"Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
and He will make straight your paths."
“Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise,
and apply your heart to my knowledge,
for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you,
if all of them are ready on your lips.
That your trust may be in the LORD,
I have made them known today to you…”
The incessant beeping of the alarm slowly pulled him from a deep sleep. The Man rolled over, rubbing his blurry eyes as he gradually focused on the red letters of the clock. 5:30am. He pushed snooze and rolled back to his other side. The air was chilly in his bedroom, and he quickly burrowed underneath his comforter. He knew he needed to get moving, but the warm spot under his covers told him otherwise.
Ten minutes later his alarm sounded again, and this time, The Man relented. Rolling out of bed, he slid into his moccasins and wrapped himself in his terrycloth robe. He walked downstairs to the smell of fresh coffee already brewing in his preset coffeemaker. After retrieving the newspaper from outside, he poured himself a steaming cup of black coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. His eyes settled on the date at the top of the paper, and even though he knew what it would say, he read it out loud,
He marveled at the sadness a date could bring, for this day would be like any other to most people. But the memory of his loss and the tragedy he experienced always brought a hollow and painful feeling to his chest.
He’d assumed there would be a front page story, and of course, there it was. Fifteen years later, the train accident that had cost his town dearly was still front-page news on its anniversary. The last time they had run a cover story of the accident was on the ten-year anniversary, in which a piece had been run on the only person who survived that horrific crash...him. The Man remembered how he had been unwilling at first to give an interview for the article. He resented the attention and wanted to forget what had happened. He’d only cooperated when Pastor Greg had pointed out the opportunity he would have to tell of God’s work in his life.
Today’s article was another retelling of the events of that day, focusing this time on the heroic efforts of emergency workers who tried to prevent the tragedy from occurring. While their preventative efforts were futile in the end, they were able to save one life, which was a miracle in itself.
The Man walked over to the hall closet and pulled a box from the top shelf. After the accident, his mom had saved every newspaper article she could on the accident. She’d given the box to him a couple of years later, with the hope that reading through them might be helpful to him in healing from the trauma. For a while, the guilt of surviving the tragedy was too great, and he couldn’t even look at the newspapers. But eventually, with the help of his counselor, he was able to find the strength to read through the articles. Many of them were stories on those victims who did not survive. Other articles showcased different family members who were left behind, including the Anderson’s middle daughter.
A great sigh of sadness rumbled from his chest, and the weight of his survival settled on him once more. The sadness had dulled with time, but every anniversary, it would return with full force. Why me? There had been so many more deserving people who should have lived. He cut out this most recent article from the paper, placed it on top of the others, and returned the box to his closet. He then hurried to shower and get ready for his day’s journey.
Every anniversary, no matter what day of the week it fell on, The Man would make a solo journey to the place of the train crash. It was his one day of the year to reminisce, to grieve, to process feelings, and to pray about the accident. The rest of the year, he worked hard to keep the memories from playing in his mind. His preference was to pretend it had never even happened, but that was difficult since people still liked to bring it up to him.
It was 6:15 by the time he pulled out of his driveway. Before getting on the turnpike, The Man swung through Starbucks to order a breakfast sandwich and more coffee. A hot breakfast would give him energy to hike the distance to the site of the crash, and it would be a nice contrast to the cold lunch he had packed in his backpack.
The Man felt a storm of emotions brewing in his spirit as he drove to the location. Usually, he was very good at suppressing the memories and their accompanying feelings, but lately, he’d had a difficult time fighting them off. He’d even been contemplating going back to see the counselor, whom he hadn’t been to in over ten years.
Since the anniversary was always the one day that he allowed his feelings to come to the surface in his heart, he didn’t fight them. He turned on the radio to his favorite Christian station, allowing the worship music to draw his heart’s attention to the goodness of the Lord, even in the midst of so much sadness he felt today.
After a while, his deep concentration was interrupted by the ringing of his iPhone. It was Zach.
“Hey buddy!” The Man said, turning down the music and smiling for the first time that day. Though his heart ached with the memories of the accident, he also felt such joy over the reconciliation God had brought to him and Zach.
“Hey dad!” Zach said, his rich voice filling the The Man’s ear. He would never get over the privilege of being called ‘dad.’ “I figured you would be driving right now. I wanted to touch base with you on a few cases before you lose cell service.”
For the next twenty minutes, The Man and his son discussed several pressing cases they were working on at their firm. After hanging up the phone, The Man shook his head with deep gratitude. Fifteen years ago, he had never even met his son. Look at what God has done! After the night Zach had attempted to steal from the Mini-Mart, they had finally talked through their painful and complicated relationship. God had worked a miracle in their hearts before Zach graduated high school a few months later. The Man had been so thankful they reconciled before he moved off for school.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Zach had attended USC as a pre-law student. He completed his law degree after four years of pre-law and three more years of law school. He had immediately then come home to join his father’s practice. It had been the richest time of The Man’s professional career, working alongside his son and seeing God use Zach to help others.
When The Man finally reached the overpass, he pulled into the small lot on the side of the road and parked. He grabbed his backpack and walked to the trailhead, where a sign had been installed a few years after the crash. One side of the sign outlined the events of that day, detailing the many tragic moments that led up to the accident. The other side listed the names of the many victims. At the bottom of that list was the name of the one survivor. As he always did, The Man found his name and shook his head in disbelief. Even after all these years, he still couldn’t quite grasp why God had let him live. He turned toward the trail, which had been created specifically to lead hikers to the site of the accident.
While he hiked down the trail, the final moments before the train crashed played in his mind as if they had just happened yesterday. He could still smell the burning of the train’s brakes that were locked up underneath them. He could hear the train’s wheels screaming and banging against the tracks as they continued to lose control. He could feel his body being tossed back and forth by the out-of-control, speeding train. He could see the newlywed couple across from him, weeping and holding hands with one another as Laura Anderson, cradling her youngest daughter, told them of Jesus. He could feel the storm in his spirit as he’d considered her words and his imminent death. Should he believe the Andersons? Would he call on Jesus? He didn’t know what to do in that moment. He was torn, gripping his briefcase, clinging to the life he’d always known and unsure of whether or not he could give it up, even in the face of death. He had been so selfish, so self-consumed!
Finally reaching the site of the crash, The Man found a spot under a nearby tree to rest for a while. He loosened his velcro knee brace to rub his throbbing knee, which had been crushed in the accident. During his many months of healing and rehabilitation, he had undergone two different surgeries to help reconstruct his knee alone. While it usually did not give him much trouble, heavy physical exertion usually aggravated it. He took a slow drink of water from his thermos, looking around as he did.
After fifteen years, much of the vegetation had regrown where the massive train had crashed and burned. The trees, of course, were much younger than the forrest surrounding this site, but they were growing back nonetheless, erasing the memory of the unimaginable tragedy that had happened here. The train tracks before him were still active, and trains ran daily on this route. Life did not stop in the world, though it ended for many at this place.
The Man remembered the bravery of the Anderson’s son as he stood before everyone right before the train crashed, clinging to the railing so he could maintain his balance. The Man had been so struck by the peace and confidence in The Boy’s voice, such a contradiction to the chaos all around them. As The Boy addressed the group in his car, they had made eye contact right before impact, and The Boy had said, “You think this is the end, but it is only the beginning!” When The Man had emerged from his coma several weeks later, The Boy’s words were still ringing in his mind.
It wasn’t The Man’s near-death experience that had finally gotten his attention, though that is what many believed. It was actually The Boy, who had given up any chance of survival so that he could tell others about Christ. The Man had been deeply moved by The Boy’s passionate sacrifice. He knew that the Anderson's message must have been something special if they were willing to give their lives for it.
Pastor Greg had come to visit The Man in the hospital a few days after he woke up from his coma, even though they’d never met before. It was there, lying in a hospital bed with serious injuries and a long road of recovery ahead of him, that The Man had finally and whole-heartedly professed Jesus as his Lord and Savior.
His new life in Christ had meant a radical rearranging of every little detail of his life. It had eventually led to the end of his career at Maxwell and Monohan. It had meant giving away his wealth rather than storing it up and putting the needs of others before his own needs, wants, and desires. It had required sexual purity and a life of honesty. It had led him to joining a local church and learning to fellowship with other Christians. All of these things were a direct contradiction to The Man’s way of life before the accident, yet he had never been more fulfilled. In Christ, his life finally had meaning.
He walked around the site of the crash, and the contrasting realities of what was lost on that day to what he’d gained afterward weighed heavily on his mind. He thought of the different people who had been in the passenger car with him. Even though he knew it was irrational, he sometimes felt shame for surviving. This was why he tried not to think about the accident at all, except on the anniversaries. Remembering the Anderson’s one surviving daughter gave him the most grief. Why was a child orphaned that day, but I, a selfish and prideful man, was allowed to survive?
He would never be able to comprehend the unfairness of it all. Though he knew the Lord was sovereign and good, he still wrestled with the knowledge that God could have prevented it all from happening. These thoughts didn’t make him angry at the Lord, but they did drive him to want to know God more, to understand His character and His mysterious ways in this world. He thought on the great gift God had given him in preserving his life. Lord, don’t let me waste the time You’ve given. The loss that day was insurmountable, but You preserved my life. I’ll never comprehend why, but I know I don’t have to understand everything to make much of what You’ve done.
He spent the day exploring the site of the accident. He prayed, wept, and tried to understand a tragedy that simply can’t be explained on this side of eternity. As he left the site that day and began his drive home, he still felt unsettled in his spirit. This was how he often felt on the anniversaries of the accident.
He felt something new that day, too. A powerful impression had settled on his spirit to pray for the Anderson’s middle daughter. He’d never allowed himself to think much about her before because he always felt so helpless to ease the grief he was sure she carried. He didn’t even know how old she was now or where she lived. But as he remembered the great sacrifice of the Anderson family, he felt it was the least he could do, to commit to pray for their surviving daughter and sister. And so he did.