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March 30, 2018

A nine-mile stretch of road between Tryon and Saluda, North Carolina, known as the Saluda Grade, ascends the Blue Ridge Escarpment.  This narrow, winding highway follows every curvature of the mountain.  The building of the road was quite an achievement.  Much blasting was required to create the narrow roadbed.  All of the grading was done with drag pans pulled by teams of mules.  When the work was especially difficult, snatch teams, consisting of a pair of additional mules, were brought in to help pull the drag pan up the mountain. The Saluda Grade was built by mules and would have been better used by mules.

Traveling on the Saluda Grade was quite an experience.  In the days before I-26 was built, this section of old U.S. 176 was a major trucking route.  The sharp turns and cutbacks made it difficult for an automobile to stay in the right lane and impossible for an 18-wheel truck to do so.  Driving an automobile behind an 18-wheel truck up the Saluda Grade was an experience in patience.  Driving an automobile in front of an 18-wheeler descending the Saluda Grade was an experience in anxiety. Driving an automobile up the Saluda Grade and meeting an oncoming 18-wheeler coming down the mountain road was an experience in terror.

Around every twist and turn along the Saluda Grade messages about Jesus appeared on trees, rocks, and boards staked into the side of the mountain.  The signs, printed with statements such as “Jesus Died for Your Sins” or “Jesus Saves,” were obviously not designed by a sign shop.  If prepared ahead of time, they were made in someone’s barn or backyard.  The lettering was uneven and crooked.  Signs painted on rocks in the side of the mountain seemed impossible to reach.  I can imagine someone hanging over the edge of a rock face or perhaps dangling from a rope.  With paint and paintbrush in hand, someone had scrawled out messages of salvation in those sloppy, dripping letters.

I do not know about you, but signs like that offend my sensibilities.  After all, if you have something to say about Jesus, say it neatly.  Make it plain and neat and clear and legible.  If you want to make a sign about the ministry of the Lord, at least make it look dignified. Of course, it would be hard to make anything look dignified on the Saluda Grade, a road made with mules and drag pans.

One short stretch of the Saluda Grade had enough room for a third lane, an extra lane going uphill so automobiles would at least have a chance to pass those 18-wheelers.  In that wide bend in the road someone had erected a Saluda Grade version of a gift shop.  For sale in that log cabin were corncob pipes and apple cider, sourwood honey and country ham, chenille bedspreads adorned with peacocks and chenille bathrobes to match.  Even the restroom out back, made of wooden slabs, was complete with a crescent cut in the door.  There is just not much dignity on the Saluda Grade.

The cross as a symbol of the Christian faith is odd when you think about it. Most of the world’s great religions use an object of beauty to identify their faith – the Star of David, the crescent moon, the lotus flower. Christians have chosen the cross, a cruel instrument of execution. It might just as well be a guillotine or an electric chair!  Imagine wearing a piece of jewelry depicting a gold or silver lethal injection. That will make a person consider more deeply the adornment of a cross. Through death by crucifixion the Romans devised a way to inflict severe pain and suffering.

For me, there is a compelling beauty in the cross. It is a reminder of divine love.

Long ago and faraway, the cross of Calvary itself was a sign along the highway.  It certainly was not neat and tidy either.  It was dripping at the bottom with sorrow and water and blood, flowing mingled down.  Posted with spikes on rough-hewn timber, the cross had none of the dignity usually depicted in Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion.  Jesus was stripped, bruised, wounded, and crucified.  It is a kind of portrayal you would expect to see on the Saluda Grade.

I remember reading a reflection on the crucifixion by Frederick Buechner in his book The Hungering Dark.  Buechner commented on a Jesus Saves sign he had seen painted on a bridge abutment.  The gist of his comments was, as I remember, that the Jesus Saves sign was appropriate, but incomplete.

When you travel in the mountains, if you see a Jesus Saves sign, and you probably will, fill in the blank.  It is true that Jesus died for the whole world.  But this business of salvation is personal.  Jesus saves every Tom, Dick, and Harry who will believe in Him.  Jesus saves (your name).

You fill in the blank.

Jesus saves me, and Jesus saves you.

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