Over the weekend I drove about thirty miles west to a neighboring city to do a personal errand and enjoy a steak dinner. On the road back home I had to stop for several minutes because of a freight train rumbling through town. Other than municipal light rail service, there’s not much train travel in the southwest – the distances are too far to commute for too few riders. Freight trains dominate the rails – the slow-moving, never-in-a-hurry kind that go on for what seems like miles and miles. And so when the lights started flashing and the arm went down at the railroad crossing, I cut the motor of my car and prepared to wait.
The train must have had well over a hundred cars – an inconsistent mix of box cars, flat cars, storage cars, and silo cars – way too many to count. The train lumbered along, gradually slowed, then gave a noisy lurch and stopped. I could feel the agitation of other drivers steadily rising – some peeled off and went down side streets to find a way around the tracks. But in only a few seconds the train began to move again and then, rather unceremoniously, without even a caboose to signal the end, it cleared the road and at last I could move on.
As I waited – impatiently, like everyone else – I thought about how grief moves through our lives, much like a crawling train. It’s not at all difficult to name the boxcars of our grief – fear, worry, despair, anxiety, loneliness. But if we look at what’s under the train, guiding its path, directing the way, we see the tracks, their engineering simple yet ingenious, “The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established” (Proverbs 19:25 NRSV).
If you think about it, the tracks are a little like our life. The rails are set on evenly spaced ties of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22 NRSV). The ties spread the load of the train wheels into the ground of our faith so that we’re able to withstand the intense pressure of our grief - our foundation is fortified, our spirit is load-bearing. The track system for a train is embedded in ballast, small pieces of broken up rock packed together and leveled to keep the rails and ties in place. Ballast gives the tracks support and stability. The ballast of our grief is the steadfast love and faithfulness of God, “Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies” (Psalm 36:5 NIV).
The rails of a train track are set a fixed distance apart – the gauge corresponds precisely to the wheel specifications of the train. The train can’t run without the tracks, the tracks have no use except for the train. And these same tracks lead somewhere – there’s a destination – east or west, north or south. Our life serves a purpose, we’re going somewhere, even when the long, heavy train of pain and sorrow rumbles through our soul as we grieve the death of one we love.
And even when grief moves through our lives for a while, we know with certainty that every train ends, with or without the finality and bright promise of a red caboose. We’re not destined to sit idly at the railroad crossing of life wondering, worrying, and fretting about when our life will move on or where it will take us. We wait for a while – with frustration and anger, or with forbearance and hope – until grief moves through. And when at last the tracks of our life clear, our direction certain, our foundation firm, we move ahead, we’re on the move, “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 7:28 NIV).
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
Proverbs 3:5-6 RSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the insight of your direction. Amen.