Perhaps I will stay with you for a while, or even spend the winter, so that you can help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now and make only a passing visit; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. (1 Corinthians 16:6-8)
I’ve got a cancelled plane ticket from last summer that is begging to be used. The home page on the United Airlines website states, “Not sure where to go? Use our interactive map to find flights to great destinations.”
At the beginning of 2020, France, Australia, and Hawaii were on my short list of places to visit, and had the world not been struck by a pandemic, I’m sure my husband and I would have crossed one of those locations off the list this year. But, as things stand, those faraway places have slipped in rank to make room for Albuquerque, Niagara Falls, Colorado Springs, Dallas, and Greensboro. They’re not particularly appealing places on their own, but that’s where our families and closest friends live, making these cities some of our favorite places to visit.
Scholars believe that Philippi was likely the apostle Paul’s favorite church, even though he was severely beaten and imprisoned there. He first visited Philippi—a leading city in Macedonia— around 52 A.D. (Acts 16:12) and again six years later (Acts 20:6) on his way back to Jerusalem. We don’t know whether he visited a third time, but he wrote his letter to the Philippians from a prison cell in either Ephesus or Rome, in 62 A.D. His words are precious and full of love, “I thank my God every time I remember you” (Philippians 1:3).
I must admit that when one of my siblings calls, my heart beats a little faster. I’m excited to hear their voices, catch up on the latest family news, or share a memory from years past. My husband and I have a tendency to put our family and friends on speaker so we both can participate in the conversation. I’m grateful for FaceTime and Zoom, which allows us to connect visually so we can watch each other’s hair turn grey and kids grow up.
Paul did not have this luxury. He had to wait weeks, perhaps months, to hear from his friends. His heart probably beat a little faster when a letter arrived, and I imagine him tenderly adding each letter to a keepsake box where he could read it over and over again. I recently found a stack of letters from a long-forgotten friend who wrote to me faithfully when I was in college. Why I kept his letters after all these years can only be explained by the humorous content within. Bob was hysterical! And even after 30 years, his letters can still make me laugh out loud.
Great letters, Zoom, and FaceTime are all wonderful tools that have helped to make sheltering in place bearable this past year, but not one of these tools can replace the power of a face-to-face encounter. We humans tend to be more attentive to instruction when it’s delivered in person, and our understanding improves when we are able to read a person’s body language along with their spoken words. In-person meetings also help us to feel connected and heard, which builds trust and fosters compassion.
Paul obviously knew the benefits of face-to-face encounters because he routinely revisited the cities where he planted churches. His first journey took him from Antioch all the way to Galatia where he visited four cities, west to east: Perga, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. Then he retraced his steps back through these cities to Jerusalem.
Paul’s second journey also started in Antioch. Here he says to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing” (Acts 15:36). Paul and Silas then head toward Galatia, approaching the four cities in the opposite direction, from east to west: Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Perga.
Led by the Spirit, Paul continued to travel westward through Troas and on to Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea before heading by sea to Athens, then Corinth. He made new friends along the way and always circled back to see how they were doing. It’s estimated that Paul traveled over 10,000 miles by foot. That’s like walking from New York City to Los Angeles and back, twice!
On his last trip back to Jerusalem, Paul sent for the elders of Ephesus to meet him in Miletus—a distance of about 50 miles. That couldn’t have been an easy journey, but they showed up. Paul instructs these men, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). He also tells them that he will never see them again. This news was too important to be delivered in a letter. He had to share it in person and hug his friends one last time. The Bible tells us that Paul “knelt down with them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him” (Acts 20:36-37).
And that’s why friends and family visits are taking precedence this season. This pandemic has made it clear that time is short, and we don’t know when God will call us—or someone we love—home.
As I read and re-read Paul’s travelogue, my focus shifts from the breadth of his journeys to the depth of his relationships. I see the importance of prioritizing family and friends, writing letters, showing up, circling around, and meeting face-to-face when possible.
Sure, I still want to visit France and Australia—but after a year of COVID, Albuquerque and Niagara Falls sound so much more enticing! I know there I will find hugs, laughter, and people who are yearning to see me as much as I’m yearning to see them.
THE SONG THAT COMES TO MIND IS More by Matthew West.
Lyrics: “Wherever you go is where I am, and I’m always thinking of you.”