‘Travelling mercies’. This phrase, which is familiar to the seasoned churchgoer, usually pops up in a prayer that asks God to grant an individual safe travel.
Such prayers were said in the late 19th century when missionaries embarked on long and arduous journeys to remote parts of the world. But the phrase ‘travelling mercies’ took on a wider application in the early 20th century when it appeared in missionary magazines. No longer was it the prayer of the select few; the family driving two hours to visit grandparents for the weekend also made ‘travelling mercies’ their prayer.
During a recent visit to London, a friend and I were riding the tube when a man jumped on and hurriedly asked the whole carriage if the train was going in a particular direction. A man standing opposite raised his head from the newspaper. ‘Yep,’ he confirmed. The carriage attempted to descend into collective quiet as the doors closed, but our new addition kept talking. No one seemed keen to respond. Clearly this man was not from London.
‘The alarming moment someone talks to you on the tube,’ Rob Temple observes in his aptly named book Very British Problems (Sphere). He is not wrong. Being nearest to our talkative stranger, I nervously began conversing with him. Approaching my stop a short while later, I was actually disappointed that our conversation about his life on the small-gig circuit with his band had to end.
For christians, the potential is huge
The following day I was travelling home on a packed train. With every seat taken I was left to stand. I was so close to my fellow travelers that I enjoyed some cracking photos on Instagram feeds, some Kindle reading on my right and Netflix viewing on my left. When it came to entertainment, I was spoilt for choice.
I began posting on Instagram what I hoped would be a witty picture of my situation. I stressed over the best words and filter to use before a wave of conviction came over me. Why was I worrying about a picture that no one was really itching to see? Surely my close proximity to other people could have given rise to opportunities for so much more? I put away my phone and started praying.
I prayed for the lady nearby who was clearly tired and needed a seat. I looked down the busy carriage and imagined where people had come from and where they were going. I asked God to bless them.
NEAR AND YET SO FAR
For extended periods of time, notably on public transport, we are in close contact with a plethora of people – sometimes awkwardly so! – and yet paradoxically this nearness is often marked by distance. ‘Mind the Gap’, the London Underground instructs its passengers and we are more than happy to oblige.
Research released by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in November 2015 shows that over the past ten years the average commuting time has increased from 52 to 55 minutes each day, meaning workers spend, on average, 11 hours 42 minutes longer each year commuting than a decade ago. The findings also reveal that the number of commuters spending two hours or more travelling has increased by 72% to three million, and the number spending three hours or more has increased from 500,000 to 880,000 – an increase of 75%.
A report from the Office of National Statistics, which looked at the effect commuting has on our personal well-being, said that feelings of happiness, life satisfaction and the sense that one’s daily activities are worthwhile all decrease with every successive minute travelled.
Commutes of between 61 and 90 minutes have the worst impact. With every added commuting minute a cause for more grimace, it is little wonder travel is often seen as that in-between space where little happens; a necessity of life, low on potential.
And yet for Christians, the potential is huge. Whether on our commute or travelling for personal purposes, we brush by hundreds of people, many of whom do not know Jesus. In these places where people convene and the frustrations and fragility of life emerge, God wants to use us.
Look at the example of Jesus. Much of his ministry happened while he was in transit. Disciples questioned him, the sick interrupted him and sceptics approached him. Mark 10:17 says: ‘As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him.’ Mark 10:46-49 says: ‘As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus…was sitting by the roadside begging...Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”’
Jesus was not the only one to get up to holy mischief on the road. In Acts 8, an angel instructs Philip to travel on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, a distance of about 50 miles. Philip obeyed and ‘on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch’, who was in his chariot reading Isaiah 53. Philip explained that Isaiah was talking about Jesus. The two continued on the road talking about Jesus before the eunuch asked to be baptised.
Three life-changing journeys from the Bible
On the way to Emmaus
On the disciples’ way to Emmaus, Jesus walked alongside them but they did not recognise him. He gave them a lesson on how the Old Testament spoke of him. Shortly after this, Jesus broke bread and the disciples finally realised who he was.
From Jerusalem to Gaza
Phillip was walking down a desolate road from Jerusalem to Gaza when he met an Ethiopian eunuch. God told Phillip to join the eunuch in the chariot. By the time they had found water on the road, the eunuch had heard the gospel and was ready to be baptised.
The Road to Damascus
As Saul journeyed to Damascus a bright light shone on him and a voice said, ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ This conversion experience didn’t just change Saul’s life. It would alter the course of history as Saul became the Paul who wrote most of the New Testament and planted churches across the known world.
WHERE ARE THE WORKERS?
Given the number of people we travel with, it is understandable for our unknown companions to blur into one. But by putting one or two into focus, suddenly our imagination – free from the bias that so often accompanies our relationships – begins to dance. We can pray that Jesus would meet them where they’re at. Feeling courageous, we may ask a question, offer a compliment or even ask God for a word for them. With our eyes open, away from the phone or book, we can see who is quietly struggling and needs a helping hand or an encouraging word.
These spaces where the multitudes gather are harvest fields in their own right; full and primed for adventure. Where are the workers? Writing to the Colossians, Paul instructed: ‘Use your heads as you live and work among outsiders. Don’t miss a trick. Make the most of every opportunity’ (Colossians 4:5, The Message).
After noticing on a trip on the London Underground that most people were silently looking out of the window, evangelist and author J.John decided to look around and smile at someone. He smiled at one man who smiled back and walked over to sit next to J.John. The man remarked that people rarely smiled at him, so J.John must either be very strange or very nice. The two began exchanging stories, and before they departed J.John gave the man a copy of his book about Jesus, The Life (Authentic).
The man went back to his office, cleared his schedule and spent the afternoon reading the book. He subsequently gave his life to Jesus and contacted J.John for more information. ‘I just smiled at someone, talked and then gave them my book,’ J.John later commented, saying that the key to such experiences is simple: be prepared (have a tract, book or contact card on hand to give away); be yourself; and remain open to the people you come into contact with.
JOURNEY WITH PURPOSE
Aside from its evangelistic opportunities, travel can also be an activity through which God works personally in our lives.
Before leaving for the Promised Land, the Israelites were given a spectacular and unusual satnav: ‘By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day and night’ (Exodus 13:21). Clearly the ‘scenic’ route was planned instead of the ‘shortest’ route. The most direct route from Egypt to Canaan would have taken four to five days, but God took them on a somewhat convoluted diversion.
And God had good reason to do so. He did not take the Israelites on the shortest route because the heavily fortified road might have tempted them back to Egypt. Following their enslavement there, the Israelites were not ready to face such a challenge; they needed to be strengthened. The scenic route not only enabled this, but also provided space for God to establish a covenant relationship with the Israelites prior to reaching their destination.
The trouble was, despite God’s best efforts, Israel’s sin hindered progress, so God prolonged the journey even further to cover 40 years. For the Israelites, travel delays and spiritual growth were not mutually exclusive.
I’m not suggesting every missed bus or diverted journey holds a deeper meaning. But Israel’s diversion through the wilderness does show that in the longer-than-expected journeys we all face, God may well be looking to do something in us.
In Sacred in the City: Seeing the Spiritual in the Everyday (Lion Books), Margaret Silf encourages a change of perspective when such travel tribulations hit, highlighting, for instance, the way they can help hone patience and remind us that the world does not revolve around us. She also draws attention to the way diverted journeys such as Israel’s can metaphorically reflect our own lives, with God taking us on routes in life that are longer and more arduous than we would wish for but ultimately serve our good. And, of course, when all is running smoothly and on time, God may still surprise us.
Prophecy on Public Transport
In his book, Do What Jesus Did (Chosen Books), Robbie Dawkins relates the story of a girl called Nicole from his church. Sitting on a train in Chicago, Nicole began to pray. ‘Lord, if you wanted to use me to speak to that girl across from me, what would you say?’ After seeing a random and seemingly disconnected set of pictures, Nicole approached the girl and said to her: ‘You might think I’m the “crazy lady” on the bus or something, but I think God has given me some pictures for you, and I want to share with you what I am hearing.’
The girl nodded in agreement and Nicole nervously shared the pictures, all the while keeping her eyes on the ground for fear of the girl’s reaction. As she lifted her head, Nicole saw tears streaming down the girl’s face; she was intently listening to every word. The images turned out to be very significant for her. Dawkins writes: ‘Trains, planes and buses are great places to evangelise because you have a captive audience of people who really don’t have much to do while they’re riding to their destination.’
YOUR DAMASCUS ROAD
On a summer’s day in 1929, CS Lewis was sitting on the upper deck of a bus in Oxford. Looking out over Headington Hill Park, he decided ‘to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein’. Lewis did not at this point accept Christ, but he did open up to the idea that God existed. Two years later, on another seemingly insignificant trip, Lewis finally met Jesus: ‘I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning.
In the longer-thanexpected journeys god may be looking to do something in us
When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.’ It is a story reminiscent of the apostle Paul, who – fittingly for a man who was ‘constantly on the move’ in service of the gospel (2 Corinthians 11:25-26) – unexpectedly encountered Jesus while travelling on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3).
Imagine what would happen if before work or as we left for the airport we spent more time in prayer, expectantly asking not just for travelling mercies, but also for God to work powerfully in and through us as we travel? The beauty of travel is that there are a myriad of ways through which God can minister to us: the places we pass, the views we overlook, the situations we encounter, the people we travel with, and the signs and advertisements we read and heed. I recall approaching a T-junction in my car once and the corresponding ‘Give Way’ sign suddenly took on a broader application: to what extent am I giving way to others in life?
As Silf concludes: ‘Connecting your outer and inner journey each day in this way brings life and love and wisdom to both of them.’