On the Subtle Nuances of Train Whistles

Some are high-pitched like the steam engines of last century, sounding like a banshee shriek. One was a buzz so low I thought it was an electrical problem at a neighbor’s house. Some are dissonant, like nails on a chalkboard. One sounds like a string symphony imitating a train whistle. It was beautiful.

Until I lived near some Birmingham railroad tracks, I only had a passing familiarity with different kind of train whistles. We don’t live close enough that it is really disturbing, but sometimes in the night, if I’m already awake, I hear them blowing at the intersections. My father in law used to talk about how he would hear the steam whistle as a boy, and try to imagine who was on the train, and where they were going. It was a soulful, melancholy sound that always made him think about other lands and places to visit.

I might have a less romantic view of train horns and whistles if I lived right next door to the tracks. There’s a church near the tracks, and I wonder if the preacher has to pause during the sermon when trains go by. I’ve heard people describe the plaster shaken off of their walls, their windows cracked, and their conversations interrupted by the rumbling of freight cars.

That’s the power of the gospel. For some of us, it startles us awake. It may be jarring and annoying, and we wish it would be silent. For others, it calls to mind a different land and a longing for a place we can’t see. It can also be a summons: “Get on board, the train is leaving!”

Or maybe it’s an announcement: “Here comes the Freedom Train. The Kingdom can’t stop. The moment is at hand.”