My Uncle passed away two years ago in November, and we buried him at the Veterans’ Cemetery in Kent. It was an overcast day, and we were running a little late. We pulled our minivan into the caravan and the long car-line began its snaking progress with military promptness. We used the slow procession to catch our breath, but as we gazed out the window, our breath caught.
Row after row, cross after cross marched into the tree-line, inscribed with name after name, branded with war after war. It was but one cemetery in one city, but the weight of the cost of freedom hit us hard and fast. We were all silent as we gazed at generational faithfulness and sacrifice – lives laid down to secure the laughter and the roads that had brought us to this place.
Those crosses and the ring of Taps and the casket that sat before my girls that cold afternoon were inescapably physical. We learn about sacrifice from textbooks, but its heavy actuality settled into the young creases of my girls’ souls as their wide eyes gazed at the markers of duty that surrounded them.
This is one of the main reasons we are traveling to the United Kingdom and Normandy this August, and hopefully again in the future. We desire for ECS students to encounter the reality of what they have only experienced imaginatively; to actually walk the walls laid by the 9th Legion in York, to stand in a shell hole from D-Day, to gaze from the walls of Mont St. Michel where Arthur vanquished the giant. On a purely practical level, the UK and Normandy offered us the most Omnibus bang for our buck; when we highlighted all the texts in the Omnibus corpus, most of them intersected in some way with England and Normandy, from the Parthenon’s Elgin Marbles in the British Museum to Tolkien and Lewis’s pint-nook in the Bird and the Baby in Oxford, to the citizen soldiers crossing the English Channel towards the Normandy beaches.
Moreover, such a trip helps grant perspective on history and your position in the river of God’s story. When you look down between two skyscrapers in the middle of London onto a remnant of the Roman wall, your whole horizon realigns along a different angle. Certainly, all travels have their benefits. When you go hiking around Washington, you are like a dragonfly gazing at the beauty of a creek cascading through your backyard; if you travel to Washington D.C. or Boston, you have become a bird soaring above the the county which contains the creek; but if you can travel to Europe, you board a jet, traveling to the stratosphere where you can begin to gain a bigger view of the catastrophic, natural, and man-made forces that have shaped the banks, trees, boulders, and cascades of a vast terrain.
However, all is not sun and puffy clouds in this aerial view. Traveling to the UK and Europe also serves as a warning. Much like reading a Science-Fiction or dystopian novel straps you into a futuristic ride of the here-and-now to whirl you through a hyperbolic vision of where your politics, worldview, media, education, and entertainment may take you, so too does Europe act as a 15-year-fast-forwarded version of America’s worldview trajectory. The bright blinking lights of policies and philosophies are messy and ugly and good to see so we can unbuckle now and stand our ground.
Also to be clear, this isn’t to mimic the Grand Tour as some 19th century flouncy Victorians. It also isn’t to create a sense of longing for a place other than home, but a true appreciation for home. Just as walking a cemetery should cement a love and appreciation for your own life, and a thankfulness for the generations before you, so too does walking the ancestral boneyards of America during a sunrise hike along Hadrian’s Wall.
Unrelated to the UK in particular, traveling abroad has some unique benefits. It unseats potential cultural snobbery and unsettles presumptions. It is good for our students to understand there are other accents, foods, means of caffeination, sides of the road to drive on, languages, and means of mixing flour and water and yeast to make glorious and glutinous gastronomies. On one hand, it is good to feel uncomfortably out of place – like sojourners – to be where we are not understood, where we don’t recognize the landmarks. We need that feeling more: traveling abroad provides insta-stranger. We are too often comfortable, and it is profitable to find situations where we are sustainably uncomfortable.
Furthermore, if Omnibus unsettles chronological snobbery, then traveling abroad unsettles cultural provincialism – something is not automatically best because it is American, and it is not obviously right because it is the way we do it. Strangely, God has unique ways of doing things all over the planet, and we are blessed with the resources to see how He is doing that. How can it be that a particular cow, who eats a certain kind of grass that only grows in the soil and conditions of a particular county in the middle of the Cotswolds, can produce the most stupendous cheese and butter you have ever eaten?
Lord willing, our students will learn to appreciate more ways that more people are taking dominion of the millions of things God has given us. They have the opportunity to see an entirely different part of the body doing an entirely different thing in an entirely different part of the world: but it is still Imago Dei, and it is glorious, and it is a fierce fuel that, every time I have traveled, has revved my engine and focused my vision and added colors the palette of my own sub-creation and worship.
We recognize that not all students are able to go, nor desirous of travel, and that is glorious in its own way. God teaches and grows and expands us through many means, and the trip to the UK is but one potential tool. That said, we truly believe it is a unique tool; there are many screwdrivers, but we all know how it feels to try and use a flat-head when you just can’t find the Phillips. And, perhaps more than the cultural and intellectual interaction, there is sweet life-on-life that occurs during turbulent airplane rides and sleep-deprived missed Tube stops and cramped hostel quarters and deep philosophical ferry rides that you can’t get anywhere else. Sure, there are unknowns and travel advisories. Sure, traveling can create a disjointed wanderlust, but no matter how good the tea tastes or the clotted cream slides on the biscuits or the croissant smells in that pastry window, the gravitas and taste of our home is stronger still if we have prayed and labored for hands ready for the plow and muscles eager for the labor upon returning to our own field. This is merely adding a new layer and line of latitude to our Raggants’ plane of vision.
We ask you to pray for safety, enlarged capacities, faithful witness, and exuberant joy. May we look like joyful Christians who are ready to give a reason for the hope within us and be ready to laugh, no matter what comes.