Train wreck

Laurel, Maryland, 1922
This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID npcc.06782.

A friend of a friend came completely unglued on Twitter last night.  Among the dozens of Tweets were a “colorful” Tweet suggesting something he would rather be doing, others that contained not a single word you would want to say in front of a five year old, and at least two or three that my ninth grade health teacher would have classified as “a cry for help.”  When, in amazement, he Tweeted this morning that he hadn’t lost any followers in spite of his “rants,” another person, with remarkable honesty, Tweeted back, “You just made us curious!”  “Yes,” I thought as I read that comment, “everybody loves a train wreck.”

Which is a ridiculous expression, really.  Nobody loves a train wreck.  Car wrecks, yes.  We all slow down for them, craning our necks to figure out what really happened, looking for vehicles damaged beyond recognition and counting the firetrucks and police cars on the scene.  Train wrecks are rare and horrifying and perhaps interesting at a distance, but the required distance is greater than most of us can manage.

When I was a pastor in southeast Virginia, there was a train wreck on the Norfolk Southern line one night – two freight trains had a head on collision more than five miles from our house.  The locked wheels of the locomotives screamed against the rails as momentum carried them hopelessly forward, intense and inharmonious and impossible to ignore. I was completely awake for several seconds before the dreadful explosion of sound that announced the crash.  The sounds told their story clearly – there was nothing else that would have sounded just like that.  In the morning, I was incredulous – how could the wreck be so far away?  As loud as it had been, I had been certain it had been within town limits.  How frightening must it have been for my friends who lived just down the road from the crash site?  What had it sounded like for them?

It took more than 24 hours to clear the tracks.  The line serviced a paper plant, so there was strong incentive to move fast.  Can you imagine a car wreck bad enough to block a road for 24 hours?  Cars are easy to clean up after – trains not so much.  The proper equipment is not widely available, and the debris is massive.  Especially the engines, which do not break into little bits just because they’ve been rendered immobile.  The tracks may have been clear by the second morning after the wreck — but the engines sat by the side of the track for months.

After awhile, the engines became part of the landscape.  It was a shock when they were finally gone.  “How did they do it?” I wondered.  What had seen impossibly immobile just days before had disappeared.  I had been certain that they would sit there in perpetuity, a monument to how devastating an accumulation of small mistakes can be when the stakes are high.  I was not sure how I felt about their removal – but I knew that those of us who were in the county that night could likely pick out the place along the rails where it happened for years afterwards, even without the physical reminder.

I was once a train wreck too, long enough ago that the landscape doesn’t readily reveal the story, but those who were there, who know where to look, might turn up a bit of charred or twisted debris under the trees along the tracks.

There were none killed that night, and only two badly injured, but many were haunted long afterwards.  I hope for a better outcome – or one at least as good – for the Man of Many Tweets on a Drunk and Lonely Night.

Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison.

Saturday night spike

I love reading the search terms that lead people to my blog.  Defying the one-way dynamic of the writer-reader relationship, search terms give me insight into the people who find my blog.  Yesterday I read one that touched me more than usual, because the seeker poured their heart out to the query field with these words: “I am nervous about doing a children’s church sermon” – mystery reader, I pray you found something to set your heart and mind at ease.

Since I first wrote about children’s sermons this past May, I have noticed a trend that I call the “Saturday night spike”:  The most hits I get all week are usually on Saturday – many of them via internet searches having to do with children’s sermons.

At first, I was bemused, then concerned – why were so many people putting off planning their children’s sermons until they had less than 24 hours to prepare?  I was upset, wondering if they had just forgotten; if children – those about whom Jesus said, “to such belong the kingdom of God” – were an afterthought.  But yesterday’s “nervous” worship leader reminded me that thoughtlessness is seldom the problem – more often, it is thoughtfulness to the point of alternating panic and avoidance.

I know that when I procrastinate, it is because I fear the task set before me on some level.  I love children’s sermons, so I always start thinking about them right away.  But if children’s sermons don’t intimidate me, that doesn’t mean that nothing intimidates me!  There are plenty of things that I put off out of fear, counting on the panic at the last “do or die” moment to drive me more towards “do” than towards “die.”  Sadly, it doesn’t work out that way for everyone.  I remember learning in worship class in seminary that more pastors commit suicide on Saturday than on any other day of the week by far.  The message:  if you are feeling intimidated by any task that is set before you, get help early on – from a therapist, a spiritual director, a confessor… someone who can help you do your work without relying on last minute panic to drive you.

I wonder if my posts on children’s sermons are helpful.  I hope so.  Particularly given how often they are read on a Saturday night.  I pray that those who find themselves talking to the children on Sunday morning will discover joy in their work, and will rest in the assurance that God loves them very much – no less than God loves the children that they are charged with.

And if you are very nervous about talking with the children in front of the congregation, see if you can think of someone who loved and welcomed you when you were a child.  (And oh, how I pray you had at least one, and hopefully many people in your life as a child who fit that description!)  May their love for you give you courage, and their words and actions guide you as you find your own style of letting the love of God flow through you in your worship leadership and your work with the children.  Amen.