Traveling by airplane, though routine for many people, is still one of the most jarring and disruptive experiences for me. It's not the fact that I am squeezed into the tiniest space where my knees hit my shoulders, or that I am breathing in recycled air in a confined space filled with the germs of 220 other passengers, or that I am shocked by the generous offer of both peanuts and pretzels by a sympathetic flight attendant. No, flight is disruptive to me because one minute I can be in one geographic space and within a few hours land on the other side of the country or the world. Airplane flight is jarring because it suddenly drops one into an entirely different location with unfamiliar people, geography, and experiences in just a few hours.
This kind of dislocation is not just physical, but emotional and psychological as well. To be sure, there are always similarities even between different cultures and regions because humans are humans. But when traveling and visiting a place only for a period of time, and when one has arrived halfway around the world in just a few hours, the disruption of difference is experienced keenly. What for me are entirely foreign sights, smells, tastes, customs and tones are the everyday reality of those who inhabit that space. I feel my own strangeness, my own difference, even as I try to connect to those whose lands I temporarily inhabit.
Of course, one doesn't have to be traveling by airplane to be assaulted by the dramatic differences in the lived experience of human beings. My interactions with a next-door neighbor, good friend or total stranger seated next to me on the bus or train could be as different with regards to our life experience as circles are to squares. The differences can be subtle or shocking. Yet, reality takes on shapes and contours uniquely defined and depicted by those experiences, and they are as real for the person who lives within them as the atmosphere that surrounds them.
Travel exposes the diversity of human experience and the power those lived experiences. Travel can also disrupt those lived experiences I might be tempted to assume are universal. One is challenged by encounters with those who have different experiences and as such reality can seem to be disrupted. These encounters can be so disruptive that we are often tempted to dismiss one another's experiences without really giving a hearing.
One of the most compelling aspects of the Christian narrative is the assertion that God inhabited human experience in Jesus. That habitation had a context: ancient Palestine, Jewish male, poor family, religiously observant, Roman occupied. Given this assertion at the heart of Christian faith, isn't something profound being said about God's value of lived human experience? In all its complexity and diversity, in all its foibles and folly, in all its weakness and brokenness, Jesus takes on human experience by becoming one of us, by living in a time and a culture and a place that shaped his own experience of the world.
Christians believe that in addition to giving human beings a picture of the nature of God in his very person, Jesus also paints a picture of what it means to be human. He shows us what it means to inhabit human experience while depending on a God who loves him. Perhaps this understanding is behind what is expressed in the biblical writings that Jesus "learned obedience," that "he grew in stature and in favor with God and man" that he grew tired thirsty, and weary, and that he wept tears mixed with bloody sweat because his soul was troubled to the point of death.
In every important way, Jesus shared our experience; and in his humanity tabernacled in human likeness, God dwelt alongside humanity. Not removed from us or a distant outsider, God took on lived experience in the man from Nazareth. Rather than dismissing human experience, God took an inside look through Jesus.
Margaret Manning Shull is an adjunct speaker with RZIM based in Washington.