Trains and Boats

Forty years ago, my Dad shared a poem, The Station, with me. I have been an advocate of focusing on the journey and its passengers ever since. There is symbolism in the vehicle for the journey, a symbolism especially found in songs. Two major images for this vehicle are trains and boats.

Trains have been a theme in both traditional and popular music since the first half of the 19th century with over 1,000 different songs in all major musical genres. The train song that made the biggest symbolic connection for me was in the movie, Glory Days, with Alicia Key’s version of People Get Ready; although I prefer the Rod Stewart/Jeff Beck version of the song. The song reflects the changes coming on the horizon.

People Get Ready – There’s a train a-coming – You don’t need no baggage – You just get on board
All you need is faith – To hear the diesels humming – Don’t need no ticket – You just thank the Lord
There ain’t no room – For the hopeless sinner – Who would hurt all mankind just – To save his own
Have pity on those – Whose chances are thinner – Cause there’s no hiding place – From the Kingdom’s Throne

“People Get Ready” is part of a long tradition of Black American freedom songs to use the train imagery that comes from the Underground Railroad, the route North to freedom for escaped slaves in America pre-civil war.

Many songs are rooted on this imagery of a communal train where all are welcome – saints, sinners, gamblers, thieves, lost souls, and the brokenhearted — as the train heads off to an unknown but optimistic and spiritual future. Kenny Rogers “The Gambler”, Bruce Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams”, Woody Guthrie’s “This Train is Bound for Glory”, Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” and even Ozzie Osbourne gets on board with “Crazy Train.” In a similar theme is the O’Jays “Love Train”, a favorite of mine when I was 10 years old, long before it became the theme song to a Coors’s Light commercial.

There were no trains in Jesus day however there were caravans that acted like trains, usually around trade routes, providing travel for large groups going long distances. Caravans can also be referred to as camel trains, where it is a series of camels in a line, like rail cars. The most noted reference in Scripture to caravans is in Luke 2:44 – where Jesus as a young boy is supposed to be in the caravan that traveled a day’s journey before his parents looked for Him among their relatives and acquaintances.

The boat is also a symbol for vessel on a journey; it evokes a passage, carrying one over the water, a voyage of life. Like Train Songs, there are also hundreds of Boat Songs. Most notably from my play list – “Southern Cross”, “Come Sail Away”, “Sloop John B” and a host of Jimmy Buffett songs. Of course, there is my rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

A boat song many have not heard is “Get a Boat” by an off the chart Minneapolis group called, Rocket Club, you can find it on YouTube, and it is worth the listen. It is a simple parable that illustrates the truth of the journey.

Get a Boat. Set it on the water and if it floats, ride that river to the sea
The whole wide world, gonna be waiting there to meet you
But they won’t if you don’t get a boat
This life’s a trip, much to do, much to learn, a one-way trip, there ain’t no ticket for return

In the Old Testament there are many references to boats with the first sailing vessel mentioned being Noah’s Ark. Boats played a large role in Jesus’ life and ministry, there are over 50 references of boats just in the Gospels alone.

The imagery of a vessel found its way into the physical form and architecture of a church. A ceiling in a vaulted fashion, exposing the wooden beams, resembling the reversed look of a ship’s keel; exterior ramparts representing oars; a pulpit that visibly puts the priest as the pilot of the congregation. The area between the Church’s antechamber and the sanctuary is called the “nave” for the Latin word, navis meaning ship. The reality is that the Church is a ship, protecting those inside it from the waves and buffets of the world; bringing her people to safe harbors.

The church is not a cruise ship, it’s a boat and that is an important distinction. People who travel by ship are passengers — a very passive role. All the important decisions and all the work are handled by the crew. People on a boat are the crew – raising sails, tying knots, rowing. If they hoped to get anywhere, they had to share the work.

Get on board your train or boat and be prepared to work. Set sail on a following sea – Leave behind your sorrows – Think about the good things to come – Maybe it’s not too late, to learn how to love and forget how to hate – Because somewhere in the darkness we can break even – Meet in a land of hopes and dreams.

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