— By JOHN PAUL CARTER
One afternoon last winter I boarded an Amtrak train in Fort Worth to visit my friends, Bill and Molly, in Austin. Although I’ve always loved trains, it was my first ride on Amtrak. I was transfixed by the trackside scenery and the swaying of the coach.
A little after dark as we entered Austin along the tracks that divide the Mopac expressway, the train slowed to a stop. We were informed that we had to wait for the freight trains up ahead to clear the mainline before we could travel the remaining five miles to the station. Sidetracked, we were over an hour late.
I learned about sidetracks during World War II on my very first train ride. Late one night my mother and I boarded an ancient passenger coach that was coupled to the rear of a slow freight headed from Beaumont to Dallas. Exhausted and smelling of smoke, we arrived at Union Station late the next afternoon, after having waited on every siding in East Texas while the speeding troop trains thundered by. What an adventure for a 6-year-old boy whose hero was Casey Jones!
But even when I’m not on a train, I manage to get sidetracked. It’s as frustrating to my wife as it was to my mother and teachers. All have asked, “Why can’t you stay on track?”
Whether it’s “being easily diverted” or “attention deficit,” I can’t deny my tendency to occasionally “chase rabbits.” I start to do one thing and, in the process, something else catches my eye. However, if you ask me, I usually can come up with a good reason for my diversion.
Of course, sometimes it’s just for fun. As I sit before my computer writing this piece, there’s the temptation to open another window and play “just one game” of Spider Solitaire. With a deadline looming, that kind of diversion is dangerous!
But getting sidetracked isn’t all bad. When I’ve been traveling in the fast lane too long, I need a place to retreat. And a time or two while sitting on one of life’s sidings, I’ve discovered that I was on the wrong track anyway.
Ironically, often what we stop to do turns out to be more important than our planned agenda. A child needs attention, a friend needs to talk, or a stranger needs a hand. It’s hard to have a decent conversation unless you come to a full stop. Need has a priority all its own!
The Bible says that our trouble all began when Adam and Eve were distracted by the snake in the garden. On the other hand, a shepherd named Moses encountered God when he “turned aside to see a bush that burned.”
Although Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” in the last week of his life, the Master also got sidetracked – to the consternation of his disciples and the joy of the recipients of his attention.
On his way to see about Jairus’ deathly ill daughter, he paused to care for a woman in the crowd who had touched the hem of his garment. When mothers brought their children to him, He stopped what he was doing and took them in his arms. In one of Jesus’ most familiar parables the hero turned out to be an unlikely Samaritan who interrupted his journey to help a wounded stranger beside the Jericho road. According to Jesus, “neighbors” often get sidetracked.
“Lord, forgive us when we’re too easily distracted. On the other hand, free us to get sidetracked for the sake of love. Amen.”