Chris Smither is a singer-songwriter who has built up a solid reputation and a loyal following through 30 years of touring and recording. His songs are a fusion of blues and folk, and are characterised by intricate guitar picking, intriguing lyrics and a weary-but-mellow voice.
Although Smither himself may not be well-known, some of his songs are, for they have been covered by such eminent artists as Diana Krall, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and John Mayall.
One song that is likely to be covered by other singers in the future is “Train Home”, the title song of Smither’s eleventh album. Dealing with the subject of death, “Train Home” is a well-written song that resembles Bob Dylan’s work in its complexities, ambiguities and wordplays. While it is a little disjointed conceptually, it is quite unified emotionally. All in all, it is a strangely moving lament over our mortality.
Before singing the song at a concert in Perth recently, Smither explained that he did not share the Christian hope of an afterlife and he did not have any firm opinion about what death would bring. His song bears this out:
I don’t think I see much of anything for me
in visions of the past or the ever-after.
Now is what can be, all the rest is wait and see,
those prophets never hear that cosmic laughter.
The only thing Smither seems certain about is that death is coming and he has no choice but to wait for it. It is a train coming to take him home, whatever that “home” may be.
While Smither puts on a brave face (indeed, his tune is almost jaunty) he does not pretend to be indifferent to death. He is anxious, even afraid. Some people, he sings, “never hear those death bells tolling” …
But I do, and my pulse beats quicker,
scornful laughs and knowing snickers,
stop my heart and sink it like a stone.
Now I’m waitin’ on a train to take me home.
Just waitin’ on a train to take me home.
A quickening pulse, a sinking heart—Smither is not alone. We are all waiting for that train, and we all wish we were not.
While listening to “Train Home” on my stereo one day, I found myself thinking about another train involving death. Seven trains, in fact.
In Spain on the 11th of March 2004 ten bombs exploded on four trains in three railway stations in Madrid, killing 200 people and injuring 1,500. The slaughter was the work of Islamic terrorists associated with al Qaeda.
In Britain on the 7th of July 2005 three bombs exploded on three trains travelling the Underground in London (and a fourth bomb exploded on a bus in the streets above). The carnage left 52 people dead and 700 injured. Again, the slaughter was the work of men devoted to Islam and connected with al Qaeda.
In both Madrid and London ordinary people on their way to their ordinary jobs fell victim to an extra-ordinary hatred. Thanks to the terrorists, the trains they travelled in took them to a totally unexpected and unwanted destination.
All aboard! The next stop, Death!
Who could have guessed it? The people on those trains in Madrid in March 2004 and in London in July 2005 could no more have foreseen their fate than the people who died in the first two momentous terror attacks of the new millennium—the 202 people in the nightclubs in Bali in October 2002 and the 2,749 people in the Twin Towers in New York in September 2001.
Chris Smither’s metaphorical train home became a literal train home for those people in Madrid and London. And we fear that, if they had their way, the terrorists would send a train for us, too.
Fortunately, the likelihood of the terrorists getting their way with any given one of us is minute. But, unfortunately, that does not mean we have escaped. For murder is not the only track the Death Train travels. It also travels the tracks of age and accident and disease. Whether at a crawl or at full-throttle, a train is coming for each one of us. Like Chris Smither, we are all waiting on a train to take us home.
Where is the comfort in all of this? At one point in his song, Smither sings:
The somewhat welcome news is there is no
way to lose,
because what isn’t real is genuine illusion.
This has a Buddhist ring: it doesn’t really matter what happens because life is just an illusion. Is that the best comfort we can find in the face of uncertainty, anxiety and death? Happily, no! Despite his wordplay and wit, Smither’s sentiment in these two lines is genuine delusion.
Another song about a train—a train home—sets things in perspective and offers us hope. It is a Negro spiritual, sung long ago by people who knew all about uncertainty, injustice, suffering and death. It is called “The Gospel Train”.
Stylistically and emotionally, “The Gospel Train” is far removed from “Train Home”. For although both songs touch on death and use the metaphor of a train, the Smither song is sophisticated in style and dejected in tone, while the Negro song is simple in style and buoyant in tone. The modern blues singer wants to share his angst, while the traditional Negro singer wants to share his hope.
Here are the opening and closing verses of “The Gospel Train”, with the chorus in italics:
The Gospel train’s comin’
I hear it just at hand
I hear the car wheel rumblin’
And rollin’ thro’ the land
Get on board little children
Get on board little children
Get on board little children
There’s room for many more
The fare is cheap and all can go
The rich and poor are there
No second class aboard this train
No difference in the fare
The train of this song is a Gospel train. The Gospel is the good news of the Christian Faith that God loves us and sent his Son, Jesus, to save us. It is the good news that by his death and resurrection Jesus did everything necessary to make amends to God for our wrongdoing. It is the good news that those who trust in the Lord Jesus need not fear death any more because he has given them eternal life.
For all its lack of sophistication, the Negro spiritual is profoundly right. The Gospel Train is coming. If you listen you can hear it just at hand. The fare is cheap because Jesus paid it. It cost him his life, but it will cost you nothing except trust. You just have to say “Help me, Lord!” and “Thank you, Lord!” to get on board.
If you board the Gospel Train, it will take you through life with a sense of purpose and assurance. It will take you through death into eternal life.
The Gospel Train is coming. If you are willing, it will take you home to Jesus. Won’t you get on board, little children? There’s room for many more.
About Becoming and Being a Christian
The Bible teaches that God created human beings in his own likeness, giving us moral, mental and emotional qualities that cannot be found among any of the other creatures on earth. He made us special in order to have a special relationship with us. However, our wrongful thoughts, words and actions have alienated him and have provoked his anger. And, sadly, we are unable to make amends by our own efforts. No action or ritual we perform can undo the wrongs we have done or prevent us from doing more wrongs in the days ahead. We cannot through our own exertions repair our relationship with him or cancel his condemnation of us.
Yet God loves us still and has acted to save us from his judgment and restore us to his friendship. He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to set things right. After living a perfect life, Jesus died in our place and on our behalf. On the cross, he assumed our sins and endured our punishment. In this way, he made it possible for us to bear his purity and share his destiny. God showed his approval of Jesus and his acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice by raising him from the dead and taking him back to heaven.
Jesus has done everything that needed to be done to make us right with God. To benefit from his sacrifice, we must believe in him. We must trust in him as Saviour and entrust ourselves to him as Lord. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Indeed, “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
Once we believe in Jesus and are saved, there are certain things that we should do, and will want to do, to please our Saviour. With God’s help, we should:
- read the Bible regularly, meditating on it in order to learn more about who God is, what he has done for us, and what he wants of us;
- pray regularly, offering God our praise and thanksgiving, telling him our thoughts and feelings, and asking him for help and guidance;
- attend church regularly, forming friendships with other Christians, gaining encouragement from them, and giving encouragement to them;
- be baptised in obedience to Jesus’ command and as a public expression of our newfound faith in, and allegiance to, Jesus as Lord;
- strive to live a life worthy of our salvation, becoming more like Jesus day by day, displaying his character, which is full of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23);
- share the good news about Jesus with others, telling them that they, too, can be forgiven and have a place in heaven, if only they will trust in Jesus as Saviour and Lord.
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown 2007
Published by Life Ministries. Additional copies of this pamphlet are available from Life Ministries, Suite 4, 334 Wanneroo Road, Nollamara, Western Australia, 6061. Phone/fax: (08) 9344 7396