Although neither of us complained, our 30th wedding anniversary was less than spectacular, consisting of a meal at a local restaurant squeezed between busy work days. We both sensed we had neglected the importance of the day. To remedy this poor planning Joyce informed me that she intended to spirit me away for an overnight mini-vacation and a more proper recognition of this marital milestone. Off we went to Schulenburg, Texas, a sleepy town, just shy of three thousand souls, kept awake by the noise of I-10, the main artery pumping cars and trucks from Houston to San Antonio and all points west and east. “Schooltown,” the literal translation from German, is one of those small burgs which grew up along railroad tracks and still has its roots in the ground, both literally and figuratively. Cotton was king at one time, but has been dethroned by cattle and other agricultural endeavors. Our trek began on State Highway 71, one of two frenetic roads linking Austin to Houston. We traveled at a little over 70 mph and shook our heads as cars and pickups passed us like we were a lame horse at the Kentucky Derby. Turning south at La Grange on what was at one time one of the premier roads in Texas, Highway 77, we went from four lane madness to a more reasonable speed on two lanes, with occasional passing lanes to let the crazies blow by. Our slowdown had begun. Upon arrival in Schulenburg we made our way to the Chamber of Commerce located in the old downtown area. And when I say “old,” I mean old. I’m no spring chicken, but everything there predated me. We stopped at the Chamber Office and it seemed time did too, about a hundred years ago. Once inside I traded a $5.00 bill for a brochure entitled “SCHULENBURG: Official Home of the Painted Churches, Historic & Scenic Driving Tour.” It may have been the best $5.00 I ever spent.
After a leisurely, and thoroughly delicious, lunch we began our adventure. We consulted our handy-dandy driving tour map and headed north from town to view the first of three “Painted Churches” we would see that afternoon, saving the fourth for the next day. Instead of trying to describe the architecture and beauty of what we saw, I want to try and tell you what I sensed the Lord spoke to me. Everything He showed me had to do with finding restoration for my soul.
Take the backroads. Here are some of the names of the roads we traveled to get to the various churches: Mensik Road, Piano Bridge Road, High Hill Road and Saint John Road. We drove slowly. Nobody honked. Nobody rode our bumper. We stopped and took photos of fence lines to give us ideas for a jacket cover for an upcoming novel I’ve written. We stopped and looked at the Piano Bridge, a single lane steel bridge erected prior to automobiles. I sang songs to my wife. We kissed at the old bridge. Restoration of our marriage.
Reverence for worship. All the churches we saw on the tour were truly holy (set apart) places. Even though each one was jaw-dropping beautiful, I was more impressed with their singular purpose. There were no other buildings attached to them, even the bathrooms were in separate buildings outside. I won’t get into a modern theological debate on the people being the “Church” and not the church building; I understand that. What I’m saying is I appreciated how the people who built the churches did so because they desired a separate place for worship. I sensed the presence of God in these churches. Once inside I spoke little, and when I did it was in whispers. Restoration of reverence.
Sacrificial giving. Around 1855 Czech-Moravian immigrants began the settlement of land around Schulenburg. Austrian and German settlers followed. Over the next generation these pioneer families forged a living out of the fallow rolling hills, and even prospered. I tried to put myself in their place. How hard would it be to go to a new country, supply all your family needs for food, clothing and shelter and still produce enough so you could help build a community church that would stand for well over a hundred years? Now try doing it without electricity, running water, cell phones and computers. With each creak of the original hardwood floors I could hear the raspy sound of a worker pull and push a handsaw across a plank of wood. I saw the skill of the hand painted interiors and wondered how many hours it took to accomplish these works of art. Where did the people find the time? I could see in my mind’s eye a frontier couple huddled at a kitchen table going over the books to see what additional gift they could give. Most people who view the “Painted Churches” are overwhelmed by their beauty. I saw the sacrifice. I think I know how those people accomplished so much with so little. Their souls were refreshed through sacrificial giving.
Life revolved around the church. At least three of the churches, and I’m betting the fourth also, had these things in common: an adjacent community center, a nearby school and a cemetery. Within a short walk from each place of worship stood a large building dedicated to community events. Meals, meetings, dances, receptions, and celebrations of events I can only imagine took place, and occasionally still take place, in these cavernous wooden structures. In addition to the kitchens and halls there were covered outdoor areas and beyond the rooflines, massive live oaks stretched out their arms and gave additional shady spots for people to congregate. Most of the churches also had, at one time long past, schools in close proximity. Finally there was a cemetery you couldn’t miss as you approached the various churches. As I think back on the civic halls, the cemeteries and the schools I realized each one, at some time during the day, fell under the shadow of the church. The church was the hub around which these hardworking people lived their lives. Restoration of priorities.
Last month I was going through Psalms 1-30. It just so happened that the 23rd Psalm was next on my list for study, meditation and prayer while in Schulenburg. As I sat in our hotel room sipping morning coffee and pondering the Painted Churches, I came to the conclusion that David knew what he was talking about when he wrote, “He restores my soul…” Psalm 23:3a (NKJ). Aren’t you grateful our God loves us enough to pull us away from the everyday and show us a different way?