When I was in Korea last February, my uncle told me pickpocket stories of his travels. In one particular incident, he was traveling with a couple. While the three of them were in a subway station, a stranger came up to his friend and pointed out that he had some stuff on his pants. Sure enough, there was some ketchup on the back of his pants, and so they started to get him cleaned up. When they were done, they realized that one of their bags was missing. They hurried to the security office, and lo and behold, the security tapes had recorded the entire job! There was one particular backpack that the wife was holding onto very tightly, and there was a whole team preying on this backpack. Finding no opportunities, they had created their own: one team member walked past with a packet of ketchup and sprayed his pants. Another came up to kindly inform the man of the crap on his pants. In the moment that the wife set the backpack down to help clean up the mess on her husband’s pants, they walked off with the backpack. The couple lost their passports and all the cash for the trip, about 1800 euros. As horrifying as the story was, it was someone else’s story, and I was glad that I hadn’t encountered a nightmare like that in my travels. Little did I know of what was to come in the near future.
Just two weeks ago, we found ourselves in Copenhagen airport, spending the night. We weren’t supposed to be in Copenhagen, Denmark. We were supposed to be in Kittilä, Finland, resting at a hotel to recharge before we went on a 1 week tour in the Lapland region. We weren’t supposed to be trying to catch flights all day long, buying tickets on-the-go with crappy airport Wi-Fi. We had too many flights become closed for purchasing or boarding, too many flights cancelled on us for one day. We were tired of trying to find help from people who wouldn’t offer any, and tired of still trying to find a solution to our mess. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt this angry and swore this much. By the end of the day, we had burned through almost 2000 euros to re-book our trip to and from Kittilä. It was by far the most nightmarish disaster to have struck me and my wife in our respective travel histories. This was supposed to be the most anticipated part of our travels through Europe, but after what seemed like a day of being repeatedly kicked into the ground by fate, we were left unsure whether this trip to Finland was going to be worth it even before it began.
The next day, after several more legs of flights and bus rides, we arrived at our tour lodge late at night. Even until the last moment, fate seemed to be at our heels, as we almost missed the shuttle from Kittilä airport to the lodge. But during the ride to the lodge, something began to unfold that foreshadowed what was to come in our week in Lapland.
“Those are the northern lights,” the driver said as pointed out the windshield. “If you want to take pictures, we can stop.”
But no one spoke up, and we continued. Since it was around 11PM, I think all of us in the shuttle were eager to get to the main lodge to eat and get as much sleep as possible before going on a physically demanding, week-long tour. Still, many of us spent the rest of the ride glued to windows next to us. Sure enough, we saw the large looming shapes. They were constantly fading in and out of the sky like some sort of weird smoke. Many were thin and long, but some were quite large and covered a significant portion of the sky. But because the windows were tinted, we didn’t see the real deal until we arrived and stepped outside.
It was really something. Very green, like the pictures. But what the pictures don’t do justice is the movement of the lights. It was so unique that there isn’t really one good way to describe it. At times they looked like numerous grains of sand moving in a synchronized manner. Another might say they are many tiny needles or shards of light that are dancing in a formation. My wife Annie described it as a “waterfall in the sky” and that “it looks like it should make music.” It was, in the truest sense of the word, captivating. From that night onwards, we took in more of the wonders of Lapland: stretching everywhere around us were clear, blue skies (which are not always so – we were lucky), dark green pine trees, frozen lakes, and snow sparkling in the sun. And we were lucky to enough to see the northern lights again on some nights. Perhaps the psalmist was traveling in Lapland when he wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1) We were truly in the midst of something glorious. Whether the trip would be worth our troubles was not even a question… at least for the first day in Lapland.
After I had been completely convinced that the trip was even more than what Annie and I had imagined it to be, the second day came. I was surrounded by the same splendid nature, but unlike the day before, I just couldn’t get out of my own head. I kept dwelling on what had happened on our way here, all because of lousy money and what could have been. I wished I could just turn my brain off, but my thoughts kept going back and forth: It’s so great to finally be here – It could have been better if all those things hadn’t happened – It’s still definitely worth it – But still it could have been even better, without all the stress, with more time to rest and properly enjoy the trip… It was completely bizarre, having this splendor all around me and yet being blind to it, unable to take it in. And so, I went through cycles of being able to put all the misery behind me and then having it bind me again throughout the trip.
After returning from Kittilä to Madrid, it was soon Easter Sunday. I read a passage about Mary, Peter, and John finding the tomb empty. It is a total fiasco, where Mary thinks that Jesus’s body is stolen and that the resurrected Jesus is a gardener. These people, who were among those closest to Jesus, “still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead” (John 20:9) even in the final moments of his life on earth. These were people who talked and ate with Jesus. Not only did they see his miracles but, my goodness, also lived and traveled with him; yet they could not grasp who Jesus really was and what he planned to do. Even when Jesus plainly appeared to his followers after his resurrection, there were people who doubted (Matthew 28:17).
Many times before, I was perplexed by how thick these people were. How can you doubt, when Jesus is in front of you, alive after death? How could the disciples be so narrow minded, fighting about who is the greatest among themselves in front of Jesus? How stupid! And so dull, to have spent so much time with Jesus but still not know him for who he is. Can you imagine, knowing people who got the chance to live with Jesus for several years but in the end had no idea what he was about and what he came to do? You’d say they missed out! This amazing person, these amazing things were unfolding before their very eyes, but they were often unaware, blind, and skeptical. They missed out big time! But on the whole, it isn’t unlike how I couldn’t grasp the beauty that was right in front of me, all around me because I couldn’t shake off losses of money and comfort. Even though I had taken in the wonders of Lapland just a day before, even though the disciples had seen Jesus walking on water, in the end our collective blindness, thickness, and concern for insignificant things somehow gets us. When someone has a false belief – something like northern lights are all green – it can be corrected by seeing the real deal, which is that depending on the intensity, they can be pink or even purple. But our blindness seems entrenched deeper, persisting beyond sense and logic. Maybe upon seeing grains of truth, it goes away, but it comes back too quickly and repeatedly.
Blindness is clearly a thing in the Bible. Many blind are given sight at Jesus’s command. Perhaps most famously, the Christian-murdering Saul encounters Jesus in a flash of light and loses his sight. After three days, he regains his sight, is baptized, and leads many to believe in Jesus. Without a doubt, there is much comfort in the fact that Saul’s recovery from blindness is a process through which his unlikely and exceptional faith is established. But there is a lingering fear that I will endlessly waver as I did in Finland, between partially seeing and being rather completely blind. In the many moments of dwelling on the past, I thought a lot about my extreme anger and frustration. The unprecedented feelings of dread, cursing, slamming things in fury were signs of what was most important to me. Had I ever felt so intensely about losing grip on the things of heaven? Losing sight of faith in God or love of God? No, I was never as passionate or angry as I was when things didn’t go according to my plan, when I lost a ton of money, when I was unnecessarily wronged. It was a sobering realization of how strongly I’m attached to my pride, possessions, and comfort, and how willingly I would hang onto my blindness to maintain them.
To my fearing self, I say two things. When Saul was blind, he had companions to lead him by the hand into Damascus, where he was healed in body and spirit. Remember that I am not alone, as I have a faithful companion and friends to lead me in my blindness. Also remember what Jesus tells Peter before he goes to cross, fully knowing Peter’s coming denial: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32) If I should become blind again and again, let it be so, that I can be a guide for brothers and sisters when the time comes.