The American Gospel Train – Mountain Grade Ahead
by Rev Michael Bresciani
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My mother’s folks hailed from Virginia from humble Welch stock and resided in Charlottesville. As a young man I visited my great grandmother there and among the many curios sights was a small window in my late great grandfathers upper bedroom from which could be seen some of the green rolling hills of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home. Much more intriguing were the stories and memorabilia from my grandfather’s history as an engineer on the railroad. I was never told just when or where it was that he lost his life. His train derailed in some steep mountain pass somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains.
My fascination with trains started when I was only seven. When staying at the home of my Italian grandparents in a small town in New England I could hear the distant sound of the train whistle each morning and evening. After learning the track was only about a quarter mile behind the home I determined to find a way to reach the train as it passed. The haunting whine of the whistle provoked wonder in my heart. Where was the train going, who was on the train, what far away destinations would it reach and what were those cities, towns and villages like? The world was bigger than I could imagine and the train whistle attested that to my young heart everyday.
When I finally navigated a path to the tracks and calculated how much time was needed from the first whistle for me to get to the fence bordering the track I visited often. There I would hold tightly to the fence with fear as the ground trembled under my feet. I strained to see a face in the windows of the coaches but the whizzing train blurred everything from such a hope. Would I ever get to ride this mighty iron horse, little did I know!
Later in life I acquired what I thought was an impressive interaction with trains. From hopping a box car in New Orleans that took me down through the French Quarter to a long trip up the eastern seaboard in one of Amtrak’s sleeper couches, it was all good. I experienced the romance of eating on the fine linen of a few dining cars as the world rolled by just outside a huge plate-glass window. I have done it all I thought, I put a penny on the track and egged a few box cars in my youth but the highest point may have been a ride on the French TGV. The TGV (train a grande vitesse) rolls from Paris to the Spanish border at the awesome speed of 405 mph. As a boy the speed would not allow me to see the passengers streaming by, as an adult the speed from inside the TGV would not allow me to see almost anything unless it was several hundred yards away.
Many times in American history the Gospel (good news of salvation) has been likened to a train. An old negro spiritual “People Get Ready There’s a Train a Coming” has been sung by the Chambers Brothers, Rod Stewart and Curtis Mayfield just to name a few. To this day gospel quartets and groups are still singing Eliza Snow’s “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and a plethora of other artist have all sung or recorded this song. The song is about a train and it is about life.
Life is like a mountain railroad, with an engineer that’s brave
We must make the run successful, from the cradle to the grave
Watch the curves, the hills, the tunnels, never falter, never fail
Keep your hand upon the throttle and your eye upon the rail
Who in America has not heard Josh Turners “Long Black Train” or seen the video where some are depicted as boarding and being lost while others are spared the ride by looking upward to God. Turner ends the tune with the somber warning to remember that Satan rides the long black train.
Trains have long been associated with the gospel in America because trains are powerful, carefully scheduled and unlike planes or cars their destinations cannot be altered. The track remains the same and while virtually nothing can stop the train it still gears down at the most insignificant spots on the map to take in a traveler. The gospel cannot be stopped or derailed either but the influences outside of it can convince sojourners that they have no need to ever get on board.
In the last decade Barna and Pew reports added to daily stories from the news are indicating that a huge number of formerly solid believers are alighting from the train for other destinations. Churches are more involved with prosperity preaching, social gospel endeavors and opening up to all religions and not just the gospel. Does that slow the train? The train can neither be slowed nor diverted from its destination the only thing that can be changed is the passenger list.
Jesus Christ has given the invitation to anyone who will listen to board the gospel train. It is the same as it was two thousand years ago, it is situated on a singular track called “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) It has only one destination which is to the presence of the Father and eventually a city that measures 1500 miles high on a new earth. There God the Father provides the light of his presence instead of the sun. The train will then be mothballed because that destination is for keeps. It is the last verse of “Life’s Railway to Heaven” that perhaps says it all.
As you roll across the trestle, spanning Jordan’s swelling tide
You’ll behold the Union depot, into which your train will glide
There you’ll meet the Superintendant, God the Father, God the Son
With a hearty joyous plaudit, weary pilgrim, welcome home
It is the train and the destination that no one need miss. It requires only a sincere and humble repentance, faith in Jesus Christ and surrender to him in obedience for the remainder of your entire life. Once onboard, God will be sure to get you through to your destination. “He will be our guide to the end. (Psalm 48:14)
http://www.americanprophet.org is the place for news, articles, movie and book reviews and other insights for life. Rev Bresciani is a columnist for online and print publications and has over two million readers and counting.
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In a way, it makes sense that trains were the preferred method of transportation to heaven. They were the fastest thing on wheels at the time, and they ran on a track, so there was no danger of making a wrong turn. After all, if you were “trying to get to heaven in due time, before the heaven doors close,” you didn’t want to take any chances on getting there late. Of course, speed wasn’t everything. As Uncle Dave Macon sang in From Earth to Heaven, “I’d rather go to heaven in a Mitchell wagon, then to Hell in an automobile.”
Hey, Rev: I thoroughly enjoyed this article, having had a friendship with trains most of my life. I thought I'd post a chapter from my book, titled Sometimes A Train Is A Train. Maybe you'd enjoy it, as it talks about the train imagery in gospel music, too. Jerry