Missing Mom on Mothers Day

I’d give almost anything to be able to wish my mom a “Happy Mothers Day” this weekend, but I can’t. She passed away several years ago – September 25, 2010, to be precise. This is a blog post I wrote on the anniversary of her passing in 2013, and I wanted to share it again.

And I don’t mean to preach, but if you still can do so, give your mom a hug and tell her you love her.


Three years ago today, I lost my mom.  But in all the ways that count, she has never left me, or our family.

Friday, September 24, 2010, started like any other day.  Mom and Dad had gone to Beaumont from their home in Orangefield for an eye appointment, then they stopped at one of their favorite restaurants for lunch: IHOP.  As they were heading home, Mom said that she needed to use the bathroom, but she dropped her keys as she was trying to unlock the front door.  She had already had the stroke that would claim her life.

Dad called the ambulance, and the EMTs promptly arrived.  (The house is out in the country, so thank goodness for enhanced 911 service!)  She ended up at Baptist Memorial in Beaumont.

One by one, my brothers and I, along with other family, arrived as soon as we could get there – in my case, about 3:30 Saturday morning.  The nurses were great, and the doctor was as gentle as he could be later as he explained that this was a “terminal brain event.”

One of my brothers had been on a mission trip to Guatemala, helping drill a water well for a village that needed a new source of good water.  Flights in and out of Central America have a somewhat loose connection to scheduled times, but he was able to get out on time – less than an hour before a Gulf hurricane came ashore, and shut everything down for three days.  He and his wife set a new record getting from the Houston airport to Beaumont.

An hour later, Mom was gone.  Personally, I think she was just waiting on her boys to all get there before she left.  One by one, we got to say our goodbyes, kiss her, hold her hand, and let her go.  It was Saturday, September 25, 2010.

There were so many wonderful friends who supported us, at the hospital, with their cards and visits, and so much sharing of food, of laughs, of tears, of memories.  My brothers and I got to preach her funeral, and that was a special time.  The funeral procession was over a mile long going out to the cemetery.  And even the funeral director felt the need to comment publicly at the graveside about what a remarkable woman she was.

Here’s mom on her wedding day, and 50 years later, at the church, during their golden anniversary reception, visiting with her dear friend Mary Russell.


Dad has been so strong and brave.  He has learned to live by himself – well, along with his faithful canine companion, Chica, in spite of falling almost two years ago and breaking his leg, which has left him in a wheelchair. (Editor’s note: This has changed as of February, 2017.) I know that he misses her terribly, but he is determined to carry on and make her proud.


This is one of my favorite snapshots of mom – it’s from Christmas about 2006, with a whole big, rowdy bunch of us crammed into their small kitchen, and her directing traffic and enjoying the chaos and noise of our family.  And that’s not even all of us.


Here’s Mom, from about 1959, I’d guess.  That’s her with my brother Buzzy, and yours truly, displaying the blazer, bow tie and cowboy boots that the well-dressed young man was evidently wearing that year.

I still hear her voice in my head, and desperately wish we could have had more time together, but I’m thankful for many things.  And so much of what she taught me, that I still hold on to today.

 • I learned to love God’s Word from the countless Bible stories that she read to us every night.
 • I learned to be passionate about worship from hearing her strong, clear alto voice as she boldly sang out.


 • I learned to serve others by watching the way that she volunteered at church and in the community.  (That’s her, in her hospital volunteer uniform.)
 • I learned to respect people who were different by the way she would never let us use hurtful words, even in jokes.
 • I learned to cherish the moments we have with family and friends, to laugh a lot, to forgive from the heart, and to say “I love you,” and always give “just one more hug.”

Because you never know when you won’t be able to any more.

A Few Good Books – 3

(Third and final in a series)

Regular readers of these posts will know that I have been offering a list of several of my favorite Christian books, a list which I’m ready to wrap up today. Just to review the requirements for inclusion: written in the last hundred years, non-fiction, only one book per author, only five books in total. The first two books discussed were Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, and What’s So Amazing About Grace?, by Phillip Yancey.

Number 3: God Came Near, Max Lucado

I went back and forth about this choice; in fact, when I originally began putting this list together, I had a different Max Lucado book in this slot. (Check out the “Honorable Mention” category, below.) Many Christians would list Max Lucado as their favorite Christian author, and I would be hard pressed to argue against that opinion. Six Hours One Friday and No Wonder They Call Him the Savior were the first two books of his that I read, and I remember how deeply moved I was by his writing.

The complete title of this book is God Came Near: Chronicles of the Christ, and that is a pretty good summary. In God Came Near, Lucado explores the implications of the humanity of Christ. My favorite chapter is, “The Question for the Canyon’s Edge,” based on the encounter between Jesus and Martha, after the death of Martha’s brother, Lazarus.

Number 4: A Drink at Joel’s Place, Jess Moody

This little book is based on a radical notion – there are a lot of ways in which the church should be more like the neighborhood corner bar. (The TV show Cheers, with its promise of a place “where everybody knows your name,” is another example of this idea.) The title comes from the story of the birth of the church in Acts 2. When Peter and the other apostles, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, were accused of being drunk, Peter pointed the audience to Joel 2:28 ff.

In this book, Jess Moody explores the idea that a church should deliver on its promises, that accepts everyone who walks in the door, and that offers excitement and fellowship. He emphasizes the need for the church to stay relevant to the culture around it, and he also goes on to argue for a quality that is sorely lacking from many churches (and especially lacking in many pulpits!) today – PASSION!

I have thoroughly enjoyed this little book every time I have read it, and as in so many other ways, I am deeply indebted to my friend, mentor, and former professor, Dr. Mark Berrier, for the recommendation.

Number 5: A Sacred Sorrow, Michael Card

The church in America today is often criticized for being out of touch with the harsh realities around it. We put up fake smiles and phony friendliness, offering facile, “bumper sticker” platitudes and coffee mug theology, while ignoring the complexities and pain of the world around us.

And then we wonder why the world has written off the church for being clueless and irrelevant.

Michael Card is a brilliant Bible scholar and writer, who first came to public attention through His music. (If you’ve heard Amy Grant sing, “El Shaddai” or “Emmanuel,” then you’ve heard his music.) Besides his music, he has also written a number of really good books, including one I like called A Violent Grace. In A Sacred Sorrow, he argues that the church today has lost the ability to LAMENT, and I think he’s absolutely right. When you read the psalms, for example, you come face to face with the honesty of someone struggling with the pain of a bad situation. But you would have a hard time finding music in most churches today that cry out with that level of transparency.

Here, Card examines four people from the Bible – Job, David, Jeremiah, and Jesus – and considers what each of them can teach us about growing closer to God through our pain. Rather than avoiding hard or uncomfortable conversations, Card invites us to be honest enough with God to trust Him with our pain. I highly recommend this book, especially if you’re feeling angry or questioning about God, and some well-meaning friend has told you that “you shouldn’t feel that way.”

Honorable Mentions

Want more? Here are five additional recommendations –

  • The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis (or Miracles, or The Problem of Pain)
  • The Bible Jesus Read, Phillip Yancey
  • The Applause of Heaven, Max Lucado
  • Your God is Too Safe, Mark Buchanan
  • An Arrow Pointing to Heaven, Rich Mullins

Good luck, and God bless.

A Few Good Books – 2

(Second in a series)

In a previous installment, I began listing some of my favorite Christian books, starting with Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. To review, here are the ground rules:

  • One book per author.
  • Non-fiction.
  • Written in the last hundred years.
  • Only five books on the list.

Let me again say that I realize that, by its very nature, a list like this is highly subjective. My list almost certainly will not be your list – AND THAT’S OKAY! My point is not to argue about whether I should have chosen C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory, instead of Mere Christianity, or if my fourth or fifth choices should be ranked in a different order.

The point here is to encourage believers to read more, and to choose books to read that will challenge, inspire, sharpen their thinking. Too many of us either don’t read at all, or we only read stuff by writers who agree with us.

I recall a conversation I once heard about between a college student and one of his professors. The professor asked the student what he was reading, and the student replied by naming a famous novel (I’ve forgotten which one). The professor smiled tolerantly and said, “Yes, yes, that’s fine for the gravy, but what about the meat?” In other words, the professor was saying, that while there was nothing wrong with reading that particular novel, it was not going to challenge the student in the way that the professor was hoping.

So, my next recommendation is –

What’s So Amazing About Grace? – Philip Yancey

Copyright © 1997, by Philip Yancey – Zondervan Publishing House

By his own admission, Philip Yancey has had a difficult road of faith. Born in Atlanta in 1949, he grew up in a very rigid, fundamentalist church. When he was still a child, Yancey’s father died from complications of polio, after church members told him he needed to “turn off the machines” so that God could heal him.

Yancey’s journey of faith was a long road back from that.

He went on to become the editor of Christianity Today magazine, and has authored a number of outstanding books. The first thing of his I ever read was Disappointment with God – the love the honesty of that title. I’ve also read The Bible Jesus Read, Where is God When It Hurts?, and The Jesus I Never Knew, but I think his best work is the one I’m suggesting for you, this book on grace.

Early on in the book, he acknowledges the difficulty in writing about the subject of grace.

As I look back on my pilgrimage, marked by wanderings, detours, and dead ends, I see now that what pulled me along was my search of grace. I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there. I returned because I found grace nowhere else.

I have barely tasted of grace myself, have rendered less than I have received, and am in no wise an “expert” on grace. These are, in fact, the very reasons that impelled me to write. I want to more, to understand more, to experience more grace.

In this book, Yancey describes examples of grace and forgiveness that are so lovely they will make your heart ache and your spirit soar. He points to soul-crushing examples of what he calls “ungrace” – attitudes of pettiness and meanness that we see all around us, and too often, still within ourselves. He tells stories of grace extended that will absolutely make you weep until you cry out with joy – my favorite is chapter four, “Lovesick Father.” And I will not spoil it by saying more than that.

In a later chapter, Yancey writes –

Jesus’ images portray the kingdom as a kind of secret force. Sheep among wolves, treasure hidden in a field, the tiniest seed in the garden, wheat growing among weeds, a pinch of yeast worked into bread dough, a sprinkling of salt on meat – all these hint at a movement that works within society, changing it from the inside out. You do not need a shovelful of salt to preserve a slab of ham: a dusting will suffice.

Jesus did not leave an organized host of followers, for he knew that a handful of salt would gradually work its way through the mightiest empire in the world. Against all odds, the great institutions of Rome – the law code, libraries, the Senate, Roman legions, roads, aqueducts, public monuments – gradually crumbled, but the little band to whom Jesus gave these images prevailed and continues on today.

Soren Kierkegaard described himself as a spy, and indeed Christians behave like spies, living in one world while our deepest allegiance belongs to another. We are resident aliens, or sojourners, to use a biblical phrase.

He goes on to say,

The Christian knows to serve the weak not because they deserve it but because God extended his love to us when we deserved the opposite. Christ came down from heaven, and whenever his disciples entertained dreams of prestige and power he reminded them that the greatest is the one who serves. The ladder of power reaches up, the ladder of grace reaches down.

Amazing.

A Few Good Books

Read any good books lately?

One thing is for certain – there’s no shortage of books on the market, and more coming out every day. And for Christian believers who want to grow in their faith, or perhaps be challenged in their thinking, there are literally entire bookstores selling nothing but “Christian” books. But having so many available is in itself is a problem: how can you know what’s worth the money to buy it, or the time to read it?

I’m not claiming to have any special insight about what makes a book “good” to read – it’s obviously very subjective. But I wanted to highlight a few volumes that have especially blessed me over the years. These are books that have challenged me, taught me, annoyed me, made me think, made me question, helped me grow closer to God, and in the end, blessed me.

First, the ground rules: First, this list is for non-fiction ONLY. Sorry to disappoint fans of Christian fiction, but that’s not my purpose here. Second, only ONE book allowed per author. Third, I’m only including books from the last hundred years – I’m aware of great Christian books from earlier times, but I’m excluding them. And finally, I’m limiting myself to only FIVE books. I’m not saying these are the best five, or that they are somehow better than a list of your top five, just that these are some books that have blessed me, and that I recommend for your consideration.

So, with that said, here’s the first in my list of favorite Christian books. Future installments will follow in blogs to come.

Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis

(Copyright © 1952, renewed © 1980, C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd.)

Anyone who knows me well is not surprised at this point. And I freely admit it: I am a HUGE C.S. Lewis fan. (In fact, without Rule #2, this entire list might have been his stuff!) The story is well known of how Lewis went from being a reluctant churchgoer in his youth, and moved from agnosticism to theism, and finally to Christianity. Mere Christianity was originally a series of radio talks given on the BBC between 1942 and 1944, which Lewis later edited and compiled into its present form. “Mere” is used in the sense of “basic” – in other words, the book contains the principles and teachings which are held in common by ALL Christian groups, rather than more “advanced” doctrines about which different denominations would disagree.

Now, I will freely admit, this is NOT an easy book to read. Lewis was British, and his writing can sometimes come across as wordy and cumbersome, especially to Americans who are used to three second sound bites and 140 character tweets. When you read the book, you have to remember that it started out as a radio script, and so you should read it as a good announcer would on the air, with appropriate pauses. And the subject matter is considerably deeper and “denser” than most of us are used to reading. There’s no denying it: this is heavy stuff!

But I urge you: please make the effort to read this book. It may take a while to get used to Lewis’ rhythm and style of writing, but I assure you – it’s worth it. In these days of bumper sticker theology and coffee mug wisdom, Lewis is a deep breath of very fresh air.

Here’s a favorite passage:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

 

 

Adjustments

March 10, 2017 – Friday morning

As I write this, it’s been a little over two weeks since I’ve moved in to live with my dad as his caregiver. I knew this would be an adjustment in many ways, and certainly it has been. Some of those adjustments have been tougher than others.

I knew I was going to miss my family in Abilene, and I do. I miss our home, and especially my wife, Kathy, and her sweet smile and her gentle sense of humor. She is wonderfully attuned to hearing the Spirit of God, and I miss the blessings of just being around her. As many of you know, she also has an amazing singing voice, and I have always loved standing next to her as we worship, and hearing that beautiful voice offering up a sacrifice of praise in gorgeous harmony.

I miss my many wonderful friends. Many of them are from church and from our Bible class. Proverbs says as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another, and I am a better student of God’s Word because of the “sharpening” these friends have provided. It has been a privilege to study with them. Others have shared with us through life groups and other ways. Whether sharing from the bread of the Bible, or sharing Chinese food at Szechuan’s, the sweet friendships and fellowship have been a rich blessing.

As I said to some friends before I left Abilene, most blessings in this life are temporary, and when those blessings are gone, we can either be angry that we’ve lost them, or be thankful that we got to enjoy them for a season, and I choose to be thankful.

I don’t want to forget my friends from our model train club, and the fun we had running trains together and sharing that great hobby.

And that’s not all. Certainly, I miss the good friends and colleagues with whom I worked at CCC, and I miss the work of meeting neighbors and building a better neighborhood. Yesterday was the second Thursday of the month, which was the regular day for “neighbor lunch” potluck dinner, where I would prepare the main dish and the neighbors would bring the sides. I miss the good food, and the good conversation that we had together.

I miss my CCC co-workers, and the shared struggles that we had together. That’s what it means to be part of a team, so that “joys are magnified and disappointments lessened,” because we went through them together. And in shaping teenagers to become Young Leaders of Abilene, or in helping families move towards better financial stability, or just giving someone a ride to the store, they are still doing that work, and God knows, we need more good neighbors in this world.

So yes, there are people and things that I miss greatly about Abilene. But I am receiving many blessings as well.

I enjoy sharing time with my dad, and hearing stories about the interesting life he’s led, people he’s known, places he’s been. He has worked hard his whole life, and always put his family first. Imagine: all those years, I thought he LIKED the dark meat of the chicken! Turns out, no, he actually prefers the white meat, but he was letting his family have the first pick.

So now, if he needs a little help with the chores of everyday living, it’s my privilege to assist him with that. I figure he’s earned it.

Just the other day, he showed me a picture from his days in the army. He was about 23 or 24, a corporal in charge of a crew manning an anti-aircraft gun. The picture shows him, kneeling down, with the members of his crew all around him. They’re all smiling, and you can tell that these are young men in the prime of their lives, defending their country during the Korean War, but also ready to have a good time when they’re not on duty.

I’m learning other things too, and receiving blessings beyond measure. And I’m thinking that somehow, in some way, maybe this is what God has in mind for us. Not that we should all move in with our aging parents, necessarily, but that we should be more willing to care for each other, to give up some of our own conveniences and comforts when necessary, for the sake of helping someone else.

And just this morning, we got a phone call that my niece and her husband had just had their first baby, a little girl. Everybody is doing well, and the pride and love in my brother’s voice was special beyond words. It was a wonderful moment, being with my dad when he saw the first picture of his newest great-grandchild – this makes number eight. And thank You, Lord.

So there are compensations for the things I’m missing. Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever.

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye

No matter how much we try and plan for the future, none of us can know the twists and turns of “what’s next.” The truth of this principle has recently been reinforced to me. I have resigned from CCC, effective by the end of February. How this came about is a bit of a long story, but I think it’s a good one, so please bear with me.

My 88-year-old dad has been battling a crippling neuro-muscular disease for about 10 years. (Some of you may recall that I wrote a post about him back in the fall of 2016.) This disease has left him unable to walk, confined to a wheelchair, and essentially homebound. He lives in Orange County, Texas, between Orange and Beaumont, in the same house where I was raised, and on the same piece of land where he was born and raised. Recent events, including a visit last month to help care for him, have convinced my brothers and me that dad is simply no longer able to stay by himself.

My brothers and I have discussed this at length, and considered all the various options available – hiring an outside caregiver, relocating dad to live with one of us, moving him into a nursing home. For various reasons, none of these options can work for him, or for us. We have decided that the best course of action would be for me to move in with dad and serve as his full-time caregiver.

While I am looking forward to spending more time with my dad and serving him, I am overwhelmingly sad about leaving Abilene and the non-profit I work for, Connecting Caring Communities. In the nearly nine years since I joined CCC, I have been blessed to make some wonderful friends and see amazing things done, working with neighbors and others to better our community.

(I’m also going to really, REALLY miss our church, Beltway Park, and so many friends from our Sunday School class and our Bible Study life group. The folks in my Sunday class gave me a great send-off yesterday, with lots of prayers, hugs, tears, kind notes & cards, and even gifts of cash and more. Our Sunday night group had a farewell dinner for us last night. It was a very rich, full day of love and friendship, and one more thing I will miss about Abilene. But right now I’m talking about work…)

I have learned so much during my time with CCC – especially about what it really means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The opportunity to meet some great people, to get to know neighbors from different backgrounds, different cultures, different religions, and to host them in our home – these have been priceless blessings that I will always cherish.

I think of friends I made who have passed away: people like sweet Sandy, a tattooed elderly lady that I met through Meals on Wheels. Sandy, you must have lived an interesting life in your younger days; I’m sorry I never got to hear the stories I’ll bet you could have told. People like David, confined to a wheelchair, yet always with a smile on his face. Rhonda; Jimmy; Paul; all of you blessed me with your friendship, and I thank you. I will continue to miss you, and remember you fondly.

I think of the kids who spent part of their afternoons with me and our volunteers at “Kids’ Club,” and the parents who trusted me to watch their little ones for a while. It was my honor, and my pleasure. We had a good time doing homework, drawing on the sidewalks, climbing trees, doing crafts, and more. And I remember the Bible stories we told – “they say stories like that make a boy grow bold, stories like that make a man walk straight.” The Fruit of the Spirit and the Armor of God, David, Deborah, Moses and Esther. Mary & Joseph, Peter and John and the boys, and best of all, Jesus, the manger, the parables, the miracles, and the cross. And the twelfth and final egg, which is, of course, empty.

I think of the meals, and all the laughs we had around the table and out in the yard. Easter egg hunts and Halloween carnivals. Banana boats and dirt cake, hot dogs and Frito pie. A dunking booth on a certain very cool October day, and kickball games. Swing sets and bluebonnets. The prayer walks and recruiting volunteers. Working with teens for the “Young Leaders of Abilene.” Finding unexpected skills, like the time I handed my neighbor Diego the spatula during a cookout, then couldn’t get it back, only to learn that he used to be a short-order cook! I wouldn’t trade a minute of any of it.

And I think of so many friends who have supported, and continue to support, our work through your prayers, your gifts and your financial participation, a huge and heartfelt “thank you.” We literally could not do this without your gracious assistance and partnership.

To the colleagues I’m leaving behind, past and present: Please know that I’ve enjoyed every minute of working beside you. It has been a privilege to serve with you. I’m praying for your continued success.

Working for CCC has been one of the greatest blessings of my life, and I shall always cherish the opportunity to live out the call to love our neighbors, to bind up the broken-hearted, and to seek the shalom of our city. Thanks to everyone who participated in this ministry, and may the Lord continue to bless and guide all of you, as you continue to work on behalf of CCC, our neighbors, and our community.

Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie

In a previous post, I described my trip on Amtrak from Ft. Worth to St. Louis – I guess you could call it a birthday present to myself. I had two reasons for choosing St. Louis as the destination. For one, it was the farthest point I could get to and still have enough free miles to get back home again (that’s important!). But beyond that, St. Louis is home to one of the finest collections of railroad equipment anywhere in the country, at the St. Louis Museum of Transportation.

From the downtown Amtrak station, I caught another Amtrak train, the Missouri River Runner, to the suburb of Kirkwood. From there, it was just a short Uber ride to the museum. It was lightly raining off and on throughout the morning, but not enough to dampen my plans.

A guided tour had just started when I arrived, but I was able to catch up with the volunteer and the handful of guests he was leading, and we began walking the grounds of the museum. We took advantage of a break in the rain to tour some of the exhibits that were out in the open, including a collection of unusual freight cars, a caboose or two, and a Texas & Pacific baggage car that has been converted into a classroom on wheels for school groups.

three-locomotivesWe also saw a beautiful, side by side display of three locomotives, headlined by a rare, stainless steel Burlington engine, the “Silver Charger,” #9908. This unusual diesel-electric was built by EMD in 1939 to pull the “General Pershing Zephyr” between St. Louis and Kansas City, and was the last of the “shovel nose” units in service. A Frisco RR 2-10-0 steam locomotive and an early diesel switcher from the Sabine River & Northern sat beside the shiny passenger engine.

mp_eagle_obsUnder their sprawling pavilion, the museum has a nice assortment of passenger equipment, locomotives and more, including a number of rare and one-of-a-kind items. One of the things I especially enjoy about passenger trains from the 1950s and 60s were all the bright colors, and the museum does not disappoint, with the blue and cream of the Missouri Pacific’s “Eagle,” the two-tone light and dark greens of the Northern Pacific, the shiny silver of the Burlington, the maroon and red of the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, and more, all proudly on display.gmo_obsnp_passenger

gm_demonstrator

Scattered throughout the museum grounds are numerous other items of significance to any railfan, including a brown & yellow GM Demonstrator locomotive from 1939, part of the famous “Train of Tomorrow” that toured the country in the 1940s.frisco_1522

The famous Frisco locomotive #1522 is there, along with a UP 4-8-8-4 “Big Boy,” an enormous “Centennial” diesel, and much, MUCH, more, including an extremely rare “Aerotrain,” aerotraina futuristic train that looks like some- thing out of a science fiction movie, but actually saw service in the 50s and 60s on the Rock Island and other railroads.

st_louis_stationTime was beginning to get away from me, and I had more that I wanted to do before my train back to Texas left, so I caught a return ride on Amtrak to downtown. I went up to the top of the St. Louis Arch, saw venerable Busch Stadium (home of the Cardinals), and toured the famous (and historic) St. Louis Union Station (no longer used by Amtrak), built in 1904 for that year’s World’s Fair, as celebrated in the Judy Garland musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis.” I also had a fine seafood dinner before making my way back to the Amtrak station.

The southbound Texas Eagle was on time, and I boarded and found my way to my room. I deposited my gear and headed for the dining car, just in time for dessert and coffee. From there, I went back to my room and slipped between the sheets and was soon asleep, rocked by the gentle rhythm of the rails.

tp_400Epilogue: When I woke up the next morning, I wasn’t exactly sure where we were until I looked out the window. Even in the foggy, gray, half-light of that early fall dawn, I knew we were in Marshall, Texas, because right outside my window I saw the steam locomotive Texas & Pacific #400, which is parked beside the historic Marshall depot. I showered and dressed and headed for breakfast. Even though this train ride wasn’t yet over, I was already thinking about where I could go on my next #AmtrakAdventure.

A Small Group of Citizens

This will come as no surprise to regular readers of these ramblings, but for as long as I can remember, I have loved trains. I enjoy watching them, riding on them, and reading about them. I also enjoy building and operating miniature trains through the hobby of model railroading. And so I am a member of a model train club here in Abilene.

It’s a good club, and we have about 30 members. Some of us are skilled at building and maintaining well-running train cars and locomotives. Others are good at scenery – fashioning mountains and lakes or modeling city streets and industries that our little trains can serve. Some are good at carpentry, others understand electronics, and still others enjoy researching a particular railroad, so that they can duplicate its practices in miniature.

Put all these various skills and interests together with members who are willing to share what they know, and it makes our club really special. No matter what aspect of the hobby I’m working on, there is someone in our club who is good at it, and who is willing to help me with my project.

It is this willingness to share what you know and help others that elevates our club into a community. In fact, many organizations thrive on this same sort of camaraderie – mutual respect for others, sharing of valuable skills, the willingness to help, and the humility to ask for assistance when needed. Ideally, we should find the same principles at work closer to home, even in our own neighborhoods.

Last week, CCC sponsored a dinner in the College Heights neighborhood, with more than two dozen neighbors coming together. We ate and got to know each other a little better. We talked about our dreams for the neighborhood and how each of us can contribute to those dreams. Neighbors were asked to write down one thing they were good at. The answers were surprising – and encouraging.

Just within that small group of neighbors, we found people who know how to restore old furniture, and others who can speak Chinese. Some said they were good at providing child care, others understand how to use social media and technology, and others enjoy baking. We have some who sew and some who sing. And we won’t go hungry – one neighbor said she can cook Spanish rice, and another offered to make Maryland Crab Soup!

CCC believes strongly in the principles of Asset Based Community Development. In other words, instead of focusing all our attention on the problems we are facing, let’s focus on the assets we have to make our neighborhoods better. And without fail, our strongest assets are our neighbors themselves.

Now that we have identified these strengths, we will be looking for ways that these neighbors can use their various skills and interests to serve the entire neighborhood. We believe that doing this will inspire others to step up and do the same, and in the process, our neighborhoods will be improved for everyone.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It’s true for model train clubs. It’s also true for neighborhoods.

The Train

First, the obvious – I like trains. I like riding on them, watching them, and reading about them. When I can’t do any of those things, I enjoy the hobby of model railroading. One of the great things about Christmas is that it’s the one time of the year when “playing with trains” is considered cool, rather than quirky. So the following piece is one of my favorites.

“The Train” is a dramatic reading by the late actor Geoffrey Lewis, performed with the musical and storytelling group, “Celestial Navigations.”  I first heard it a few years ago on a local radio station, who had it in their Christmas music mix.  I don’t think it’s too well known, so I wanted to share it with you and hope you will enjoy it.

You can buy a copy of it here, or see the YouTube video here.

The Train”
by Geoffrey Lewis

There was hardly anyone on the train, as it moved through the countryside. The snow-covered land slipped smoothly by. Way out there I could see a lonely house now and again, just turning on their lights against the cold, oncoming night. Two thick-coated horses in the almost-dark, steam coming out of their nostrils, eating hay, then they were gone. The sky was quickly dark; the stars were crisp through the chill air.

Wasn’t very warm on the train. A man was asleep at the other end of the car, his coat rolled up for a pillow and a Christmas present had fallen on the floor. A few seats away a young woman sat with her baby. She was staring out the window. She saw me looking at her, reflected in the window, and she half-smiled at my reflection and she stared beyond that out into the cold dark landscape that was slipping away. I turned and gazed back out my window, and then I heard a very soft, “Ohhh.” I turned and looked at the woman and I saw her hug her baby to her, very closely and very intently.

passenger-train-bald-man-thoughtfully-looking-out-window-moving-journey-rail-lonelinessSuddenly I felt very close, very close and warm, and a door appeared in the back of my mind. I opened it and light flooded in and I heard my father say, “Burrrr, burrrr, it’s cold outside. You can put those logs right on the fire,” and as I stepped in, he shut the door behind me. I was standing in my living room; the Christmas tree was all lit up over by the front windows.

I heard laughter upstairs, my mother came through the swinging kitchen door carrying a plate of red and green frosted cookies, and behind her came the smell of roasting turkey like a gauze that draped around my head, like the smell of earth that hangs out in the ocean and lets you know home is just over the horizon. Someone was stamping snow off their boots on the back porch and my little sister and two of her cousins were lying on their stomachs in front of the tree, starring at the presents like sharks at a man’s legs under water, hoping to see beyond the tinsel and pretty paper.

I put the logs down and took off my gloves to warm my frozen fingers. In the dining room my grandma was scolding my grandpa about the best way for him to crack the walnuts that he was already cracking. He looked at me through the doorway and shrugged his shoulders and continued shelling the walnuts. I took off my thick coat and threw it on the floor by the door and went to stand by my aunt who had just called me to come sing the tenor part at the piano. There was talk and loud laughter coming out of the kitchen where the windows were steamed. We were singing, sometimes forgetting the second verses, but sounding pretty good.

But suddenly, somewhere in all the warm and familiar sounds, I heard someone very quietly crying. I looked around trying to locate the person and then my eyes landed on the young woman in the train, a few seats away holding her baby. Her eyes with tears, hardly seeing the back of the seat in front of her. I got up and walked awkwardly up the aisle of the swaying car. I put my thick coat around her shoulders, then I sat down beside her. I held her hand in both of mine and we rode like that, not looking at each other…looking straight ahead and I head her whisper under her breath, “Merry Christmas.”

The train slipped away across the sleeping land, into the dark winter night.