fear, we’re not following in their footsteps. If we crave an adventurous escapade, maybe we can bravely confront what’s got us spiritually stuck.
Or perhaps we might think of small ways we can be present where we’re placed. Instead of spending all our time reconnecting with faraway friends via Zoom calls, perhaps it’s time to go on a walk with the neighbor. Perhaps we read up on the history of our town or find out who is stranded far from home in our city.
If we believe God is always on the move, this dislocation may just be part of his mission for the nations.