By Norris Burkes Aug 20 2023

If you’ve ever been taken against your will, you may identify with what I experienced years ago in Stockton, California. I don’t mean to startle you –  OK, maybe just a little bit –  but fortunately, I lived to tell the tale.

It started on a Sunday morning in 1990 when I drove through thick fog to take my sister and niece to catch the 8:05 Amtrak home to Los Angeles.

The Tule fog in central California can be especially bad. When we finally found the train platform, it stretched into the abyss like something from a Hitchcock movie set.

The crew was herding passengers onboard to make up for the weather-related delay, so I hauled my sister’s luggage past the busy conductor into a rear door.

Later I would swear on a stack of Bibles that I never heard the conductor warning that “only ticketed passengers are allowed on board.” After all, I was a pastor, not a stowaway. In other words, I’m too important to hear or heed directions.

As I lifted the luggage into the overhead bin, the train began moving. At first, I wasn’t worried. I simply thought the crew was likely repositioning a bit. Turns out, not true.

In a matter of moments, we were underway, southbound, and gaining speed. Flustered, I raced through the train looking for Mr. Conductor. Not finding him, I searched for those panic brakes I saw Lucy Ricardo use in a similar train predicament.

Not finding them, I turned to the bartender, but he wasn’t serving that early in the morning. Instead, he walkie-talkied the conductor after I explained my situation to him.

The good news was we made our way out of the fog. The bad news was we were deep into deserted farmland – a long way from the pulpit, where my parishioners expected to find me within the next few hours.

I was more than worried. Lately I’d seen a deacon or two dozing during my sermon, so it seemed unlikely they would pay my return fare. They’d probably collect the offering and call it a day, happy to be home for kickoff.

When the conductor arrived 15 minutes later, I frantically explained my importance.

Where was the reverse switch on this thing? I’ve seen trains go backwards; surely this one might do the same.

He shot me a look that suggested I was being more than Norris-issistic. He seemed willing to haul my butt all the way to LA, where I’d have to hock my college ring for return fare.

The conductor calmed me by suggesting he could offload me in an upcoming cornfield where I could rendezvous with the oncoming train back to Stockton.

Good plan if the train actually stopped.

Fortunately, it did stop. Unfortunately, not in time to avoid a dead car battery from the headlights I’d left on.

Sometime later, my experience spawned a sermon about Jonah. Jonah is that guy who was so filled with self-importance that he boarded a cruise ship, only to become fish bait.

Like Jonah, I was a bit too self-absorbed to notice, not only where I was going, but also what kind of person I was being. Romans 12:3 says it all: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment….”

Self-importance is a one-way train ride. You may feel like you are someone great and outstanding in your field. But, at the end of the day, self-importance will only leave you as it did me, “humiliated, out standing in my field.”


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