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…

Towards Appreciating Poetry

I have always loved the power and the beauty of words. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I became a preacher, and now, it’s part of why I enjoy this newspaper business.

Words have the power to create worlds and to transport us backwards – even forwards! – in time.

Appropriate words can inspire a nation, comfort the afflicted, and encourage the hopeless. Proverbs 25:11 tells us that when the right words are well spoken, they are like “apples of gold in settings of silver.” That is to say, words can have a beauty and a value like an exquisite piece of fine jewelry.

I think that is especially true for poetry. And April is National Poetry Month. According to the website poets.org, “National Poetry Month in April is a special occasion to celebrate the importance of poets and poetry in our culture. This year, on the 25th anniversary of the celebration and in this time of uncertainty and great concern, we can rely on poems to offer wisdom, uplifting ideas, and language that prompts reflection that can help us slow down and center mentally, emotionally, spiritually.”

In my experience, poetry is one of those things that you either love or you hate. And speaking just for myself, I love it. I like the way poets can play with rhythm and “hard,” or accented syllables, versus softer ones: “I think that I shall never see / a poem lovely as a tree” is the way Sergeant Joyce Kilmer began his famous poem “Trees.” He was a member of the Famous 69th New York, with the American Expeditionary Force in France during World War I. Countless soldiers have surveyed the wasteland of a devastated, bombed-out forest, but to read his poem is to feel it from his point of view. Then think about the fact that he was killed in action on July 30, 1918, at the age of 31.

There’s a Robert Frost poem that I enjoy that says, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.” Any dad trying to get home to his family before someone’s Big Day can relate to the speaker being tired and wishing he could stay where he was but knowing that he had to keep moving.

If you are old enough to remember the Challenger disaster, then perhaps you also remember President Reagan’s tribute to the seven who died in that tragedy. The president quoted from the poem “High Flight,” written by an American flyer serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force, Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee. He wrote the poem in the early days of World War II; tragically, he was killed in action a short time later. It begins, “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…” The poem concludes with, “And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod The high un-trespassed sanctity of space, Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

I don’t know much about this idea, but I think poetry taps into to that whole “left-brain, right-brain” thing. Doctors who study the brain tell us that one side of our brain handles the analytical duties – math, language, engineering – while the other side deals with emotions, imagination, and creativity. So maybe poetry is able to touch both parts – the words communicate the meaning intended by the writer, but the rhyming, the cadence of the verses, and the other types of creative expression touch that part of us that enjoys art and beauty. It’s a possibility.

In honor of April as National Poetry Month, this coming Friday night, April 1, there’s going to be an “Open Mic Night” featuring poetry and coffee, at the new Copenhagen Coffee House in Stamford, 126 E. Hamilton. It is scheduled for 6:30 – 8:00 pm, and I’m planning to go. Maybe you can join me there.

One of my favorite poems is – Big Surprise! – about trains. The title is “Travel,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I read somewhere that it was a favorite of President Franklin Roosevelt. It closes with –

My heart is warm with friends I make,
  And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
  No matter where it’s going.

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.

Worth the Read

In previous columns, I have written about different books that I like and recommend. With your kind permission, I would like to suggest a book that is turning 25 years old, and still very much worth the time to read, or to re-read. It’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey.

What’s So Amazing About Grace is my favorite book by Philip Yancey. It has been in print now for 25 years.

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 contracted polio and had to be placed in an iron lung so he could breathe. Then he died from complications of the disease 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 (now retired) and has authored a number of outstanding books. The first thing of his I ever read was Disappointment with God – I 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 know 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.

Søren 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.

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.

Celebrating Lincoln

It’s interesting to me that Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president, has not been the subject of more well-made movies. But with his birthday coming up this weekend (February 12), I wanted to mention a couple that are worth your time, if you’re a fan of good movies.

The first is Young Mr. Lincoln, a 1939 movie directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda. The two of them would work together on a number of other films going forward, including 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, but this was their first movie together. Fonda does a great job playing Lincoln as a gangly twenty-something young man, trying to make his way as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois – short on formal education but long on common sense and simple decency. Among his first clients are two brothers accused of murdering a man. The trial in which he defends the brothers gives Fonda the opportunity to show Lincoln as a great storyteller and observer of the human condition, which he, in fact, was. The story is loosely based on an actual case of Mr. Lincoln’s.

Henry Fonda as “Young Mr. Liincoln,” in John Ford’s 1939 movie of the same name.

According to IMDB.com, Henry Fonda did not want to portray Lincoln and originally turned down the role, saying that he was not worthy to play the great man. John Ford convinced him to do a screen test in full make-up and costume, and it was only after he saw the performance on the screen that Fonda relented and accepted the part.

In addition to Henry Fonda, the film also features a young Ward Bond as one of the eyewitnesses. He became one of Hollywood’s busiest and most versatile character actors, and went on to work with John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Jimmie Stewart, and many others. In addition, in the 1950s, he starred in Wagon Train and other TV productions.

A second and more recent Lincoln movie that I would recommend is 2012’s Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, and directed by Steven Spielberg. But be advised – this is NOT a movie for people who watch a movie for the special effects or like to see stuff blown up. There’s an actual story here. Also, if you don’t like movies where you have to pay attention to dialogue, then this is probably not a film you will enjoy. But if you enjoy history, if you like movies where words matter, if you enjoy seeing incredible actors at the top of their craft, then you owe it to yourself to see this, or maybe watch it again.

Here’s the story: It is January 1865. The American Civil War is in its fourth year, and Lincoln has just been reelected. Two years earlier, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but now he is seeking to abolish slavery once and for all through the proposed 13th Amendment. The amendment has passed the Senate but does not have the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the evenly divided House.

When his advisers are whining because they’re still two votes down, Lincoln thunders, “The abolition of slavery by Constitutional provisions settles the fate, for all time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come – a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured. I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those two votes.”

Daniel Day-Lewis in his Oscar-winning performance as “Lincoln,”
Steven Spielberg’s salute to the sixteeenth president.

Daniel Day-Lewis is simply phenomenal to watch in this Oscar-winning role, and he is surrounded by tremendous talent, including Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommie Lee Jones, and the late Hal Holbrook, just to name a few. The private, screaming fight between the President and Mrs. Lincoln is one of the most amazing scenes ever filmed and shows two truly great actors holding nothing back. I also love the way Spielberg structures the storytelling here. The movie opens with remembrances of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and closes with his Second Inaugural.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

I’m telling you, words matter, and they absolutely shine in the hands of this director, this script, and these actors. “Lincoln” is a gem.