Pacing the Cage and Good Endings

[In this piece, I have taken my email inviting folks to my final Wine Before Breakfast (actually Beer) service as pastor of this community, and transposed it into an EmpireRemixed blog.]

Bruce Cockburn is not coming to Wine Before Beer tomorrow night.
He wouldn’t be able to come if he wanted to
because there is a small matter
of a closed border,
but the truth is we didn’t invite him.

That’s right, as shocking as it might sound,
we will not be playing
a Bruce Cockburn song
at my last WBB service
as the pastor of WBB.

You see, while the tastes and preferences
of our liturgists and musicians clearly shape the musical choices
at WBB from week to week,
there is a discipline to it all that is rooted in the text.

You’ve heard it said before:
at WBB we are looking for resonance, not relevance.

And so, while I’m sure that we could have found
some Cockburn that would resonate with
the beginning of Mark’s Gospel,
and the occasion of my retirement,
Deb Whalen-Blaize and I ended up with
Mavis Staples, Ben Harper,
an African-American spiritual,
and our old friend, Martyn Joseph.

Not too shabby.

But if we were going to do a Cockburn song,
just … well … because Cockburn is Cockburn,
and this is my last service,
I think that I would ask for “Pacing the Cage.”

A number of you have been in a room
when that song has come on,
only to have me shush you all,
so that there is quiet during
Rob Wasserman’s exquisite fretless bass solo.

Now, not everything in that song resonates
with my life, especially at this time of transition.

For example, when Bruce sings,

Sometimes you feel like you’ve lived too long
Days drip slowly on the page

you will be happy to know that I don’t share that sentiment.

But when he opens the song with the evocative lines:

Sunset is an angel weeping
Holding out a bloody sword
No matter how I squint I cannot
Make out what it’s pointing toward

I can see that angel of death,
almost taste the blood of a history of violence,
and I’m squinting along with the songwriter,
trying to discern what all of this means,
and where all of it is going.

Or when he sings,

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

I understand what he is talking about,
but it is not me.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think
that I’ve been trying to prove myself,
or taking anyone in.

But when he follows up those lines with,

Powers chatter in high places
Stir up eddies in the dust of rage
Set me to pacing the cage

I’m right there.

The chatter could be
in a faculty meeting or an ecclesiastical body,
in corporate board rooms or the halls of political power,
at the mall or on the street.

Sometimes such chatter is so tone deaf,
so callous, so narcissistic, and is so dripping in blood
that it renders rage a necessity.

And I get to pacing the cage.
I begin to experience a spiritual restlessness,
a kind of cultural impatience
that begins to boil.

I think that you know what I mean.

You see, in one sense, I think that WBB
has been a pacing the cage kind of community.

Invariably we are dissatisfied with things as they stand,
in the church or the academy,
on the streets and in the alleyways,
in our economic and political systems,
and, often enough,
in our own lives, our bodies,
our spirituality, our relationships.

In the last verse of the song,
Cockburn names (for me) something
of what it has all been about.

Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend

There was no roadmap when we launched Wine Before Breakfast.
Just a hunch and a basic direction.

We had no idea of where this experiment
in shaping a worship community would go.

Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend

We began this community
in the darkness of 9/11.
While the smoke was still smouldering
from the World Trade Centre,
and countless families
were still looking for their loved ones;
while this campus was quiet,
along with our culture as a whole, in shock;
indeed, while the drums of war
were starting to rumble.

So we launched this community in lament.
With a mournful Bach tune on the cello,
and the soulful music of Blind Willie Johnson
on a National Steel guitar,
we invited folks to community rooted in
lament and Eucharist.

None of this was in the church-planting
manuals of the time.

Rather than denying the darkness,
or averting our gaze from the dark,
we have embraced sorrow through lament,
while we adjust our vision to see in the dark.

I’m convinced that this openness to lament
is at the core of our very identity,
and is one of the reasons for our ongoing vitality all these years.

The song closes with these lines:

Today these eyes scan bleached-out land
For the coming of the outbound stage
Pacing the cage … pacing the cage.

The metaphor shifts in a heart beat from
darkness to a bleached-out land,
but it is still a matter of vision.

Whether blinded by darkness or light,
squinting at a sunset
or trying to see through the glare of a bleached-out land,
it is all about vision.

And if it is all about vision,
then it is all about imagination.

Liturgy is a workshop of the imagination.
Not only is liturgy an expression of imagination,
it is, more importantly,
an exercise in shaping the imagination.

So, dear friends,
week after week,
year in and year out,
we have gathered to have our imaginations
shaped and liberated.

Disciplined by scripture
in discipleship to Jesus,

with bread and wine,
in tears and laughter,
with prayer and song (lots of song!),
it has been my deep honour
to serve as your pastor.

So, am I scanning the horizon
“for the coming of the outbound stage”?

Well, not really.
But I am, to cite another musical friend, “on my way.”
“Running, stumbling, loving … on my way.”

I will take my leave of the community tomorrow evening,
at our July Wine Before Beer gathering online.

Empire Remixed is the child of Wine Before Breakfast,
and I will continue to write on this site,
co-curating with Andrew Stephens-Rennie.

If you would like to join us for Wine Before Beer
tomorrow night (bring your own beer!),
here are the coordinates:

CRC Campus Ministry is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Topic: July WBBeer

Time: Jul 7, 2020 07:00 PM America/Toronto

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 833 9220 4390

Password: 017627

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Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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