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Reflective journey

"Reflective journey" Continued...

Issue: "The GOP’s Greg Abbott," May 31, 2014

An attendant collects tickets from passengers.
Joshua Lott/Reuters/Landov
An attendant collects tickets from passengers.
Amtrak offers several explanations for these achievements: stronger economic environment, higher gas prices, declining air travel quality, and continued growth in business travel on Amtrak’s improved high-speed rails. But it still faces persisting deterrence: the sprawling American landscape (getting to the train station can be costly and cumbersome), the infuriatingly slow speed on certain tracks (especially in the South), opposition from conservative governors and airline lobbyists, and the widespread car culture, to name a few.

Despite its issues, I loved my Amtrak adventure. After spending a day in the train, you instinctively develop ways to cope with the dampers. I learned to dim talkative passengers into some far corner of my mind. I nonchalantly wiped misaimed pee from toilet seats, automatically held my nose when I used the bathroom stalls. I figured out a way to fluff my pillow and curl up in just the right position to avoid neck cricks and a sore spine.

Then I discovered a second home in the sunny observation car, where seats face floor-to-ceiling windows. Some seats are large enough for me to stretch out and nap without pretzeling like a yogi. The Crescent doesn’t offer an observation car, so I camped out at the café lounge area, where cafeteria-style tables and cushioned benches make a rather comfortable work/nap space.

On one trip, a train attendant of 15 years spent more than an hour explaining the Basque history to me, sketching out timelines and maps on an Amtrak napkin. Turns out he’s an Eastern Orthodox former high-school teacher with a Ph.D. in theology (eschatology) and two bachelor’s degrees in international relations and history. He apparently speaks nine languages, including Russian, Greek, French, and Spanish, and is now writing a history book on Louisiana’s Basque origins.

But the best moments were the quiet hours spent in retreat of prayer, meditation, and study. On a plane, I’m too uncomfortably cramped to read or think. On the bus or in a car, I get carsick or fall asleep. But on a train, the gentle swaying feels more like a slow-motion rocking chair, and in unison with the occasional hushed choo-choo whistles, they create an unconscious rhythm for great focus. 

I first read A.W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God on the Sunset Limited, a fitting starter that whetted my appetite for a personal intimacy with God. To my great delight, I later discovered that Tozer wrote the entire book during a single train ride from Chicago to Texas. The next morning, I read Lord, Teach Us to Pray by Andrew Murray and pondered what it means to enter the inner chamber, where sincere, private prayers shed off self-righteous morals and legalistic duties. Then I ached with grief while reading Ruth Tucker’s Walking Away from Faith, in which she honestly researches people’s crises of faith.

On the Crescent, Paul Tripp’s Whiter than Snow revived my spirits with his meditation on sin and Christ’s mercy, while Paul Washer’s The Gospel’s Power and Message challenged me to stay on the true course of Christian study as he unapologetically cut down today’s superficial, attractive repackaging of the gospel. I also reread favorite portions of John Piper’s When I Don’t Desire God, always a joy-frothing well of encouragement and power.

RAILS: Amtrak Vermonter.
Associated Press/Photo by Toby Talbot
RAILS: Amtrak Vermonter.
These books had been on my reading list for months, and the train turned out to be the perfect place to plod through them. It’s easy to flip through a paperback fiction in the weekends at home; it takes more intentional effort and dedicated concentration to finish theological writings, and then unhurriedly reflect on them. Being cooped for days inside a tube with no Wi-Fi meant I gained ample time and ability to be dexterous in my study. I also had the leisure to chew through the contents like a grazing cow instead of my habitual speed-reading, thus avoiding indigestion. 

Apparently I wasn’t the only Christian on the train. While I was reading Murray on my reading tablet, a young man in army uniform sat across from me reading a King James Bible. In the same car, a bespectacled graybeard shared testimonies from his prison pastoral ministry. He too had a stack of Christian books for reading. On the way to the lavatory, I heard a young man practically preach a sermon to his seatmate, attracting a small crowd. And on another train, I eavesdropped on an all-night discussion between two men, in which the elder one was defending his Christian faith to the young agnostic—rather poorly, I thought, but passionately.

In Amtrak, I found a wonderful haven to replenish the soul. Like all retreats, it was a privilege—I had the flexibility of time, the lack of family commitments, and the youthful ability to sleep anywhere. But that spiritual leisure I enjoyed on the train became unsustainable once I returned home to Los Angeles (by plane) and dived back into my galloping lifestyle. I still spend each morning reading the Bible and participate in church activities, but it’s harder to make Jesus Christ your Lord and King of everything when you’re no longer holed up in a ventilated casket with bare minimum amenities.

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