It’s NOT ‘National BBQ Day’

This coming Monday, May 31, is a national holiday. For some, it’s a chance to head out to the lake and maybe catch some crappie or bass. Some see it as a chance to soak up some sun. For auto racing fans, the weekend means it’s time for what is perhaps the most famous competition in motor sports – the Indianapolis 500. For many communities, it’s a time for patriotic parades, with flags, bands and floats. Some folks see it as a chance to fire up the grill and have family and friends over for a fun time. A lot of retailers have big sales, while other folks are happy just to have the day off. For many, it’s the unofficial start of summer.

All of those things are fine, and each can be appropriate in its place, but Memorial Day wasn’t originally designed for any of those things. And although the exact origins of the day have been lost to history, its intention is clear: to remember and honor those who have given their lives in defense of this country.

“Decoration Day” (as the day was originally known) began during and especially, immediately after, the American Civil War (or the War Between the States, if you prefer). Several communities, in both the North and the South, held ceremonies to decorate the graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers.

One of the earliest was on May 1, 1865, when a group of several thousand recently-freed slaves reburied with honors the remains of 257 Union soldiers who had died in a Confederate prison camp. The Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus (Georgia) established a program in the spring of 1866 to decorate the graves of soldiers throughout the south. Similar events had been happening in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and elsewhere in the north.

In 1868, Union General John A. Logan issued a proclamation establishing “Decoration Day” to be held on May 30, annually and nationwide; Logan was the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization made up of Union Civil War veterans. Some have claimed the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any specific battle, but instead could be universally recognized; others have suggested that it was chosen because it was the best date for flowers to bloom in the north.

There are more than 25 different communities that claim to be the founder of the observance. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed a bill recognizing Waterloo, New York, as the “official” birthplace of the holiday a hundred years earlier, but the evidence for this is sketchy, at best. Rochester, Wisconsin, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and Grafton, West Virginia, all host annual parades that have been continuously running since the 1860s. During the first half of the 20th century, the focus graduated shifted from exclusively honoring those who fell in the Civil War, to remembering all those who had died in our nation’s defense. The name “Memorial Day” was first used in 1882 and gradually became more common, especially after World War II; Congress made that the “official” name in 1967.

Then in 1968, as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Congress changed the date from May 30, to the last Monday of May, which we still observe today. In 2000, they passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, asking all Americans to pause at 3:00 pm, local time, and remember the fallen. The National American Legion has chosen to honor those who died by distributing and wearing red silk poppies – a tribute to the poem “In Flanders Fields,” about the flowers that grew over soldiers’ graves in World War I.

However you choose to observe the holiday, let us take a moment, each in our own way, to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice and the families they left behind. Let us pray for our nation and our leaders, and pray that the Lord will bring His peace on earth.

I’ll give the final word to British poet Rudyard Kipling, whose son was killed while fighting with the British army during World War I. In his poem Recessional, Kipling writes

The tumult and the shouting dies –
  The captains and the kings depart –
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
  An humble and contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
  Lest we forget – lest we forget!

A Visit to Jefferson

Jefferson, Texas, is a beautiful, historic community in Northeast Texas, between Marshall and Texarkana. I had the chance this past weekend to go over there, to indulge a totally frivolous hobby of mine – model railroading.

You see, I still play with trains.

Like many little boys who grew up in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, one of the earliest toys I can remember playing with was an electric train. Unlike many others, I never outgrew the fascination. Other kids might have received a train by Lionel or American Flyer; in my case, it was made by Marx. I don’t remember much about the actual train, other than playing with it until it absolutely fell apart. Marx Toys was the same company who would later make the “Rock ’Em, Sock ’Em Robots” and the “Big Wheel” tricycles, but to me, they will always be a maker of trains.

So, back to Jefferson – it’s a very picturesque small town that celebrates its heritage of historic homes, railroads, old-fashioned paddle-wheel steamships, lumber and oil industries, and more. Over fifty buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and there are numerous good places to stay, from beautiful and historic hotels to quaint and comfortable bed-and-breakfasts, along with good restaurants and interesting little museums and antique shops.

And every year, they host a big model RR show where hobbyists from across Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas come together to watch and run trains and visit with their fellow enthusiasts. A model train club from Orange, of which I was an active member when we lived down there, goes to Jefferson every year with their portable layout, so I went last weekend to see my old friends from that club, and enjoy some time running and playing with the trains.




Hundreds of hobbyists and spectators, drawn together by their shared passion of model railroading, gathered this past weekend in Jefferson for that city’s annual train show.

Like many hobbies, model trains have their own jargon. One of the first things you learn is about scale – how large or how small are the models? The classic Lionel trains (and my original Marx trains) are known as “O” scale – pronounced, “oh scale.” O scale operates on the ratio of 1 to 48; that is, one inch on a model equals 48 inches in real life. A man six feet tall in the real world would be a model an inch and a half tall. O scale models are big and impressive to watch as they go by, but they can also be expensive, and they can take up a LOT of room for a layout.

The most popular size is known as HO – you pronounce the letters separately: “aitch – oh.” The name comes from the fact that it is roughly half of the size of O scale models, or H-O. These models have a proportion of 1:87 – one foot of track equals 87 feet in real life. You can build a decent layout on a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood, which is how a lot of hobbyists start out.

There are many other scales, each with their own devotees and specialties – Z (1:220), N (1:160), HO (1:87), S (1:64), O (1:48), and G (1:29). Each has different advantages – you can build a nice Z scale layout in a suitcase, whereas G scale is often the choice for running outdoors on garden railroads. It all depends on what you like.

One of the most revolutionary developments in the last few years has been something called “Digital Command Control,” or DCC; this enables you to control each locomotive separately, independent of any others, utilizing a miniature computer chip installed in each model. You can even install miniature speakers on the trains, enabling engines to operate with realistic sound effects. All this allows for a level of realism previously unimaginable.

One thing people always want to know: isn’t it expensive? Well, it can be (especially when you’re just getting started), but it doesn’t have to be. One of the great things about being in a modeling club is the ability to pool resources, share knowledge and expertise, and run on a club layout. (And, just in case you’re interested, there’s a great model train club based in Abilene.)

I had a great time seeing my friends and enjoying our shared love of the hobby with them again. And I’m more determined than ever to finish setting my home layout back up, to once again enjoy my own little empire in miniature. All aboard!

“God Helps”

I have always enjoyed reading and studying the parables of Jesus – maybe it’s because there’s not much I like more than hearing a well-told story. One of the first definitions of a parable that I learned is still one of the best: an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Jesus was a Master of taking common, ordinary elements from everyday life, and using them to make an application of a spiritual principle. One of the best is the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Luke 16:19-31. (Go ahead and get your Bible if you want to – I’ll wait.)

One of the first controversies people get bogged down in concerns whether this is a fictional parable, or a true story that Jesus somehow knew through His divine awareness. The argument has often been made that it must be about real people since Jesus calls “Lazarus” by name – something He does in no other parable.

I must respectfully disagree. “Lazarus” is a form of the Hebrew name, “Eleazar,” which means, “God helps.” It was a very common name and doesn’t have to mean anything other than Jesus, a good storyteller, is giving a fictional character a familiar name. In fact, its significance may be in its Hebrew meaning: the rich man had many resources on which he could rely, but this poor man’s only help was from God.

One thing that I’ve learned in my study of the parables – people use them to preach and teach all sorts of screwy things. Many interpreters seem to regard the words of Jesus as a blank screen onto which they can project whatever point of view they’re wishing to promote.

That’s especially true with this text. Many interpreters come up with some strange applications of this text, but in my opinion, they miss what Jesus is trying to teach. To understand His point, we have to back up a few verses in the chapter. Earlier in Luke 16, Jesus had been speaking about having the right priorities when it comes to money, and understanding that our money is an asset, a tool, that God has given us, and we must be wise and responsible in using that tool for God’s glory. In Luke 12:21, He talked about the foolishness of storing up wealth for oneself but failing to become “rich toward God.”

Meanwhile, the Pharisees, “who loved money” (Luke 16:14), were “sneering” at Jesus. They had totally bought into a version of what is today called the “prosperity gospel:” the idea that God rewards His followers materially, and that earthly riches are a sign of God’s favor. (There are plenty of TV preachers and others today who audaciously proclaim this same falsehood.) But it is in response to the cynical, sneering Pharisees that Jesus tells this story.

His point, in my opinion, was to teach that we have a responsibility to use our money, as well as our time, our talents, our possessions, and whatever else God may have given us, in such a way as to glorify Him. If we use our wealth only to make ourselves comfortable – as this rich man did – then we have failed to love God with “all our heart,” and we have certainly failed to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Lazarus, according to the story, hung out every day near the rich man’s garbage cans, hoping just to eat the scraps that were being thrown out. His only companions were the stray dogs that he competed against for dinner. Did the rich man know he was there? Did he even see him?

It’s easy to condemn the rich man for his failures, even as we let ourselves off the hook. But Jesus doesn’t let us off that easy. Many of us have become quite skilled at NOT seeing those around us. Who are the needy among us? Who are the friendless near us? Who is the neighbor or co-worker that just wants someone to talk to? We rationalize our failure to help; we excuse ourselves by thinking about the “wrong choices” that “the poor” have made, to put them where they are.

Do we know that? And even if we do, are we really that self-righteous and smug? Is that how God treated us? In another place, Jesus talked about the need to remove the plank in our own eye before we worry about the speck in our brother’s eye. Many of us are quick to give ourselves “grace” for the wrongs we have done; can we not find some grace to help others?

Ultimately, in the story, Lazarus was “helped” by God. May God “help” each of us to see and reach out to those around us.

For the Birds

As some of you may know, my dad passed away in 2018. Before he died, though, he took up a hobby that some might have considered very unusual for such a toughened, hard-working auto mechanic, a veteran of the Korean War era, a hunter and fisherman, a true outdoorsman and role-model to four boys about what a God-fearing, Christian man ought to be.

He became a birdwatcher.

My brothers and I were raised on forty acres in Southeast Texas – Orange County, to be precise. The whole time we were growing up, daddy always kept 20 or 30 head of cattle, some to produce beef for our family, and some, just because he liked being outside and taking care of the animals. As he got older, his mind stayed sharp, but his body betrayed him, and he became confined to a wheelchair for most of the last eight years of his life. But he got to where he enjoyed sitting on his back porch and watching the birds that came to visit and eat at the feeders he put out for them. Even with his diminished eyesight, he could still see the birds’ bright colors, and he could always hear their musical calls.

I’m discovering some of those same joys for myself. Our back porch is my favorite part of the house, I think, and I love sitting there, trying to identify as many different types and species of birds as possible. I’ve seen brilliant red male cardinals, along with the reddish-brown females, gorgeous blue jays, and the mockingbirds. I’ve identified everything from a red-headed finch to a tufted titmouse (and yes, that is really what it’s called!).

A bright red male cardinal and a reddish-brown female eating at one of my backyard feeders.

There are plenty of dove, of course, and red-winged blackbirds. An occasional robin or two, and once in a while, a red-tailed hawk might show up, high in the trees above. And lots and lots of sparrows all around.

We also see a lot of black grackles. I’m not a big fan of those critters – they tend to waste more bird seed than they eat, and they chase off other birds, but even on them, the iridescent purple, blue, and green feathers around their necks are pretty.  (There’s a lesson in there about learning to appreciate the best in others, even people who irritate you, but I digress…)

Watching the birds as they dive and soar, dart back and forth and chase each other around, and hearing all their varied calls and sounds always makes me happy. And it makes me appreciate the Heavenly Father Who created and cares for them.

Looking at the different types of sparrows reminds of Psalm 84:3, where the writer talks about the sparrows who live in the temple courtyard, expressing his envy that they get to be so close to the temple: “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young – a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God.”

I also recall the words of Jesus from Matthew 10:29-31 – “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” It’s comforting to watch those sparrows and to reflect on the idea that the same God Who watches over them, is watching over and caring for you and me. As Jesus also said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:25-26)

When I see all the different sizes, shapes and colors of the birds, it reminds me of how much God loves diversity. Think about it – just with sparrows, in North America alone, there are over 30 different species of those little birds! All the various types of animals, fish, and birds, all can teach us about the creativity, the power, and the provision of the Creator. As Job says, “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you.” (Job 12:7-8)

So, I will continue with my bird watching, even if some might think it’s a little silly. It reminds me of my dad, and I like it. I will keep putting out feed for them and thinking about the Heavenly Father that cares for all of us.

And I will enjoy their bright colors, and I will hear their musical calls.