Quote me

London, N7
04/01/2014  •  993 words

Listening to: I Want You Back by the Jackson 5

Do you have a favourite quote that you return to again and again? What is it, and why does it move you?

There is one quote that has stuck with me for the last several years, which I guess denotes some kind of significance. The trouble is, I can’t for the life of me track down the place I read it. For that reason, I’m unable to check the absolute accuracy of the words, but I am confident that I committed to memory a fairly faithful paraphrase.

The quotation is from John Stott, commenting on the biblical story of the people of Israel held in the wilderness for forty years between the Exodus and the conquest of the land of Canaan.

For we, like the Israelites, are wondering in the desert, and we would do well to travel light.

Should I ever write an autobiography, I think I might call it “Travelling Light.” I would hope it to be an accurate label for my life.

Travelling light isn’t a philosophy of Zen-like abandonment of cognitive function. It isn’t a hippieish lifestyle of dropping your baggage in a haze of narcotics. Rather, it is the inevitable response to the knowledge that this life is temporary but the one to come is eternal.

In that quote, Stott bridges the experience of the Israelite people rescued from slavery in Egypt through the Exodus into a promised inheritance and the present experience of Christian believers rescued from sin and death through the cross of Christ into a promised inheritance as children of God. In both stories, there is a bit in the middle after the rescue but before the promise is fully realised.

Spiritually speaking, the present landscape bears more relation to wilderness than to a land flowing with milk and honey. Don’t build houses here! Don’t bed down roots! You’re just passing through. The Israelites wondered through the desert for a generation, while Christians wonder through it for anything up to a lifetime. Of course we settle to some extent, but ultimately we are travellers who have everything we could possibly need waiting for us at our destination. So we are to travel light.

I am almost entranced by the idea behind Paul Carr’s book The Upgrade. It is essentially a story about travelling light, as the blurb explains:

Bored, broke and struggling to survive in one of the most expensive cities on earth, Paul Carr comes to the surprising realisation that it would actually be cheaper to live in a hotel in Manhattan than in his one-bedroom London flat. Inspired by that possibility, he decides to sell most of his possessions, abandon his old life and spend a year living entirely without commitments, as a modern-day nomad.

If I were a little richer and a little braver I could easily imagine myself doing something similar. Living Pinocchio-like with no strings to hold me down. Bliss.

For Paul Carr, the result was decadence and genuinely risky folly. His kind of travelling light wasn’t theologically motivated; instead it was fuelled by a desire to escalate his exploration of the consequences of freedom. It turned into something of a mess, as the blub goes on to outline:

Thanks to Paul’s highly developed blagging skills, what begins as a one-year experiment soon becomes a permanent lifestyle – a life lived in luxury hotels and mountain-top villas. A life of fast cars, Hollywood actresses and Icelandic rock stars. Of 6,000-mile booty calls, of partying with 800 female hairdressers dressed only in bedsheets, and of nearly dying at the hands of Spanish drug dealers. And, most bizarrely of all, a life that still costs less than surviving on cold pizza in London.

Yet, as word of Paul’s exploits starts to spread – first online, then through a newspaper column and eventually a book deal – he finds himself forced constantly to up the stakes in order to keep things interesting. With his behaviour spiralling to dangerous – and sometimes criminal – levels, he is forced to ask the question: is there such a thing as too much freedom?

Err… yes.

I mention Paul Carr because my affinity with the idea of travelling light is conflicted. The theological/ethical bit about the rescue and inheritance is absolutely important to me; little else is more so. But there is a latent non-theological/unethical desire to hang my responsibilities and live for a while like nothing can pin me down.

I am grateful for The Upgrade because it demonstrates the lie of the latter kind of travelling light. It won’t satisfy. It isn’t worth emulating. (I should note, it’s the nomadic lifestyle with no fixed abode that appeals, not the alcohol-fuelled high-jinx that Carr got up to. But that’s beside the point.)

The Upgrade ends with Carr acknowledging that he has a drink problem. Although obvious to the reader almost from the start, Carr’s epiphany casts an eerie shadow back across the rest of the book. It’s tragic. His kind of travelling light was a disaster.

By contrast, John Stott travelled light in the first kind of way and died content. I was reminded recently of the words on his gravestone which echo the simplicity of this travelling light mantra:

Buried here are the ashes of John R. W. Stott …
who resolved both as the ground of his salvation
and as the subject of his ministry
to know nothing except
Jesus Christ and him crucified.
1 Corinthians 2:2

There is a godly simplicity to travelling light, which John Stott modelled wonderfully. What Paul Carr got wrong was to mistake the simplicity for drudgery. He sought excess in his freedom, and found himself enslaved. If I ever do write the autobiography Travelling Light, I’d hope to write of freedoms given up rather than tested to the limit; of simplicity; of rescue and inheritance; of promise.

UPDATE 12/10/2017

I found the quote:

For like the Israelites in the wilderness, we are pilgrims travelling to the Promised Land, and we will be wise to travel light.