Blue Highways

Miami 373A few years back there was an American travel book called Blue Highways. The title referred to American maps on which the smaller roads are printed in blue, while the major arteries, the Interstate System, are printed in red. The book was about a trip across America on the “blue” highways. It was almost time-travel since America prior to the 1960’s was largely without an Interstate system. Blue highways are the land of my childhood.

My wife and I, along with my son and his wife, took a “blue highway” adventure this afternoon, traveling some backroads onto the Cumberland Plateau and spending time at “Great Falls,” one of the many waterfalls along the rivers in that part of Tennessee. The trip was accompanied by a picnic worthy of the 1950’s.

As we traveled back home we continued the blue highway route and enjoyed the scenes of back-road Tennessee life on a Sunday afternoon. 

I suspect that our modern age (particularly in America) is an “Interstate” experience. Speed and efficiency are hallmarks of the work place. Commuting by car (as many do) is generally an experience bereft of sight-seeing. We go from place to place and from task to task, spending great portions of our time in something other than full human mode.

I cannot speak for the rest of the world – or all of America. I can only reflect on suburban life as I know it. I have traveled across England’s version of “blue highways” and was stunned by the beauty of its rural character. I have also traveled in the Holy Land and can only say that large portions of that land continue as desert – probably unchanged for centuries.

I believe there is such a thing as a “human” pace to life – a way of living that is rightly suited to who we are. The myth of the malleability of the human has created undreamt of forms of misery – from mechanized boredom to the insanity of “multi-tasking.” 

Prayer, when rightly attended to, is a “blue highway” experience. There is a reason for the length and pace of the traditional Orthodox service. It is a cultural memory of the speed proper to human beings and the attention properly given to God. Modernized services whose agenda is to hold the attention of “worshippers” with the pace of a television show, are not being “culturally relevant,” but culturally destructive – just as certain aspects of our culture deform our humanity and seek to make us into something we are not intended to be.

I am not anti-modern in the sense of being opposed to machines or automobiles or the like. But I am opposed to things that push us in the direction losing our proper humanity. God did not create us for efficiency – nor is His likeness to be revealed in productivity. Speed of travel is meaningless when we are going nowhere. May God grant our daily lives more “blue highways,” and the good sense to take our time when we are there.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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16 responses to “Blue Highways”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    This photo is of Ozone Falls in the same area of Tennessee as Great Falls. The photo is from another “Blue Highway” adventure.

  2. Ezekiel Avatar

    Father, Bless!

    When my wife and I were in your area last month, we did the same thing. No freeways — the “blue roads” — but what beauty .. and it was a relaxed pace, to be sure.

    I truly appreciate your comments regarding Prayer and prayer in the Liturgy and other services really struck home. I may borrow it, if you don’t mind!

    Christ is risen!

  3. Damaris Avatar

    I recently took my elementary science class on a field trip to rural Indiana that involved over an hour of driving. Before going several students asked if they could bring books or hand-held games for the drive. I said no, look out the windows. But one well-meaning mother who was helping to drive put on her SUV’s video system, and the kids watched regrettable videos the whole way. I was sorry that they missed the spectacular spring right outside the windows. I agree wholeheartedly with what you’re saying, both about life in general and about the liturgy.

  4. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for reminding me of the “human pace” of life. I agree that taking trips on “blue highways” here in America is a help — and as I live in middle Tennessee, I may take my family on the one you enjoyed here. However, I will always be thankful to God that in his mercy He sent me overseas to live for a few years in connection with my husband’s job and with my toddler daughter. In this circumstance the pace of my life was dramatically slowed, and through His Mercy and Grace I drew near to Him in a way that has continually blessed my time and reminded my heart of the human pace of life even now, having been back in Tennessee for a few years. Glory to God for all things!

  5. tallandrew Avatar

    Thanks for this post. We all need to slow down more and recognise God’s presence more. But do you think there is a place for fast paced ‘culturally relevant’ worship as a first step? That is – worship that seeks to engage in a format the culture will understand whilst also leading people onwards to seek more depth by engaging with slow worship?

  6. Karen Avatar

    “Prayer, when rightly attended to, is a ‘blue highway’ experience. There is a reason for the length and pace of the traditional Orthodox service. It is a cultural memory of the speed proper to human beings and the attention properly given to God. Modernized services whose agenda is to hold the attention of “worshippers” with the pace of a television show, are not being “culturally relevant,” but culturally destructive – just as certain aspects of our culture deform our humanity and seek to make us into something we are not intended to be. . . .

    “God did not create us for efficiency – nor is His likeness to be revealed in productivity. Speed of travel is meaningless when we are going nowhere.”

    Dear Father, bless! Once again, you have beautifully articulated and brought into focus the Truth and what I and so many of us struggle with in this culture. I have laryngitis right now, but the AMEN in my heart is as loud as it can be!

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    First – it’s obvious that there already is such culture-created worship (primarily among evangelicals) and God being good, He uses it. But I don’t think there needs to be a strategy to how we evangelize. We need to present the gospel – ultimately in its fullness – and it needs to be accessible (as in the native language or an understandable language). But worship does not exist for the purpose of evangelism. Worship is something we render to God because He is worthy and thus I believe that the form given us in the Tradition of the Church is what is proper. God will use it how He will in the human heart.

    I do think there are many forms of evangelism (which is not the same thing as worship). This blog, though serving many purposes, also serves that of evangelism. The printed word is another form. Film is another form. Music is another form. The most important form is the presence of Christ in His Body, the Church. If the world does not see Christ properly manifest in the Church (as in the love and mercy we extend to the world and each other) then almost no other medium will do.

    Some will find it interesting to know that the Orthodox do conduct evangelism meetings (I have seen a recent report on these in Russia). We have them elsewhere as well.

    Historically, I think it was an error to think of worship as evangelism, and then to make the connection to cultural relevance, etc. The result in some quarters is the Gospel as entertainment (since this is an entertainment based culture). True worship (which is an exchange between God and man, a participation in the Divine Life) gets lost. An evangelism that is aimed primarily at the passions (as understood in the Fathers) is inappropriate and as worship is unfitting.

  8. Bruce Avatar

    “Speed of travel is meaningless when we are going nowhere”

    Father, Bless!

    I spend most of life confused about what gives life meaning. I hold onto the lie that “my desires” for “my destination” are the target; the bulls eye for a purposeful life. When I miss “this mark”, I may be filled with a profound “God is absent ” despair. Or, perhaps worse, when I hit the mark, I further separate myself from God in my prideful belief of “how I’ve accomplished something meaningful”.

    When I accept some simple basic Truths
    – I am no thing, no where, and non existent without God, “the Giver of Life” who is King, Comforter, and Spirit of Truth.
    – I am the creature, He is the Creator
    – My faith in Him as a “Treasury of Good Gifts” and a God who “fillest all things” and “is everywhere present” in the midst of whatever my circumstance allows Him to reveal Himself more fully to me. Without this faith, I limit what I give to Him and thus what He can transform and renew in my life.
    -As I discover who He is through this faith, I also find my True Self as I invite Him to ‘come abide’ in me. I find this Truth unites me both to Him and to my neighbor. As I discover this Truth, I find that who I am expands beyond what is individual and limited by time/place to what is universal, eternal, and timeless. Somehow in this process His Love can blossom even in the darkness of my soul and begin to transform what is latent as “His Image” into something a step closer to His Likeness.
    – As I learn my part to allow Him to “cleanse me of impurities”, I begin to realize how simple and straight forward this process can be if I am willing to cooperate and accept His instruction “If you love Me, obey my commands”. A life “with God” becomes something I can experience in my heart beyond understanding in my mind.
    – And my soul is ready and able to embrace His graceful desire for salvation as I learn to allow Him to be my Lord and my God.

    O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who are everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of good gifts, and Giver of Life: Come and abide in us, cleanse us of all impuriities, and save our souls, O Good One,

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    Amen and Amen.

  10. Chocolatesa Avatar

    Amen to that! Thank you so much for this. I have to start trying to learn how to slow down myself.

  11. Little Macrina Avatar
    Little Macrina

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I have been reading your blog at work since the beginning of Lent and have found that it puts my mind & my heart in the ‘right direction’, as it is so easy to become distracted by the troubles of worldly affaires (especially those of other people in my industry!) and lose sight of my place in the “grand scope of eternity”.

    When a teenager, my parents used to drive an hour to go to the city where my church was (they themselvers were not church-goers, but faithfully took me every weekend). It was a country drive and I am a country-loving girl at heart. I remember vividly some of the sights that always held fast my heart and stopped me with wonder – even though I would see them every single week! I feel home-sick for these moments of simplicity and unfettered beauty being an adult in a busy world with so many ‘tasks’ vying for my attention and so much activity going on. It is very overwhelming and tiring to live like this.

    You have given my parched heart a small drop of water to inspire it to seek deeper fountains so that the garden of wonder and awe for Creation – and He who gave it and us Life – may grow and flourish again. My husband always asks why I insist on taking “the back roads” when going somewhere – I tell him “you never know what you may find!”

    Many thanks for sharing with us – please don’t stop! Some of us need these little reminders, even if just to make it through the day.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    My idea of a vacation always includes blue highways and something village like as a destination.

    Father Stephen+

    Sent from my iTouch

  13. Reid Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I appreciate your comments about God not creating us for efficiency. I’ve been struck by how, in the Mosaic law, kindness and faith often take the form of inefficiency (do not harvest to the edges of your field, do not go over the branches of your fruit-bearing trees a second time, if you drop the grain you are harvesting do not pick it up [all these so that the poor can glean more easily], let the fields lie fallow in the seventh and fiftieth years, cancel the debts and free the slaves every seventh year, return the land to the families in the fiftieth year, burn up any of the sacrifice that is not eaten on the day it is made [i.e., invite plenty of friends, neighbors, and strangers so that nothing goes to waste]).

  14. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen
    I still have the paperback “Blue Highways.” Its description of Dime Box, Texas, has always been a favorite. Little Macrina, you mentioned how as a teen you marvelled at the same wondrous rural sights even though you saw the same ones week after week. I have long felt the same. We live 30 miles from a large city and travel to it often and almost always through the rural back roads. I never tire of the same pastoral beauty. We’ve been fortunate to have travelled through much of the U.S. in our marriage and we take the blue highways as often as possible. We usually come across the unexpected and often stumble upon beauty we had never read about or even knew existed. Country stores are wonderful to meander through and small cafes surrounded by farmers’ beat up pickups are usually great places to eat and listen to local banter.
    Father Stephen…thank you for the connection you made to worship and prayer and how it resembles in some ways a blue highway event….where we purposefully slow down, listen and take in with all our being the space which surrounds us…in worship and even in the rural roads where God is present and filling all things.

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