What My Train Set Taught Me About Transcendence

My kids and I used to have a small Lionel train set in a corner of my tool room. Ten years ago we dismantled the small set with dreams of a bigger and better train set in a newly created basement room called the Train Room.

We dreamed of the perfect train layout with switches, freight yards, and realistic scenery; with a moving crane, sawmill, draw-bridge, and coal dump; and with cities, tunnels, mountains, and farms. It would fill the new 15 by 18 foot Train Room.

Our quest for perfection derailed us. We dreamt of glory, and for ten years we did nothing. We ran out of steam. The Train Room became the junk room, a closet in which to hide things that belonged nowhere else.

Dad - train setIt also stored the dusty train set that we dismantled ten years ago.

The day before Christmas, my kids suggested we re-assemble the train set in the new Train Room. We cleared the “closet” out (never mind where all that junk went), we put the table up, we rewired the accessories, and we set the trains back on track once again.

It was a blast. Doing something adequately was far better than doing nothing perfectly.

What was our problem?

Our ten-year derailment arose from a blend of exposure and comparison. The internet (and a small library of train books) exposed us to the world’s greatest train sets. We saw realistic landscapes that rivaled a Rembrandt, and we saw wiring diagrams that would have shamed Star Trek’s Enterprise.

Exposure to the world’s greatest layouts made our plans—in comparison—seem puny, hardly worth the effort. So we improved our plans. Soon the train set was to be so elaborate—so magnificent—that it was hard to know where to begin.

So we didn’t begin, and the set collected dust in the corner of the forgotten dream closet. Until the day we decided to do something—even though that something was small.

I see this pattern everywhere

At the end of my life, my train set will matter very little, but the ten year dust collection got me thinking.

How many other desires—some of real significance—do I let gather dust because my standard is too high or because I compare myself to others? How many times have I failed to take the first step because I feared it wouldn’t be magnificent?

Which makes no sense. Do I really think da Vinci’s first painting was the Mona Lisa or that Michelangelo’s first sculpture the Pieta? My longing for perfection—or magnificence—creates in me the inaction of apathy.

For years I have wanted to write a book about Hearing God, but the ideal of perfection left this dream to collect dust next to my neglected train set.

I’ve let what I can’t do stop me from doing what I can do. Which is stupid. This year I’ll write my Little Book About Hearing God. I’ll offer what I’ve been given, not held back by what all there is yet to learn.

The first step

I’m an optimistic guy, yet there is much I don’t do because “it” won’t be glorious. My desire for doing something great, coupled with seeing others do “it” brilliantly, leads me to inactivity. Or hiding my dream in a closet. I am sidetracked by insignificance.

In the Parable of the Talents, three servants are given three different sums of money to manage. The first receives five talents (a huge sum of money), invests it, and doubles it. The second receives two talents, invests it, and doubles it. The last receives one talent (still much money), and he hides it in a closet (oops, I mean he buries it).

I’ve always felt sorry for that last guy. To begin with, he is given the very least, and to end with, even the little he has is taken away. Would he have done better if he had more to begin with?

I now realize the parable is not about a once in a lifetime chance; the parable is about a process. The guy with five talents once had only two; before that, one; and before that, maybe only a denarius. As he used what he’d be given, he was given more.

As we use what God has given us—as we actually drive it down the tracks—more is given. Whereas when we don’t use what God has given us—as we let it atrophy—we lose the little we have. Waiting for perfection makes a train wreck of our talents.

I’m not talking about a mere bucket list

Something ordinary (a train set) triggered my thoughts, but I’m not concerned with mundane goals. I’m not suggesting we plan to visit the Grand Canyon, learn to fly, or climb Mt. Everest. Life is not a game of trains; it is a wild adventure of really living.

We each have a call from God, a special gifting, something the world desperately needs; we have something to offer to the world. We can start by offering a cup of cold water.

God wants us to give of ourselves and out of ourselves: maybe to compose a song, write a book, care for a poor person, offer some wisdom, or bring an insight.

Let’s not allow what we can’t do prevent us from doing what we can do.

Join me this year by coming out of the closet. (Hmmm … maybe another metaphor is needed.) Join me in un-burying what’s been given to us and then bringing it to the world, unapologetically, unreservedly, and without shame at its smallness.

This year let’s begin to do something worthwhile—one step at a time. Let’s get back on track.



30 Responses to What My Train Set Taught Me About Transcendence

  1. Cynthia says:

    Amen to that!


  2. randy says:

    So excellent Sam. Attending then bringing the “Calling Intensive Experience” to Minnesota was a great example. You and Gary’s calling to share this message not only was a God given tool to me to pass this along to a desperately thirsty community, but it quenched my own thirst and somehow filled the water tower of my heart as well as many other hearts to step in to what HE calls us to do. And the energy required was provided! Not only did HE provide, but he greased the gears and purified the water in that tower. Thank you for doing HIS part in your own heart. This message of freedom and purpose is something that I enjoy, share and pass along to my own children. And my heart is alive!

  3. Danny Anderson says:

    Sam, this story is like me at times in my life.I’ve learned in the last few years that I want to be first in line, dont want my place in line to be taken by another man.Thank you for your words of strenght and wisdom that you have shared in the last year that i have got to know you. Blessing to you and your family in this new year! Danny

  4. Coach D says:

    I am teaching a class right now on our core aches. And one of my lead ideas is a poem that Matthew Arnold wrote entitled “The Buried Life.” It’s remarkable in that it so well describes the ache for life and transcendance that we bury. You use the same language also. Look it up when you get a chance. Thanks for this.

  5. Mark Wilby says:

    Nice post, Sam. Reminds me of the boy with five loaves and two fish. We never know what’s possible till we give it a chance.

    • Mark, I posted my comment below not realizing that you’d also mentioned the boy’s lunch. May we all take what we have been given and watch it be multiplied.

    • Mark and Robin,

      I love the connection with the loaves and fish. I absolutely love it.

      It reminds me of two things (at least). FIRST: I love God’s invitation to join him in the creative process of caring for the world. He didn’t need our loaves and fish, but it is through them that he chose to work. He wants our partnership, our comradeship; he want us!

      SECOND: I love the way he multiplies our work. He magnifies our little offerings–those imperfections we bring–and he uses them to feed thousands.

      I love the partnership and the multiplying.

      Thank you, both of you, for this brilliant insight.


  6. “As we use what God has given us—as we actually drive it down the tracks—more is given. Whereas when we don’t use what God has given us—as we let it atrophy—we lose the little we have. Waiting for perfection makes a train wreck of our talents.” And ” un-burying what’s been given to us and then bringing it to the world, unapologetically, unreservedly, and without shame at its smallness.

    This year let’s begin to do something worthwhile—one step at a time.”

    Thank you for these words. They are coming at me from all directions! God continues to remind me that my idea of small is not small when placed in Heaven’s hands. I think often of a bag lunch of 5 loaves and 2 fish. It’s time for the next step. And then the step after that, and after that….

  7. Randy Luce says:

    Someone recall the scripture Gary has used about “small beginnings”…?

  8. Brooks says:

    Wow, terrific post! I can SO relate to this. This topic hit me the clearest a few years ago when I looked at a corner of our basement that was piled high with all our various tools, toolkits, nuts, bolts, projects, filters, blah, blah. I wanted to organize it since it was so hard to find things, but there were too many unanswered questions about where everything would fit and not enough time to do it all. God nudged me with the same point you make: “Just do SOMETHING. It doesn’t have to be perfect.” So I gave myself only one afternoon to organize it, and no more. It sure wasn’t perfect, but it has also saved me a ton of headache by being at least SORT of organized the past few years! Nice job, Sam. Loved it.

    • You know, I think the message, “just do something” is actually freeing. It means something is better than nothing and anything is better zilch.

      It means for all of us, tomorrow can be better than today, and today can be better than yesterday. We can offer a little now, and then a little more, and then a little more.


  9. Lyle Regan says:

    It is amazing to me that what you speak of, is a mirror of my life. How many things have I stated, or wished I had started, that never got off the ground. As I think about where God has taken me this past year, my 20-20 hind sight shows me that my “walking with God” has actually gotten a little bit of traction. From my perspective, Our (my) wounds of the heart are a big player in our (my) lack of activity at times. Our spiritual enemy, who prowls around looking to devour, spots my weaknesses fairly easily and slows me down. With out God, I would be in the closet / buries, in-active. Thanks for your “train set experience” May you start on your little book soon. Lyle

    • Hi Lyle,

      Thanks for your words. Our spiritual enemy certainly does want to take us out of the game. I believe Satan attacks us for three reasons: to alienate us from God, to alienate us from each other, and to alienate us from our true selves.

      He doesn’t want us in a restored relationship with God; he hates for us to have restored relationships with each other; and he is terrified of what we will be when we are our true selves.

      And you, Lyle, are becoming the great man God designed you to be. Thank you for all your great comments and insights.


  10. Fred Morton says:

    Love this post. I will share it at a little Fellowship of the heart meeting we started at our home. It is time for the Body to Arise & Shine. I used the excuse of waiting for someone/spiritual authority to recognize and give me an assignment, but God does not want anyone/anything between Him and His beloved. I only awakened and became alive when I followed His leading directly. Just starting to come out of the closet and get on track. Thanks for the encouragement!

    • Hi Fred,

      I love your insight, “of waiting for someone .. to recognize and give me an assignment.” Yes, we all have that hidden longing and hidden trap.

      We can be so easily held back by fear, wanting someone else to take our initiative, waiting for the right position, waiting for recognition, money, time, etc.

      All we really need is to know–to believe deeply in our hearts–that we are made in the image of the great creator; and we are made to create!


  11. Ed says:


    Great post as usual. This really hit me, but in a slightly different way. I’m not a perfectionist, but I have the blessing/curse of looking at most things from a long-term perspective. I often find myself paralyzed when making short-term decisions for fear of moving in a direction that will not lend itself to the best long-term solution. I never really thought about this until now, but it’s ultimately a lack of faith. I remember reading a book on finding God’s will several years ago. I was surprised when the final step was “Do whatever you want”. Of course, the first several steps related to being in the word, prayer, fellowship, etc. I do have a responsibility to use my gifts to make wise decisions, but ultimately God is in control and (as Proverbs 3:6 says) will direct my path if I lean on Him.

    • Ed,

      I like your perspective here. I think it describes my position more accurately; it’s not that I’m such a perfectionist (ask my wife!), it’s the concern of a short term decision affecting the long term result.

      But, as someone once said to me, a moving car is easier to steer; and sometimes God simply wants us to move.

      I had the same experience once, where I was asking God for direction, and he simply asked, “What do YOU want to do?”

      Thanks for your comment.

      (And PS: should we ever tell the rest of the audience how we ganged up on your son Matt when he invited Rebekah to the prom???)

  12. Rachelle says:

    This is great timing. I just wrote a draft for tomorrow’s post. I’m working on trusting God to provide what I need in the future and therefore giving away what I don’t need now. I concluded with a prayer acknowledging that giving away three DVDs is a very small start to such a project. But it IS a start! And then I read your post, and it really encouraged me. Thanks for sharing, Sam. I want to read your book.

  13. Great Insights from the poet Ted Hughes.

    When I came to Lake Victoria, it was quite obvious to me that in some of the most important ways you are much more mature than I am. . . . But in many other ways obviously you are still childish — how could you not be, you alone among mankind? It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’. But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child. Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool — for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful. So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources — not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy. That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self — struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence — you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.

    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks for the post. I especially like this line (about 1/3 from the bottom), “That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour.”

      And then the final two sentences, “And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”

      Christianity somehow, someway, has had its heart stolen. The essence of Christianity is being made (and restored through grace) in the image of God. It is wild, exciting, thrilling, adventurous, and full of life. Somehow we’ve distilled the essence down to being good little boys and girls. What a tragedy.


  14. Doug G says:

    Great words for a fresh, new year! Time to step out of the safety zone and embrace the adventure of this life and world. Hmmm, I got a Lionel train for Christmas one year and it’s now in boxes in storage…now I wonder why?

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