My work in Christian higher education over the years has involved a lot of international travel – perhaps a curse to some, but a blessing to me. The key to successful travel, I’ve learned, is the same principle that I encourage in Christian college students: “Travel light, hold it tight.”
Let me explain.
Traveling overseas is difficult when you take too much luggage. You have to get to the airport earlier to check your bags, and then having them sitting in an airplane cargo bay restricts your flexibility if flight schedules change. And of course, once you arrive at your location, you have to lug that suitcase through the streets of London or Kampala.
That’s why in my travels to over 20 countries, I have learned to make do with a small backpack and a carry-on bag. Khaki pants, a couple of shirts, running shorts, a fleece, socks and underwear, shoes, and my University of Michigan baseball cap will almost always suffice. Traveling light keeps me nimble and adaptable to the unpredictable events of international travel.
It’s the same in the Christian life. As we grow in our faith in college, we learn to whittle down what we may have believed were absolute necessities. Encountering Christians from other cultures and backgrounds helps us to see the relative nature of some of the beliefs and practices that we’ve inherited, leading us to hold those lightly. A former student of mine at John Brown University said it well in his senior graduation speech: “I believe less now than I did as a freshman, but I believe it more deeply.” That’s an apt description of traveling light as a Christian.
But while I always travel light, there are three items that I hold tight and never let out of my possession: my passport, iPhone, and credit card. These three objects, though small and seemingly nondescript, will get me to and from virtually anywhere in the world. Zip-up pockets are mandatory for these essentials, and no feeling is worse than that momentary sense of panic when you lose track of one of them while traveling in a foreign country.
Similarly, the Christian life isn’t only about traveling light; it’s also about knowing what items to hold tight. If our students graduate from our schools concluding that all of their beliefs are permanently up for debate, then we haven’t accomplished our goal. The sometimes difficult process of evaluating and filtering what we hold dear should lead not to skepticism but to an embrace of the essentials.
So what are those essentials? As with travel, there are three. The apostle Paul summarized them long ago as faith, hope, and love. First, we hold to faith – not just a warm feeling, but some basic truths that we can depend on. Christians have summarized these essential truths in a variety of ways over the centuries; the Apostles’ Creed has always been a good place to start. Like the information in a passport, our faith contains truths that we embrace tightly amid doubt and uncertainty.
Second, we hold on to hope that God will ultimately accomplish his purposes in this fallen world. For many students, their time at a Christian college includes their first significant exposure to examples of human suffering and social injustice. At such times, the Christian virtue of hope in God’s goodness and sovereignty is particularly important to buttress us from doubt and disillusionment.
Finally, of course, we hold fast to love. When we witness deep suffering in the world, love compels us to run toward the suffering, not away from it. After all, we worship a God who does the same.
My daughter completed a semester abroad in Uganda as a college student, and her closing reflections summed it up better than I could: “Ultimately, what I have gained from my semester in Uganda is faith in a God who is good, hope that all will be made new, and love for the world in all of its beauty and brokenness.”
Traveling light and holding it tight is essential for navigating the chaotic airports, train stations, and bus terminals of international travel. But eventually we all discover that not just an airport but the entire world is messy and unpredictable. Events that can rock our faith come our way without warning. My prayer for our students is that they learn to travel light in their Christian journey and hold tight to the God of faith, hope, and love, who will help them to navigate the unpredictable life they will face.
Rick Ostrander is vice president for research & scholarship at the CCCU.