Train Horns and Pennies

People worldwide have a fascination with trains.  Every culture and country that has trains has people like me, who, when we see a passing train, whether passenger or freight, are hypnotized and we stare with our eyes glazed and our mouths agape.  And as much as we love watching them casually roll or race by like “a freight train”, we are absolutely giddy as they approach.  We hear the horn blow in the distance.  Down the street we are alerted by the clanging of the warning bells at the railroad crossing.  Soon we hear and feel the rumbling of thousands of tons of steel coming closer down the tracks.

My love for trains began when I was a very small child.  My grandparents lived in the middle of the block on a street that dead ended into a railroad track.  About half a mile to a mile down the track from their street was a railroad crossing.  As the train approached that crossing it would begin blowing its horn to warn the cars of its coming.  That horn also alerted my brothers and me.  Regardless of what we were doing (eating, playing, napping etc) when we heard that horn blow way down the tracks, we dropped whatever it was and sprinted to the end of the block and through a few yards of trees and brush until we were just feet from the track.  There we anxiously fidgeted, impatiently waiting for the train to pass. You see, we were so excited because earlier in the day we had placed some pennies on the tracks.  In case you’ve never put a penny on a railroad track and you didn’t know, thousands of tons of train going over a penny squishes the penny real flat.  And no matter how many pennies you put on the tracks the result is always the same…squished pennies.

There were times my brothers and I didn’t put our pennies on the track.  So when we heard the horn blow we raced around in a panic trying to find a penny so we could beat the train to our street.  I’m not sure we ever made it.  That horn and train were always faster than we were.  If we weren’t already prepared when the horn blew we missed our chance to flatten our pennies.

My Bible tells me in 1 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians that one day a horn will blow and Christ will come to take His children out of this world.  It doesn’t say when the horn will sound, just that it will.  And I know that if I’m not prepared, I’ll miss it.  Being prepared means having placed my faith in Jesus to forgive my sin and reconcile me to God.  Have you “placed your penny on the track”?

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Closets and Scary Places

Most of us have fears. Our fears vary as widely as we do. If it’s a fear that’s shared by many we give it a fancy Latin name and slap the word phobia on the end of it. Many of us have fears that may be unique to us and sometimes seem fairly unusual. I am afraid of the normal things that all sane, rational, thinking people are afraid of: snakes, spiders, needles, clowns and Phyllis Diller. I know some of you are thinking “I’m not afraid of those”. I did say sane people. I ’m also afraid of a few things that are probably unique to me. I’ve always been scared of the closets at my Grandparents house. Now, their old house was torn down years ago but the thought of those closets still frightens me as much as ever. Ok, maybe not.

There were three bedroom closets and a bathroom cabinet that I almost always did my best to avoid. They were dark, mysterious, creepy places. When my Grandparents house was built, about a million years ago, they didn’t put lights in closets so they were always dark (if you’ve seen the Poltergeist movie you’d like a house like that). Also, unlike the cavernous rooms they are today, closets back then were small. People must have been smaller then and wore smaller clothes and thus didn’t need the closet space we do today. The closets at my Grandparent’s house did share at least one attribute with our more modern closets: they were messy. So basically their closets could be described as small, dark and cluttered. You’re thinking, “What’s so scary about that?” It wasn’t any of these alone I guess but maybe a combination of them.

My Grandparent’s house was one of those places I always felt comfortable and “at home”. I could do whatever, wherever, whenever… but there were those closets! So for years I stayed out of and away from them. If my brothers or uncles knew of my fear they would have locked me in one guaranteeing my slow, agonizing death. True story.

When I was twelve my older brother and I spent most of the summer taking care of my Grandmother who had Alzheimer’s disease. He and I did a lot of hunting (treasure etc. not animals), exploring and adventuring. After we had spent days exploring almost every inch of my Grandparents house, garage, barn, and the neighborhood and woods around it my brother realized we’d never gone in the closets. WELL DUH! There’s a reason we hadn’t! I was convinced other kids had explored those closets never to be heard from again. (My kind and loving uncles used to tell us stories about the closet in the back bedroom that involved repeating the phrase “bloody bones and dirty diapers”.) So instead of explaining to my brother the fears I harbored that certain death awaited us there, I put on my big girl panties and went in.

It was amazing! The sights, the sounds… it was like entering the wardrobe and finding our own personal Narnia. Well, maybe that’s stretching it a little. In reality it was, to a 12 year old boy, an unbelievable adventure. There were funny old clothes, vintage Boy Scout uniforms, items brought home from WWII, long lost hot wheels and much more. Once we’d finished plundering the closets we had enough “new” stuff to keep us occupied the rest of the summer.

I’ll always be thankful that I overcame my fears and explored those dark unknown places with my brother. There is so much I would have missed if I hadn’t. I wonder if Jesus‘ disciples felt that same fear and apprehension of the unknown as they sat in the upper room of a house after Jesus had gone back to heaven wondering “what’s next?” When Paul and Silas knelt and felt the hands of their church family on their heads as they were prayed for and sent to preach to the barbarians did they have butterflies in their stomachs? Were their hearts about to explode out of their chests with the anticipation of blindly stepping out in faith? Whether it was accepting the call to pastor my first small church, leading a group of teens to inner city Dallas to share Christ’s love with Burmese refugees or travelling halfway around the world to hold the hand of an old blind Indian man called Candy I’ve always found unexpected and unbelievable treasures when following God into the scary places.

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Talkin’ to Owls

One of the things I enjoyed most about camping in Arkansas as a kid was the prospect of encountering wild animals… in the wild. It’s always great to see them at the zoo, but it’s just not the same. In the wild there is always the potential for seeing a deer or chipmunk eat your brother. Or, who knows, maybe the vulture circling overhead is doing so because he wants to go home with you as your pet.

Truth is animals in the wild are often elusive. They just are not nearly as interested in you as you are in them. More often than not if you approach an animal in the wild it will run from you. Unless it’s a honey badger… they don’t care.

I learned as a kid that there are methods you can use to attract animals that would normally not be attracted to you. For example, some hunters, to attract deer, put deer urine on themselves. This raises many questions that you can discuss among yourselves.

Another more sanitary way of attracting wild animals is to “call” them. I have personally tried speaking to wild animals in English but it seems that even the most refined squirrel at our local park and the raccoon I recently trapped (unharmed) in my backyard either don’t understand any human language or are just plain rude. “Calling” an animal consists of “learning” their language. Basically you listen to them and practice repeating back the sounds they make (I would use caution doing this in bear country during mating season). In reality isn’t this how we all learned to speak?

I remember sitting around the campfire on top of a mountain at our favorite camping spot, Bard Springs, when Granddaddy decided to call up some “hoot owls” and coyotes. I really wish he had warned us first. No one camped at Bard Springs except us. It was isolated and quiet. There was no electricity… so no lights. The trees were tall and blocked most of the stars and all the moon. It was very dark away from the campfire. As my two brothers and I were hypnotized by the dancing, crackling flames and our little minds were a thousand miles away, Granddaddy cupped his hands to his mouth like a hillbilly megaphone, took a deep breath and let loose with what sounded like a banshee screaming in Morse code. Not cool.

After regaining our composure and Granddaddy regaining his, he let us know that is what a hoot owl sounds like. We all thought for sure he was joking… until after a few minutes of Granddaddy’s calling then waiting then calling again, off in the distant dark, near the far end of the campground, we heard what sounded like an echo of Granddaddy’s less than graceful hooting. He’d done it! Granddaddy had spoken to the owl and the owl spoke back! (I’m still grateful the coyotes never spoke back.)

I’ve learned an invaluable lesson about the Gospel from Granddaddy’s speaking to owls and coyotes. There is a whole world out there that doesn’t understand or speak the language of Christ’s followers. Yet the church continually tries to speak to these folks and share the love of Jesus in a way they just don’t get. I’m not necessarily talking about the words we say, though there are lots of big words in church language I still don’t get. It’s our actions and behavior toward those we’re trying to attract. The language of our world is action. When I show someone I love them, that God loves them, they will “hear” me. When we, the church, learn to communicate the Gospel message in the language of those we’re trying to reach… then, like the hoot owl in the distant dark, they’ll hear and understand.

Read what Paul the Apostle says about “talking to owls and coyotes” in his letter to the church at Corinth. 1 Corinthians 9:22-23

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Baby on the Back Porch

There are only three places in and around my grandparents house I didn’t know like the back of my hand. I never went under the house… enough said. I stayed out of the closets. They scared the ever lovin’ life out of me. And I only went in the back yard because it was the quickest way to the garage, which was separate from the house. Now, the back yard wasn’t scary or creepy like the closets or crawlspace. It was just a yard. There was an old covered porch with an old washing machine complete with an attached ringer, lots of really tall grass hiding lots of crawdad mounds and… there was Baby.

Baby was the reason I avoided the back yard like a Jr high boy avoids the shower at summer camp. Baby was my uncles “dog”. I put dog in quotes because I’m not sure that’s what she actually was. I know she was half wolf or coyote or dingo or jackal and half demon… I think. She was a beautiful animal. In as much as a half coyote/wolf/ dingo/ jackal/ demon can be beautiful. To my recollection she always stayed on that ol’ back porch, mainly because she was chained to it. Well, she would leave long enough to stalk us like prey as we cautiously, nervously walked from the back door to the back yard gate.

I don’t know that Baby ever attacked or bit anyone. Ohhh, but she wanted to! Every time one of us kids walked through that kitchen and the only thing between her and us was a rickety screen door you could sense in her body language and see in her eyes that she really, really, REALLY wanted to eat us. But she never did. With all that was in Baby telling her to eat me there must have been something stronger saying, “Don’t!” Or it may have been that I smelled pretty ripe and didn’t have much meat on my bones.

When I think of Baby she reminds me a lot of myself. No, not the being a dog or having fleas part. Its Baby’s being half wild and half tame. Although I’ve been saved and have been made a new creation in Christ, there is still that part of me that so strongly wants to sin and do those things I know to be wrong. However, because I am saved and have been made a new creation in Christ the Holy Spirit of God empowers me to overcome that desire to sin and enables me to live righteously and holy. Read what God has to say about Baby and me in Romans chapter 7.

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Snuff Street

Almost everywhere I’ve lived has had what we call storm drains.  The streets are designed so that excessive rain water would flow down the curbs and eventually into one of these drains.  This helps prevent flooding I suppose.  In order to get the water to flow to the intended and appropriate drain occasionally the civil engineer (i.e. monkey with a crayon) would need to create or design a path across some streets at intersections.  This generally is done by making two dips, one on either side of the intersection.  It also created jobs: someone has to make diamond shaped dip warning signs and someone has to fix the front end of cars whose drivers didn’t know there was an eminent dip because the dip sign is hanging in the “man cave” of the civil engineer that designed the dip. 

My grandparents lived half a block from the very end of 17th street in Paris, TX.  The last cross street before their house was Jackson, also known as “Snuff Street.”  Snuff Street got its name because there were dips at every intersection.  When Granddaddy would take my brothers and me on an adventure we would generally pull away from his house and turn left or right down Jackson.  There were far more dips to the left.  As we would ride, sitting on the tailgate, of his truck, we would chant in unison, “ride a block take a dip, ride a block take a dip.”  Sometimes if we would stretch our little legs way out our feet would drag the ground as we “took a dip.”

There were not many stop signs on Snuff Street.  It was too dangerous to speed.  Speeding resulted in destroyed front ends or under carriages on your car from the intersections.  Granddaddy didn’t drive fast anyway.  It was quite an accomplishment if he shifted into second gear between blocks.  It did, however, seem as though you sped through the blocks pretty quickly and the dips and intersections took seemingly forever.  Sometimes granddaddy wouldn’t slow down quite enough and would hit the dips pretty hard.  That could be pretty teeth jarring and unforgiving on one’s backside.

The older I get the more I realize life is similar to snuff street.  Things may be going fine for a while, no problems, no worries, and then you hit one of those dips.  Sometimes expected, sometimes not (remember, sometimes there are no warning signs).  People call these high points and low points, peaks and valleys, feast and famine.  Whatever we call these “dips in the road” they are real and often jarring.  Truth is you can’t avoid them by taking a different road or driving left or right around them… you go through them.  Be encouraged, though, many people have traveled these dips before and have lived to tell about it.  Jesus even experienced the highs and lows in life.  It’s good to know we have a savior who has “been there done that.”

Often as we’re headed down into the dip, the dip is all we can see.  Look up!  The road doesn’t stop at the bottom of the dip!

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2×4

Granddaddy didn’t have much money.  That explains some of the ways he chose to entertain us when we would visit him during our childhood summers.  Some things we did routinely, like riding on the tailgate of the truck or watching wrestling late at night while lying on the sleeper sofa with my brothers , were cheap or free.  There were a few times we participated in activities that were a onetime event that were also cheap and free.  One afternoon Granddaddy loaded us up in his little white truck and drove us to his friend’s house.  It was an old, fairly dilapidated house with an old extremely dilapidated fence (mostly made of wood pallets).  An old man about my granddaddy’s age and girth met us at the backyard gate to let us in.  This yard was very similar to Granddaddy’s: much junk and little grass.

Now, there’s no way to poetically or artfully describe this.  So I’ll just tell it like it was.  There were two old men, two scrawny, squirmy prepubescent boys, a yard full of nail filled wood, rusty engine blocks, old tires a 2 x 4, and a mean, stubborn donkey.  We, my brother and I, quickly learned the purpose of our visit was so my Granddaddy could get some twisted pleasure in putting two timid, smaller than average boys on the back of an angry, quarter ton man killing beast.  Ok, the reality is, Granddaddy thought we would have a good time riding a horse but all he had access to was a donkey. 

Now you’re wondering why, while describing the scene in the back yard, I would mention a single 2 x 4.   As we entered the yard with the two old men, Granddaddy’s friend picked up the approximately 3 to 4 foot long board.  He said that sometimes that donkey could get contrary, especially when someone tries to ride it.  If that donkey decided to bite or buck and stomp us the old man was going to smack him between the eyes with the board.  He said he was going to put us on the donkey’s bare back and the person in front was to hold tightly to the mane and the brother on back was to hold tightly to the brother in front.  The old man would then lead the donkey around the yard by its harness.

As a young boy I was oblivious to any danger I may have been in.  There was no thought of being bit or thrown.  I didn’t think that I could have landed on a board or nail or hit my head on an engine block.  All I knew is that I was about to ride a donkey!  I trusted granddaddy implicitly.  Never had I considered that he would put my brothers and me in a situation that might hurt us.  If I hadn’t trusted him there are many unforgettable, life forming experiences I would have missed out on.   God has adventures grander and more dangerous than anything Granddaddy could have ever dreamed up.  I long to trust Him the way I trusted Granddaddy.  I want to go where He leads, see what He has in store.  I know I can trust Him; He’s got a bigger 2×4.

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Chihuahua Guano

Granddaddy always had dogs.  I use the word dog loosely.  He really had Chihuahuas.  My memory isn’t the best but from what I do remember he always had several dozen of these little beasts.  Seems like no one who has Chihuahuas ever has just one.  I’m sure there were times Granddaddy only had one but it always seemed like more. 

Every breed of dog I’ve ever been around has been capable of being house broken.  This means you can train them to poop in the yard… outside.  Chihuahuas are not house breakable…  totally incapable of being taught: potty here, not here.  Oh, I know if you’re reading this and have a Chihuahua he is the exception.  Good for you and little Einstein.  Ford made a few good Pintos too. 

Now you’d think that Chihuahua droppings would be small and thus fairly inconsequential.  The problem with Granddaddy’s dogs and their lack of discipline and self-control is that Granddaddy fed them table scraps and something extremely cheap from a can that someone had labeled “dog food”.  When you feed a dog these types of things bad things happen… on the carpet, linoleum and anywhere the dog is when nature calls.  When you feed a dog cheap food, food not necessarily designed for him, the results are unpleasant (especially if you get up in the middle of the night barefoot).  There tends to be ample waste and a disproportionate amount of aromatic displeasure.  So, by feeding the Chihuahua food he shouldn’t eat, what comes out makes a miserable experience for everyone around him.

Now that I’m “grown” I have three dogs.  One of which is a Chihuahua mix.  I’ve learned however, that if I feed my dogs “healthy” food it creates a better experience for all involved.  There tends to be less poop and less stink. 

What I’ve learned about dogs is this: what goes in largely determines what comes out.  This is true with people on a spiritual/ moral level as well.  If I “feed” or fill my mind with “whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and commendable” (Philippians 4:8) then what comes out, the way I act and behave, is commensurate.  And like the Chihuahuas, and my dogs, the end result of what I consume spiritually directly affects those around me.

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Monkey Blood

My brothers and I didn’t seem to get hurt much as kids. We had an occasional broken bone or large rock dropped on our heads, but I honestly don’t remember many cuts and scrapes. Because of that I really don’t remember what kind of antiseptic, if any, my mom used on us. We lived in the suburbs so there weren’t many fun places where we had opportunity to be injured.

At and around my grandparent’s house were plenty of places to be critically or lethally wounded. Ample broken glass, rusty nails, sharp corners on tin roofs, thorns, rocks… the list is seemingly endless. I remember the first time one of my brothers or I was hurt and required medical treatment. It was very traumatic for us. The patient was taken to the kitchen and sat up on the washing machine which was next to the medicine/ spice cabinet. Grandmother took down a little metal can of Band-Aids and a bottle of something she said was (to be read slowly in a deep voice for full dramatic effect)… MONKEY BLOOD. We had no idea what this was. It came in a small brown bottle and was applied with a dip stick attached to the underside of the lid. It was called monkey blood, I guess, because of its bright red-orange color. We didn’t know it wasn’t real blood from a real monkey. At that point all we knew for certain was the cut or scrape wasn’t so bad after all. It would probably, most likely, absolutely heal just fine on its own. No need for monkey blood! Grandmother knew, however, that without the monkey blood there was potential for infection which leads to gangrene which leads to lockjaw which, of course, eventually leads to a slow painful death. And we weren’t allowed to die at Grandmother’s house. So she covered the wound and everything within 10 feet of the wound with monkey blood.

In reality monkey blood wasn’t blood at all. It was an antiseptic now banned in the USA because of its mercury content. There is, however, a blood that does heal. It heals more than just superficial cuts, scrapes and road rashes. This blood heals that congenital, mortal wound that is present in every human heart and soul: sin. The blood of Jesus covers and heals; completely, eternally. And there’s no potential for mercury poisoning.

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Freezer, Flood, Fun!

My Grandparent’s house was located in just about the most ideal place for a house to be… as far as a kid is concerned.  It was on a street that dead ended into a railroad track.  Across the street were some woods.  The woods were separated from the street and house by a small creek.  Most of the time the creek was mostly dry.  It always had a little water… usually just enough to call it a creek and not a ditch.  All kids need a creek and woods.  These are magical places where dragons live, Indians lie in wait and ghosts whisper your name… and that’s just before lunch.

I have two uncles who are just a few years older than I.  I’m pretty sure my uncles are slightly insane.  Many of the things they did growing up normal people just don’t do.  Of course it could have been the magic that inspired them.

One particular day after a particularly heavy rain the magic was strong and my uncles inspired.  The creek was full and they had an old deep freeze.  Somewhere, somehow they had come into possession of an old, discarded deep freeze.  I don’t know if my uncles planned this great high seas adventure upon which they were soon to embark or if it was “Hey! Flood, freezer, fun!”  I think it must have been the latter.  I hope if they had taken time to think about the potential negative outcome they would have chosen the wiser option.  But they didn’t and the deep freeze was, without rudder, paddle, life jacket or sense, duly commissioned into the 17th St navy and launched on her maiden voyage.

The journey began near the end of the block where Jackson St crossed over the creek.  This was also the deepest, scariest part of the creek.  I honestly don’t remember if both uncles got in or just one.  If one, it would have been the youngest:  he’s crazy.  I do remember the “boat” was fairly unstable, there was much screaming from its crew and laughing and giggling from the spectators (my brothers and me).  It wasn’t a long trip.  I’m sure the Wright brother’s first flight at Kitty Hawk was longer.

Truth is, what we all did that day wasn’t magical or inspired.  It was dangerous, reckless and just plain dumb.  Anyone of us could have fallen in that water and been swept away.  None of us thought about that.  We saw excitement, adventure and some good ol’ fun.  There’s a lot of “stuff” we may face in life, some of it undesired and undesirable.  Much of it beyond our control: kids get cancer, spouses leave, jobs are lost.  But there is “stuff” we can control.  The decisions and choices we’re faced with as we get older change (I haven’t been tempted with putting a deep freeze in a flooded creek in a while) but they can literally be just as potentially dangerous.  It comes down to this:  James tells us if we lack wisdom God will give us wisdom… if we ask.  So next time you’re sitting in a deep freeze and you’re brother is just about to launch you into a raging torrent…

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Car Washes and Stones

The Little Missouri River wound through the Ouachita Mountains where my granddaddy took my brothers and me camping when we were kids.  It wasn’t a big river by any stretch of the imagination.  The widest spot I remember was near a camp ground called Albert Pike.  There the river was maybe 150 feet wide.  What the river lacked in size it made up for in beauty.  I could elaborate extensively about the splendor of the Little Missouri but that has little to do with my story. 

The Little Missouri River wasn’t very deep either.  There were quite a few places, where, to cross the river you drove over a low water crossing.  Granddaddy called these car washes.  If you drove across fast enough your car would get quite a washing.  About a mile or so passed Albert Pike, down a narrow, winding dirt road was a particularly wide car wash.  This one was large enough to work as a dam and created an ideal spot for fishing or swimming…. or bathing as Granddaddy often did.

This car wash was one of my favorite places to visit for several years.  One year someone had gone out into the middle of the river, where the water was three or four feet deep, and stacked stones in a beautiful pattern…  it was like they had created river art.  This “sculpture” was maybe four or five feet in diameter and was simply stacked rocks. It couldn’t have been more beautiful… or fascinating.  For several years, it seemed, the stones were there at the car wash.  They would be in different places¸ different patterns and sizes but it seemed to be the same person creating them.  My brothers and I were so intrigued.  I still wonder today if they had special meaning or if someone just felt a need to create.

In the Bible, the Old Testament, often after some magnificent work by God, He would instruct His people, Israel, to stack stones near the place where God wrought His great work.  He said the stones would be for a memorial and a testimony.  It was so Israel wouldn’t forget and so others could learn what God had done there.

Today God doesn’t ask His people to build stone memorials.  Radically changed lives are the only memorial and testimony He requires.

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