Sometimes a wind comes out of nowhere
In Minnesota we are used, each winter, to the jet stream bringing great stretches of cold arctic air south out of Canada and across the flat farming country we call home. The wind out of the north brings an icy grip that traces delicate frosty designs on windows and seems to sweep the air of dust so that in the bright sunlight we feel we can see forever.
Clarity of sight is precious, essential if we are ever to move past mere knowledge into wisdom. For this we need poets, though few of us take the unhurried time to read poetry. This is one reason I love the bitterly cold evenings of winter where a book, a glass of wine, and a fire are the only reasonable option. One poet who has fulfilled this necessary task for me is a Canadian, Bruce Cockburn, whose lyrics have helped untangle the snarled threads of our times to allow me a clearer glimpse of where we are in a deeper sense of time. Reflecting on the glorious ruin of life in a fallen world, Cockburn’s music is shaped by a Christian vision without being narrowly religious.
Little round planet
In a big universe
Sometimes it looks blessed
Sometimes it looks cursed
Depends on what you look at, obviously
But even more it depends on the way that you see
[“Child of the Wind” (1989)]
Those who are familiar with Cockburn’s music will be interested in Rumours of Glory—the correct spelling, he is Canadian, after all. Rumours is a memoir in which Cockburn not only tells his story but lets us in on how and when his songs were conceived and composed. Deeply sensitive to oppression, violence, injustice and the voices of the powerless on the margins, his music continues the noble folk tradition in which conscience speaks truth to power.
The village idiot takes the throne
His the wind in which all must sway
All sane people, die now
Be lifted up and carried away
You’ve got no home in this world of sorrows
[“All Our Dark Tomorrows” (2001)]
Like many young adults who love Jesus but are alienated from the church, Cockburn’s experience of faith is illustrative of a spiritual pilgrimage that is rather common. “Along the way I found Jesus Christ,” he says. “I have attempted to live my life somewhat in line with his Word, without necessarily taking it as, well, gospel.” What’s interesting is how strongly the vision of creation, fall, redemption and restoration echoes through Cockburn’s lyrics while in his memoir he sees doctrine as divisive and largely unnecessary.
Rumours is also interesting for Christians who are proud to be Americans and wonder why freedom loving people in the rest of the world see the United States with shall we say, a jaundiced eye. The American narrative of history places us as the great beacon of democracy and prosperity, a force for good in a world where true freedom is relatively rare. There is truth in that, of course, but it is not the full story. Reality is messy and life is gritty in a broken world, and no matter how hard we try to be objective, we always only see as through a glass darkly. Which is why the ancient proverb says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (ESV, Proverbs 27:6). In this, too, I think Cockburn is worth listening to—even where we think him mistaken we’ll be better for having thought it through.
“Many of us believe,” Cockburn writes, “that there’s a lot more going on right in front of us, within us, and in the cosmos than our rational minds can grasp. To access this reality requires surrender—the death, or at least the substantial reduction, of ego.” The sadness of our age is that even those who believe this seem to forget it because things move too fast. That means we need to be still and listen to the poets who brings clarity.
SourceRumours of Glory: A Memoir by Bruce Cockburn and Greg King (New York, NY: HarperCollins; 2014) 526 pages + discography.
Title from “The Whole Night Sky” (1994) by Bruce Cockburn on The Charity of Night (1996).