Before my grandpa became ill and died, my grandparents went to Steak n Shake for coffee nearly every morning. I don’t think they went there because the coffee was especially good, but because the restaurant affords a spectacular view of the trains traveling on the triple track between Elkhart and Goshen. Occasionally, my grandma said, three trains travel past Steak n Shake at the same time.
“We always sat at this table, right here,” my grandma explained to Marnell and I this morning. Due to the snowy roads, we had postponed the Steak n Shake date from 8 to 9, but when we arrived around 9, my grandma had already been there for half an hour. We had offered to pick her up -twice- but she preferred to drive and had another stop anyway.
People asked my why I wanted to have a train on top of our wedding cake, and so I turned it over in my mind. Why are trains romantic?
Certainly, I love to hear them calling across the city at night, love to hear the bell-like jangling of the train as it rushes closer. I also think they look beautiful. This morning at Steak n Shake, a coal train went past, a string of identical cars filled with coal, dusted white with snow. It was a long train, and it made me wonder how much coal had just rumbled past us, filling the slice of space outside the Steak n Shake window from horizon to horizon, the end far behind the engine.
“Do you see how people write on them?” my grandma asked when an orange engine pulled a string of various cars past. “But you usually can’t read what it says.”
But beyond the beauty of the sight and sound, there are a few deeper things about trains that make them even more mysteriously romantic.
Trains are faithful. I’m not saying they’re on time, but I’m saying they almost always make it. Nothing seems to stop them. I remember going to Chicago with my friend Susannah one year to listen to the Messiah. I called the South Shore line to see if it was still running because it was snowing and the roads were awful. The lady informed me that the trains always run, with almost no exceptions. So we went, even though it was barely safe to drive to the airport to get on the train.
Trains communicate. Because they are always there, always going, we kind of pass them off as routine and forget about them. We forget about how dangerous they are. But then, our ears get blasted by the train horn, as if it is saying, “I’m here, I’m HERE, I’M HERE, get out of the way.”
Trains are consistent. They don’t just take off a different direction each day. They always cross at the same place. Even though they are consistent in this way, they also seem to have an element of surprise because we never know when one will come. The other night we went with Marnell’s family to Cappy’s, where we first met. “Did I hear a train?” I asked Marnell. Sure enough, on the single track behind us, a train was crossing Michigan Street. “I hardly ever, ever see a train on that track,” the waitress said. “Never, ever.”
Trains are powerful. It ‘s not a question of who will win in a battle between 100 coal cars and just about any obstacle.
Trains are teams of perfectly synchronized cars. They are locked together and they all go the same place. If they don’t, it’s a disaster.
I think perhaps some of the best relationships have some of the same qualities as trains. From my vast experience with marriage (ha! four weeks as of today) I suppose that love worked out in a marriage involves a lot of communication, a lot of consistency, a lot of teamwork, a lot of faithfulness, and even elements of surprise. Love is tough and powerful and most effective when aligned with God’s rules.
As we finished breakfast, the waitress came back to retrieve the bill she had left on our table.
“Your grandson came through the drive thru and paid your bill,” she said to my grandma. (She looked at me too, then said, “You’re not old enough to have a grandson.” Ha. Thanks.)
That is a great example of the element of surprise making relationships better, is it not? (“I was just getting a coffee and saw you sitting there,” the culprit admitted after we identified him.)
And who is better at surprise than God? Who thought I would be married by the end of 2017 to someone I didn’t know at the beginning of 2017? That I would go from growing bacteria in January to planning a wedding in December? I had written a list of goals for the year, and getting married was not one of them.
Also, who is endlessly faithful, eternally consistent, extravagantly powerful, exceedingly dangerous? Even though he can be silent, God communicates with us in unmistakable ways.
Most of all, He is always there, always the same. His Word blasts through to us in the Scriptures we read. Yesterday, and today, and forever.
What a consolation as we look at 2018! We can never know what a year may bring! But we can know the One who will be faithful, consistent, and always there.