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the joys of the British summer holiday

Who are we to judge what constitutes a waste of time? God has a different vision.

Speed is an essential component of life today and a quote of Woody Allen from one of his earlier films establishes this nicely:

I’m going to kill myself. I should go to Paris and jump off the Eiffel Tower. I’ll be dead. You know, if I get Concorde, I could be dead three hours earlier, which would be perfect. Or wait a minute, with the time change, I could be alive for six hours in New York but dead three hours in Paris. I could get things done, and I could also be dead.

I think we can all sympathise with his obsession with time. But Concorde is no longer with us and we must travel more slowly today. So how are you on the journeys you have to make in life? Take holidays: are you one of those people for whom the holiday starts the moment you turn the key in the ignition outside your home or one of those for whom the holiday begins only when you have recovered from your journey at the other end? For most it is probably only when the bags are dropped at the new venue that they can properly be said to have relaxed because journeys are so fraught with complication.

Imagine you are flying to Rome for your holiday. Where I live in Kent, the journey begins with a dilemma: which way round the M25 do you drive to get to Heathrow, bearing in mind road works and time of day? It might be better round Dartford as long as they’re not queuing for the tunnel. So you take it and they are queuing for the tunnel. I once very sadly calculated the exact speed I was going over the hour it took me to get to the tolls and realised I would have walked it faster. So already you’re grumpy and someone in your car needs the toilet. After the tunnel you seem to make good progress until there is an inexplicable jam. Physicists would say there is no such thing as an inexplicable traffic jam but you’re not interested in reason and logic because you have a flight to catch. There’s a bit of stop-start and then eventually you’re free and you put your foot down until you have to slam on the breaks again two miles further on. Another jam! Except the physicists will tell you it’s actually the same jam you were in earlier and that you are simply part of its rhythm, like waves lapping on a shore. Trust me, I’ve read the book on this, which is even sadder! (Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt) Eventually you get to Heathrow and find a parking space about ten miles from the airport where you wait for transport and terminal four. I won’t take you into terminal four because I can imagine your blood pressure rising as you read. At least when you get airborne you know you’ll finally make speed over the continent.

St. Luke once had to make the journey from Palestine to Rome with his travelling companion, St. Paul. How much time was that going to take out of such busy lives? They sailed in three different ships, beginning the journey in the early autumn. The first big stop was in Turkey where they were put on a cargo vessel. They reached Crete with difficulty as the wind was against them. Sailing in the Mediterranean stopped for the winter in mid-November but the captain of the cargo ship was anxious about lost time and determined to risk sailing onwards. His crew agreed that they didn’t want to spend the winter in Crete (even if we’d happily take that option!) and so they set sail. But not before Paul has warned them that there would be loss of life if they sailed – rather like the bloke in the first Final Destination film who has a premonition that the plane will crash before they take off. The captain was probably sniffy about a Jewish prisoner giving him advice and so he simply ignored him. They were then caught in terrible, gut churning storms where day merges into night.

Luke records in Acts that they gave up all hope of being saved and hadn’t eaten for days when Paul gathered the crew to say he’s had a vision that they would be saved by running aground on Malta. Three months passed before they could sail again from Malta. Eventually they reached Rome, but after many months of travelling.

How did Luke feel about their adventure? Today he would have got a great book deal and been able to play himself in the movie of course. But these men were really important figures from history. They were busy changing the world when this ridiculously long journey began. It looked a complete waste of time. I know how I would have felt about it. Look again and you see something else. If Paul hadn’t been on that cargo ship the crew would have perished. If they hadn’t been shipwrecked off Malta, the island would not have heard about Jesus and its people not healed of their illnesses.

It’s a cliché to say that life is a long journey but there is something profound in this. Long journeys are made up of endless waiting, tedium and apparent pointlessness. But there are times when we make sudden and rapid progress, like with a surge of energy on take-off. We think our lives have lots of wasted time. But this is only because we decide for ourselves what counts as wasted time. Many people spend 8 hours asleep every day. Does this mean they waste over 20 years of their lives? Luke was born in a slower age and was gifted with spiritual wisdom which made him more content. He did not complain about his loss of time and seems to have accepted it as God’s will. I don’t think this is an easy lesson for anyone today, really. I know it isn’t for me.

Another story from Acts shows us something else too. Luke and Paul are on their missionary travels. They want to go to Asia but God does not allow them. Why? We do not know and Luke does not question it. So they try to get to Bithnyia, but again God does not allow them. Why? We do not know and again Luke does not question it. Then the reason becomes clear. One night Paul receives a vision from a man of Macedonia, inviting him to come there. Why Macedonia? We don’t know. Well, actually, we do know because this was the moment Christianity first reached Europe. Not such a small thing after all, then. Setting sail from Troas they eventually reach Philippi where they sit down by the river to chat to some women. One of them, a trader called Lydia, was particularly open to the word of the Lord to her and was baptised there with her household. Across the Middle East there were thousands of people that Paul and his companions could have met, but they were content in their journey for the Lord to lead them to Lydia.

It was said of former President Bill Clinton that he created a new genre of retail politics, the idea that every individual voter counts as much as the next and must be given the undivided attention of the campaigner. There are limits to this idea when you have a whole country to navigate but the principle has wider relevance because we are called to retail evangelism. This is a sharing of faith that cares intimately about the welfare of the person being reached, a pastoral attention to their needs which commends the Gospel. Lydia was only one woman, and yet, with the local church meeting in her home, she could fairly be said to be one of the first Christian women leaders. It is not with an instrumental view to what can be achieved through a new convert that we seek to share the good news, but through a loving belief in the unique value of every person. The wonder of our faith is that it is up to God what happens next.

Luke’s journeys set a precedent for Christians in a world addicted to relentless speed. God open doors and he shuts them. He employs people and he lays them aside. He puts them in a traffic jam and he opens the road ahead of them. It sounds so easy to say Jesus is Lord, but it means he has the right to do all of these things. And we have to trust that he is right.



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