“Jefferson Survives”

As we approach the Fourth of July, I want to tell you a true story of American history – one that is so remarkable, if some Hollywood scriptwriter came up with it, he or she would be laughed out of the room, for inventing such nonsense. Except that in this case, it’s really true. It’s a story that revolves around two of our nation’s Founding Fathers.

Over their lifetimes, Thomas Jefferson (left) and John Adams were co-signers of the Declaration of Independence, the best of friends, and the worst of enemies. They would eventually rebuild their relationship through a series of personal letters, before dying on the same day – July 4, 1826.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were about as different as two people could be in the 1700s. Jefferson was tall and lanky; Adams was short and stocky. Jefferson was a slave-holding Virginian and a farmer; Adams was a Massachusetts abolitionist and successful lawyer and author. Jefferson believed in the supremacy of state’s rights and feared a strong central government; Adams thought that a strong central national government was essential, especially regarding the economy, trade, and foreign relations.

Yet despite these differences, the two men became fast friends and each of them held a deep and mutual respect for the other. They were co-signers of the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1776. In fact, some historians believe it was Adams who insisted that Jefferson be the primary author of the final draft of the Declaration. Adams served as George Washington’s Vice President, while Jefferson became the young nation’s first Secretary of State. That was when the relationship began to fracture.

Divided over opposing views of the French Revolution and the future of American government, the two became bitter political enemies. Their feud was so bitter, so angry, that when Jefferson defeated Adams in 1800 – involving what some said was a corrupt vote in the House of Representatives. Adams left town and would not attend Jefferson’s inauguration. They would not speak for twelve years.

Finally, another of the nation’s founders, Benjamin Rush (also a signer of the Declaration), came up with a scheme to reunite the old friends. He wrote to each of them, claiming that he had been in touch with the other, and saying that the other man was wanting to rekindle the friendship. On January 1, 1812, Adams wrote a short note to Jefferson at Monticello. Over the next 14 years, the two would exchange 158 letters.

Adams tended to write longer letters and used a LOT more words (perhaps true to his background as an attorney and a writer). Those who have studied the correspondence note that Adams was more confrontational and aggressive, while Jefferson maintained the cool composure for which he was so well known.

They talked about their views on religion and philosophy, and they discussed the long-term effects of the French Revolution, which had been one of the main causes of their initial dispute. Jefferson acknowledged the unfairness of the name-calling done against Adams by some of Jefferson’s followers. Eventually, each had regained the trust of the other. In July 1813, Adams wrote, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”

Their later letters continued to cover a wide range of topics and subjects – even anticipating the growing sectional differences that would eventually lead to the American Civil War. But what really comes through their notes to one other is the tender affection and abiding respect each had for the other. Even as the two elderly statesmen grew older and more infirm, they continued to correspond. In 1823, Jefferson wrote, “Crippled wrists and fingers make writing slow and laborious. But while writing to you, I lose the sense of these things, in the recollection of ancient times, when youth and health made happiness out of every thing.”

Jefferson, 83, was suffering from an intestinal disorder on July 3, 1826. He lapsed into a coma that afternoon and lingered in a semi-conscious state before dying just after noon the next day. Five hundred miles away, John Adams, now 90, was dying from typhoid – the same disease that had claimed his beloved wife Abigail, in 1818. Historians note that his final words were, “Jefferson survives”– not knowing that his beloved friend, foe, correspondent, and fellow patriot, had in fact, died only hours earlier.

It was July 4, 1826 – exactly fifty years to the day since the Declaration of Independence.

Cooking with Cast Iron

I have written previously about how much I enjoy cooking. Part of that includes using cast iron cookware.

I own three well-used cast iron skillets, a nice Dutch oven, two breadstick pans for cornbread (the breadsticks come out looking like ears of corn), and a couple of other pieces of cookware, and I use them as often as I can. One of them is a large skillet that belonged to my dad’s grandmother. I also used to have a Dutch oven with little feet on the bottom, and a lid made for holding hot coals on top, to be set on a campfire and used for baking. I say I used to have that piece – it came from my mother’s mom, and I’ve already passed it on to one of my boys. All of that to say, if you take care of your cast iron stuff, it will last FOREVER. Seriously.

Some people don’t like using cast iron because they say it’s too heavy, but that’s part of what makes it so durable. It also carries a lot of history – some experts believe the Chinese first developed cast iron cookware about 2500 years ago. It was very popular among early American settlers, and as the nation moved west, the newcomers brought it with them. And NO self-respecting chuck wagon cook would ever start out on a trail drive without several pieces of it.

There are several benefits to cooking with cast iron. One is that it conducts, distributes, and retains heat, easily and evenly. I also really like the fact that it is oven proof. Since there are no wooden or plastic parts, you can start cooking on the stovetop, searing a piece of meat, for example, then move it into the oven to let it finish cooking. And when the cookware is properly seasoned (we’ll get to that), it is almost completely non-stick, and easy to clean afterward.

New cast iron can be expensive, but I like shopping for the stuff at thrift and second-hand stores. One word of caution – new or poorly seasoned cast iron can leach metal into the food, especially if you’re cooking anything with tomatoes (it’s the acid). But once the cookware has been well-seasoned – black with a shiny patina – you can make all the chili you want. Clean it up when you’re done, and it’s fine.

In the October 2014 issue of Southern Living magazine, they published a list of
“The 11 Commandments of Cast Iron Care.” Below is what they said.

1. Respect it. You are its steward, and it’s your duty to pass it on to the next generation.

2. Use it often. The more you use your cast iron skillet, the better it will work, and the more you’ll care for it.

3. Save this page. Tape it to the inside of your pantry door.

4. Clean cast iron after each use. Wash with hot water while pan is still warm.

5. Don’t use soap. Ever. And no matter what, don’t ever put cast iron in the dishwasher.

6. Scour smartly. Use coarse salt like Morton’s Kosher Salt for scouring stubborn bits of food without damaging the seasoning. Use a paper towel to rub the salt into the bottom and around the inside edges of the pan. A stiff bristle brush also works well. Still sticking? Loosen residue such as caramel by boiling water in the pan.

7. Dry it immediately. Wipe dry after washing and heat over low flame for two minutes to open the pores of the iron. Use a paper towel and tongs to apply an even, light film of vegetable oil or flaxseed oil on the inside of the pan.

8. Store it in a cool, dry place. For pans with lids, add a paper towel wad, and keep ajar to let air flow.

9. Understand “seasoning.” For cast iron cookware, this is the polymerization of fat bonded to the surface of the pan. In layman’s terms, seasoning is the glossy sheen that gives cast iron cookware its non-stick properties and keeps it from rusting. Protect and maintain the seasoning and your skillet will last forever. See below to learn how.

10. Bust the rust. Rub cast iron with steel wool. For the seriously stubborn rust on old, neglected pans, take the cast iron to a machine shop and ask someone to pressure blast it with air or sand. Then start the seasoning process below to build a protective coat.

11. Re-Season it. Here’s the best way to rebuild the seasoning and bring your skillet back to life.

  • Wash vigorously. After busting the rust, washing cast iron with warm and – just this once – soapy water. Dry well.
  • Rub with vegetable oil. Use a paper towel to rub oil inside, outside, and on skillet handle. Wipe away any excess.
  • Bake at 400° for an hour. Place upside down on upper oven rack. Line bottom rack with foil. Bake. Repeat oiling and baking until seasoned.

You’re welcome.

Some Thoughts on Small Town Living

My wife and I first moved to Haskell in July 1980, and for 17 of the next 26 years, I served as the minister of the First Christian Church – 1980-82, 1986-92, and 1997-2006. A few years ago I moved back to my Southeast Texas roots, to live in Orange County with my dad as his caregiver. After he passed in December 2018, Kathy and I talked about it and decided that we wanted to move back to Haskell, so we bought a home here and returned during the summer of 2019.

All of that to say, we love Haskell and the many wonderful friends we’ve made here. Three of our kids were born here, and two of them graduated from Haskell County schools. I have known members of the same family for six generations and have performed second, and in some cases, even third generation weddings, funerals and baptisms. That’s rare and special for a pastor these days.

I enjoy the rhythm of life in our small town – the “regularness” of it, the familiarity of it all. I appreciate the traditions of life here, from Wild Horse Prairie Days to Friday Night Lights and how folks who haven’t had a family member playing high school football in 40 years are still holding on to their season tickets. I love our annual Lighted Christmas Parade and the Easter Egg Hunt at City Park. All of these things, and many, many more, are all part of what makes life good in Haskell.

And of course, the friendships – the wonderful relationships with people that we walk through life with. You see them at their best, you see them at their worst, and everything in between. We visit with them at Modern Way and at the post office. From weddings and funerals to the birth of babies and grandbabies and high school graduation – fiftieth anniversaries and backyard BBQs and quinceañeras – towns like Haskell are where life happens, and it’s where the people are who matter the most to us.

Other towns around the area are all also nice, each in its own unique and special way. Stamford has the Cowboy Reunion, and Rochester has its Trade Days. I have friends in just about every community around here, and I cherish all of those relationships. They help make life worth living, and they are a big part of why Kathy and I decided to buy a place and settle here. For better or worse, we have “adopted” Haskell, and it is our intention to stay. You’re stuck with us.

However, as much as I love Haskell – and I REALLY do! – there are things about our town that make me crazy. And so with all humility, I offer some thoughts about a few areas of concern I have.

At the top of the list would have to be people who are automatically opposed to anything new or different. This attitude is especially prevalent in churches, but we find it everywhere. “We’ve never done it that way before.” Just because something is new or untried doesn’t make it wonderful, of course, but just because something is old and familiar doesn’t automatically make it the best, either. Every item that we use every day – automobiles, electric lights, telephones, running water, and more – were all once new and untried. Rather than rejecting a new idea simply because it is new, we ought to be willing to at least listen and consider some fresh ideas and different approaches to problem-solving.

Closely related is the issue of being afraid or suspicious of “new” people moving into town. Yes, Haskell is a tightly-knit community with shared values and a common heritage, but that shouldn’t mean that we hate and fear all “outsiders” who come here. We all have a lot of friends and loved ones buried in Willow Cemetery, but we can’t be so devoted to honoring the dead that we neglect the next generation. Yes, we should cherish the memory of our grandparents – but we also need to make a way for our grandchildren. And sometimes, that means being willing to meet and listen to new people and hearing their thoughts.

One final concern is that sometimes, we are much too concerned with the past and not enough with the future. Have you ever noticed the size of your car’s windshield, compared to the rearview mirror? That’s because when you’re driving, you should be much more focused on where you’re going, as opposed to where you’ve been. We must absolutely have pride in our past – but we also need to have faith in the future.

I love Haskell and I’m very proud to be here. All I’m saying is, working together, we can make it better.

Skull Rock and the Garden Tomb

When I was a kid, a name like “Skull Rock” sounded spooky, a little creepy, very adventurous. It was the sort of place where Peter Pan and the boys from Never, Never Land would hang out. It was a fun place to visit at Six Flags over Texas when I was younger, with its slightly scary green lighting and its fun, twisty slide to play on.

This foreboding cliff looks like a skull when the sunlight hits it just right.
It is part of the area known as “Gordon’s Calvary,” near the Garden Tomb.

It never occurred to me that there might have been a real Skull Rock. And that it would be anything but fun to visit. At least, it never occurred to me, until I actually went there.

I have written before about my 2009 visit to Israel. During that trip, I learned that there are actually two different sites identified as the possible location where Jesus was crucified. Although they are both within the main environs of Jerusalem now, both would have been outside the city walls back in Jesus’ day. Both have elements to recommend them as the “real” location, and both have shallow caves nearby, where Jesus could have been buried, in keeping with the story as told in the Gospels.

One, of course, is the site contained within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the historically accepted spot, with visitors going back at least to the 300s. It’s there we find the oldest traditions about the rocky hill on which Jesus was crucified and the nearby, borrowed, tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where He was buried. The final few stations along the famous “Via Dolorosa” – the Way of Suffering – are located there.

But over the years, the old location has been gilded over and gold plated. It’s had shrines erected over and beside it, so much so that only with the greatest stretch of imagination can you picture in your mind what it must have been like 2,000 years ago, when Jesus was actually there. Metal shields have actually been installed in some parts, to prevent souvenir hunters from chipping off a chunk of rock to take home with them. The candles, the incense, the fabric draperies – it all seems more fake, more “Hollywood,” and less like a location where public executions took place.

At least, that’s the reaction that a lot of American visitors, especially Protestants, have. And so, while that location definitely has the better historical claim to being the actual site of the crucifixion, there is another spot that is more preferred by a lot of Christians who want to see the spot where Jesus died, was buried, and three days later, rose again.

Gordon’s Calvary is about a third of mile away. Charles Gordon was a British General and amateur archeologist who helped popularized the location, and so his name is associated with it. One of the things that is so special about it is a limestone cliff, jutting up from the ground. Two deep depressions in the side of the cliff remind visitors of a skull’s empty eye sockets – and so the cliff is known, unofficially, as “Skull Rock.” (Both “Golgotha” and “Calvary” refer to a skull in their original languages.) If this was the execution spot, it would have been an appropriate name – both for its appearance, and for the painful events that took place there.

So imagine, if you will, that you are a visitor to Jerusalem in those days, coming in from Jericho. As you enter the city, near the main gates, you see a large cliff, and there, in front of that cliff (and not on top of it), you see a number of crosses there, with the prisoners being executed. And a few dozen yards away, a number of shallow caves in the side of the cliff have been hollowed out to serve as graves.

This is the Garden Tomb. And those caves are empty.

Was this where Jesus was crucified? Honestly, we don’t know. As I said, both the traditional Golgotha and Gordon’s Calvary have their advocates. But wherever it was, I invite you to join with me this weekend as we remember those events. Let us give thanks that wherever the tomb of Jesus was, it is empty!

Their Biggest Day, x2

God has been very, very good to me and my family over the years. He has blessed Kathy and me with good health and while we haven’t gotten rich, we have always had food on the table and a roof over our heads. He blessed us with parents who loved us and friends who supported us. Our greatest blessing has been that we had four children: two boys and two girls.

And both of our girls are getting married this month. Separate ceremonies, different locations, even different states, but the same month, only two weeks apart. Give me strength.

Brittany, our older daughter, lives in Baltimore. She’s 30, and has lived there for several years. She works at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. Her fiancé is a software engineer. His name is John, and he looks a lot like the actor Tom Cruise. Most of his family is from the New Jersey – Pennsylvania area. We like John, and he has visited Haskell a few times. They seem to be a good “fit” together.

Kathy and I have visited Baltimore a couple of times since she’s been up there, and we have enjoyed it very much. There’s so much interesting history, and so many exciting things to do. We took in an Orioles baseball game at Camden Yards and visited the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum. We toured the U.S. Navy’s historic USS Constellation, a three-masted sailing ship anchored there in the harbor, as well as a World War II submarine also docked nearby.

Perhaps most fascinating was a visit to Fort McHenry. That was where a Baltimore attorney, Francis Scott Key, was negotiating for the release of a hostage being held on a British warship, which was busy shelling the fort during the War of 1812. Mr. Key was successful in gaining the man’s release, but he had to spend the night on the warship. All night long, he kept trying to see if the fort was holding or if it had surrendered to the Brits. Finally, at dawn the next morning, he was able to see the Stars and Stripes, still proudly flying above the fort. That’s when he wrote, “O say! Can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming.” I like Baltimore.

Our younger daughter Erin lives in Abilene, and she works as a dental technician for an oral surgeon. She is engaged to a young man named Joseph. We also like Joseph; he’s a big fan of “dad” jokes – the cornier, the better.

Each of our kids is unique and special, and they all have very distinct personalities and tastes. Any parent who has raised several kids in the same family certainly knows that kids are different (no surprise there), but it’s fascinating to see the way that plays out with our two girls and their wedding plans. Different colors, different styles, different ceremonies. I’m officiating for Brittany’s wedding, but Erin wanted my brother David, who is a pastor in Spring, Texas, to handle her ceremony. Brittany is getting married at an old castle, right outside of Baltimore; Erin and Joseph are having their service at a beautiful outdoor venue on the San Angelo highway. The differences go on and on.

Another interesting difference: Brittany’s middle name is “Helen,” named after Kathy’s mom. Erin’s middle name is “Beth,” named in honor of my mother, Tommie Beth. Both our moms have passed away, so they won’t be with us physically, but their memories will certainly be cherished as we celebrate with family and friends.

As the father of the bride(s), I don’t have much say in any of the details of either ceremony, of course. My job is to go where I’m told, stand where they point, and smile for the pictures. But I keep thinking about the cycles we go through in life, and that day in August of 1978 when Kathy and I made our promises to each other. And I’m remembering two little girls growing up, their hopes and dreams, alternating silliness and seriousness. Dress-up parties and bedtime stories, and now, one by one, I get to walk them down the aisle and give each of them to another man whom she loves and who loves her. I will continue to pray God’s richest blessings on the new families they will be starting.

Right now, I need a Kleenex. Dang, my allergies are bad this time of year…

Anticipating the Bluebonnets

One of my favorite parts of living in Texas will soon be with us again. It’s almost time for the bluebonnets, our state flower, to make their annual visit.

When I was growing up in East Texas, bluebonnets were not as common as they are now. The state had not yet started the practice of seeding wildflowers along Texas highways, and the beautiful blue flowers were not as widespread as they have since become. We had plenty of the pink primrose wildflowers – my brothers and I used to call them “buttercups” because of their yellow center – along with a type of daisy, crimson clover, and lots of other types of “pretty weeds,” but bluebonnets – well, not so much.

I was in high school the first time I saw a giant field of “Lupinus Texensis,” as the most common variety is known. We were on a school trip, going to Brenham, and I spied what I thought was a beautiful blue lake beside the road. It was a pasture completely covered in bluebonnets; to me, it looked like looked like there were two skies, one above the other. Fifty years later, I still remember how beautiful they were.

My mom tried for years to get some bluebonnets to grow at their home in Orange County, but without much luck. Even under the best of conditions, they are hard flowers to get started, and it’s just too wet in that part of the state for them to do well (that’s hard for folks in West Texas to imagine!). But bless her heart, my mom kept trying. And then one spring after she passed, my dad sent me a picture he had snapped of mom’s bluebonnets blooming there on their place. He was so proud. She would have loved it.

Bluebonnets were designated as the “official” state flower in 1901, and contrary to popular belief, it is NOT illegal to pick them. It is not recommended, though, because like any wildflower, they will wilt almost immediately after you pick them. And it’s a right of passage for Texas families to take pictures of the kids, posing in the middle of a bluebonnet patch. Just be careful doing that: in some parts of the state especially, you’ll need to watch out for rattlesnakes in the middle of the flowers.

There are believed to be six different versions of the bluebonnets, from the common ones that are best known, to the giant “Big Bend” variety that can be found in that part of Southwest Texas. Some versions that are totally white, and the research plant specialists at Texas A&M even created a maroon variety! But the familiar blue and white kind are the best known. And whether you call them buffalo clover, wolf flower, or even by their Spanish name of “el conejo” (“the rabbit”), they are close to the heart of most Texans. And I’m thankful for the work of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Texas Highway Department for their efforts at expanding the flower’s coverage.

Besides bluebonnets, of course, be sure to look for the many other gorgeous Texas wildflowers, including Indian Paintbrush, the red-and-yellow Indian Blanket (also known as Firewheel), the pink or purple Coneflower, Giant Spiderwort, various colors of Phlox, and many more. By the way, Coneflower is a type of echinacea, which has long been used in natural medicine and which can be found in different types of cough drops.

Central Texas around Austin, and the Hill Country, are great places to see big fields of bluebonnets. Ennis, Texas, is also a popular location, along with Burnet, but the best places in the state will vary somewhat from year to year. If you’re interested in taking your own road trip, you can check with the Texas Highway Department and their magazine, Texas Highways. I also highly recommend printing out your own free guide to Texas wildflowers, downloadable at ftp.dot.state.tx.us/pub/txdot-info/trv/wildflowers/wildflowers_brochure.pdf.

However you choose to enjoy the bluebonnets, have a safe trip as you spend time with your family and enjoy the awesome Texas scenery and perfect spring weather. And God bless Texas.

Baseball is Back

Baseball is back. And for those of us who love the game and all that it represents, it’s about time.

The just-concluded lockout was only the latest in a long list of crimes committed against baseball by those who have been entrusted with the National Pastime – sometimes by the owners, sometimes by the players, but always, the ones who are hurt the most are the longsuffering fans. But finally, it’s over. The season will start a week late – Opening Day is set for Thursday, April 7 – but they will play all 162 games, using double-headers and makeup dates.

As MLB columnist Will Leitch says, “Baseball gives us normal.” Going to a big-league ballpark with my family and having a hot dog and some nachos and cheering for the Rangers and our favorite players. And booing those Damn Yankees. Listening to a game on the radio, and remembering hot summer nights in Southeast Texas, sitting up with my dad, listening to Gene Elston and Loel Passe announce the Houston Colt 45s games (before they became the Astros) – “Now you chunkin’ in there, kid!” Sweet thoughts of my son Drew, grilling burgers for me for my birthday on a perfect fall evening, then watching the Rangers beat the Tigers in the American League Championship Series.

Going into this season, we will have day games, night games, and doubleheader games. We will have no hitters and bases-clearing doubles, and towering fly balls that end up being nothing more than a loud out. We will ask, “What was that idiot manager thinking?” and, “Was that ump watching the same play as everybody else?” There will be the All-Star game, followed by the eternal question – will the games the Rangers play in September ACTUALLY MATTER? Watching the playoffs and the World Series and being reminded that big players make big plays in big games. Because baseball is all about continuity, reminding us that there are consistent and reliable things in life. There’s a time to bunt and a time to swing for the fences, and a time to take one for the team. As James Earl Jones says in Field of Dreams,

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game – it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.

We will cheer and groan and speculate. And we will see some of the greatest athletes who have ever played the game do some of the most amazing things you have ever seen anyone accomplish. Pitchers who throw exploding sliders and unbelievable fast balls. Hitters who send towering homers literally out of the stadium and into the parking lot. Outfielders who get an impossible jump on a ball and make a diving catch to rob a hitter of a sure double. Infielders who make a 6-4-3 double-play look as easy as breathing, and third basemen who can scoop a ball with their bare hand and rifle it over to first, to get a runner without ever looking. And then smile for his own amusement. These are the moments of baseball. It’s normal. It’s routine and yet also magical.

I was never a good ball player. I couldn’t run very fast, I had no hand-eye coordination, and my vision is terrible. But I love this game. And even as bad as I was, I still got to play baseball on my college team. (That tells you just how small the school was!) So now we can finally focus our attention on Spring Training in Florida and Arizona and know that the regular season is finally, blessedly, just around the corner.

Play ball.

Lessons from Saint 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.

Patrick was not Irish by birth but 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.

This style of cross is known as a “Celtic Cross,” pronounced with a hard “k” sound at the beginning – “KEL-tic.” The circle represents eternity, and the beautifully engraved knotwork symbolizes a bond that cannot be broken. The three steps remind us of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that God is always with us – past, present, and future.

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 of everyone who sees me,
Christ in the ear of everyone who 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!

Iron Sharpening Iron

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately rereading the Old Testament Book of Proverbs and let me tell you something – ol’ Solomon was a pretty sharp dude. Now granted, he was a long way from perfect, and as he grew older, he made the mistake of letting his many wives draw his heart away from the Lord, but when he was good, he was very, very good. And he is good in Proverbs.

A favorite verse of mine is Proverbs 27:17 – “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” One of the things I appreciate about this verse is that it reminds us that we are called to live in community, and it is through this community that we grow in our wisdom and maturity. As another favorite verse, Proverbs 13:20, teaches us, “Those who walk with the wise grow wise.” When our friends are people of godly character, they will challenge us to grow in our faith and hold us accountable for areas in which we fail. And they will expect us to do the same for them.

One of the ways that we cheat ourselves out of this blessing is by only associating with people who agree with us on everything and who tell us what we want to hear. Another way is by reading only books and articles that simply confirm what we already think. If we get all our news from a network that only reinforces our own prejudices and presuppositions, then how can we grow? How is our character being “sharpened,” to use the language of Proverbs?

When we stick our heads into the echo chamber of social media, we usually hear lots of our own opinions and points of view coming back to us, and it makes us feel good about ourselves. But it’s not making us any sharper. In the runup to the American Civil War, many churches in both the North and the South stopped communicating with congregations on the other side and would only listen to voices that confirmed what they already thought. As a result, their own beliefs on secular matters grew more entrenched and inflexible, and they saw anyone who disagreed with them on politics or anything else, not merely as someone with a different point of view, but as someone who was evil and stupid.

When I was helping lead a neighborhood program in North Abilene, one of my favorite annual activities we did was called “Abilene Dinner Table.” Different individuals would host a dinner in their home, for however many folks they could comfortably seat. In our case, we had room for about a dozen guests, I think. Those interested in participating would register with our office, and then our administrative staff would randomly assign people to a particular group. Then they would furnish some questions for the attendees to discuss during and after their meal. It was a wonderful time for everyone to come together, enjoy a good meal, meet some new people, and hear a lot of different opinions on various subjects. I remember that I learned a lot about people of different races, religions, and backgrounds, and it challenged some of the stereotypes that I had cherished.

It sharpened me.

There is a growing movement in this country, and particularly in this state, to ban certain books from school libraries. Some churches have even held “book burning” parties. The justification is that they disagree with the author’s point of view, or the book deals with a subject that they would rather not discuss. That’s unfortunate, because some of the books that they’re wanting to eliminate are some of the giants of American literature. Huckleberry Finn. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Grapes of Wrath. Even Fahrenheit 451, which is pretty ironic if you think about it, because that’s a book about – wait for it – burning books.

These books have helped mold and shape generations of young students, myself included. They have challenged us. They have made us think and sharpened us. And the fact that the author challenges our presuppositions or teaches us about a dark chapter in our nation’s history or causes us to think about things that make us “uncomfortable” in some way – that’s not a bad thing. It’s part of what education is supposed to do.

Iron sharpening iron.

Pieces of the Past

People sometimes ask me how I became so interested in trains. No, I never worked for a railroad, nor my dad nor his father before him. (I did have a distant uncle and some cousins who worked for the railroad in East Texas – more about that in a minute.) But trains have been in my blood since I was a kid, watching them go by my grandparent’s home in Grayburg, Texas – near Beaumont on the Missouri Pacific main line between New Orleans and Houston.

I’ve known several men who worked for various railroads, and many of them don’t understand the attraction for railfans. To them, it’s a job – period. But to me, and other lovers of all things rail-related, it’s a passion.

One part of the hobby I enjoy is collecting railroad memorabilia, or as it is sometimes called, railroadiana. Like any form of collecting, there are different ways to enjoy this hobby. Some collectors get all they can of certain items, from whatever railroad – dining car china, for example, or timetables. Others collect items from certain railroads, and that’s where I fall into this obsession. My chosen lines are the Texas & Pacific and its corporate big brother, the Missouri Pacific. I mean, if I can’t own the railroad, I can at least own a few pieces of it, right?

Every railroad used to publish timetables of their scheduled trains. There were public timetables, showing times for passenger trains, and there were employee timetables, which also showed scheduled freight service. These timetables are a fairly common collectible. They’re not large or bulky, and relatively easy to store. And, they were produced in such large quantities, that even decades later, there are still lots of them to collect, trade and sell.

This Texas & Pacific timetable from 1943 features one of that line’s powerful 900-class passenger engines. The letter “V” and the Morse code for “V” – three dots & a dash – was a patriotic reminder for the nation to pull together for Victory in World War II.

Some of the most popular railroad items to collect come from the dining and lounge cars. Collecting dining car China and silverware is a fascinating and common part of the hobby, but can also be quite expensive. Linen napkins with the railroad’s name are also highly prized.

Do you remember when milk came in a small glass bottle instead of the waxed cardboard cartons they use now? When you were having breakfast on a dining car, your milk would be served in a little half-pint bottle with the railroad’s name, as well as the name of the dairy that produced it. I have one for the Missouri Pacific RR from Sunnymede Farm of Bismarck, Missouri.

“Dinner in the diner – nothing could be finer – than to have your ham & eggs in Carolina.” If you had milk with breakfast, it would have been served in a half-pint bottle like this.

Of course, if you were traveling first class in the Pullman car, you might want something a little stronger than milk, especially to help you sleep in the evening. If so, the porter might bring you one a little bottle of bourbon. It held 1/10th of a pint of 100 proof whiskey – roughly equivalent to the 50mL “shooter” bottles you get nowadays. I have a little brown bottle that once held Old Forester bourbon. The bottle is about 2 ½ inches wide and 3 ½ inches tall, and has the Old Forester label on one side, and the Pullman Sleeping Car logo on the other. You can still buy Old Forester bourbon today, but I bet it was never finer than when enjoyed while “rocking of gentle beat” of your private Pullman compartment.

Many railroads offered shooter-sized bottles of liquor, and a lot of them came with the railroad’s logo on the bottle. The one I have came from the Pullman Company, operators of many RR sleeping cars.

One other piece I want to tell you about is a cuspidor – AKA a spittoon. It has been in my family for many years, and my grandmother Sallie McMillan gave it to me. How did she get it? Well, the story, as she told it, went like this: Her uncle – so that’s my great-GREAT-uncle – was a railroad brakeman in East Texas, near Palestine. One of his sons was also a brakeman, back in the days when those guys had to walk on top of moving cars to set the brakes. The son was killed one day when he was thrown off the roof of a moving car that stopped violently.

Anyway, when my grandmother’s uncle retired in the 1920s, as he was leaving the caboose for the last time, he announced, “This railroad has taken a lot from me over the years; now I’m going to take a piece of it!” He reached down and picked up the cuspidor and headed home.

This cuspidor has been in my family for nearly a hundred years. My grandmother told the story that it was taken from a Missouri Pacific caboose by her uncle when he retired in the 1920s.

It doesn’t have any markings on it to prove that it came from the RR, or out of a caboose, but that was the story, and I’m sticking to it.