Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
Recently, I was introduced to a travel challenge on social media that spread to a few of my favorite Instagram accounts. Unlike most social networking fads, this particular short video fascinated me. The premise of the challenge is for married couples and families to create a yearly trip to a place they’ve always wanted to visit. The community aspect of the challenge encourages participation while simultaneously removing the commonly used excuses for going someplace new (busy schedules, the expense, etc.). To participate, you simply write down 10 “bucket list” places you would like to travel and place them into a bowl. After randomly picking a place out of the hat, you have exactly 365 days to visit the place as a second honeymoon, family vacation, or yearly excursion before repeating the process again every calendar year until all 10 dream destinations have been visited.While I’m not too ecstatic about the idea of “casting lots” to decide my vacation schedule, the challenge has a dash of creative genius that motivated me to consider joining in. As I shared this idea with close friends, we chuckled at how “millennial” and “hipster” the concept was and began to discuss where we would want to visit. My friends mentioned places like Switzerland and Greece, while my fiancé longingly remarked that she’d love to go to Jamaica, Paris, or Australia. Every option discussed was exotic, almost other-worldly.What do our vacation aspirations say about us? We seek the exotic not just because of the scenery or sunshine but also because of what we believe they can bring: rest, fulfillment, satisfaction, and more.
It was revealing for me to consider my own selections. For example, there were no domestic locations on my list, and no place was included that didn’t have some sort of foreign mystique attached to it. While that didn’t initially alarm me, my motives were exposed in a subsequent exchange with my barber about the challenge. As we engaged in the usual small talk that frequents our social water-cooler chats, the dialogue took a quick rabbit trail to recalling our favorite travel tales. In that moment, I remembered the story of my second plane ride, taking place about 14 years ago on a family vacation to Tampa. My neighbor for the flight was a charming, middle-aged man with a career in sales who was clearly not from my cultural background. While passengers wandered to their seats, we stumbled into a casual conversation that quickly resembled a chat between old friends. During the 90-minute flight, we exchanged life stories, hopes, dreams, regrets (as many as a 13-year-old can have, anyhow), and embarrassing stories that must have been awkward for the surrounding passengers.
After landing, the kind man walked my family to baggage claim and shook our hands before exiting for his sales trip. I forgot about the exchange until the following year when the impossible happened. Exactly one year later, on a family trip to Houston, my seat buddy was the same man from the previous year’s trip. I sat in stunned disbelief that we were afforded the opportunity to catch up on our previous conversation and recount the highlights of our year apart. While retelling the story to the amazed barbershop audience, someone blurted out, “What was the guy’s name?” I paused in shock. In that moment, I realized that I could remember the airline, the length of the trip, and even the place where we sat. However, the most haunting discovery of this regale was that I could not remember that man’s name.
I was slightly ashamed, not because my long-term memory was less than stellar, but rather because it unearthed a problematic trend in my vacation experiences: I have a fixation on the destination only to miss the blessing of ordinary human interactions. The truth is this kind man’s name wasn’t as important to me as where I was going. To justify myself, I mentally explained this forgetfulness away by attributing it to youthful immaturity. To be fair, it is an understandable oversight for a teenager—but not much has changed. A decade older and supposedly wiser, I am still guilty of the same mistake, only with different destinations and more deft excuses. I have romanticized the complexity of long-distance travel and the destinations I seek, as though there is something intrinsically more special in traveling to “sexy” places. I am still guilty of elevating the destination above the experience and the people I might meet along the way.
With seemingly sovereign timing (or simply as a testament to the American marketing machine), my recent nighttime television viewing just so happened to be littered with travel advertisements and breathtaking vacation commercials set to the sounds of 80s pop anthems. I studied their appeal, with their beautiful models basking in the sunshine, the mesmerizing surroundings, and the succulent spread of dishes ready for consumption upon arrival. When business sales are on the line, this type of presentation scheme is to be expected. Most of the things we see marketed on the tube are indeed too good to be true. Still, the beauty being sold wasn’t lost on me; I wanted to add these places to my own challenge list.
Now, this is far from a polemic against the observation and enjoyment of beauty. We are attracted to visuals that overwhelm us. This is part of our wiring and can be a useful tool. Both secular and Christian scholars alike agree that wonder is a worthy pursuit. The philosopher Socrates famously asserted that “wonder is the beginning of wisdom,” and numerous passages in the biblical lexicon point to the sufficiency of wonder to stoke the fires of God-centered worship. David reverently marvels in Psalm 8:3–4:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
He also boldly speaks to the self-evidence of creation’s testament to its Creator in Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”
However, without the proper framework, we can miss the dark underbelly of an unchecked pursuit of amazement. We are not just inwardly built for more, but we also have the tendency to elevate things above their proper position. This creates idols in unexpected places, blind spots in plain sight. What do our vacation aspirations say about us? I believe we seek the exotic not just because of the scenery or sunshine but also because of what we believe they can bring: rest, fulfillment, satisfaction, and more. We want the calm of the waters to be our reality and the peaceful awe of a mountain range to be catharsis for our weary souls. We can find solace in new locales and broader horizons, but that disconnection from our everyday reality often skews our vision of what ultimately enriches our lives. Beauty has a tendency to over-promise and under-deliver. While these exotic experiences serve as a temporary stopgap for inner turmoil, they cannot ultimately create the consistent inner peace needed to maintain our sanity. Distance will never cure our discontentment.
We travel thousands of miles to exotic countries to create memories we will never forget—or at least, we long to. The vacation ads woo us and Instagram challenges spur us on, and all the while, we miss out on the travel that isn’t sexy. This is as much a product of our individualistic, Western society as it is our own personal desires. Idolizing travel amazement can rob us of appreciating the ordinary amazement found in our familiar surroundings. Sexy destinations promise the comfort and ease of a respite from the regular. And that’s not all bad—unless our bucket list destinations consist only of the exotic escape rather than the exotic of the ordinary kind. For the believer who desires to be faithful with time and resources, succumbing to the temptation to travel only for the sake of self (escape, leisure, shortening the bucket list, etc.) leaves us in danger of missing out on the travel that brings the most reward.
What if we expanded our bucket lists to include some travel that was less than exotic? What if we traveled to ordinary places, not for what we could gain, but for what we could give? It’s easy to travel around the world to see ancient ruins or island beauty. It’s not so easy to pursue ordinary travel that carries with it the high risk of disappointment. But the ordinary destinations—across the street to visit an elderly neighbor or across town to help the homeless—can deliver a higher reward of redeeming what is around us.
How can we invest in some of these redemptive travel experiences? I see a few things that have held me back, and I offer these for consideration.
The first barrier to the pursuit of ordinary travel is how we view our time. What we do in our free time is assumed to be our business, an approach that misses the reality that our lives were not purchased for individuality but for collective Kingdom advancement. Where we choose to use our free time will reverberate to impact others. This is echoed in the famous line from 18th century English poet John Donne’s “Meditation XVII”: “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.” A mindset of advancing the positioning of others is, after all, the point of our lives. We use every God-given gift extended to us as a tool to enhance our fellow image-bearers. How can we schedule our free time to encounter others in need? This simple adjustment adds refreshing contours to our existence, training our eyes to see people and experiences hidden in obvious places.
Another barrier is that ordinary travel holds no promise for the rest we seek. We are vacation-minded travelers, intent on getting a break from the ordinary when we have time off from work. That’s not all bad—we all need downtime—but sometimes a Kingdom-focused trip serves to feed our hearts and souls in ways that a week on the beach cannot. Our trek to the other side of our city can be uncomfortable but could also lead us to discover new neighbors and new cultures. A trip to a church of different denomination may create inner turmoil—or it could lead to the expansion of Gospel right at home. These places won’t ever be advertised, and we may never take any pictures for our social networks to like and admire. But that should be okay. Perhaps, it will provide long-term enrichment to our lives. This also should be a corrective to what we consider to be our dream, “bucket list” destinations. The 10 steps we could take to cross into our neighbor’s yard aren’t glamorous but can deliver the opportunity to grow beyond our fears and assumptions. Such small actions seem minuscule in comparison to the breathtaking television advertisements. Denying the destination-driven status quo will feel unnatural, confronting our most treasured idols. Yet we will soon realize that no matter how attractive they promise to be, exotic destinations never satisfy our restlessness. As we fearlessly approach the simple opportunities we have trained ourselves to look for, true rest can come from unexpected, ordinary places.Every single encounter should motivate us to seek the meaningful human interactions that model the rhythm of Christ’s life on earth. He naturally looked for people on his ordinary way, never becoming so concerned with “arriving” that He missed the opportunity to walk the journey with others.
A final barrier is our assumption that learning ruins a vacation. When we have free time, we often want to think less, not more. I find this to be true of my own travel pursuits. On the heels of the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama, I reflected on the uncomfortable reality that I have never been to any historic city or visited monuments that celebrate my heritage. It is easy for me to publicly rant against the lack of appreciation I see from the majority of society for my minority history, but I clearly have not led the charge with actions rather than just my words. The 164-mile drive to Selma is not physically daunting; it’s just not sexy enough for me. Clearly, I’d rather lounge on a beach than walk across a bridge. Educating my mind and engaging the pain of the past doesn’t ever sound like exciting vacation or free-time activity. However, it raises the question: Am I willing to delay temporary visual enjoyment for meaningful personal growth? Vacations can lull us into the complacent fantasy that we deserve a “break” from all things uncomfortable. When our rest is not found in an overseas destination, we understand that growing through challenging experiences and unexpected relationships is a never-ending process filled with joyful opportunity to be better than we were the day before.
Despite these barriers, pursuing the ordinary in travel is important for the Kingdom. During His time on earth, Christ did not travel to a foreign country or to the most attractive locations, yet He substantively impacted His quite ordinary surroundings. He had the uncanny ability to take advantage of simple opportunities. His interactions were often regular, with a blind man on the side of the road or a crippled man at the edge of a pool. However, the Messiah met them directly and changed their lives. To be sure, Jesus was concerned with who He met; but He was even more concerned with how He treated them. His Great Commission instruction that we go into all the world was for His Kingdom, not for recreation. The greatest travel we can experience isn’t really about us at all; it’s about others. This is the most sobering reflection on my travel story. When I failed to learn my flight neighbor’s name, I missed the opportunity to advance the Kingdom. My focus was so squarely on the destination that I forgot to remember who my neighbor truly is. Every single encounter should motivate us to seek the meaningful human interactions that model the rhythm of Christ’s life on earth. He naturally looked for people on his ordinary way, never becoming so concerned with “arriving” that He missed the opportunity to walk the journey with others.
I assume that I’ll still participate in the Instagram travel challenge and experience some exotic vacations. Yet, my list will certainly be adjusted to include some ordinary places as well. There is rich benefit in setting our daily destinations and taking advantage of them with the same passion as the ideal bucket list. Because the commonplace dirt of our neighbor’s yard can be just as rewarding as the powder-white sand of any exotic beach.
Image: Flickr, Henry Leong
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