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joey-banks-380271The headline reading “Signs Missed In Fatal Train Crash” grabbed my attention immediately.  I folded the newspaper, brought it close to my face and became absorbed in its story.  Investigative reports had finally been released regarding the train derailment that killed three people and wounded dozens of others in the state of Washington this past December.  

Apparently the engineer, who knew the curve with a 30 mph speed restriction was at milepost 198, had planned to start braking about a mile before reaching it.  Instead the train was speeding at 80 mph as it approached the curve.  He had missed the sign.

He says he applied the brakes as soon as he saw the curve and its 30 mph sign but it was too late.  The train derailed seconds later and plunged off an overpass onto busy Interstate 5 – the Pacific Northwest’s main north-south highway.  

Reading the story I could only imagine the horror of realizing it was too late to correct something that had been mistakenly missed.  Then I began to think of all the instances where that same scenario plays out in our lives.  Marriages are an example where warning signs are sometimes ignored until damages become irreparable.  Failing to notice the “low fuel” sign on our cars can leave us stranded in the middle of the road on a dark night.  Once while driving our daughter and her best friend to a ski camp in Louisiana from Arkansas I missed the sign for our turnoff and ended up adding two extra hours to our trip!  Missing the signs can be both damaging and deadly.

This past Fall I began experiencing pain in my lower left side.  I explained it away as a pulled muscle.  Never one to whine or easily complain, I pushed on with my usual “go for the gusto” approach to each new day.  I swallowed Tylenol, used a heating pad, and basically tried to ignore the messages my body was sending me.  Because I was scheduled for my regular annual checkup in a few weeks I decided to wait until then to talk to my doctor about it.

  Missing the signs can be both damaging and deadly.

Ten days before my scheduled checkup I was running a fever and in so much pain I couldn’t sleep at night.  I had become that 80 mph train that was about to approach the 30 mph curve.  After a weekend of groaning and holding my side I called my doctor early Monday morning.  “You have to see me,” I said.  “Something’s wrong.”

He did a quick check and sent me for a CT scan.  An hour later I was being admitted to the ER and a surgeon had been called.  Apparently the scan showed a small hole in my intestines and leakage into my stomach.  Infection was the cause of the pain and tenderness in my abdomen and, of course, explained the fever.

The surgeon admitted me to the hospital and ordered IV antibiotics.  In addition I was put on a liquid diet to allow my colon to “rest”.  Blood samples were drawn twice each day to check my white blood cell count to see if the liquid antibiotics were being effective at treating the infection.  “If the intestines have already abscessed,” the doctor stated grimly, “we’ll have to go in and remove the infected section of your colon.  We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

Thankfully, five days of being hooked up to some strong antibiotics did the trick and I was able to go home to a “soft diet” of things like scrambled eggs, applesauce, mashed potatoes and milkshakes.  As I was packing to go home the nurse said to me, “You’re really lucky you came in when you did because a lot of people wait too late and their only option is surgery.”  Lucky indeed!  My little train had almost derailed.  Missing the signs could have even cost me my life.

From that experience I learned how important it is to pay close attention to the signals our bodies give us and to respond when something is not aligned.  I have also learned through the years how important it is to pay attention to my spiritual health and to read the warning signs when they appear.  

One of the very first signals for me that I am not doing well spiritually is my speech.  Matthew 12:34 is a great diagnostic test.  It says, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”  When I am not staying in the Word of God and am not spiritually connected in a healthy way, I hear statements come out of my mouth that are negative, critical or complaining.  That is a sign I need a “heart checkup” with the Great Physician.

 I have also learned through the years how important it is to pay attention to my spiritual health and to read the warning signs when they appear.  

Another warning sign I don’t want to miss is a prideful spirit.  I Corinthians 10:12 says, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”  When we become self-righteous and feel superior to others because of what God’s grace has done in our lives, we are like that fast train approaching that sharp curve.  We’ll speed right past the Holy Spirit’s signs that humble and convict us and hurl ourselves directly into the path of destruction.

I have also noticed when I am not attuned to the Holy Spirit’s prompting I miss wonderful opportunities to minister to the needs of those around me.  I may be engaged in activity or conversation and miss the hurting heart nearby.  Or I might hear someone’s words but not see what their facial expression and body language are telling me.  And if I am not paying attention I might just miss the chance to speak words of life which could help make a difference in the course of someone’s future.  I always feel regret when and if I miss those opportunities.

When I am not attuned to the Holy Spirit’s prompting I miss wonderful opportunities to minister to the needs of those around me.

I want to live my life as a wise person, not a foolish one.  With my family, in my marriage, with my health, and in my spiritual well being I want to be alert and observant enough to see and read the signs placed there for my safety and for those around me.  I want to pay attention, to be aware, to be a “watchman on the wall” (Isaiah 62:6)

Pulitzer prize winning poet Mary Oliver had this to say, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work”.  Her words were an observation but I would like to make it my prayer.   “Lord, help me to be aware and alert each day I live.  Because I want to maximize the beautiful life you have given me help me to hear your voice, follow your plan and to not miss the signs along the way.  Amen.”