Diamonds & Dirt & Heading for Home

News item: The Major League Baseball 2021 season begins next week; Opening Day is set for Thursday, April 1. I’m ready. I love baseball.

In fact, in honor of Opening Day and with your kind permission, I’d like to repeat a column I wrote some time ago, about why I enjoy the game. Because, as many others have said before, there is wisdom we can learn from baseball that translates directly into a well-lived life.

For one thing, I love the more-realistic expectations of baseball, especially compared to other sports. The best hitter who ever lived (Ted Williams), in the best season he ever had (1941), had a batting average of .406. That means that six times out of ten when he came up to bat, he FAILED to hit the ball. Can you imagine a successful wide receiver who dropped six passes out of every ten thrown to him, or a basketball player who missed six out of every ten shots he took? Not likely. The truth is, many of us fail more often than we succeed. Success in life is measured, though, not by how many times we fail, but by how many times we get back up and keep trying.

Another thing about baseball – you have to focus on the situation at hand. You can only play one game at a time. Learn to stay in the moment, and don’t worry too much about the past or the future. When you make an error, shake it off, and be ready for the next ball hit to you.

I love the teamwork of a well-disciplined ball club. I mean, certainly I understand that teamwork is a part of football, basketball, etc. They are, after all, called TEAM sports. And, of course I realize that no running back is going to do very well without a good line blocking for him. But to me, there is unmatched beauty and elegance in watching an infield execute a beautiful – even graceful – 5-4-3 double play (the ball is hit to the third baseman, who throws it to second for one out, who then throws to first for another out). These guys have practiced so long and so effectively together, they make it look easy and effortless. And I assure you, it is not.

Even something seemingly simple like a fielder hitting the cutoff man, who fires to the catcher, to cut down a runner trying to score – such things take mind-numbing hours of work and skill to accomplish.

You have to trust your teammates. A pitcher has to trust the fielders behind him, to provide good defense. Fielders have to trust that pitchers will make quality pitches. So also in life. Surround yourself with Godly companions and support each other.

Some other principles from baseball that apply to life:

  • Realize that sometimes, the ball just takes a bad hop on you.
  • There’s a time for preparation, and a time for performance.
  • Even the best players will sometimes have an off day. And even the most average player will sometimes have the game of his life.
  • In a regular season, every team is going to win 54 games; every team is going to lose 54 games. It’s what you do with the other 54 games that counts.
  • Blown calls and bad trades are part of baseball. Deal with it.
  • Sometimes you have to take one for the team.
  • Play with passion. Don’t be afraid to dive for the ball. It’s okay to get dirt on your uniform.
  • There’s a time to bunt, and a time to swing for the fences. Each is valuable in its place.
  • Make the most of the opportunities that you have. Don’t waste good chances; you don’t know how many you’ll get.
  • The bigger the situation, the more you need to relax. Too much tension is never good.
  • You can’t steal first.
  • You win some; you lose some; some get rained out.
  • Above all else – the main thing is always to get safely home.

Now – Play Ball!

Stepping Into the Past

My wife and I recently took advantage of having a little time off, to visit the National Ranching Heritage Center, on the campus of Texas Tech in Lubbock. The trip took us 140 miles from Haskell, and about that many years into the past.

The NRHC began about 55 years ago, as a way of preserving and celebrating Texas’ ranching history. Along the way, they have collected over 40 historic buildings and other artifacts, gathered together from the 6666, the Spur, the Pitchfork, XIT, King, and many other famous ranches and communities. Ranch homes, log cabins, bunkhouses, dugouts, barns, cattle pens, windmills – if it was found on an old ranch in the 19th and early 20th centuries – you name it, and the Heritage Center probably has at least one example of it. The collection also includes a ranch commissary, a blacksmith shop, a one-room schoolhouse, a church building, and much, much more.

Our toured started at the beautiful, spacious headquarters building which contains several galleries, including a walk-through exhibition on the history of ranching and beef cattle; also on display is a collection of “Guns that Won the West,” beautiful Western sculptures, an authentic reproduction of a Wells Fargo stagecoach, “Burk” Burnett’s personal horse-drawn buggy, and more. From there, you step outside and onto the self-guided walking tour of ranching history.

The first building you come to is Los Corralitos, a replica of what may be the oldest standing structure in the state of Texas, dating from about 1780. Unlike just about everything else on the museum grounds, this building is a reproduction, because when historians were researching the old ranch fort, they discovered that the remains of five members of the land grant family may be buried beneath the original structure. It’s a fascinating building to examine, with its 33-inch thick walls of sandstone and mortar, no windows, and six gun ports for defending one’s family.

There are several dugout cabins, as well as log cabins, constructed before the railroads made lumber available. The interpretive signs along the way give you information about what you’re seeing. For example, you’ll learn about the Jowell House from Palo Pinto County (actually two buildings), two stories tall and made of cut stone – a replacement Mr. Jowell built to take the place of his original log cabin, which was burned in an Indian raid. And just in case you need a reminder of how hard life on the frontier was, also exhibited are the original headstones of five of the Jowell children, all of whom died between the ages of three and nine. (The original markers were replaced a few years ago.) Influenza, measles, snake bite, marauders, and accidents – it was not an easy place to grow up.

Of all the buildings that we saw, the one nearest Haskell County was an old mail cabin, made entirely of small, cut stones, dry-stacked to make a one-room structure, and originally from Knox County. Apparently, government riders from the postal system or the Army would use it as a stopover, to sort and drop off mail to and from various area ranches.

This cut-stone cabin, now at the NRHC, was originally located in Knox County. It was built about 1875 and was used to sort mail and messages for area ranches. (Photo courtesy, NRHC.)

It takes the average visitor about 60-90 minutes to see everything, but as the museum brochures explain, that depends on your level of interest. There is no admission charge, but donations are welcome.

So much of the center reminds you of how hard life was on the frontier; every gain was at the expense of a great deal of hard work, and every improvement took considerable creativity and problem-solving skills. For the most part, there were no outside resources or help available – if you needed something, you made it yourself or did without. If it broke, you fixed it. Weaknesses in one’s character simply were not tolerated.

As an example – before they could build above-ground cabins, many settlers would construct partially-buried dugouts in which to live. Of course, since they had dirt floors and walls, the people who lived there had to constantly be on the lookout for tarantulas and scorpions. And in the fall, when the first cold wind came and mama built a fire in fireplace, the rattlesnakes would come crawling, driven out by the heat.

It was a hard life, and the NRHC helps you appreciate a little more those who came before us. May we always be worthy of that heritage.

Lessons from St. Patrick

One of my favorite days of the year, March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day – is almost here. It’s one of my favorites not because I especially love wearing green, but because there really was a man named Patrick who deserves to be remembered.

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Patrick was not Irish by birth; he was actually born in England or Wales in the late 300s. By his own account, he was NOT a Christian as a young man. At 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he stayed for six years. He spent much of that time tending sheep, and he also became a believer. Eventually he managed to escape his captors and return to Britain, but after studying for the priesthood, he had a vision of the people of Ireland begging him to return to their island and bring them the gospel.

Ireland at the time was a coarse, pagan land – tribal chieftains competing for power, constant battles, the people worshiping various pagan gods and goddesses, widespread kidnapping and slavery. Patrick brought his faith, and in one generation, Ireland was at peace and slavery had been abolished.

How he brought about such a great social change is too long a story to relate here, but part of it involved Patrick selecting a group of young disciples and pouring himself into them. He would spend about three years, teaching them and showing them how to walk out their faith – then he would send them on their way to put their Christianity into practice. Some of them would become farmers, some shepherds, some craftsmen – and some would become pastors and begin gathering followers of their own. Meanwhile, he would gather up another group of a dozen or so, and start over.

Their influence spread, and it changed the entire culture. For Patrick and his students, Christianity was not a set of doctrines to be studied – it was a way of life to be followed. The message of the gospel wasn’t just about saving people’s souls – it was about making a real difference, improving people’s lives in the here and now. Celtic Christianity wasn’t about going to church to find God – it was about recognizing that God shows Himself in every sunrise and sunset, every blade of grass and mountain stream, and we can see Him through His creation, if we will just look.

There are many legends about Patrick; one says that he used the three-leafed shamrock (already a sacred plant in Irish life) to teach the people the doctrine of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If that’s true, it certainly fits with what we know of Patrick’s teaching that we should never worship creation, but that the creation points us to the Creator, and it is the Creator we must worship.

One of my favorite things about Saint Patrick is a prayer attributed to him, known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” and also as “The Cry of the Deer.” It expresses a prayer that is very close to my heart, and says in part –

God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,

And another part says,

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

If you want to learn more about Patrick, I suggest How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I think it’s one of the most entertaining history books ever written.

So Happy St. Patrick’s Day. And Erin Go Bragh!

Heaven on Wheels

Ever heard of a chapel car?

A Chapel Car missionary leads a worship service for a small gathering.

Well, neither had I, until I read the book, This Train is Bound for Glory. It tells the story of a fleet of special-purpose railroad cars that were essentially church buildings on wheels.

In the late 1800s, much of the American western frontier was still a wild and untamed land. In many towns, saloons, gambling dens, and “dance halls” (usually brothels) outnumbered all other establishments combined. Most towns did not have schools, nor a church of any denomination. As one wag put it, “This country is fine for men and cattle, but hell on women and horses.”

But there were many who wanted more than just a fast buck: they were looking for a place to put down roots, get married, raise a family and build a home. They knew that having a church in their community was essential. And so the chapel car was invented, and over the next few years, 13 were built – seven for the Baptists, three for the Episcopalians, and three for the Catholics.  They were in operation primarily in the Western U.S. between about 1890 and 1940.

Each of the cars was a little different, but they were all built along the same idea. Most of the car was a church building on wheels, with seating for 50-80 people, a small lectern, and an old-style pump organ. The rest of the car was a small private area where the missionary and his wife would live, and it included drop-down bunks that were mounted on the wall, a small kitchen/ living space, a water closet/ toilet, and a tiny office/ study area.

The railroads were big supporters of the concept, and for many years, provided free hauling and parking services for the cars, as well as free or reduced-cost maintenance. The usual pattern was to pull the car into a town and park it on a convenient siding. Sometimes it was parked near the railroad’s shops; often it would be parked near a town’s “red light” district, to counter the influence of the whiskey and women there.

Baptist Chapel Car #4, “Good Will,” was a frequent visitor to Abilene and this part of Texas. Its history shows several revivals between 1910 and 1930, held in association with Abilene’s First Baptist Church and other congregations.

The missionaries who served on board had to have a special calling. The men had to be open and welcoming to railroad men and others who would come to services on their lunch or dinner breaks, filthy from work. They had to be willing to visit the saloons and dance halls and hand out gospel tracts and Bibles to the “soiled doves” who worked there. They had to be people without judgmentalism, and willing to talk to everyone. And they had to be tireless: most of the time, they would hold services twice a day, at noon and again at midnight, for the men working the various shifts.

Their wives had to have a calling of their own. It was expected that they would play the organ and sing, hold Bible classes for the children of the town, and help their husbands counsel with the prostitutes and others who visited the car. They had to try and make a home in a cramped, tiny space that was brutally hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. And they had to put up with the noise, the soot, and the constant banging and shuffling of cars that was part of life in a railyard.

It was not an easy assignment. Most of the couples who served were young and newly married and had not yet started having children. Sometimes they were older couples whose children were grown. There are also records of young moms suspending a swing hammock in the corner of the living area, and letting their babies sleep, “rocking to the rhythm of the rails.”

There are many stories of the “rolling pastors” intentionally working among the newly arrived immigrants, the town drunks, the dance hall girls, and others “written off” by polite society. At the front of the partition of one chapel car was a glass transom with the message, “God is Love” written across it in gold leaf. It’s a message that was not lost on the thousands of lives touched by the chapel cars and those who served on board. They could read it in the Bibles they were given, they could hear it in the messages that were preached, and they could see it in the lives that were lived out in front of them.

It’s a message that is still worth sharing – and living – today.