“The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show,” mused the Canadian singer, songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen who died last night aged 82.
As it happens only this May I bought “The Essential Leonard Cohen” a career-spanning collection of his songs arranged in chronological order. I must say I enjoyed his unique brand of self-depreciating humour, particularly the “Tower of Song.”
Moreover, the school choir sang his “Halleluiah” in their carol service last December.
“Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord.”
Here Cohen taps into his Jewish heritage, evoking the stories of Samson and Delilah (“she cut your hair”) as well as King David and Bathsheba (“you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you”).
Apparently he wrote around 80 drafts for “Hallelujah”, with one single writing session in a New York hotel where he was reduced to sitting on the floor in his underwear, banging his head on the floor. I know the feeling.
It is no surprise to know that Cohen was a flawed character (who isn’t?). “My life was filled with great disorder, with chaos, and I achieved a little discipline there.” But he was honest and valued integrity. He had something.
In fact, my Bible reading this morning – a difficult reading – featured the description of liturgical garments for Cohen’s forebears. (Kohen is a member of the priestly family).
‘Let Aaron your brother be brought to you from among the Israelites, with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so that they may serve me as priests.” (Exodus 28:1)
God always takes a risk when he appoints someone to represent him, especially if they are going to be wearing sumptuous, over-the-top clothing.
So the ephod (whatever that is) has “four rows of precious stones on it. The first row shall be carnelian, chrysolite and beryl; the second row shall be turquoise, lapis lazuli and emerald; the third row shall be jacinth, agate and amethyst; the fourth row shall be topaz, onyx and jasper. Mount them in gold filigree settings.” (28:17f) Impressive.
The problem is that this no-expense clothing is to be worn by frail human beings. As the BRF commentary reflects “dress that is intended to honour the office nearly always ends up honouring the wearer.” Such splendour so easily goes to our heads. Pride is our constant danger.
However, as Cohen realises only too well. “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
For our flaws give God his opportunity, to show the extent of his love and forgiveness, his healing and his hope. Jesus, so to speak, is at his best when he encounters those fallen and broken human beings who know they are fallen and broken. He has problems with the self-righteous.
So he touches the leper, welcomes the prostitute, lifts up the fallen. His life demonstrates that there is hope for each of us., such is his love.
And for that we need total honesty, a refusal to present ourselves as people who have somehow made it. The truth is the very opposite – we are simply sinners saved by grace, never anything else.
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” (Luke 18:13).
We see such honesty in Cohen: “I don’t consider myself a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin.”
Sadly, as far as we can see, Cohen remained in his wilderness wanderings. But he did have that sense that there was someone running the show, that life was much more than an arbitrary set of experiences. He sensed purpose.
It was the apostle Paul, on being confronted by the truth about himself, realized that “all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life.”
And he continues: “Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him.” (Philippians 3:8)
For here is Leonard’s secret chord.