Ah, the family vacation. It’s a ritual that, for the last few generations in North America at least, has become part of the regular cycle of the family. For several decades, parents have loaded their kids into the old family truckster and ventured out into new arenas – to the beach, to the theme park, to the city, to the national park, to a villa Antigua – for vacation.
Our own family loves vacations, though my wife and I have grown up in vastly different vacationing families. I remember as a kid piling into the station wagon, and then later the Suburban, and traveling from Texas to Disneyland in California, Disneyworld in Florida, and Washington, DC. On those trips, our family had every night reserved in a hotel in advance, and even packed a cooler of food to go along with us. Hotels were our only choice of accommodation back then, but I think that if the option was there, we would’ve liked to have rented out an apartment for a couple of days to make us feel more comfortable. If we were to go on vacation now, we might consider using short term housing so we have the opportunity to extend our vacations and make more memories.
My wife, on the other hand, vividly recalls just setting off in the car to eventually get somewhere, and stay somewhere, and do something, with her always calm father at the helm using his favorite vacationing phrase: “There will be a Wal-Mart wherever we end up. If you don’t have it packed by now, don’t worry about it.”
Wherever on that spectrum you are, you probably have a vivid cache of memories from those trips. Experiences burned into your mind that you can recall at a moment’s notice, stories that have become part of your own family’s lore. And as we’ve tried to give this gift to our own kids, with varying degrees of success, it occurs to me that family vacations have some shared characteristics with the process of discipleship. Even more, there are some things we can learn about discipleship from the family vacation. Here are five such examples:
1. Being is as important as doing.
We’ve had vacations both ways. We’ve had the trip where all you do is “do” – a tight itinerary, scheduled tours and stops, even the meals planned down to the restaurant. And we’ve had vacations where we only had a destination in mind, and the whole purpose was simply to relax and be there. Both have worked fine for our family. But what we’ve noticed in both is the need for the other one. On a “doing” vacation, we’ve seen that we need some downtime in the schedule. And with the “being” vacation, we’ve seen that we need a few activities here and there to keep us moving.
In discipleship, we tend to think that all growth involves “doing.” Doing Bible study, doing attendance, doing prayer, doing Scripture memory. But in an activity-saturated, hyper-busy, over-calendared culture like the one we live in, one of the most counter-cultural disciplines you can build into your spiritual life is the discipline of rest. Of silence. Of solitude. This is not laziness, for even in these moments you are trying to create the space to quiet your heart and reflect on the fact that all your “doing” is really “done” thanks to the cross of Christ. And, just like vacation, there should be time allowed for both.
2. Verbalizing solidifies an experience.
One of our favorite things to do on vacation is a kind of daily review. It’s to ask the kids, for a given day, to reflect back on what they will most remember, what they enjoyed, and even what they didn’t. This is more than just a passing conversation, though – it’s the recognition that when we verbalize something, it has a greater chance of lodging in our memories. So when we ask our kids to talk about what they’ve experience on vacation, we are really trying to carve out a memory for them they can come back to again and again.
In discipleship, the same thing holds true. You might learn something new from God’s Word. You might be convicted by the Holy Spirit to change an action or an attitude. You might see an answer to prayer in an unexpected way. When we verbalize these things, it helps these things to stick with us. An important part of growth, then, is actually sharing with others what you are learning, how you are changing, and what the Lord has compelled you to resolve to change in your life.
3. Lasting joy comes with going together.
I’ve traveled to some interesting places as a part of my work. The majority of the time, my family has not been able to go with me on these trips. And while it’s been interesting to be in these destinations, more times than not I haven’t taken the time on those trips to really get out into the city and see what it has to offer. But everything is different when I find myself with the people I love the very most in the world. There is something about going together that enhances the joy of the journey and the destination.
The same thing is true of discipleship. Though we tend to think about spiritual growth as an individual practice, it’s actually a corporate endeavor. And while we individually practice spiritual disciplines, we are meant to come together, in the church, to celebrate, communicate, and share the ways the Holy Spirit is moving us toward Christlikeness. We are, as Christians, our brothers’ keepers. And this is more than a responsibility; it’s a great joy.
4. Telling stories of the past helps us move toward the future.
Whenever we go on a vacation in the present, we always end up telling stories about our vacations of the past. We relive our blunders, our favorite restaurants, and our best stories from our time on the road. The telling of stories, particularly about the unique experiences we have on vacations, has become part of our family fabric. And when we tell those stories, we do more than remember; the act of recollection actually sets us up for great expectations from the future.
Likewise, part of growing in Christ is looking backward. It’s about remembering the faithfulness of God in different seasons of the past, and as we do, we remind ourselves of His enduring faithfulness in the present and into the future. Through the simple act of remembering, we take courage for the days to come, trusting that the God who has always provided, always served, and always forgiven will do so once again.
5. A plan helps everything move forward.
Even in our most unscheduled, restful vacations we’ve had the semblance of a plan. At the very least, a hotel reservation or a few activities we want to do while we are there. This is an important thing to our family we are finding. Our kids wake up every morning of the vacation with a single question on their lips: “What’s the plan for today?” It’s not that everything always goes according to plan – it certainly does not. But a plan gives a direction, and there is great comfort, joy, and anticipation in that.
Similarly, discipleship is not some aimless wandering on a spiritual journey. We are to work out our salvation as God works in us, and that means we actually discipline ourselves to work the plan of spiritual growth. It doesn’t have to be complicated (and in fact, we do ourselves a disservice when we do unnecessarily complicate it), but we would do well to have some kind of direction for our own study, prayer, reading, and meditation.
Now as a parent, I know that as great as vacation is, it’s also a lot of work, especially for the parents involved. But the great news about discipleship is even though there is work to be done on our part, we are running with the wind. For the Holy Spirit is much more committed to our ongoing growth in Jesus than we are. When we give ourselves to discipleship, we are falling in line with what God is already doing in us.