For our Community Advent retreat I normally join Srs Sheila and Elizabeth at Bungay. This year was going to be more complex to arrange from my point of view, as it’s usually on the Tuesday and Wednesday of the second week of Advent, so I go over on Monday and come back on Thursday, to get the full benefit of the two days. I was also going to get the bus over; I finish Welcoming at the Cathedral at 2pm, so ideally I would come back to the flat, pick up my luggage and get the 2.45pm bus; I could get a later one, but I figured it would be busier. Hence Sunday afternoon I packed, trying to decide how many layers I’d need under my habit, spare clothes ‘in case’, would I need walking boots, or was it easier to leave them, and stick to unmuddy walks? Do I bring my spiritual reading or do I borrow something advent-y from the library at Bungay? Then there were all the last minute items to pack: toiletries (although I decanted some into smaller bottles the day before), and so on.
Monday morning comes: I take my bags from my sitting room, where I’d left them overnight so as not to overcrowd my bedroom, and begin the last minute pack. Toiletries: all present; phone charger (necessity, as I can’t borrow one while I’m there, and it’s helpful to have access to my mobile if out on a long walk, in case… What did people do who got lost or hurt in the middle of nowhere before mobiles??). Sorry, slight diversion there. Anyhow, I’m trying to work out how best to pack and carry things when my mobile pings. Thankfully, it wasn’t the NHS Covid app telling me I’d had close contact with a case. It was Sr Sheila, telling me she’d been pinged to say she’d had close contact with a case… They’d all had negative lateral flow tests, but she needed to have a PCR test as well, to check. So that was that. I spent the retreat in Norwich, and Sr Sheila was self-isolating, presumably, till she got the result, telling her she was indeed negative. I returned to the bedroom, and started unpacking, regretting those smaller bottles of shampoo, shower gel etc., which are a bit of a pain to use, but so much less bulky to pack.
Had I been driving, packing would have been easier: just take anything I might vaguely need, it can all go in the boot of the car. Had I been walking, packing would have been more streamline: no books, use what’s there, fewer spare clothes … although had I been walking I might a) not have got there or b) only got there when it was time to come back. Anyhow, it got me thinking about that passage in the gospels when Jesus sends out the disciples. (Matthew 10:1-10; Luke 10:1-12). He gives specific instructions on what to take, although they are slightly different in both gospels. In Matthew’s gospel he says not to take along any gold, silver or copper, no bag or extra tunic or sandals or staff, as the worker deserves his keep (or, presumably, eventually, her keep). Luke has them not taking a purse or bag or sandals, and not greeting anyone on the road. That puts my packing dilemmas in perspective! I’m not sure if the ‘no sandals’ rule was an extra pair, or if they were expected to go barefoot (or even if that was the custom at the time). No bag, no money, no extra tunic (what if the one you were wearing got dirty?). It must have been a real exercise in trust. For both Matthew and Luke make it quite clear that their message might not be welcomed, and therefore possibly that food and shelter might not be forthcoming – although the rules of hospitality would have been very different from today.
I’m just wondering what Sr Sheila and Elizabeth’s reaction would have been had I turned up at Bungay with no spare clothes, no bag and no money. For a start, it would have meant walking, which according to my phone would have taken five to five-and-a-half hours; probably the latter, as the quickest route sent you directly along most of the B1332, not the most sensible way. So, there I go; hang on, first problem. No sandals: does that mean literally no footwear, or just no sandals, or no spare footwear? I’ve no idea, I’m not an expert biblical scholar. I could look it up somewhere, or I can guess. I’m going to guess, as this is also winter in the UK. No footwear is going to have me in hospital. So, no sandals, which is easy: I’m not going to wear sandals on any walk that long, let alone in December. So, walking boots: BUT only walking boots. I get to wear them, or just socks, the whole time I’m in Bungay, even if they’re muddy. So: there’s me, ready to go. Walking boots, habit, coat, Umbrella? water bottle? Not sure. Sensible, but I’ve no bag remember. I get to carry them the whole way. So water bottle, but no umbrella, even though this is a UK December. I walk for over five hours (with mobile phone; it might not be strictly to the rules, but it’s not banned, if only because they didn’t exist in Jesus’ day, and I’m going to get lost otherwise). Although maybe that was the point? The disciples weren’t going to visit friends, they were going out into the harvest field, and maybe that was wherever they ended up. Anyhow, after over five hours of walking I turn up in Bungay: cold, probably wet, tired, hungry. BUT hopefully before dark, and before they lock up. I’ve no night clothes (can I borrow some?), no toiletries (they must have spare) and am probably most in need of a hot shower, food and a change of clothes. Which I haven’t got; maybe I’d fit Sr Elizabeth’s?? I’ll leave their reaction to your imagination.
But I don’t think we’re expected to take it literally. The disciples were sent out in pairs, very sensibly. Whatever happened, there were two of them to deal with it. Jesus trusted them as he sent them out with specific instructions, and they had to trust him, as they followed those instructions. I can imagine them coming back saying ‘Master, Thomas had two pairs of sandals’ or ‘Peter took an extra tunic’ or ‘You should have seen the size of John’s bag’. But they don’t: they come back rejoicing that even the demons submit to them in Jesus’ name; although they are quickly told to rejoice instead that their names are written in heaven (Luke 10:17-20). But I can only assume that they followed Jesus’ instructions, and that this trust, not only in Jesus, but in the Father, helped the positive response to their mission. I wonder how much we really trust, and do we have that level of dependence on God? To follow our journey in life without extras, without even what we might need, trusting that God will provide? This isn’t necessarily about ‘living by faith’, although I know some do; I’m not suggesting we all give up our incomes or possessions. Neither am I suggesting that we don’t prepare thoroughly for what we’re doing; there is a time when we need to depend on the Holy Spirit to give us words to say, but the Spirit can also work in advance. I think I am wondering how much we trust God through all that; how much we are prepared to trust God in the circumstances over which we have no control. I am wondering how much extra baggage we take about our daily lives unnecessarily? Whether real baggage, or emotional, or spiritual. How much are we able to ‘let go and let God’? I don’t have any answers – least of all for myself – but it might just be the start of a journey of discovery far more profound than the one I should have set out on last Monday.