In Pursuit of “Travelling Mercies” (with Two Ls)

A friend of mine once joked that if you listen to prayer requests in church long enough, you’ll come to the conclusion that traveling is the most dangerous endeavor known to Christians. Whether it’s for a drive across the state or a plane ride to another country (with an occasional cruise thrown in), we long for God’s blessing of safety, or, as it’s often phrased, “travel mercies.”

Where does that come from? Not the desire for safety. I get that, though I don’t understand why a four-hour trip to St. Louis seems so risky. Maybe it’s a testament to just how safe we are otherwise in our daily lives.

No, I’m referring to the phrase travel mercies itself. A quick Google search shows that some link it back to Southern Baptists, but a more thorough search shows that it (or a similar phrase) predates the establishment of that group. Others tie it to early Protestant missionaries, but it predates them as well.

The first usage I can find for travel mercies is from 1914, in John Faris’s Book of Answered Prayer (published by Hodder & Stoughton). Actually, what I found was an ad in The Herald & Presbyter, stating that in the book (sold by the Presbyterian Board of Publication for $1) the author “gives simply and without argument seventy striking instances of answers. These have been gathered from both home and foreign sources.” “Travel Mercies” is listed as one of the book’s ten chapter headings.

Some twenty years earlier, the similar phrase traveling mercies appeared in the Minutes of the Second Biennial Convention of the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. In their meeting on the morning of October 17, 1893, the group held a memorial service for Mary Allen West, their former “round-the-world missionary to Japan,” who had died in Japan there promoting temperance. Chika Sakurai spoke during the service, saying,

My Dear Sisters: You cannot tell with what joy I meet you this morning, and as I look upon you I feel that we are friends and not foreigners. (This is my first journey from my native land, and it is no easy matter for one to leave the scene of her childhood days, and the many friends and loved ones. But one always feels that leaving home, friends and beloved ones to work for God is no loss). I feel thankful to God for his goodness and mercy to me. He has blessed me with traveling mercies and allowed me to come here to try to do something for him. I trust my efforts will be blessed by God.

And before that? Well, we’ll need to expand the search to include travelling, with two Ls, the way the British spell it. That led me to a result from 1770, when British philanthropist and prison reformer John Howard wrote it in his journal, while en route from Holland to Paris:

I would acknowledge it is thro’ the goodness of God alone that I enjoy so many travelling Mercies, such comfortable degrees of health and strength with such an easy calm flow of spirits.—

Howard knew something of the need for God’s help during travels. In 1756, while sailing to Portugal, he was captured as a prisoner of war by a French privateer.

Today, I’m not sure which is more popular in the lexicon of prayer groups, travel mercies or traveling mercies (with either spelling), though travel mercies is what I hear more often in my part of the world. But traveling mercies might have a PR advantage, as it’s the title of a memoir by the best-selling author Anne Lamott. As the book’s full title suggests —Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith—the journey that Lamott recounts is not a road trip but a spiritual pilgrimage as she works out her belief in God (with a capital G). She writes that she started out as an unbelieving daughter of an unbelieving missionary kid:

My father’s folks had been Presbyterian missionaries who raised their kids in Tokyo, and my father despised Christianity. He called Presbyterians “God’s frozen people.” My mother went to midnight mass on Christmas eve at the Episcopal church in town, but no one in our family believed in God—it was like we’d all signed some sort of loyalty oath early on, agreeing not to believe in God in deference to the pain of my father’s cold Christian childhood. I went to church with my grandparents sometimes and I loved it. It slaked my thirst. But I pretended to think it was foolish, because that pleased my father. I lived for him. He was my first god.

Fast forwarding to Lamott as an adult attending St. Andrew Presbyterian, we come to the place where she shares what became the inspiration for her book’s title, writing about a time when the church’s preacher went on a vacation:

“Traveling Mercies,” the old people at our church said to her when she left. This is what they always say when one of us goes off for a while. Traveling mercies: love the journey, God is with you, come home safe and sound.

So for whatever trek you are on, I leave you with the following benediction, a combining of the old and the new:

May you have “such comfortable degrees of health and strength with such an easy calm flow of spirits.”

“Love the journey, God is with you, come home safe and sound.”

Travel mercies.

(Herald & Presbyter, September 30, 1914; “Convention, October 17, A. M.Minutes of the Second Biennial Convention of the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Woman’s Temperance Publishing Association, 1893; James Baldwin Brown, Memoirs of the Public and Private Life of John Howard, the Philanthropist, Rest Fenner, 1818; Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Anchor, 1999)

[photo: “Young woman driving a scooter,” by Thomas Hawk, used under a Creative Commons license]

You Don’t Have It All Together . . . but Neither Do They

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Episode four of CNN’s Mostly Human is about tech-company entrepreneurs, but when I watched it, I couldn’t help but think about another kind of entrepreneur—cross-cultural workers. Both invest themselves in often risky start ups that can put pressure on their financial and emotional well-being. And both feel the need to live up to the expectations of stakeholders.

Jerry Colonna is a venture capitalist turned certified professional coach. He works in Manhattan’s Silicon Alley, and he knows firsthand the prevalence of depression in the tech world and sees daily the mental-health toll that the start-up culture takes on its CEOs. In Mostly Human‘s “Silicon Valley’s Secret,” he talks about the disconnect between public success and private struggles, saying emphatically,

Nobody’s crushing it. Nobody is crushing it. Nobody is killing it. Nobody has it all figured out.

I have authority to say that because I’m honest with myself. It would be a mistake to think, Oh these poor little rich kids. Nothing that we have talked about is unique to the technology industry, but because the lens happens to be particularly sharp and clear right now. . . . It’s that the tech industry and the startup community in general brings to the surface forces that are at play in every aspect of our society. The human condition includes broken heartedness. The myth is that it doesn’t.

Author Anne Lamott, too, sees the reality behind the myth. She recently recorded a TED Talk with the title “12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing.” Her truth #4 is this:

Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared, even the people who seem to have it most together. They are much more like you than you would believe, so try not to compare your insides to other people’s outsides. It will only make you worse than you already are.

Also, you can’t save, fix or rescue any of them or get anyone sober. What helped me get clean and sober 30 years ago was the catastrophe of my behavior and thinking. So I asked some sober friends for help, and I turned to a higher power. One acronym for God is the “gift of desperation,” G-O-D, or as a sober friend put it, by the end I was deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.

And pastor and author Kyle Idleman writes that each week he gets to sit down with newcomers to his church and listen to their stories. “Typically,” he says, “we have two separate kinds of people in that room.”

There are some who have been around the church and God for a while. They know the rules. They know what to say and how to say it. They know what words to include and what parts of their stories to leave out. They’ve learned to wear a mask.

Then there are those who are new to Christ and the church. They haven’t learned the rules. And when they tell their story they will include a family that fell apart. It’s not uncommon for their stories to begin “I’ve been sober for . . . ” and sometimes it’s been years. Sometimes it’s been days. They don’t know any better. I’ve heard ex-cons talk about their crime. I’ve heard men of every age talk about pornography and women tell about credit card debt. Parents will talk about how much they are struggling with their kids. Kids will talk about how they’ve been lying to their parents and going behind their backs. They’ll tell about eating disorders, gambling problems, suicide attempts, and drug addictions. They just don’t know any better. And I hope nobody tells them that they’re supposed to act like they’ve got it all together. You don’t often get to see people without a mask. And it’s such a beautiful thing.

(“Silicon Valley’s Secret,” Mostly Human, Episode 4, CNN; Anne Lamotte, “12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing,” TED, April 2017; Kyle Idleman, Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus, Zondervan, 2011)

[photo: “Broken Strings,” by Teunie van Hernen, used under a Creative Commons license]