Toy Trains, a Small Child, and God's Grace
On any given day in our home, you can hear the sound of a train whistle and a conductor's voice calling out to anyone who will listen, "All aboard the Polar Express!" It does sound exactly like Tom Hank's voice from the movie of the same name. In fact, to be honest, my middle son adores The Polar Express film. Our family was held captive on the couch this holiday season as we watched this movie a week before Christmas, and then the day before Christmas, then the week after ... you get the idea. He loves this story.
As I walk into the living room to remind him that it's dinner time, and that little boys must live on more than just remote control train engines and toy figurines, I can't help but notice the glint in his eye. He has been playing with his large-scale Polar Express train set every day since receiving it on Christmas Eve from my parents. It has engaged his imagination - he is hooked. He can adjust the tracks to create different layouts. And he can stand anywhere in the room and control the engine via a handheld remote switch. I am reminded of myself when I was eight-years-old. Fawning over a Star Wars play set or the latest toy phaser gun that my aunt and uncle would buy me. These things offered an escape from reality; a one-way ticket into another world. Transforming me instantly from an ordinary kid in the suburbs, into a star ship captain or an army commander, taking that next enemy ridge with my friends. All childhoods should be made of things such as this.
I think of all these things as I finish reading a book called 'Not God's Type' by Holly Ordway. It was a birthday gift from my wife. It was one of those gifts that reminds us how our spouses know us better than we know ourselves. I think she knew the book would speak to me in a meaningful way. Ordway is a Christian apologist at the Houston Baptist University, and also a Professor of English. In her book she redefines the way that people can defend God by reminding us that not everything can (or should) be broken down into a philosophical or conceptual argument. A good many things, she claims, can be verified as true simply by coming to the realization that God works through the human imagination just as much as He appeals to our intellect. This was especially interesting to me, as I have recently published a book on the matter of understanding the Christian faith through logic and reason. I hadn't spent much time on literary allusion, poetry, or art - at least not in so much as these areas might involve demonstrating proofs for God. But they do of course. Truth be told, some of the greatest works of writing come from a Christian understanding of the world. How many people adored the Lord of the Rings trilogy I wonder, without knowing that it sprung from Christian roots.
How simple this idea is, and yet how difficult to grasp at the same time. I think many of us lose this ability to engage our imagination as we grow up. If we are being honest however, God is present in the movies that we love, the books that we read over and over, and the artwork that might be hanging on our wall at this very moment. I am tempted to quantify this way of thinking into two facets: imagination and beauty in nature, and imagination and beauty in the human condition. I'm sure there are more ways to trace God's gift of the aesthetic, but for now, let's just discuss these two.
I am also fond of a book by Dr. Francis Collins called 'The Language of God.' It is the story of how one scientist (and self acclaimed atheist) eventually found God through the very method of scientific discovery that he used to use in order to defend his unbelief. He describes one moment very succinctly in the book, while out hiking one day in the wilderness. He writes, "A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God, and now I was being called to account. On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ."
It wasn't only Collins' understanding of biological complexity and intricate design that brought him to the Cross, but also an acknowledgment of God's infusion of beauty through nature. This aspect captured his imagination and engaged his heart.
I remember well one summer vacation with my family while driving across country. As soon as we crossed the state line we were confronted with no less than three rainbows. It was right after a light rain, and as the kids peered out of the car window, there they were. We would drive past one rainbow, and another would take it's place farther down the interstate. I will never forget the crisp, wonderful division of sharp colors seemingly stretching on forever. You can break down how a rainbow is formed scientifically, but you cannot process it as it is meant to be taken in without thinking of beauty in a more eternal and lasting sense.
The other avenue I mentioned was God's imagination and beauty as manifested through the human condition. We are curious and unique beings, the most complex of Earth's creatures. It only makes sense that from time to time, if we look close enough, we see signposts of God's goodness in each other. Pointers to His divine imagination playing out in each one of us. Not long ago, my wife and I were talking to our kids about the importance of both saving and giving money. We mentioned how some people donate to charity, and still others give gifts to their friends and family in times of need. My middle son (yes, the Polar Express kid) spoke up and told us that he intends to give the entire contents of his piggy bank to the church. What can you do with a statement like that? It is the essence of human dignity to give to others that are in need. It is a truly beautiful thing to give to others in need without being asked to do so. God has indeed created us in the likeness of His image. At any point in time we can choose to reflect that light through kindness, or demonstrate the vale of sin through cruelty and apathy. The former are qualities that point toward a creator, which cannot be arrived at with logical arguments and carefully thought out theories. They simply exist, and point to something greater than ourselves.
I'm sure it isn't an accident that God made us with an appreciation for the imaginative. Think of how different and bland the world would be without music or art, without poetry or literature. What if instead of reading 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' in school, I had been given a book on the history of the South in the 1880's? Would I have been able to feel what it was like to float down the Mississippi on a raft?
The train whistle sounds again, and I am forced to stop daydreaming. My son is asking me to come and help him glue cotton balls to a cardboard box with an entrance cut out of it. It is of course, a snow covered tunnel that leads to the North Pole; I need not even ask. Someday he will grow up of course, and he will have a job with deadlines and projects and phone calls and stress. They cannot take away his beautiful mind however, as it isn't theirs to take. It is by God's grace that he will be able to look at a toy train and be transformed back into a little boy again whenever he wants. It is by God's grace that some of the things in this world are so beautiful. Sunsets are majestic - they certainly didn't have to be. There could simply have been light, and then the absence of light as the sun disappears behind the horizon. Instead we have streamers of gold and orange, intertwined in such a way as to spark a memory of the eternal spirit. Something inside us that we cannot quite comprehend when we see it. We can only bask in it's beauty for those few breathtaking moments until it drops behind the tree line. All the while, experiencing what it is truly like to be human. What it is to be an eight-year-old child again, playing with trains. What it is to be exactly what God wants us to be.