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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Place of Rest Along the Way

For as long as there have been roads there have been travelers. We are creatures on the move – we explore, communicate, and trade along routes that stretch far and wide across this world. We are also creatures that need rest and refreshment long those paths, and so we create places dedicated to times of pause and protection from the elements.

From at least 500bc onward we have built way stations, small communities where weary travelers might sleep, eat, bathe, and relax along the road. Archaeologists have identified these houses along Roman, Incan, Persian, and Indian roads, many of them large and opulent.[1] Americans are more familiar with stops along the stagecoach and rail paths of the 19th and 20th centuries. Travel in those days was dangerous and uncomfortable even in the best cases. John Stone’s ballad about the California Stage Company captures the mood of such travel:

There’s no respect for youth or age
On board the California stage,
But pull and haul about the seats
As bed-bugs do about the sheets.

You’re crowded in with Chinamen,
As fattening hogs are in a pen;
And what will more a man provoke
Is musty plug tobacco smoke.

The ladies are compelled to sit
With dresses in tobacco spit;
The gentlemen don’t seem to care,
But talk on politics and swear.

The dust is deep in summer time,
The mountains very hard to climb,
And drivers often stop and yell,
“Get out, all hands, and push up hill.”

The drivers, when they feel inclined,
Will have you walking on behind,
And on your shoulders lug a pole
To help them out some muddy hole.

They promise when your fare you pay,
“You’ll have to walk but half the way”;
Then add aside, with cunning laugh,
“You’ll have to push the other half.”[2]

This is probably only a slight exaggeration. Elizabeth MacPhail has demonstrated that passengers aboard a Wells Fargo stagecoach, which usually carried 15 people, were crammed into 15” spaces, their knees dovetailed, and often seated over mail or other cargo. These travellers would endure such conditions for weeks-long journeys through hostile Indian lands and risking robbery by highwaymen. Wells Fargo eventually published guidelines for travelers that included:
       Abstinence from liquor is requested, but if you must drink share the bottle. To do otherwise makes you appear selfish and unneighborly (sic).
       If ladies are present, gentlemen are urged to forego smoking cigars and pipes as the odor of same is repugnant to the gentler sex. Chewing tobacco is permitted, but spit with the wind, not against it.
       Gentlemen must refrain from the use of rough language in the presence of ladies and children.
       Buffalo robes are provided for your comfort in cold weather. Hogging robes will not be tolerated and the offender will be made to ride with the driver.
       Don't snore loudly while sleeping or use your fellow passenger's shoulder for a pillow; he or she may not understand and friction may result.
       Firearms may be kept on your person for use in emergencies. Do not fire them for pleasure or shoot at wild animals as the sound riles the horses.
       In the event of runaway horses remain calm. Leaping from the coach in panic will leave you injured, at the mercy of the elements, hostile Indians and hungry coyotes.
       Forbidden topics of conversation are: stagecoach robberies and Indian uprisings.
       Gents guilty of unchivalrous (sic) behavior toward lady passengers will be put off the stage. It's a long walk back.[3]

Along the paths that these coaches travelled were small communities called way stations. These stops were not destinations, but were rather places where fresh horses could be teamed, supplies purchased, and, for travelers not afraid of being left behind, places of rest. Men and women whose lives were centered on caring for the travelers who came to their doors populated these communities. There were blacksmiths, doctors, farriers, and certainly clergy at these stations. They provided shelter and relief to those brave souls headed somewhere farther down the road.

There is a sense in which the unpredictable and exhausting travel of the American stagecoach era is like our Christian journey. It is no coincidence that the earliest Christians were called followers of “the Way.”[4] Theirs was a way of believing God through Jesus Christ and a way of living with one another and the world as witnesses to that Way.[5] We journey along the road of discipleship “working out” our salvation and growing into Christ-likeness.[6]
It is unfortunate that many of my Baptist tribe in the South[7] see salvation as a one-and-done event that has few consequences beyond learning to live within a new moral framework as described in Scripture. People are more complicated than that. We are creatures who change, who develop, who oscillate along some spectrum of faithfulness and sin. We are supposed to grow, yes, but we will inevitably be hurt and ruined by life along the way.

What are we to do when the Way has become rough and treacherous? Where are we to turn for refreshment when the journey of the Cross is too much for us to take even one more moment? We need way stations for our spiritual journey as much as the travelers of old needed them for physical rest.

Our little congregation in Madison, Mississippi styles itself as a spiritual and physical way station. This is the result of several years of prayer and struggle with our own identity among the abundance of churches in our state.  We have come to realize that God has brought a truly unique group of believers together to do a work that is necessary and missing from our community.

From a spiritual perspective we provide a small, intimate community of believers for those who feel they have no spiritual place to belong among the churches of our area. We welcome those who are hurt, burned-out, or searching for something different than First Baptist Church. One recent visitor commented that ours was a church that listened. We are not a group that speaks in absolutes or spiritual ultimatums. We listen, question, and most importantly provide a place where spiritual travelers can breathe for a bit.

We hold to the same beliefs as many of our Baptist neighbors, yet we provide room for those who have not been satisfied with the answers they have received in other churches or in other faiths. Ours is a community for those who need to vent, who need to cry, who need to be angry with God or the Church. Ours is a way station for those souls wearied by the journey who need a moment to rest.

We see ourselves as that small community that occupies the way station and that provides for the needs of those traveling along the Way. We are not blacksmiths or doctors or innkeepers; we are rather men and women who have been down the road of faith and have come back for those who move along it now. We wish to provide a place of refreshment more than to grow large. We desire spiritual healing and faithful discipleship to Christ. We are called to minister to those who have no place to question or no place to express their doubts. We wish to be that way station community, ever receiving the weary traveller and, once they are sufficiently refreshed, sending them along the Way to their destination.[8]

From a physical perspective we provide something of a retreat for those who travel as well. We have recently installed 20 beds in our facility that can be used for those seeking spiritual retreat and renewal. Our property models the very spiritual passion that we have as a community: it is a place to go apart from the world for a moment to pray and hear God. We hope that churches in our state will use these facilities for prayer retreats, deacon retreats, staff meetings, or as a base of operation for ministry trips into Jackson.

Madison Chapel will never be a mega-church, but neither will it be an insignificant or marginalized congregation in the Kingdom of God. There is a great need for places of rest along the journey of faith, even if we rest in those sanctuaries for only a short while. Our people have struggled, cursed, repented, and struggled again. They have come out of bad churches and returned to good ones. They have found in our congregation a place where art is cherished and conversational rabbits are chased. They have found a temporary home, and have gone on their Way refreshed.

[3] MacPhail, Elizabeth C., “Wells Fargo in San Diego,” The Journal of San Diego History 28 no. 4.
[4] See Acts 9, 24; John 14.
[5] We are foolish to discount language of “the Christian walk” or “the journey” in our talk of discipleship out of an aversion to cliché or platitude. It is true that these metaphors have been coopted by evangelicalism to refer to the morality that is expected of believers. I use those phrases here as metaphors referring to the progression of maturity demanded of every believer.
[6] See Philippians 2.
[7] I’m trying so hard not to say Southern Baptist.
[8] Here is an interesting post about evangelicalism as a way station of faith. Ours is a microcosm of that same idea, although we style ourselves firmly within the Baptist tradition. See

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