Photo by Leyre on Unsplash

This song ran though my head the entire month of August. That was one persistent earworm, though as earworms go, they could be far worse. I finally began to wonder if God wasn’t trying to say something to me. Throughout the music, the singer talks to a “crazy child,” and if that isn’t how God sees me at times, I’d be very surprised. God has spoken to me in far wilder ways than through Billy Joel.

I listened to Billy Joel a lot as a young person. A lot. I hadn’t listened to this song in decades, so how did it get into my head suddenly? And why? 

I didn’t know the meaning behind the song when I was a teenager lounging by the turntable loving how a fellow pianist put words together. I’m sure I wouldn’t have understood if I had. However, as I approach a big birthday this month (tomorrow, in fact), I’ve learned more of the story.

Listen to Vienna.

According to Google, “Vienna” is Joel’s stand in for old age. The Old World setting. The accordion solo. (Yes, when you’re talented enough, you can pull off an accordion solo in a top 40 hit.) The lilt that feels like a waltz but isn’t. He doesn’t, however, intend it as we might presume. The most obvious interpretation of “Vienna waits for you” seems to be “Old age is coming, youngster. It gets us all. Why work so hard? It’s all meaningless!” Shades of Ecclesiastes.

Photo by Anthony Fomin on Unsplash

No, he means something entirely different. Age, in this song, is beautiful. It’s a time when purpose, productivity, and depth can blossom in ways we cannot imagine when we’re young. 

“You can’t be everything you want to be before your time.”

I spent so many years trying to be everything I wanted to be. I wanted not to make the mistakes my parents did. I wanted to walk in a faith that was new to anyone in my family and do it right. I wanted those perfect Christian children, and that, of course, is often what finally undoes us in our ultimately unholy pursuit of perfection. 

I wanted to prove I could be everything because that was the only way I’d ever known to be anything.

Joel was right. There are things I couldn’t be, and patience would have been a better virtue than pursuit. A life of integrity is created like good cheese—time and careful nurture. When we try to rush it, we get a veneer of being everything that only reinforces our need to protect the surface at all costs. In my profession, we get pastoral abuse. 

We get the Colosseum of Las Vegas, not Rome. I’ve seen both. One could never mistake the former for the latter. 

“Take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while. It’s alright—you can afford to lose a day or two.”

Not because the days ultimately don’t matter but because, with good fortune, we will have enough of them to find out what makes us come alive and who we want to be. That can’t be rushed. We’ve done a bit of a disservice to our younger generations with our endless “follow your passion” rhetoric not because passions are’t good to follow but because we’re demanding people know them out of the gate. Anyone who has’t figured it out and gotten 3/4 of the way there by 30 is slacking.

Before 30 I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, and if you asked me still I’d probably tell you the same today. I won’t be grown up until my soul is restored to the perfection its Maker intended, so maybe that’s OK.

Photo by Francesco Luca Labianca on Unsplash

If we don’t have the days ahead of us? All the more reason to invest in disappearing. I’ve written and will continue to write a lot about sabbath. God invented this whole concept of disappearing and called it good. It was the way God gave us to reacquaint ourselves with God and also with ourselves. Going “off the hook” puts us back in relationship balance.

We remember our place in the economy of history—big enough to be beloved by the Creator, small enough to be a grain of sand in relative time. Losing a day might gain us a soul. 

Please take the phone off the hook (whatever that mean anymore). Take social media off the hook. Take work off the hook. If you don’t lose a day or two, you’ll lose yourself. If we reach Vienna and that person really is a stranger (no coincidence this is the album title, I’m sure), we’ve lost too much.

So happy birthday to me. I’m entering what a viral Facebook post calls the most productive decade of human life. Sadly, Snopes has shown that post to be based on a false claim about a nonexistent study (and you so trusted in Facebook reliability, right?). To be honest, productivity may not be what I’m valuing most anyway. Still, David Galenson in Old Masters and Young Geniuses opines—there are different kinds of productivity and genius. One includes the “experimental innovators, those whose work was exploratory and filled with trial and error and decades of accumulated wisdom and feeling. Those who fit the experimental pattern did their best work later in life.” 

I’m going with that. Vienna isn’t here yet—but it waits, and that’s not a negative.