the penultimate WORD

Series 2007 - December
Life is like a mountain railroad...


The Irvine Tartan  My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican







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 fills, the tunnels; never falter, never quail;
Keep your hand upon the throttle, and your eye upon the rail.


My enthusiasm eclipsed any evangelist as I assembled the track. In the Yuletide glow of hot Noma tree lights I knelt in obeisance as I took the inventory of the box containing my first electric train. The tissue wrap flew through the air as the Lionel brand name came into sight. The card board box pictured the assembled unit and the magical aura of Christmas lights spurred my imagination. Opened, I took out the pieces of track: curved units, straight units and a railway crossing that allowed a figure-eight to occupy a place of honour on living room floors throughout the land! My pulse quickened and beads of sweat accompanied my wide-eyed appreciation of such a wondrous and imaginative present. I wiped my brow with my flannel house-coat sleeve as my Dad took out the instructions and knelt beside me. My eighth Christmas found me absorbed in a fantasy world of steam engines and freight cars with my imagination providing the smells and sounds of a rail yard.


The track assembled, the electric controls were carefully attached to terminals on the track. The electricity was fed to the engine by the third rail, my Dad told me. Under the engine was a copper plate that picked up the electricity and moved it along the rails. The outside rails guided the wheels of the engine and the cars it hauled past the curves, fills and tunnels. But without the third rail the engine remained lifeless and the four cars stood still.



I was reminded of the third rail many years later when I traveled on the TTC Subway in Toronto. A much larger train, demanding considerably more voltage, the principle remained the same and the caution was posted to stay clear of the third rail. The third rail in a train system is the exposed electrical conductor that carries high voltage power. Stepping on the high-voltage third rail usually results in electrocution.


The phrase third rail is a metaphor that reaches beyond the Toronto Subway system to denote an idea that is so “charged” and “untouchable” that any churchman or public official who dares to broach the subject would invariably suffer politically. The use of the term serves to emphasize the “shock” that results from raising the controversial idea, and the “political death” that the unaware or provocative politician would encounter as a result.


The third rail I discovered was both necessary and dangerous at the same time. Caution remains the order of the day.



Isaiah Berlin helps assemble the metaphorical track for us. “To manipulate men,” he writes, “to propel them toward goals which you – the social reformers – see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them.” In the waning days of the year we are resolved to lay track as we begin to travel into another year prepared for us from the beginning of creation. As we travel along this ribbon of steel we dare not deny others their human essence – that we respect the dignity of every human being. Called to listen, I am cautioned not to diminish others for their lack of understanding of me. And as the track provides locomotion in both directions, we all risk being misunderstood and mistaken.


We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus phrased it in his own way. “Whoever finds his life will lose it,” he said, “and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” The third rail, it seems clear to me, is lively and dangerous. But without it, we remain motionless and lifeless. We are not to manipulate one another. That is a dangerously high voltage and is destructive, detracting from the image of God we are challenged to search for – and find – in one another. Ours is a mountain railroad and our run carries us beyond the Christmas living room memories of our youth into the days and years that have been given to us. The curves, fills and tunnels have their own dangers and caution us all. With confidence we place our hand upon the throttle and adjusting the speed, keep our eye upon the rail.



Copyright © 2007 James T. Irvine


 Series 2007

penultimate WORD Festivals of Light Series


Sermon delivered at St Matthew's ELCIC, Fredericton



Midi: Life is like a Mountain Railroad     Lyrics: Life is like a Mountain Railroad