The Little Blue Engine


THE LITTLE BLUE ENGINE

The little blue engine looked up at the hill.
His light was weak, his whistle was shrill.
He was tired and small, and the hill was tall,
And his face blushed red as he softly said,
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

So he started up with a chug and a strain,
And he puffed and pulled with might and main.
And slowly he climbed, a foot at a time,
And his engine coughed as he whispered soft,
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

With a squeak and a creak and a toot and a sigh,
With an extra hope and an extra try,
He would not stop — now he neared the top —
And strong and proud he cried out loud,
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!”

He was almost there, when — CRASH! SMASH! BASH!
He slid down and mashed into engine hash
On the rocks below… which goes to show
If the track is tough and the hill is rough,
THINKING you can just ain’t enough!

Shel Silverstein

This humorous Shel Silverstein parody of the popular children’s book :”The Little Engine That Could.” Challenges the notion that the power of positive thought is all one needs to make it in life. “Just believe in yourself and there’s no limit to what you can achieve” is the kind of nonsense that sets people up for failure later in life. I do think it’s important to have self-confidence but that alone does not make the difference. There are little things called hard work, natural abilities, and plain old dumb luck that all contribute to success in life. More importantly, for disciples walking in the way of Jesus, the call is not to place our confidence in ourselves but in Christ. This is what Paul really means when he says he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him. There is real power in believing Christ can.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Walt Whitman

This classic poem by Walt Whitman is a profound reminder that the knowledge of something and the experience of it are two very different things. It is one thing to listen to lectures about the stars, it is another to look up at them in wordless wonder. A few minor tweaks to this poem and it could be: “When I Heard the Learn’d Theologian.” All description of God pales in comparison to the experience of God. Those of us who are charged with communicating the Gospel must often resist the temptation to tell everything we know rather than relate the experience of being known. Our theology and our arguments may be met with much applause in the lecture room, but if we are not connecting people to the presence of the living God, chances are they may leave our church tired and sick.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Not Waving but Drowning

NOT WAVING BUT DROWNING

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Stevie Smith

According to Thoreau, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” I don’t know if this is true, but I do know too many people in my own life who appear happy on the outside but on the inside are violently struggling to keep their head above the water. We all have been shocked at marriages that looked perfectly happy seemingly fall apart over night, suddenly discovered that a friend or neighbor had a drug problem that they had managed to conceal for years, or been saddened to hear of the sudden suicide of someone everyone described as “always happy.” In all these cases, we look back and ask: How did we miss this? All the signs were there. How did we not know? The truth is that we see people every day without truly seeing them. Far too many people feel alone in their suffering because their pleas for help go unrecognized. They are not waving but drowning. As disciples walking in the way of Jesus, we are called to be sources of healing and forgiveness- vessels of compassion. We cannot do this if we do not take the time to see the struggles of others. We cannot rescue the hurt and lost if we simply wave back at them on our way to something else.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Velocity


VELOCITY

In the club car that morning I had my notebook
open on my lap and my pen uncapped,
looking every inch the writer
right down to the little writer’s frown on my face,

but there was nothing to write
about except life and death
and the low warning sound of the train whistle.

I did not want to write about the scenery
that was flashing past, cows spread over a pasture,
hay rolled up meticulously—
things you see once and will never see again.

But I kept my pen moving by drawing
over and over again
the face of a motorcyclist in profile—

for no reason I can think of—
a biker with sunglasses and a weak chin,
leaning forward, helmetless,
his long thin hair trailing behind him in the wind.

I also drew many lines to indicate speed,
to show the air becoming visible
as it broke over the biker’s face

the way it was breaking over the face
of the locomotive that was pulling me
toward Omaha and whatever lay beyond Omaha
for me and all the other stops to make

before the time would arrive to stop for good.
We must always look at things
from the point of view of eternity,

the college theologians used to insist,
from which, I imagine, we would all
appear to have speed lines trailing behind us
as we rush along the road of the world,

as we rush down the long tunnel of time—
the biker, of course, drunk on the wind,
but also the man reading by a fire,

speed lines coming off his shoulders and his book,
and the woman standing on a beach
studying the curve of horizon,
even the child asleep on a summer night,

speed lines flying from the posters of her bed,
from the white tips of the pillowcases,
and from the edges of her perfectly motionless body.

-Billy Collins

Billy Collins is, without a doubt, my favorite living poet. His poems are simple and imaginative. VELOCITY, reminds us that life is short and fleeting, that from the perspective of eternity we are all moving quickly towards our inevitable destination. Even in the stillest moments, time passes too quickly. As a father of three, I can attest to this. My oldest daughter has gone from being a baby to a teenager in a matter of weeks it seems. Some times I look at her and I swear I can see the speed lines coming off of her. If it is true that a thousand years is like a day from the point of view of God and that we are like grass that grows today and withers tomorrow, then we must make the most of the time we have on this earth. When I read the Gospel of Mark, I can’t help but see the speed lines flying off of Jesus as he packs more life into a year than most of us pack into our lifetime. Jesus gets such a head of steam that the grave doesn’t even stop him. We too, according to the Apostle Paul, are called to run the race. So as a disciple running in the way of Jesus, may you have speed lines coming off of you in every direction and in the words of the old Irish blessing: “may you get to Heaven half an hour before the Devil knows you’re dead.”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The One Who Stayed


THE ONE WHO STAYED

You should have heard the old men cry,
You should have heard the biddies
When that sad stranger raised his flute
And piped away the kiddies.
Katy, Tommy, Meg and Bob
Followed, skipped gaily,
Red-haired Ruth, my brother Rob,
And little crippled Bailey,
John and Nils and Cousin Claire,
Dancin’, spinnin’, turnin’,
‘Cross the hills to God knows where-
They never came returnin’.
‘Cross the hills to God knows where
The piper pranced, a leadin’
Each child in Hamlin Town but me,
And I stayed home unheedin’.
My papa says that I was blest
For if that music found me,
I’d be witch-cast like all the rest.
This town grows old around me.
I cannot say I did not hear
That sound so haunting hollow-
I heard, I heard, I heard it clear…
I was afraid to follow.”

Shel Silverstein

This haunting poem by Shel Silverstein reminds us what adventures we forfeit when we are crippled by fear. The child in the poem hears the music but cannot bring himself to leave his comfort zone and now the world grows old around him. It is often said that our biggest regrets are not the times we’ve failed but the chances we never took. For the disciple, this poem is also a reminder of the courage it takes to follow Christ. It can be tempting to stay behind when we we hear God calling us to an extraordinary life beyond the bounds of everything we’ve ever known. In the gospels, Jesus does not wait around. He says, “Put your shoulder to the plow, and don’t look back,” “let the dead bury their own dead.” When you hear the music calling you, will you be afraid to follow?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Caged Bird

CAGED BIRD

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

-Maya Angelou

This poem, by Maya Angelou, is a wonderful parable about privledge and oppression. It was no doubt drawn from Angelou’s experience in the segregated South, but it’s universal message speaks for all oppressed peoples everywhere. It is also a powerful reminder to those of us who fly freely that the sky is not our own. In fact, Christ promised that it was the poor who would receive the Kingdom of heaven and the persecuted that would be called children of God. It was to the slaves, not the Pharaoh, that God demonstrated His power in the wilderness. To be on the side of God is to sing for the caged bird.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The History Teacher

THE HISTORY TEACHER

Trying to protect his students’ innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.

The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
“How far is it from here to Madrid?”
“What do you call the matador’s hat?”

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom
on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

– Billy Collins

This wonderful poem by Billy Collins reminds of the essential truth that we must bear witness to the darkness of the past if we are to strive toward a brighter future. To shelter children from the more brutal aspects of our history is to deny them their lessons. God repeatedly in scripture instructs us to teach His laws to our children. Education is about more than the mere recitation of facts. It is also about moral development. Perhaps the 34th Psalm puts it best: “Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…