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; okay, maybe just a little bit, but fortunately, I live to tell the tale.
It all starts on a Sunday morning in 1990 when I drive through thick fog to take my sister and niece to catch the 8:05 Amtrak home to Los Angeles. The Tule fog is especially bad, and when we finally find the train platform, it stretches out like something from a Hitchcock movie set.
The crew is herding the passengers onboard to make up for the weather-related delay, and as I haul my sister’s luggage past the conductor, I ignore his warning that “only ticketed passengers are allowed on board.” After all, I’m a pastor, not a stowaway. In other words, I’m too important to heed directions.
As I lift the luggage into the overhead bin, the train starts to move. At first, I’m not worried; the crew is likely repositioning a bit. No. They aren’t.
In a matter of moments, we are underway, southbound and gaining speed. Flustered, like I’m in an “I love Lucy” rerun, I race through the train looking for Mr. Conductor. Not finding him, I look for those panic brakes I saw Lucy use once. Not finding these, I explain my situation to the bartender who calls the conductor.
The good news is that we are now out of the fog, but the bad news is that we are deep in farmland – a long way from the pulpit my parishioners will expect to find me in. I am more than worried. Lately my sermons have been missing the mark, so I’m not sure the deacons will pay my return fare. I figure they’ll likely collect the offering and call it a day so they can be home in time for kickoff.
When the conductor arrives 15 minutes later, I frantically explain my importance. Where is the reverse switch on this thing? I’ve seen trains go backwards; surely this one can do the same. He shoots me a look that threatens to haul my butt all the way to LA where I’ll have to hock my college ring for the fare home.
Sometimes I can be a little Norris-a-sistic. I was behaving like the conceited preacher who asked his young bride, “Honey, how many great preachers do you think there are in this world? “I don’t know, she says, “But I think there is one less than YOU think there is.”
The conductor calms me some with a plan to offload me in an upcoming cornfield where I can catch the oncoming train back to Stockton. Fortunately, the plan works and I am not only back in time for church but 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.”
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of No Small Miracles. He also serves as an Air National Guard chaplain and is board certified in the Association of Professional Chaplains. You can call him at (321) 549-2500, E-mail him at [email protected], visit his website at www.thechaplain.net or write him at PO Box 247 Elk Grove CA 95759.