Monday, October 24, 2016

"Take my ears, tell me when the whistle blows"

I've always been horrified by the tale of Rip van Winkle--the bedtime story of a young man who falls asleep and wakes up an old man with a long gray beard.  The threat that I could "sleep my life away" (along with the pressing reality that no one knows how much time they have on this earth) is the perfect cocktail for a never-ending nightmare.  Come to think of it, it's really a dirty trick, played on children by worn-out parents looking for a little revenge, to tell the story of Rip van Winkle to a child just before they say their bedtime prayers:  "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, and if I die before I wake ["wait, mommy!  You think I'm going to die tonight?"], I pray the Lord my soul to take."  "Now, go to sleep little one.  Sweet dreams."   Hardly, I'd lie awake in the dark, forcing myself to stay awake, lest old age or death creep up on me when I wasn't looking.

I've been a fan of the songs by John/Taupin almost from the beginning of their career.  Of course, the musical side of that writing team knows how to write beautiful music.  But, it's the craft of the lyricist that stays with me--his ability to capture the human condition in the most honest, unassuming, profound, and sometimes disturbing ways.  In their autobiographical album, "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy," John/Taupin explore their rise to fame with a bit of wistful recollection and biting sarcasm.  In one of the songs, "Take my ears, tell me when the whistle blows," Taupin explores the prodigal son motif with a twist.  He realizes he's lost something of home, and he can never go back.  At such an early age (he must have been around twenty-three or twenty-four when he wrote the song), Taupin lays bare the fear of homelessness:  at a railroad station, trying to make a connecting train headed to his home in the country, the young man has seen too much of the big city success, has lost his moorings, like a "black sheep going home, I want to feel your wheels of steel."  To be grounded once again, to wake up from the dream (nightmare or fairy tale?), to feel the earth, a gravitas, a clear sense of where you are, where you've been, and where you are going.  "Wake me up, and tell me when the whistle blows."  Things change, things change you, and you can never go back home.

This is why eschatology matters.  The existential angst that accompanies our storied lives isn't enough to wake us up.  And, nobody can sound the alarm for us, to rouse us from our comfortable repose (besides, nobody likes alarmists anyway).  Rather, we have to have a sense of the ending, last things, where the story is going, to keep us alive and well, fully conscious, breathing in the pain and the pleasure, the disappointment and the hope, the past and the present.  Bottom line:  neither nostalgia nor fear work like smelling salts to make us see where we've been, where we're headed.  Instead, the only way I can make sense of both is the end-of-the-world work of the kingdom of God, the summing up of all things (past, present, and future), a "this-is-where-you-are" map of the world, protology and eschatology.  The way the last book of the Bible puts it, Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega--the breadth of all things--and therefore, those who "follow the lamb wherever he goes," find the ending because they know the beginning.

""And to the angel of the church in Sardis write:  He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars, says this:  'I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.  wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which are about to die . . . . And I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Write, "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!" "Yes," says the Spirit,"that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them"'" (Rev. 4:1-2; 14:13).

"Long lost and lonely boy, I'm just a black sheep going home, I want to feel your wheels of steel, underneath my itching heal, take my money, tell me when the whistle blows."

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