John Griffith was in his early twenties. He was newly married and full of optimism. Along with his lovely wife, he had been blessed with a beautiful baby. He was living the American dream. But then came 1929—the Great Stock Market Crash—the shattering of the American economy that devastated John’s dreams. The winds that howled through Oklahoma were strangely symbolic of the gale force that was sweeping away his hopes and his dreams. And so, brokenhearted, John packed up his few possessions, and with his wife and his little son, headed East in an old Ford Model A. They made their way to the edge of the mighty Mississippi River and found a job tending one of the great railroad bridges there.
Day after day, John would sit in the control room and direct the enormous gears of the immense bridge over the mighty river. He would look out wistfully as bulky barges and splendid ships glided gracefully under his elevated bridge. Each day, he looked on sadly as those ships carried with them his shattered dreams and his visions of far-off places and exotic destinations.
It wasn’t until 1937 that a new dream began to be birthed in John’s heart. His young son was now eight years old and John had begun to catch a vision for a new life, a life in which Greg, his little son, would work shoulder to shoulder with him. The first day of this new life dawned and brought with it new hope and fresh purpose. Excitedly, they packed their lunches and headed off towards the immense bridge.
Greg looked on in wide-eyed amazement as his Dad pressed down the huge lever that raised and lowered the vast bridge. As he watched, he thought that his father must surely be the greatest man alive. He marveled that his Dad could singlehandedly control the movements of such a stupendous structure.
Before they knew it, Noon time had arrived. John had just elevated the bridge and allowed some scheduled ships to pass through. And then taking his son by the hand, they headed off towards lunch.
As they ate, John told his son in vivid detail stories about the marvelous destinations of the ships that glided below them. Enveloped in a world of thought, he related story after story, his son hanging on his every word.
Then, suddenly, in the midst of telling a tale about the time that the river had overflowed its banks, he and his son were startled back to reality by the shrieking whistle of a distant train. Looking at his watch in disbelief, John saw that it was already 1:07. Immediately he remembered that the bridge was still raised and that the Memphis Express would be by in just minutes.
In the calmest tone he could muster he instructed his son “Stay put.” Quickly, he leaped to his feet, he jumped onto the catwalk. As the precious seconds flew by, he ran at full-tilt to the steer ladder leading into the control house.
Once in, he searched the river to make sure that no ships were in sight. And then, as he had been trained to do, he looked straight down beneath the bridge to make certain nothing was below. As his eyes moved downward, he saw something so horrifying that his heart froze in his chest. For there, below him in the massive gearbox that housed the colossal gears that moved the gigantic bridge, was his beloved son.
Apparently Greg had tried to follow his dad but had fallen off the catwalk. Even now he was wedged between the teeth of two main cogs in the gear box. Although he appeared to be conscious, John could see that his son’s leg had already begun to bleed. Then an even more horrifying thought flashed through his mind. Lowering the bridge would mean killing the apple of his eye.
Panicked, his mind probed in every direction, frantically searching for solutions. In his mind’s eye, he saw himself grabbing a coiled rope, climbing down the ladder, running down the catwalk, securing the rope, sliding down towards his son, pulling him back to safety. Then in an instant, he would move back down towards the control lever and thrust it down just in time for the oncoming train.
As soon as these thoughts appeared, he realized the futility of his plan. Instantly he knew there just wouldn’t be enough time. Frustration began to beat on John’s brow, terror written over every inch of his face. His mind darted here and there, vainly searching for yet another solution.
His agonized mind considered the four hundred people that were moving inextricably closer and closer to the bridge. Soon the train would come roaring out of the trees with tremendous speed, but this was his son…his only son…his pride…his joy.
He knew in a moment there was only one thing he could do. He knew he would have to do it. And so, burying his face under his left arm, he plunged down the lever. The cries of his son were quickly drowned out by the relentless sound of the bridge as it ground slowly into position. With only seconds to spare, the Memphis Express—with its 400 passengers—roared out of the trees and across the mighty bridge.
John Griffith lifted his tear-stained face and looked into the windows of the passing train. A businessman was reading the morning newspaper. A uniformed conductor was glancing nonchalantly as his large vest pocket watch. Ladies were already sipping their afternoon tea in the dining cars. A small boy, looking strangely like his own son, pushed a long thin spoon into a large dish of ice cream. Many of the passengers seemed to be engaged in idle conversation or careless laughter.
No one even looked his way. No one even cast a glance at the giant gear box that housed the mangled remains of his hopes and his dreams.
In anguish he pounded the glass in the control room. He cried out “What’s the matter with you people? Don’t you know? Don’t you care? Don’t you know I’ve sacrificed my son for you? What’s wrong with you?”
No one answered. No one heard. No one even looked. Not one of them seemed to care. And then, as suddenly as it had happened, it was over. The train disappeared moving rapidly across the bridge and out over the horizon.
We had a family reunion in Georgia during the last weekend of February. Sunday morning, the preacher shared a version of this story and asked if we realized the sacrifice given for us.
Do we realize? Do we realize the Father made the choice to give up His Son–for us; do we realize the Son made the choice to give up His own life–for us? Do we realize the anguish, the pain, They went through? Do we realize how much They loved–love–us and don’t want us to perish? Do we realize what it means for us, what it should mean?
Or are we like those train passengers?
Do we “read the newspaper”: know news from all over the world, know about sports and stocks and comics and puzzles and movies and crimes and deaths and wars and heroic acts–but not know The Best News of All?
Do we “watch the clock” or “just pass time”: focus on this life, la-di-da through life, simply survive–but not focus on eternity and what matters most, not live in this world preparing for the next, not thrive as we are meant to?
Do we “sip tea” or “eat ice cream”: feast on physical food and on what the world offers–but not on the Living Bread and Water that will completely nourish and satisfy us?
Do we engage in “idle conversation” and “careless laughter”: talk just to fill the silence, chat about unimportant or unnecessary things, not consider our words–but not speak life, (lovingly) dig deep and be vulnerable, remember the power of words, think of how our words should represent the Word?
Do we not notice? Do we not see God, not even glance at what He has done? Are we so focused on ourselves, on our own little world, that we miss Him?
I pray it is not so. I pray we’ll be like the one person who noticed in this video retelling of the story.
A young woman with a heroin addiction is preparing to take the drug when she sees the father weeping after they’ve passed over the bridge (12:50-13:55). At the end of the video, the woman shows up again–this time free from addiction and with a young boy. And the father smiles. (16:50-18:10) It was worth it.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,John 3:16 (KJV)
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.