I’m Gonna Sing When The Spirit Says Sing

The spirituals are songs about black souls, “stretching out into the outskirts of God’s eternity” and affirming that divine reality which lets you know that you are a human being – no matter what white people say.  Through the song, black people were able to affirm that Spirit who was continuous with their existence as free beings; and they created a new style of religious worship.  They shouted and they prayed; they preached and they sang, because they had found something.  They encountered a new reality; a new God not enshrined in white churches and religious gatherings.  And all along, white folk thought the slaves were contented, waiting for the next world.  But in reality they were “stretching out” on God’s Word, affirming a new-found experience that could not be destroyed by the masters. . . .

We are told that the people of Israel could not sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.  But, for blacks, their being depended upon a song.  Through song they built new structures for existence in an alien land.  The spirituals enabled blacks to retain a measure of African identity while living in the midst of American slavery, providing both the substance and the rhythm to cope with human servitude. – James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues, pp.29-30

It is perhaps no accident, and more the Providence and Spirit of God that led me to worship yesterday at a predominantly African-American Church.  I had my “reasons”, but those reasons disappeared once the worship began and the sweet, sweet Spirit in that place overwhelmed me.  Particularly as this is African-American History Month, it was an enormous gift to be with a people whose history, experience, and expressions of these are so different yet so familiar at the same time.  I’ve written before that the attempt to enforce “color-blindness” upon American society is a way of denying racism, the Otherness that white supremacy continues to impose upon African-Americans.  In like fashion, Rev. Montel Putney, the pastor at Christ The Carpenter UMC where we worshiped, once told Lisa that one of the worst things a white person could say to him is, “I don’t see your color.”  That denies him, and all African-Americans, their identity, the power they have as a people, their history, their literature, and most of all their song.  We must recognize that reality not as a sign of Otherness, but as a part of their human identity, an identity shaped by a particular history, and through which is interwoven story and song, family and church, as ways of being American yet always also being apart while being a part of.

So much of my recent discussion about music, liturgy, and the Church has been limited.  In the back of my mind I knew I needed to incorporate the history and experience of African-American Christianity; thus reading Daniel Hodge White’s The Soul of Hip-Hop.  That, however, was also a narrow look at an all-too-recent musical development that, for all its power, hardly addressed the breadth and depth of African-American religious experience as expressed in hundreds of years of music.  It is one thing to “know” that one has been far too limited; it is another to be confronted in such a way as I was yesterday with just how limited my vision continues to be.  Despite my love for soul, rhythm and blues, funk, and hip-hop, I have been preoccupied to the point of blindness with the “Western” musical and theological tradition to the exclusion of a Christian life of protest in the heart of western Christendom.

One thing about yesterday’s service: The bulletin did not include a single hymn.  Oh, there were references to the sung “Alleluia” after the Call to Worship and the sung “Amen” after the Benediction.  There was nothing about singing the “Gloria Patri” after the congregational prayer or the Doxology after the time of tithes and offerings.  There was the notification that a local community children’s choir would perform, as well as a three  young girls performing liturgical dance.  There was no hint, however, no clue just how central – how vital – song would be to and throughout the entire worship service.  As the children sang, the congregation clapped along; as the dancers moved, the congregation sand the recorded Gospel song because it was lined out, a live version in which the song leader helped the audience/congregation join in.  Less than call and response, it was a tradition as old as the American frontier: A leader teaches a congregation a hymn by singing a line, with the congregation repeating it.  It is a powerful experience, made all the more by the movements of the three girls who, as Rev. Putney noted when it was over, had no idea about the “brokenness” that was in the hymn.

As Rev. Putney preached from last week’s Lectionary Gospel reading – Jesus preaching in a synagogue only to have a demoniac burst in, to be repudiated by Jesus and driven out – he spoke of “a hostage situation”.  It was a beautiful message.  At one point, Montel said something that resonated with something so deep inside me I didn’t know I believed it until he put it in to words for me: The demon had deformed the primal identity of that young man who burst in to the synagogue, which Montel reminded us is that we are created in the image of God.  As the demon is driven out, that image – that primary identity is restored.  He then said the most amazing, powerful thing: We are people created in God’s image.  We should walk like God.  We should talk like God.  And we should do it without fear because it is Christ who has restored this power to us.  At this point, the pianist and drummer picked up a song, and the congregation began to sing low as Montel continued to preach about the power and possibility of freedom from such a hostage situation.

As an aside, I would like to relate a small story.  Back in 2013, the Rev. Diana Facemeyer retired from active ministry in the Northern Illinois Conference.  At her retirement celebration, she spoke about watching from the balcony as a child as the preacher and the others robed and prepared for the Procession.  She said, “I thought this must be the most important thing in the world!  I want to be a part of this!”  Yesterday, Montel preached as if his message were the most important thing in the world.  Not just his words.  His gestures, his excitement, the way his voice rose and fell and the congregation, and most of all the way the music brought the congregation forward to receive the freedom being offered through the Spirit in the name of Christ.  Montel’s wife, Linda, took me by the hand and led me forward.  At the end, she grabbed me and embraced me and in that moment, all our differences, all that the world says separates us, disappeared and I felt a kind of acceptance that no other Christian experience has brought me.  It was the kind of love we read and talk about, but rarely actually live out.  I couldn’t let go of that embrace because it said everything that needed to be said about our differences and how little they mattered in that place at that moment.

In any event, the worship service was flooded with music, without much hint that music would be present.  This is so for one simple reason: The song is such a part of the worship experience it needs no mention.  The songs are those the congregation knows in their bones, reflecting as they do the life of the people.  They are songs of praise, songs of Glory, and most of all songs of freedom and love and joy because there, in that place at that time, they are a people who know themselves defined not by the world’s understanding of “blackness”, but by God’s understanding of “blackness”, which is a blessing, a light to the nations, most of all a people who live so much of their lives with their personhood, their humanity, denied.  It is for that reason they sing.  It is for that reason there is joy in their song and in their worship.  It is for that reason that we cannot have any serious discussion about music and liturgy if we do not bring along this “Other” western tradition that lives in the heart of our communities.  We need to study it and think about it, most definitely.  More than that, however, we need to experience it – experience the power of the Word, the power of a people given back their humanity, and most of the the way they sing their praise and thanksgiving to God and their desire to bring this freedom they experience in this hour to the whole world.  Not to do so is to ignore a most powerful, most human, most real experience of the power of song in the Christian liturgy and life.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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