The Wonder of the Road
In Search of Spiritual Sustenance
I love a good road trip: trunk packed, cooler filled with snacks, an audio book or playlist downloaded on my iPhone. Life on the road means freedom to stop whenever the fancy strikes or to drive straight through when the desire just to get there takes over. I’ve driven as far east as Maine, as far south as Miami, and as far west as Montana, always with friends or family, more recently with my husband by my side.
As much as I like a good road trip, I like a good road trip story just as well. I’ve read Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, This Tender Land by William Kent Kreuger, Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River, The Words Between Us by Erin Bartels, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and I could go on. Each story is different, some about life on the river or the ocean more than “the road,” but all centered around a journey towards hope and home.
And the more I think about it the more I see the Bible as a collection of road trip stories: From Adam and Eve’s exile out of the garden to Abraham’s journey from Ur to the Promised, from Jacob’s travels to reunite with Joseph in Egypt to Israel’s journey back to the Promised Land. Every exiled Israelite who made the journey to Persia or Babylon were on a journey; so were the disciples who left everything they knew and followed a carpenter from Nazareth who became their rabbi. Even Jesus’ parables were full of road trip stories: from the Good Samaritan to the Prodigal Son to the land owner who went on a journey and left his slaves in charge of the vineyard.
And now, we’re along for the ride ourselves, traveling the road of every saint before us, looking for our own promised land, returning from our own prodigal journeys and longing to see the father waiting expectantly for us, then running to meet us. We, too, have been called by the itinerant Savior who is now off preparing a place for us to live with him forever, a home like we’ve never known and always longed for.
A funny thing about life on the road: you think it’s about the destination, or even about the arrival home, only to find that the real value of the trip was the journey itself. It was the uncomfortable part that mattered, the part where your back gets stiff and your legs fall asleep, the part where you get drowsy and drink gallons of coffee to stay away. Because, as James K.A. Smith writes in On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts, “the road has a strange way of showing what looks like a destination in the distance that, when you get there, points to another destination beyond it. So just when you think friendship or wealth or a family of influence was your ultimate destination, you hang out there for a while and the place starts to dim.”
I think of the Israelites circling around in the wilderness, taking 40 years to make a journey that should have taken them two. I think of the Prodigal Son, slopping pigs for a pittance instead of heading home at the first sign that his money was running low. I think of the Samaritan stopping to help instead of just barreling past the man in need. In each case, the journey lasted longer than it needed to. The destination wasn’t so far off. But the road itself had lessons to teach the sojourners.
We think the road will teach us something about freedom or ambition. We go looking for excitement and adventure. We expect to find our true selves, the unencumbered person we want to become. After a while, though, life on the road just leaves us with a “sense of frustration, of never arriving, never feeling settled with ourselves,” Smith writes. The journey is not about what we thought it would be.
But we go anyway. We have to. We’re stuck taking the journey that leads to frustration or else we risk never discovering the truth. Because only the road, with its miscalculated expectations and miles of disappointments, can show us that no stopping off point, no destination will ever truly satisfy us except for one. “God is the country we’re looking for, ‘that place where true consolation is found.’”
It strikes me how often famines are part of the journey stories of the Bible.
On one of the occasions when Abraham tells his wife Sarah to lie and say that she is his sister, they are on a journey to Egypt precipitated by a famine.
Jacob and 11 of his sons are reunited to Joseph in Egypt because a famine sent them on a journey to find food.
Elimilech and Naomi journey to Moab with their sons because of a famine; and Naomi and Ruth travel back to Jerusalem when the famine ends.
In some ways, you could say that Elijah fled for his life because of a famine (a famine that Ahab and Jezebel blamed Elijah for).
On the advice of Elisha, the Shunnamite woman fled to Philistine during a famine.
At least one of Paul’s missionary journeys included offerings from the churches for famine relief in Judea.
Then there’s the prodigal son, who didn’t return home when the money ran out but when a famine left him hungry.
Hunger has a way of cutting through all our misplaced hopes and desires to show us what we really long for, what we actually need. When we’re hungry, we don’t care as much about the latest trends or the flashy gadgets. We need food, and any food will do.
But being hungry, especially the hunger that comes from famine, also reminds us that we are not independent, self-sustaining beings. Hunger makes us vulnerable, and it reminds us that we can’t always protect and provide for ourselves. We need the earth, the rain, the seeds, the farmers. We need God.
“Coming to the end of myself is the realization that I’m dependent on someone other than myself if I’m going to be truly free,” Smith writes.
And it’s not just our hungry bellies that send us on journeys for sustenance; it’s our hungry souls, too. It’s why Jesus said that we’re blessed when we “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” When we’re hungry, we go looking for what we need. We set out on a journey. And we’re only satisfied, when we find our way to Christ.
I haven’t taken as many trips over the past year as usual … I suspect COVID-19 kept a lot of us from the road.
But I’ve traveled often enough to realize I’m still needy, still hungry for the food only God can provide.
What about you?