History All Around

I love history. I love good stories, and history is all about the stories. Those stories are all around us, if we will just take the time to listen.

I don’t understand people who say they don’t like history. Undoubted, they had a poor history teacher somewhere back along the way – someone who thought you could teach history by making kids memorize dates from a calendar. But just as there is more to music than notes on a page, so also there is much more to history than dates on a calendar.

abilene stories coverA dear friend recently gave me a copy of a wonderful book, Abilene Stories: From Then to Now. It’s a collection of fascinating recollections and remembrances by and about people from Abilene. Most of the stories are no more than two or three pages long, and the book contains dozens of them. It was compiled by Glenn Dromgoole, Jay Moore, and Joe W. Specht, three guys who know something about Abilene and how to tell a good story.

I’m still reading through the book, enjoying the stories, intrigued by what I’m discovering about this town. That street corner on Chestnut and South First, where they’re putting in new sidewalks? That was the corner where Abilene’s first chief of police used to fire his gun on New Year’s Eve, to tell the bars it was time to close. That stretch of concrete across the north end of the airport, disconnected from everything and looking like it was put there at random? It’s actually a remnant of the Bankhead Highway, the first paved coast-to-coast, all-weather road in America. It came right through Abilene.

Camp Barkeley? It was named for a Texas soldier in WW I who died three days before the war ended, and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in the face of the enemy. And he is now recognized by the Army as the first Hispanic recipient of the nation’s highest honor for valor. The stories go on and on.

It’s a great book, but you don’t have to read a book to discover amazing stories – they are literally all around us. Even on the block where you live.

  • That sweet little old lady who hobbles around with a walker? She had polio as a little girl, spent a year and a half in an iron lung, and showed incredible determination in learning to walk again. She can tell you a thing or two about courage, for those who will listen.

  • The old man down the street who keeps to himself? He’s the last surviving member of his unit from WW II, that liberated a concentration camp. No one knows the nightmares he has endured for this country.

  • That quiet couple across the way? They spent 30 years overseas as missionaries before their retirement. Let them tell you about raising their kids in another culture, and what they learned together.

These are my neighbors. Your neighbors. When we take the time to get to know them, we discover they enrich our lives in ways we can’t even begin to expect. It’s history, not from a book, but from people who were there and who lived it. It’s a special wisdom that they will share for those who will turn off the TV long enough to listen.

It’s history all around us.

Together

It was a big job.

Jerusalem was a big city, rebuilding its walls was a big task, and Nehemiah was facing some big challenges. And there were times when he wondered if his dream would ever be finished.

It wasn’t as if no one had tried. The walls had been torn down about 120 years earlier, when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the city. But the Babylonians had themselves been overthrown, and one of the first things that the new Persian king had done was give permission for work to begin on rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. Ezra, a highly respected priest, headed up that project until its completion.

But Ezra’s efforts failed after that. Old family feuds surfaced again. Political enemies created dissension. Turf wars over who should do what paralyzed their efforts. The people were overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. And so the walls of Jerusalem remained in ruins, symbolic of the shame that continued to grip the once-proud city.

And this wasn’t just a matter of bragging rights or civic pride. A city’s entire well-being depended on a well-built wall. Without a stable wall, bandits could raid the city and harass its inhabitants. Without a patrolled wall, thieves would loot and plunder at will. Without a secure wall, enemy warlords could even kidnap citizens and hold them for ransom. So for nearly 120 years, with no wall, Jerusalem remained a city without security, without peace, without hope.

Nehemiah was far removed from that despair. He enjoyed both personal and professional fulfillment in Susa, the capital city of the empire, far removed from the trouble in Jerusalem. Yes, he was a Jew, but he had worked his way up to become a trusted adviser to the king, with the honored title of cupbearer. What happened in Jerusalem wasn’t really his problem. Or was it?

When some emissaries from Jerusalem arrived in Susa, Nehemiah asked about how things were back in his homeland, and that’s when he got a troubling report: even though many had returned to Jerusalem a generation earlier, the city walls were still in ruins, the city gates, scorched and worthless.

So Nehemiah began to pray. And he began to have a daring dream of a plan. It was risky – as in, if it didn’t work, he would not only be dismissed from the king’s service, but probably executed. But trusting the future to God, he suggested his plan to the king, who prompted agreed. Nehemiah was made governor and given great resources from the royal treasury to make his dream a reality.

When he arrived in Jerusalem, he rode around the perimeter of the city, surveying it and assessing what needed to be done. And somehow along the way, he came up with an idea.

Nobody really knows what gave him the idea, but it was brilliant. Besides needing the wall rebuilt, the people of Jerusalem also needed their hope and confidence rebuilt. So, thought Nehemiah, why not get them involved in the work?

So here was the plan: he put all the families of Jerusalem to work, rebuilding the section of the city wall closest to their home. You work on your section; other people will work on theirs. That was it. He made sure that everyone knew that each family had a stake in this project, and each individual had a part to play. He made it a matter of honor to work diligently on your section, joining up with your neighbor, knowing that together you would be able to accomplish something great.

For his part, Nehemiah himself went around encouraging and keeping up everyone’s spirits. When would-be enemies conspired to attack, he stationed guards and watchmen at strategic locations, with a promise that if anyone came under attack, everyone would come to help. When economic issues threatened to halt the work, he called in the rich landowners who were exploiting their neighbors and challenged them to do the right thing, and they did.

Everyone worked together. Everyone had something to contribute. Neighbors became friends as they labored side by side. Old grievances were forgotten for the sake of a greater cause. Nobody much cared who got the credit as long as the job got done.

For 120 years, the walls of Jerusalem had been in ruins. 120 years. But under Nehemiah’s leadership, working together, the people of Jerusalem rebuilt them in just 52 days. That’s right – 52 days.

Each of us has a part to play. Each of us has a job to do. And together, we can dream. And with God’s help, what we dream together, we can do. Together.

Who Is My Neighbor?

I was visiting with some friends the other who knew me when I was a pastor in Haskell, and they asked, “So, what is it you’re doing now?”  It’s a fair question.

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I work for a Christian faith-based non-profit organization called Connecting Caring Communities. As our mission statement says, “Connecting Caring Communities (CCC) exists to built meaningful relationships that foster safe, caring and whole communities.”

What that means is both simple and profound. Simple, because God created humans to exist in relationship, with Him and with one another.  Profound, because it’s not easy to do.

As far back as the Garden of Eden, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”  In that context, of course, He was speaking of the relationship between husband and wife, but the principle applies to life in general.  God Himself exists in a perfect relationship, the beautiful mystery of the Triune, Three-in-One Being, of God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.  And He created us to exist in relationship with Him and with others.

Unfortunately, those relationships were damaged along with everything else when our first parents sinned.  As Christians, we would say that Jesus came to rebuild those relationships, to provide a way for us to have our relationship with God restored, and to show us how we ought to live with one another.

When Jesus began His earthly ministry, He was in the synagogue in Nazareth, and read Isaiah 61:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
    because the LORD has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor...
For I, the LORD, love justice;
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people
    and make an everlasting covenant with them.

When Jesus was asked about the most important commandment, recall His answer in Mark 12: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.  Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  And the second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In other words, the most important thing is to recognize the relationship with God on a community level (OUR God), on a personal level (all YOUR heart, soul, mind, strength), and on an interactive level (love your NEIGHBOR).

Or as 1 John says, “No one can claim to love God, Whom he has not seen, if he cannot love his brother, whom he has seen.”

So at CCC, our goal is do anything and everything we can to help build better relationships with neighbors, and to help neighbors build relationships with each other.  We do that through several different strategies, including what we call a “Friendship House.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Friendship House is just that: it’s a house where a CCC staff member lives with his or her family.  Our house is in the College Heights neighborhood of North Abilene, near Hendrick Medical Center.  CCC also has Friendship Houses in the North Park neighborhood, and in the Valley View neighborhood.  We work with our neighbors to get to know them, to help them get to know each other, and to work together to build a stronger, better, safer community for everyone.

We do many different things at the Friendship House, including an after-school program, summer activities for neighborhood kids, block parties, prayer walks, neighborhood cleanups, and more.  But these activities are NEVER done as ends in and of themselves; they are all done with the goal of meeting neighbors, building relationships with neighbors, then mobilizing those relationships to grow a better neighborhood.  We want to allow those relationships to develop naturally and organically, listening to each other and growing together.

What does this mean?

  • It means that CCC wants to work with neighbors – we don’t ever want to be a bunch of outsiders who come into a neighborhood with an attitude that says, “Hi, you’re broken, and I’m here to fix you.”
  • It means that we value relationships above things.  We believe that by building relationships, we can restore the fabric of our community, and ultimately, our society.
  • It means that we seek mutually-enhancing relationships.  In other words, we don’t want to maintain a traditional service provider – client model.  We want to walk beside our neighbors and learn from each other.
  • It means that we seek to build on the strengths inherent in every neighborhood and work with neighbors to grow and develop new strengths that can benefit the entire community.

Some people call this community development, or intentional neighboring, or missional living, but really, it’s just living out the Kingdom principle of showing our love for God but loving one another.  When we do this in gentleness and humility, we discover that we don’t have to “take God to the neighborhood” – He has been here all along, waiting for us to love people in His name.

Want to know more?  Our website is currently undergoing to a major rebuild, but you can go to WeCareAbilene.org for more information, or you can visit us on Facebook.  We appreciate your prayers, and if you feel so led, we can always use additional financial support.

Meanwhile, let me encourage you to come along beside us by getting to know YOUR neighbors, where YOU are.  Proverbs 27:10 says, “A neighbor nearby is better than a brother far away.”  Love the people God has placed near you.  It seems to me that if more of us would do this simple thing, the Kingdom of God would grow and spread beyond our wildest dreams.

Abilene’s Very Own Neighborhood Trolley

I was visiting with a friend at church the other day, and knowing of my fondness for all things railroad-related, he asked, “So do you know anything about Abilene having a streetcar system back in the day?”

barn south sideIt turns out, he had been looking at the old trolley barn – a massive iron building with a distinctive raised skylight, that stands on Clinton Street, between N. 10th & N. 11th Streets.  Someone told him that it used to be the trolley garage and maintenance building, and he wanted to know more about it.

It’s a good question, and I think an interesting bit of Abilene history.

Back in 1907, three of the area’s leading citizens – W.G. Swenson, George Paxton and J.M. Wagstaff – decided that Abilene needed a streetcar.  Mr. Swenson was part of the Swenson family, known for its ranches and other businesses in Stamford, Throckmorton, and elsewhere in West Texas.  He was also the founder of what would eventually become West Texas Utilities, and the developer of the College Heights addition of North Abilene.

Pine Street smThese men led in financing and constructing the Abilene Street Railway Company. The line began just west of Simmon College (now Hardin-Simmons University), and headed south down Merchant Street until it got to North 7th.  There, it turned east to Orange, south to North 3rd, and east to Pine.  It went through downtown Abilene on Pine, crossed the T&P tracks (this was before the underpass was built there), over to Chestnut, then south to South 7th.  (The photo shows the trolley in the middle of Pine Street, heading south from North 3rd.)

At that point, the line turned west and followed South 7th through the Alta Vista addition, then under development by Henry Sayles, Jr.  The line terminated at the old Abilene Municipal Auditorium at Fair Park.  (Fair Park is now Rose Park; the old auditorium has long since been torn down, but it used to sit just west of where Safety City is now located.)

In the 1920s, city fathers wanted to persuade the trustees of McMurry College to move their campus to Abilene, so the line was extended from South 7th down Grand to South 14th.

Trolley Car 1 smAnd so it was on a Sunday afternoon in November of 1908, 36 of Abilene’s leading citizens, dressed in their Sunday finest, boarded the trolley for its maiden trip, with Mr. Swenson himself at the controls.  Students from Simmons College had nicknamed the streetcar the “Galloping Goose” – they didn’t know how right they would be.

According to news reports in the Abilene Reporter, things went well on the trip, with lots of folks turning out to watch this proud moment in Abilene history, and the people on board having a great time – until – the trolley crested the hill at South 7th and Sayles, and begin heading downhill towards the end of the line, picking up speed as it went.  Mr. Swenson applied the brakes, which apparently failed.  He began blowing the trolley’s horn, and warning his passengers to jump.  Some did, but others did not.

The “Goose” lived up to its name, galloping along to the end of the line, jumping the tracks, crashing through a telephone pole and a barbed wire fence, before finally coming to rest in a mudhole.  Trolley barn from east smFortunately, no one was seriously hurt, other than getting some mud on their Sunday duds, and everyone had a good laugh.

Presumably, they fixed the brakes, and regularly scheduled service began soon thereafter.  At right is a view of the trolley barn in its heyday, showing the tracks leading into the barn, and the overhead catenary system, from which the cars drew electrical power.

Abilene residents are familiar with the Swenson House, the beautiful restored home of the Swenson family, in north Abilene on Merchant Street between North 17th & North 18th Streets.  The home was built in 1910, and after Mr. Swenson and his wife passed away, it remained in the hands of the family until they gave control to the Abilene Preservation League in 1991.  The home’s location is no coincidence.  Remember that the trolley ran south right down Merchant Street – I’m sure Mr. Swenson appreciated the convenience of being able to hop aboard the trolley – just a few steps outside his door – to travel back and forth downtown.

Christmas Memories coverIn his book Christmas Memories, noted Texas historian and author (and Abilene native) A.C. Greene tells the story of riding the trolley while going Christmas shopping with his grandmother, Maude Cole.  She was the librarian at Abilene’s Carnegie Library, and he always credited her with his love of writing and storytelling.  It’s a great story, well told, with some really great illustrations.  (I seem to recall hearing that Mr. Greene was himself quite the railfan in his day.)

The name of the system was changed in 1919 to “Abilene Traction Company,” but unfortunately, its days were numbered.  The rising popularity of city buses, combined with the cost of the maintenance and upkeep of what was by then an aging system, led to its closure in 1931.

Merchant & N 8thIn 2009, local historian and Abilene High teacher Jay Moore wrote an interesting guest column for the Abilene Reporter News, describing how he and his daughter watched a road crew pulling up some of the last tracks of the old trolley system near the intersection of Grand and S. 11th.  A tiny bit of track was also still visible at the corner of Merchant Street and North Eighth – or at least, it WAS, until that section of street was repaved in 2012.

So now, the only visible sign that Abilene ever had a street railway system is the old trolley barn, which is how this whole discussion started.  The building is now owned by a gentleman who lives near there, and he was gracious enough to let me take a few pictures.

interior skylighttracks in floor

(Left) Here’s the inside of the barn, showing the light that comes in through the skylights.

(Right) The old rails are still visible, firmly embedded in the barn’s concrete floor.

Jack North Early AbileneIf you’d like to read more about Abilene in the old days, may I suggest the book Early Abilene by Jack North.  Lots of great pictures, including several more old photos of the trolleys in service, as well as plenty of other good information.  There are plenty of other books on Abilene’s history that also contain pictures of the old streetcars.

So the next time you’re heading down North 10th or 11th, and you see that rusted old iron building, think about the old-timers who had the vision and determination to build Abilene out of nothing but windblown Texas prairie.   And while you’re there, listen carefully, and see if you can hear the faint clanging of a trolley bell.

Loving God with My Mind

Several years ago, a mainline American denomination put out a series of publicity posters that I liked very much.  One said, “Just because you’ve been baptized doesn’t mean you’ve been brainwashed.”  Another went, “The only problem with groups that have all the answers, is that they don’t allow any questions.”

My favorite was “Jesus came to take away your sins.  Not your mind.”

Many Christians have seemed confused over the years as to the proper relationship between reason and faith.  Are we supposed to check our brains at the door and “just believe”?  Is science automatically and irreversibly opposed to faith?  Can a thinking person hold on to his or her intellectual integrity AND be a person of faith at the same time?

This was always a topic of special, personal importance to me.  Expressing emotion was difficult for me growing up, but logic – ah, now you’re speaking my language.  As a fan of the original “Star Trek” (insert eye roll here), my favorite character was, of course, Mr. Spock, who was totally cool, totally in control, totally logical.

The problem came when I tried to reconcile my fascination with logic, with what I was learning at church.  I had questions, but learned pretty quick that there are some questions you’re not supposed to ask.  Logically, I should be able to ask a simple question, but it’s not as simple as that.  So you learn to keep your questions to yourself.

(Typical exchange – Me: “How do we know we can trust the Bible? Is it reliable?”  Answer: “Yes, because the Bible says so.”  Not exactly helpful.)

Perhaps without meaning to, pastors have often made the situation worse.  We have our own questions and doubts, which we keep buried deep in our hearts, and whenever we hear or read some skeptic raise the same questions we have, we become even more defensive, and think the answer is to “just believe” more.  As if we could just put enough coats of paint on a broken fence to cover up the break.

We watch some “expert” on the Discovery Channel or History Channel make unproven, unchallenged claims about the Bible, or the life of Jesus, or some other matter of faith, and because we haven’t heard the preacher talk about it, we think there is no answer, that the skeptics have “beaten” faith, or that Christianity must somehow go begging in the marketplace of ideas.

But our God is not the Author of confusion.  He is the Giver of Truth.  ALL truth.  There are answers to these questions, even the tough ones.  (By the way – “Where did Cain get his wife?” is NOT one of the tough questions.  Trust me.)  God is bigger than our questions.  And there is not one question you can come up with that will stump Him.

Rather than commanding us to reject reason, over and over the scripture makes it clear that God has established order and logical thinking, and that these bear witness to Him.  The fact is, Jesus INVITES us to love God with our MINDS – look at Matthew 22:37.  After the resurrection, He appeared to His followers and gave them “many convincing proofs” that He was alive – Acts 1:3.  Peter instructs believers to “always be prepared to give the reason for the hope” that we have – 1 Peter 3:15.

As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5, our purpose is to “demolish arguments” and to “take captive every thought” in order to bring it in submission to Christ.  That DOESN’T mean faith is opposed to logic or reason.  It means that our logic and reason have to be “transformed by the renewing of our MINDS” (Romans 12:2), and in this way, we worship God with our intellect, as surely as we worship Him with our emotion and passion.

Beginning this Sunday, our Investigators class at Beltway will tackle some of these questions.  We’re calling the class, “Spiritual Mythbusters,” after the popular TV show.  You know, on that show, the hosts will state a belief, run experiments, interview experts, gather data, and then pronounce the statement either, “Confirmed,” “Plausible,” or “Busted.”  We hope to follow a similar methodology to examine questions about the existence of God, searching for the authentic Jesus, creation vs. evolution, the historical nature of the resurrection, and more.

I think it’s going to be a fun class, and a useful one, and I hope you can join us.  We are meeting at 9:45 AM in Room A-109.

So until then, my logical friends, Live Long and Prosper.