The Engineer’s Got to Know Where His End Is

The inquisitive passenger, on the rear platform of the long train snaking its way along the French Board River, was puzzled by occasional round white signs with black figures. They were not mileposts, because they were always the same series—100, 125, 150—and not speed-limit signs, because on that line no engineer could make 100 miles an hour and live.

So the passenger asked the flagman: “What are those figures?” “Car-lengths,” the flagman said. “That means so many car-lengths to the switch. If it’s a long train the engineer can’t see all of it at once, around these corners. But he knows how many cars he’s got in his train and them signs tell him whether the last car is out of the siding or not. The engineer’s got to know where his hind end is.”

“Oh,” said the inquiring passenger, and fell to thinking.

The engineer does have to know where his hind end is, sure enough. If he doesn’t, he will think the train is all out on the main line when some of it is still on the sidetrack. He will think the train is ready to roll when it isn’t. The engineer not only has to keep a lookout forward; he has to think backward too, all the way to the caboose. Where is the train? is a question that can’t be answered by looking out of the Diesel window sideways; it has to be answered by thinking back all the way to the last car. If that one isn’t past the siding, the train isn’t past the siding.

Parents, statesmen, leaders of men, all “human engineers,” need to know where their hind end is. They can’t afford to leave it behind, and it is dangerous to assume that it is farther along than it is.

The teacher, for example, must know where the hind end of the class is. The front-row boys and girls (intellectually speaking) may be picking up speed, clicking right along behind the streamlined Idea; but where are the boys and girls in the mental caboose? The teacher had better go easy on the throttle, or he’ll split a switch.

It’s a wise teacher who knows where his class’s hind end is. He may be so far ahead of them that they can’t even see him, but somehow he must know where they are. Otherwise he will only be pulling them into trouble.

The minister must know where his congregation’s hind end is. The saints are right up there in the front of the gospel train, handsome refrigerator cars, some of them, beautifully lined cars for the furniture trade, built for red-ball freight trains. But away back are some cars the minister can’t always see, bumping along still in the siding. They haven’t made the switch, and they won’t make it if the preacher pulls too fast.

Be careful, you up there in the cab! The track looks clear, the light is green, all the cars you can see are lined up behind you. But around the bend is the rest of the train. Better be sure you know where your hind end is before you put on too much speed.

You can go roaring down the theological track, tooting for the Existential and the Historically Unconditioned, but your boxcars back in the rear end may still be in the sidetrack of a high school education where they don’t use such language.

Or you may be blowing for the crossing at Eschatology before some of your cars have got over the switch of Regeneration. On the Ethical Line, also, you may be a long way ahead of the rear cars. You may be preaching away at Social Issues when your rear end hasn’t faced Personal Issues yet. You may have your preaching-eye on the higher subtleties of saintliness, while the brakeman on the rear end hasn’t caught up with the simplicities of ordinary right and wrong. You may be discussing the temptations of sheltered specialists like yourself, while away back there, out of your sight, your businessmen and young people are in the midst of temptations you consider too gross to mention.

Remember, the gospel train has a rear end, and you are supposed to pull that and the head end, too.

Reading ecumenical literature, the kind of thing written by Internationally Known Churchmen, one wonders if these ecclesiastical engineers know where their hind end is. Their big green Diesels are up there on the clear track of Ecumenicity. They have pulled out so far from Grassroots Gulch that they’ve almost forgotten there is such a place, but some of the train is back there, on the old sidetrack of Village Denominationalism. The engineer speaks of the Worldwide Mission and the Worldwide Witness of the Church, and he is so far up in the front that he sees these things quite clearly; but he must not forget that around the bend, out of his sight, the hind end is scraping along in the way station. It hasn’t even pulled up to the switch of Local Witness or Local Mission.

It is a temptation to cut loose. The hind end slows up the train. But the engineer is just as responsible for one end as the other. It’s all part of his train. And if, in a hurry to get on down the track, he cuts his train in two, he is leaving behind the makings of a first-class wreck.

Also in this issue

The CT archives are a rich treasure of biblical wisdom and insight from our past. Some things we would say differently today, and some stances we've changed. But overall, we're amazed at how relevant so much of this content is. We trust that you'll find it a helpful resource.

Editorial

The Bulletin

Praying for Time podcast_grayscale

Hosts and guests discuss Gen Z in the workplace, Israeli hostages, and astronauts stuck in space.

Wire Story

China Ends International Adoptions, Leaving Hundreds of Cases in Limbo

The decision shocked dozens of evangelical families in the US who had been in the process since before the pandemic.

Wire Story

Bangladeshi Christians and Hindus Advocate for a Secular Country

As political changes loom and minority communities face violence, religious minorities urge the government to remove Islam as the state religion.

Public School Can Be a Training Ground for Faith

My daughter will wrestle with worldliness in her education, just as I did. That’s why I want to be around to help.

Boomers: Serve Like Your Whole Life Is Ahead of You

What will our generation do with the increased life expectancy God has blessed us with?

Review

Take Me Out to Something Bigger Than a Ballgame

American stadiums have always played host both to major sports and to larger social aspirations.

How to Find Common Ground When You Disagree About the Common Good

Interfaith engagement that doesn’t devolve into a soupy multiculturalism is difficult—and necessary in our diverse democracy.

Wire Story

Evangelical Broadcasters Sue Over IRS Ban on Political Endorsements

Now that some nonprofit newspapers have begun to back candidates, a new lawsuit asks why Christian charities can’t take sides.