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"Pacing the Cage"



12And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.

(Mark 1:12-13, RSV)

Today as we begin Lent, we’re going to do something completely different. If you know me you know that I’m a music guy the way some people are sports people or foodies. Nature and music, especially concerts, are places that I feel spiritually and emotionally uplifted, especially if U2 is the main act.

This morning you are invited to meditate on three songs by Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn (pronounced COH-burn). He’s been making music since the late 60’s and is still recording today. Stylistically, he plays folk, rock, and world music. Today you’ll hear three of his softer pieces. His music is deeply spiritual and often reflects his commitment to social activism, though not in today’s songs. I love his music and hope you’ll like it too,

The scripture story for the First Sunday in Lent is always the same--Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days, including his 3 temptations. I’ve chosen 3 songs that reflect similar themes as we begin the Lenten season. None of these songs were written for Lent, but you’ll see the parallels. You’ll find the lyrics inserted in your order of worship.

The first song is called, “Pacing the Cage.” Are we starting Lent in a rut, going through life on autopilot? We might feel trapped or caged in a bad relationship or suffocating job. Maybe we are weary from caring for an aging loved one. Maybe we are overwhelmed with the demands of parenthood. As we meditate on this song, notice the line in v. 1 about feeling that we’ve lived too long. Some people feel that way. In v. 2, the line about “the magnetic strip's worn thin” is a reference to the magnetic strip on the back of a credit or debit card. In v. 3, Cockburn sings, "I never knew what you all wanted, so I gave you everything." Do we give too much sometimes and find that our own needs are unmet? In v. 4, do we feel lost in an unfamiliar place in life with no GPS or map? The line about life leading us through dark places reminds me of the 23rd Psalm and “walking through the valley of the shadow of death.” We finally find hope at the end of the song in “waiting for the outbound stage,” and with it perhaps a way out of the cage that we’ve been pacing. Maybe we should give up the cage for Lent!


From the album “The Charity of Night” (1997)

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 live too long Days drip slowly on the page You catch yourself Pacing the cage I've proven who I am so many times The magnetic strip's worn thin And each time I was someone else And every one was taken in Powers chatter in high places Stir up eddies in the dust of rage Set me to pacing the cage I never knew what you all wanted So I gave you everything All that I could pillage All the spells that I could sing It's as if the thing were written In the constitution of the age Sooner or later you'll wind up 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

The next song is called “Forty Years in the Wilderness,” a reference to the Children of Israel wandering in the wilderness for 40 years before entering the Promised Land. There are also references in the song to Jesus’ 40 days in the desert from which we get the 40 days of Lent. V.1 reminds us of the angels who ministered to Jesus at the end of his 40 days of fasting and temptation. I like the line about moving forward even when our path is far from clear. Verse 2 mentions demons in disguise. In the wilderness, the Tempter acted friendly in an attempt to trick Jesus. Jesus of course didn’t fall for it. The line about trading away our birthright brings to mind the story of Esau giving away his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup. Finally, v. 3 offers a choice between heaven or hell, or taking the easy way out, playing it safe and staying put. Cockburn’s advice is to step out on faith, pick up our load, and make a break for it


From the album “Bone on Bone” (2017)

Forty years in the wilderness getting to know the beast Projected and reflected on the greatest and the least Forty years of days and nights -- angels hovering near Kept me moving forward though the way was far from clear And they said Take up your load Run south to the road Turn to the setting sun Sun going down Got to cover some ground Before everything comes undone Comes undone Forty years in the wilderness dancing with the flies Dazzled by the visions rolling out before my eyes Angel-made graffiti, demons in disguise You could trade away your birthright for another day's supplies Or you could Take up your load Run south to the road Turn to the setting sun Sun going down Got to cover some ground Before everything comes undone Comes undone

Rising with the height of land, falling with the crowd Spirits in the scouring wind called my name out loud Said you could go to heaven, you could go to hell You could hang out in between in the place you know so well Or you could Take up your load Run south to the road Turn to the setting sun Sun going down Got to cover some ground Before everything comes undone Comes undone

Colleen and I have always loved the song, “All the Diamonds.” Imagine in this song that we are nearing the end of Lent when there is hope for deliverance in sight. Yes, our boat has run aground and we’ll need to be rescued, but Cockburn is full of faith that God will send a ship to get us. There is a reference to Jesus who was 2,000 years and half a world away. I love the description of sunlight reflecting on the waves like diamonds, the ones Cockburn values most. It’s a reminder that we can connect with God through the beauty of nature. The last four lines of verse 3 are beautiful and speak of the hopeful anticipation that our rescue ship is getting ever closer. From a Lenten perspective, weeks from today we’ll be turning the corner to the promise of new life through the Easter miracle.


From the album “Salt, Sun and Time” (1974)

All the diamonds in this world

That mean anything to me

Are conjured up by wind and sunlight

Sparkling on the sea

I ran aground in a harbour town

Lost the taste for being free

Thank God He sent some gull-chased ship

To carry me to sea

Two thousand years and half a world away

Dying trees still grow greener when you pray

Silver scales flash bright and fade

In reeds along the shore

Like a pearl in sea of liquid jade

His ship comes shining

Like a crystal swan in a sky of suns

His ship comes shining.

Thanks for listening. It is time to share Communion. AMEN.

Written by Rev. Jimmy Only

First Sunday in Lent

March 10, 2019

The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)


Loving God,

As we begin Lent, may it be for us a time of introspection and an honest assessment of our lives. Show us the ways we have failed to love you, our sisters and brothers, as well as ourselves. Show us where we have given up too easily and been too complacent. Show us where we have put our own needs above those who need so much more. Show us how we’ve been pacing the cage, our lives in a rut. Show us how we’ve been lost in life’s wilderness so long that it is our norm. And show us ways that we can deepen our spiritual lives by seeking you through the inspiration of music and the beauty of nature. Through Jesus Christ our Brother and Friend we pray. AMEN.

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