I began the sermon for Sunday, February 21 by playing an excerpt from Bob Dylan’s song “Serve Somebody”. This song was on his 1979 release “Slow Train Coming”. It was one of two albums Dylan recorded during his “born again Christian” phase.
“ You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody....”
During the summer of 1981 I worked for the Barnett-McQueen construction and engineering company in Thunder Bay. It was my third full time job in the hiatus I took between high school and university. During the week I took care of tools that were returned to the shop after jobs. On weekends I sometimes did odd jobs for the company, like re-painting the lines on the office parking lot. I have a clear memory of my boom-box playing one cassette tape over and over again while I free-handed yellow parking lot lines.
One side of the tape was “Slow Train Coming”, and the other was Bruce Cockburn’s “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws”. It was immensely important to me that these two prominent artists were expressing faith. It made my own recent religious conversion, and decision to follow a faithful path seem more possible.
Even at the tender age of 19 I could distinguish that Cockburn was more mystical and less dogmatic, and that Dylan’s faith was rough-hewn and rigid, even brittle.
Over the almost 30 years since, both of these artists have continued to evolve, with their art, and in their personal lives. Dylan’s “born again” phase lasted about 3 years. He is said to have answered critics by saying that even that was longer than Jesus’ public ministry. Cockburn seems to have moved towards more of a Unitarian faith than a Christ-centred expression, and continues to inspire many with his music, and with his personal commitment to social justice and development issues.
These days, I listen to Bruce Cockburn for inspiration far more often than Bob Dylan. But Dylan still has things to say to me, and I continue to be challenged by his assertion from 1979, that each of us “have to serve somebody”.