A Boy, a Beard and a Backpack

Following is from the travel journal of Joshua Longbrake, a frequent RELEVANTmagazine.com contributor who just returned from a two-month backpacking trip through Europe.

I’ve come to the conclusion that God is a backpacker and a vagabond. You may disagree with me, but I’d disagree with you. To each his own, I suppose.

My first night in Rome found me at my hostel eating dinner with my new friends and trying to figure out what the plans were for the evening. I was thinking of simply roaming around the ancient city and taking a few photos, but someone asked if I’d like to go to a pub with them.

I stayed at the pub and started to talk with a lot of the backpackers that were staying at my hostel. Somehow—and I still don’t even know how—we started to talk about Jesus.

It was so odd. We were sitting outside this bar for an hour talking about Jesus. I sat there and thought to myself, "I’m in Rome, at a bar, talking about Jesus." I loved every second of being there.

And now allow me the honor of introducing you to Danny Carmichael.

I met Danny that next morning during breakfast at the hostel. I could tell that there was something really interesting about my new travel friend. He went to school near me in Virginia, but it was obvious to me that he was really bright and very well read. Neither of us had plans for the day so we decided to go to Vatican City and a few other places of interest on foot and via the Rome Metro. Our conversations began around the subjects of music, films and literature. Danny was a literature major and also a very good writer so he had lots of fascinating things to discuss. He’s also a huge Elliot Smith fan and knows quite a bit about music, which consequently was my major in college.

We reached Vatican City when somehow we started to discuss Jesus and organized religion. I told him that I’d been reading a book on the concept of hell, and I asked him his thoughts on it. He told me about his past with the Church and how at one point he’d really wanted to become a priest but how he’d walked away from it for various personal beliefs. This was the beginning of a five hour-long conversation about God and the best possible way to live life.

Danny and I sat there at Vatican City right outside of St. Peter’s Basilica talking about hell and heaven and Jesus’ radical teachings. At one point he asked me about sin. I told him that rather than talking about the negative things in life that I’d rather discuss the positive things—or as a few authors and teachers have put it—the best possible way to live.

From that point on, our conversation was based all on the positive. We spoke in depth of grace, hope, true justice, mercy, marriage, peace, generosity to the poor and ultimately landed on the subject of love, which we both agreed that all of the aforementioned topics ultimately fell underneath.

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We spoke for a long time about art and creation. Danny is an incredible writer, poet and artist. It is in him to create. I told him I thought he was made to create because God is an artist; He is a creator. It is in Danny to create because it is in God to create. I told Danny that I thought he was a writer because God is a writer. We talked about other people who didn’t relate to art as much and how God made them to be who they are because those same attributes are attributes of God as well. Some people relate to God through music, some through science and some through mathematics. Some people relate to God through backpacking, because we all know it’s true that God is a hitchhiker. I could tell that this part of our conversation was really resonating with Danny. The fact that God made him to create was a new concept. It was foreign to his previous concept of God as a God who is removed.

Late at night, Danny said very plainly, "What about suffering? Tell me about suffering." This brought a smile to my face and an almost immediate tear to my eye. I said, "More appropriately, let’s ultimately talk about hope." I told him stories from my own life about pain and the hope that came through it. It told him stories of my friends who have suffered tremendous loss and how they’ve passed beyond it to become people who are filled with more faith and more hope than they had before. We talked about that text in Romans where it says that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. I told him that maybe my story of pain and loss wasn’t meant to bring hope into my life, but maybe it was meant to bring hope into his life.

Danny and I said our temporary goodbyes beneath the glow of the Coliseum with a long embrace. He was on to the north of Italy, and I was on towards Greece. I’d just met him that day but I felt very eternally connected to him in a way that I can’t quite explain with words. With each passing day I think I’m slowing starting to realize how true it is that the kingdom is now. Eternity is now. Everything is so significant. I don’t take it lightly that I met my friends at that pub that night or that Danny and I "randomly" decided to check out Rome together. I’ve been praying all along on this trip that God would guide my steps and guard my heart, and I think He’s doing exactly that.

God is a backpacker and a vagabond. I also think He’s an incredible non-fiction writer who happened to pen a wonderful story that day of a kid with a beard in Rome who met people and had eternal conversations.

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