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Six Lessons I Learned on the Road - July/August 2012

by Christa von Zychlin

In many ways, the great stories of god’s people are the stories of family road trips—trips that are not (a-hem) perfectly harmonious, but have a powerful effect on shaping a family.

Abraham and Sarai, for example, moved from Haran to Canaan, and may well have had more than one quarrel along the way. What did Sarai really think of Abraham’s brilliant idea to pass her off as his sister?

The Israelites moved from Egypt, all around the wilderness and on to the Promised Land, but not before years of grumbling about the food, the accommodations, and their leaders. Especially their leaders.

Jesus was born while his parents were on a road trip to Bethlehem. While he was still very young the Holy Family traveled as refugees to Egypt. The only biblical story that has been preserved of Jesus’ childhood has to do with a family trip to Jerusalem—a trip in which family relationships were greatly strained before being wonder- fully clarified when he was found in the Temple.

As an adult, Jesus seems to be continually on the move, traveling with his disciples to the cosmic showdown in Jerusalem. The disciples respond to the astounding event of Jesus’ resurrection by traveling all around the Middle East and beyond, spreading the news of a Savior for the whole world.

Apostle Paul is remembered for his missionary journeys, which were fraught with the hardships of travel: vehicle breakdowns (for him, shipwrecks), finding accommodations, getting arrested by local authorities, and misunderstandings (see Acts 14:8–16).

The journeys recorded in Scripture are complicated and dangerous, but also punctuated with forgiveness, camaraderie, and joy-filled surprise. The biblical family road trips are the stories that give shape to our lives as Christians today.

Which leads me to wonder: Are there ways in which our personal family journeys and road trips relate to the journeys of our local church congregations? Dare we say that road trips not only shape our families, but help us to understand our church family, too?

ONE The one and only family trip I remember as a kid was the trip around the Great Lakes. Five lakes, eight states, 10 days. My dad came up with this idea. To my 5-year-old mind it was a great idea. My older sister and brother thought it was a great idea. My mom? My mom knew exactly what kind of an idea this was.

Nearly a half century later, I clearly recognize what I did not see at the time. Ten days in a vehicle with kids and no air-conditioning is not a great idea. But I’ll give my mom all the credit for Family Road Trip Lesson #1: Sometimes, when someone you love has a “great” idea, you just go along with it. And this first lesson has a corollary: Corollary #1: Crazy ideas can result in warm memories many years later.

It’s true for families, and it can be true for churches. Fifteen years ago a very young, inexperienced, part- time youth director at my church took a group of eight teenagers on a mission trip to India. India! What a great idea!

After spending a year fund-raising and educating the congregation about the children’s home they would visit, and the playground equipment they would help install, they at last set off on this voyage halfway around the world. A majority of the teenagers and all of the adults got quite sick (nothing serious, but highly unpleasant) and I don’t think this travel feat was ever repeated at that church. But I also know it changed lives in India and in my congregation.

Each of the young voyagers will remember encountering God’s children in India for the rest of their lives, and hopefully the Indian children will remember these American teenagers who came to receive and share the love of Jesus. Sometimes, when someone you love has a “great” idea at church, you just go along with it.

TWO Back to my Great Lakes Trip—after months of planning, we were off. I was hauled into the VW bus in my pajamas before dawn every morning as my parents hoped to get a good part of each day’s driving done before we three kids were awake enough to start asking, “Are we there yet?”

During those early hours I, the youngest of the family, slept confidently and fearlessly, in the back seat. Fifty years later the impact of this mode of travel is still with me. My husband calls this the “just put me in the back seat of the VW” syndrome. When it comes to family travel, I like having other people (this now means my husband) do the work of planning. And mapping. And driving.

For my part, I like sleeping in and being awakened just in time for breakfast, or in time to see the sights. And I rarely complain about the itinerary.

Family Road Trip Lesson #2: Some members of our families (as in our churches) are just along for the ride. And that’s okay. For whatever reason, whether it’s because of youth, age, infirmity, interest level, or busyness with other things, not everybody needs or wants to have part in the organizing of worship services, mission trips, stewardship drives, music groups or spiritual visioning events.

Some people don’t want to or need to attend planning meetings or even fill out a survey sheet. They just trust the leadership of the church to shape a plan, make decisions, and then include them when it comes time for the actual event. In turn, however, we must all remember Corollary #2: Those of us in the “just put me in the back seat and let me sleep” mode should not complain about the direction being taken, nor by the amount of time it takes to get to the destination.

THREE As we traveled around the lakes, my parents woke us kids up around breakfast time. At home, we ate cold cereal for breakfast. Never did we eat sausages, pancakes and syrup, or giant muffins in the mornings at home, although we had heard of these delicacies from neighbors and TV.

During the Great Lakes Trip, however, I was intro- duced to these delights at roadside diners. I remember sticky vinyl seats, the smell of coffee and the smile on my dad’s face when he asked for that second free cup. I remember my brother and sister horsing around, and I remember deep satisfaction around the Formica tabletops.

Family Road Trip Lesson #3: Take time for meals. Splurge a little. One of my favorite church programs over the years has been a marriage course that features seven weeks of candlelit meals for couples. I suspect that a large part of the consistent attendance of that program is that couples know a special meal awaits them each week.

A friend of mine who runs a highly successful and long-standing men’s Bible study acknowledges that the warm homemade rolls he serves are at least as big a draw as his Bible exposition. And it seems to me that attendance at our Wednesday night confirmation program was always a little better when it was Mrs. G’s turn to cook. Yes, we all need bread for the journey, whether it’s homemade or gourmet or just something as special and different as pancakes and syrup, and so, Corollary #3 is: Good food keeps grumbling down and spirits way up.

FOUR About three o’clock in the afternoon, our family would look for a motel. This was fun too, at least for us kids. My parents were working-class immigrants, and we lived in a very modest home. So we did not go to hotels, but motels. Bathroom floor mats made of paper were a fun novelty for us, not a sign of cheapness.

The motels that had pools and vending machines—wow, this was the life! We kids soon discovered buckets of free ice can be loads of fun for playing catch and tag.

Family Road Trip Lesson #4: Include the children and allow them to play. Although I don’t remember my parents ever specifically teaching us the names of the Great Lakes, nor the names of the states we went through, I’m convinced that our trip around the Great Lakes gave me a serious edge in grade-school social studies classes. Those Great Lakes had positive associations and I later found myself enthusiastically learning about other aspects of the lakes, such as their bio-diversity and ecology. This is an interest I still enjoy today, since my home is located within a 10-minute walk from one of those lakes! Corollary #4: Children are continually learning on multiple levels.

Jesus tells us whoever welcomes a little child, welcomes him. Our children come to church expectant, hopeful, and ready for a bit of an adventure. Yes, they do things that are inappropriate, like try out their rollerblades in the parish kitchen or check out how loud the change can clink into the offering plate, or how it sounds to sing a hymn in falsetto. Meanwhile, however, they are also soaking up God’s word, the rhythms of music and prayer, and the warm community of not-so-like-minded people who still manage to come together to honor the God of our salvation. We can only hope they create homes that reflect the journey of their childhood churches.

FIVE All was well for the first few days of the Great Lakes trip and then we were struck by disaster with a D: diarrhea. Specifically, it struck me. Our pleasant every-two-hour breaks became every-half-hour emergencies. I had the chance to inspect lots of gas station bathrooms and learned to say, “May I use the bathroom, please?” with such urgency that the normally reluctant gas station attendant was quick to hand over the key.

That afternoon we found a motel a bit earlier than usual. I gratefully headed for the bathroom and did my still urgent business, only to discover—to the horror of our entire family—that the toilet would not flush.

And here’s the amazing part—nobody complained. I received only kindness. Dad went to fetch a plunger. Mom fed me flat 7-Up, rice, and crackers (our family remedy for all digestive ailments). The toilet was fixed, my stomach seemed better, and when my mom said I really shouldn’t have any of those fresh roadside-stand cherries (my favorite), my big brother (not normally the most compassionate member of the family) snuck me some anyway. They were delicious.

Family Road Trip Lesson # 5: people get sick on trips. This is an invitation to compassion. Jesus lived a life of compassion for the sick and this is an area in which most churches really do excel, as we reach out with prayers, prayer shawls, hot dishes, visits, and unexpected gifts for those who fall ill along the way. It’s part of what makes us a church family. Corollary #5: Watch for acts of compassion to emerge from unexpected places.

SIX My dad’s goal on our Great Lakes trip was to drive around all five of America’s Great Lakes, and thanks to my parents’ driving and navigational skills, we did it. The goal for us kids was to swim in each of the Great Lakes, but we found out just how cold Lake Superior can be, even in the summer. Our new goal was to dip our toes into every lake, and dip we did. Family Road Trip Lesson # 6: Set goals. Get out the maps and guidebooks. Use your skills. And go.

One of Martin Luther’s most famous sayings is, “Sin boldly! But believe more boldly still.” In other words, no trip of any kind is ever going to be perfect in this life. But, we believe in a God of forgiveness, camaraderie, and joy-filled surprise. Therefore we needn’t fear setting out on a trip of any kind. Which leads to the final Corollary #6: Whether on family road trips, church expeditions, or life journeys, know that you go with God. So go!

The Rev. Christa von Zychlin lives in Hong Kong, China, where she teaches adults and children through ELCA Global Mission and the ELCHK (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong). Read more about Christa’s adventures in Hong Kong at www.marathonangel.blogspot.com.