Bruce Cockburn: ‘Early on one Christmas Morn’

From one of my all time favourite Christmas albums, Bruce Cockburn’s ‘Christmas‘ (1993).

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Bruce Cockburn: ‘Water into Wine’

I believe this video was taken at an outdoor concert at the Forum in Ontario Place in the summer of 1979. I was at that concert, having been a Bruce Cockburn fan for a couple of years at the time. I had never in my life heard a guitar played like this by anyone else, and Bruce inspired me to do my best to become a much better fingerstyle player.

This tune is called ‘Water into Wine’ and can by found on Bruce’s 1976 album ‘In the Falling Dark‘. The guitar Bruce is playing was made by Jean Larrivée and was one of the first ever acoustic guitars to feature a cutaway to allow the guitarist more access to high notes. In the 1970s most acoustic guitar builders believed you could not make an instrument like that without sacrificing tonal quality, but Jean Larrivée proved them wrong.

Pacing the Cage

I’ve loved this Bruce Cockburn song ever since I first heard it. I can just see the old tiger in my mind’s eye, walking back and forth behind the bars, wanting to get out but having almost given up hope that it will ever happen. It’s not a song that many young people could write; it comes from years of struggle to hold together the shining ideals we strive for and the harsh, broken reality of life in a world shot through with imperfection and evil.

For me, this is not first of all about sitting in judgement on the world around. There’s more than enough imperfection and evil in my own heart for me to be going along with. I don’t have to read the gospels for very long before I’m confronted with example after example of how I’ve fallen short of the very teachings of Jesus that fire my imagination and inspire my discipleship. Yes, it’s true that I live in a fairly modest house and at a fairly modest level of luxury, but I’m still a long way away from selling my possessions, giving to the poor, and following Jesus with a whole heart and a single mind. Yes, it’s true that I do my best to live in peace with my fellow human beings, but there are still unspoken resentments and unforgiven grudges, and I’m certainly a long way from loving my enemies and praying for those who hate me. Yes, it’s true that I work as a pastor in the Christian church, but so often my work is half-hearted, and I take the easy road more times than I care to remember.

I guess everyone who’s lived into their fifties catches themselves from time to time looking back nostalgically at the days of their youth and wondering what happened to all that innocence and idealism. Yes, we were going to live off the land in the countryside, with next-to-no carbon footprint, growing vegetables and singing folk songs with unamplified acoustic guitars. We were going to live a simple life and care for the poor and needy. We were so thankful to have experienced the presence of God and the power of the gospel of Jesus, and we were going to share it with others and help them become Jesus’ followers too. Church was going to be simple, without the trappings of tradition and clericalism and power and pretentiousness.

I’m not inclined to sit in judgement on that youthful idealism. Yes, it failed to take into account our own sinfulness and the power of entrenched evil in the fallen world around us. And yes, some of the answers offered were overly simplistic and unrealistic. But then, isn’t that how the words of Jesus themselves sometimes sound to worldly and world-weary ears? Are we going to sit in judgement on him as a youthful idealist? Are we going to say, as an old Scottish lady apparently once said after her pastor preached about the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Our Lord was a very young man when he preached that sermon!’?

So I find myself asking, how did a movement which began with volunteer missionaries joyfully going around the Mediterranean world at their own expense, planting churches with little structure and no buildings, end up as a huge organization that frequently needs multi-million dollar fundraising campaigns to sustain the sort of mission it believes in? How did a movement which foreswore violence end up blessing battleships and praying for success against the enemy? How did a movement which warned of the dangers of clericalism (see Matthew 23:1-12) become so totally dependent on professional ministers, (in many cases dressing them up as gorgeously as wannabe Roman bureaucrats)?

Is this the kind of church Jesus had in mind? More to the point, am I the kind of Christian Jesus had in mind?

Yes, I know that God is gracious and merciful, and that throughout the long history of his dealings with human beings he has shown himself to be more than willing to work with flawed and imperfect people and flawed and imperfect institutions. But am I supposed to make peace with my own compromises, and institutionalize something that so often seems to be in contradiction to the sort of Christian community envisioned in the pages of the New Testament – even though their practice of it, like ours, was also flawed?

So yes,

Sunset is an angel weeping
Holding out a bloody sword
No matter how I squint I cannot
Make out what it’s pointing toward
Sometimes you feel like you’ve lived too long
Days drip slowly on the page
You catch yourself
Pacing the cage

Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend
Today these eyes scan bleached-out land
For the coming of the outbound stage
Pacing the cage
Pacing the cage

Death and the Poets

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 – Dylan Thomas (1914 – 1953)

Mighty Trucks of Midnight, verse 3

I believe it’s a sin to try to make things last forever
Everything that exists in time runs out of time some day
Got to let go of the things that keep you tethered
Take your place with grace and then be on your way

 – Bruce Cockburn (1945 – )

Dylan may be the better poet (though Cockburn is no mean wordsmith either), but I think Cockburn has the better thought here.

Reflections inspired by mortality

So the day of my Dad’s funeral has come and gone. It seems strange, somehow; I’ve lived with the impending reality of this day for two or three years, since the day Dad asked me to preach at it, and now it is a past event. Somehow it seems as if it should be a permanent event, existing continually outside of time.

This morning I find myself remembering the words of an old Bruce Cockburn song from the 1980s:

I don’t mean to cling to you my friends
It’s just I hate the day to have to end
Never enough time to spend
I haven’t done enough for this to be the end

There must be more… more…
More songs more warmth
More love more life
Not more fear not more fame
Not more money not more games

That’s the way I felt yesterday. I was the preacher at the service, so I had the best view of who was there. Many, but not all, of the faces were familiar to me. Mum and Dad returned to England from Canada in 1978, and from that day on their circle of acquaintance diverged from mine; I know some of the friends they’ve made since then (especially over the past twenty or so years in Oakham and Ketton), but not all. Still, there were lots of extended family members there, and friends going all the way back to our Southminster days. We had the service at St. Mary’s, Ketton, which was Dad and Mum’s home church for the past few years, and the vicar, Andrew Rayment, did a fine job with the service and the prayers. We sang some fine hymns that Dad loved – ‘How Great Thou Art’, ‘To God be the Glory’, and my personal favourite, ‘Thine be the Glory’, with those great lines:

Make us more than conquerors through thy deathless love;
Bring us safe through Jordan to thy home above.

My brother Mike read the reading Dad had selected, 1 Peter 1:3-9, and my niece Ellie read the gospel, John 14:1-6. I preached, and people were kind enough to tell me that they had appreciated it afterwards. When the service was over we went to Grantham Crematorium for the cremation, and then back to Oakham for a reception.

That was when I had my Cockburn ‘It’s just I hate the day to have to end’ feeling. The love of people was palpable in that room – their affection for Dad, and their affection for Mum, and Mike and me. It’s funny, but I haven’t really felt of myself as being a ‘mourner’ yet. I’ve officiated at so many funerals and tried to provide support and comfort to the bereaved, but until yesterday it hadn’t really sunk in that I was in that category. I guess people seem to feel that clergy are somehow above all that; I don’t know why, but I know it’s true. But yesterday at the reception in Ketton I was in the midst of cousins and aunts and uncles and friends I’d known since long before I had any idea of being a clergy person, and they were united in love for Dad and Mum and in wanting to provide support for us. And it was all the more poignant in that some of them were the family of my Uncle John, who died three days after my Dad, and whose funeral is tomorrow.

‘Cling onto these relationships’, I found myself thinking. ‘Make no excuses for not keeping in touch with them. Do all you can to let them know you love them and appreciate them. These are the most important things in life. The gospel of Jesus Christ – which gives my life meaning and gives me hope for the future as well as strength for the present – and the love that human beings share with each other – in the end, this is what matters’.

I said to my old friend Steve Palmer afterwards that since Dad died I find that my patience with the bullshit that often happens in churchland has been at an all time low. That may not be a good thing – impatience is rarely a good thing – but I find myself thinking about things in the light of my Dad’s death and wondering why we’re bothering with so much that isn’t really important in the light of eternity. I’m not pointing fingers at my congregation or diocese, or even myself; I’m just making a general observation about the tendency of Christians to get worked up about the latest fad or fashion in ‘church health’ or ‘congregational development’ or whatever the latest trend is (I’ve been around long enough to be seeing most of them come around for the second time now), all the time doing our best to avoid the thought of actually asking someone how they are doing, and really wanting an answer, or actually talking about Jesus with a non-Christian friend.

My Dad’s life counted; that was obvious yesterday. There were people in that church who became Christians through his ministry, and at least two people who are in ordained ministry because of him. Dad was far from perfect, but he knew how to share the gospel, how to love people, and how to encourage people in their Christian calling. He and Mum also did a pretty good job of bringing up Christian sons, and that wasn’t just luck, it was also prayer and hard work and, at times, sheer cussedness!

I really hope that I will remember, from now on, to major on the things that will really count, and not to get caught up in fascinating side roads and the latest fads and fashions. This blog post is my reminder to myself: make your life count, and refuse to allow either other people’s opinions or your own laziness and inertia to cause you to settle for less than that.

Many years ago I was out walking one day beside the Peel River in Aklavik. I was pondering what it was that God wanted me to do, and I got an answer. It wasn’t an audible voice, but somehow three words impressed themselves firmly on my mind, and I have never doubted from that day to this that they were God’s guidance to me (and I very, very rarely experience what I believe to be clear, unambiguous guidance from God). The three words were ‘prayer’, ‘love’, and ‘evangelism’. Ever since then, I have felt most at peace with myself when I have made these three things the centre of my life and ministry. When I’ve gotten diverted from these things, I’ve felt that my life was off centre and everything was somehow out of place.

So, as old Thomas Ken put it,

Redeem thy misspent time that’s past
Live each day as if ’twere thy last.

This I will do, The Lord being my helper.