N.B.: I had this idea last spring, actually, and worked through some ideas. I thought I’d offer these Advent thoughts here, just to see if and how people respond.
We people who are darker than blue
Are we gonna stand around this town
And let what others say come true?
We’re just good for nothing they all figure
A boyish, grown up, shiftless jigger
Now we can’t hardly stand for that
Or is that really where it’s at?
We people who are darker than blue – “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, lyrics by Curtis Mayfield
Come to earth to taste our sadness; – “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, lyrics by Charles Wesley
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land? – Psalm 137:1-4
If Bob Dylan and Joan Baez made white folk feel good about themselves in the midst of the Civil Rights struggles, Curtis Mayfield, both with his group The Impressions as well as a solo artist, gave voice not only to the hopes of a people; he offered African-Americans the simple message that they were a great people, deserving of legal and social equality. His power as a musician is best exemplified by the fact that his songs were used as soundtracks both by Martin Luther King and the Black Pride/Black Power movements. Here is a man who really could speak for his people through song.
As the Civil Rights struggle withered and the Black Power movement was choked to death by official conspiracies, however, African-American urban life took on darker tones. No longer confident they could assert their full humanity and be accepted, the realities of official neglect and a variety of social pathologies created conditions in which hopes and dreams died at the end of needles or disappeared up people’s noses. This, too, brought Mayfield’s prophetic witness to life. Most clearly in the soundtrack to the blacksploitation film Superfly but through much of his work in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, he refused to remain silent while urban communities were ravaged by drugs, poverty, crime, and neglect. The always-present shadow of the criminalization of black life – something the United States has done well even before we were an independent country – left fewer and fewer options or free spaces for action.
That didn’t hinder Mayfield, however. As courageous as he was gifted, he preached through song, offering the picture of a life that had become the epitome of racist fears and bigoted stereotypes. In “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, he held a mirror up to life in African-American urban communities and asked a simple question: Is this who we want to be? Really?
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is the first season of the Christian year. We all seem to know it’s our time to get ourselves ready for Christmas. Too often, we slide quickly through Advent, ignoring our need for real preparation because Christmas, now no longer solely a religious holiday, has come to embrace much of our national life from early November through the beginning of the New Year. We think preparation means decorating our houses and churches. We prepare cookies and pies. Moving through crowds at large stores and shopping malls as we prepare to buy-buy-buy, we seem grateful only that the stores are open later so we can shop. Preparing for the birth of the Son of God is something toward which we nod on Sundays; the rest of the time we’re preparing for the stockings and wrapped packages and parties and relatives we just saw on Thanksgiving.
Curtis Mayfield, however, offers a different vision of the meaning of preparation. Before we can even get ourselves ready, we need to be clear about why preparation is necessary. It is never easy to admit just how lost we are, how in need of saving from our own blindness, our missplaced sense of self-sufficiency, and the need for our communities to see just how broken they are. If we are to bow down before the Christ-babe, however, we must see who we are. It’s true that God knows the truth, that little baby understands us better than we do ourselves. Yet if that remains the case, how is it possible to receive the blessing that lies cooing in rags in a cattle’s trough?
“We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, like Psalm 137, expresses anger. Unlike Psalm 137, however, this song doesn’t misplace the anger on some Other. Mayfield takes the measure of his people and asks a simple question: Do we want to become someone else’s worst nightmare? African-American communities seemed unable to sing their songs in this foreign homeland of theirs. Not that there weren’t artists like James Brown and George Clinton and Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock who still told their tales. Their musical witness was washed away in the promise of drugs and violence and sex that too much became the soundtrack of urban life in the 1970’s. Mayfield, already present when the dreams and hopes and pride and power seemed poised to tell a different story was now demanding that people see who they were. Only then could they be clear about what was needed.
The music of Curtis Mayfield was always a music for his people. Precisely because of that specificity, however, others, too, can hear in his words and sounds, his unique guitar playing and clear falsetto voice, the demand we be honest with ourselves. How can we make ourselves ready for freedom, for power, for equality when we are a sinful, broken people? The brokenness of our affluent white communities is no less real than that of others. The hurt, the sin, and the anger is as much a part of working class white folk as it is urban African-American communities. Violence as an expression not only of social pathology but of that fundamental brokenness we call sin is ubiquitous; it knows no color line, no socioeconomic class, no neighborhood boundaries. Until and unless we are able to hear in Mayfield’s song our own song, we aren’t ready even to get ready.
By voicing this prophetic call to repentance, however, Curtis Mayfield offers all our different communities the opportunity for real preparation. When we acknowledge just how broken, just how hurting, just how much in need of salvation we are, then Advent can really begin. First, however, we have to say yes when Mayfield asks “Now we can’t hardly stand for that/Or is that really where it’s at?”.
If this sleeper be not outwardly vicious, his sleep is usually the deepest of all: whether he be of the Laodicean spirit, “neither cold nor hot,” but a quiet, rational, inoffensive, good-natured professor of the religion of his fathers; or whether he be zealous and orthodox, and, “after the most straitest sect of our religion,” live “a Pharisee;” that is, according to the scriptural account, one that justifies himself; one that labours to establish his own righteousness, as the ground of his acceptance with God.
This is he, who, “having a form of godliness, denies the power thereof;” yea, and probably reviles it, wheresoever it is found, as mere extravagance and delusion. Meanwhile, the wretched self-deceiver thanks God, that he is “not as other men are; adulterers, unjust, extortioners”: no, he doeth no wrong to any man. he “fasts twice in a week,” uses all the means of grace, is constant at church and sacrament, yea, and “gives tithes of all that he has;” does all the good that he can “touching the righteousness of the law,” he is “blameless”: he wants nothing of godliness, but the power; nothing of religion, but the spirit; nothing of Christianity, but the truth and the life. – Charles Wesley, “Awake Thou That Sleepest”, preached before university at Oxford, April 4, 1742
I’ve been struggling the past day or so, unable to settle in my mind anything about which to write. It became so frustrating yesterday afternoon that I’m afraid I snapped at my wife when she tried to have a civil conversation with me. This morning, that sense of frustration returned. I know that part of it is wanting to write about one thing, but finding myself afraid of repetition; I want to say another thing, but my thoughts aren’t quite straight, not quite ready to be set out. So, around in circles I go!
This morning, I thought it best to look elsewhere for inspiration. The Sermons of John Wesley are available online thanks to Nebraska Nazarene University. I clicked open the sermon on Ephesians 5:14 to discover it was actually a Charles Wesley sermon. Right away, I was struck by this glorious poet of grace preaching a good old hellfire-and-brimstone sermon. Let’s make no mistake: Wesley was taking the task, the text, and his role with the utmost seriousness. Recognizing that with the Christian faith we have to do, quite literally, with life and death, he wasted no time making clear that to be the sleeper addressed by the author of Ephesians, one need not be “a sinner” in some conventional moral sense. The sleepers to whom the author of Ephesians writes, and to whom Wesley preaches, are we Christians in the Church, so confident in our salvation, so righteous in our life, relishing the power granted those offered the keys to heaven and hell.
In these opening paragraphs, I heard Wesley speaking to me.
Unless we are offered some beatific vision, even those who claim the name “Christians” should, at times, be reminded that even our best sense of our salvation might well be our own conscience seeking solace in empty words and gestures. Until we are perfected in love – to which Wesley refers, and which need always be kept in mind – our life is always a journey through the morass of sin and brokenness that is our creaturely lot. We cannot become holy in heart and life if we are not first judged and convicted of our basest and deepest sinfulness, “that one dark blot” that cannot come clean through our own efforts. Part of the life of the Christian is the reminder that our lives are not our own; our salvation is not for us; no matter how precious we hold ourselves to be in the sight of God, ours is an existence always balanced on the sharpest of edges; no matter how much we attend worship or profess our adherence to the faith or tithe or serve those in need; we must always remember that it is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, that same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, that saves us, grants us the faith to live with true conviction that we are, indeed, wishing to flee the wrath to come. This and this alone wakes us from whatever comfortable slumber holds us.
But know ye not, that, however highly esteemed among men such a Christian as this may be, he is an abomination in the sight of God, and an heir of every woe which the Son of God, yesterday, to-day, and for ever, denounces against “scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” he hath “made clean the outside of the cup and the platter,” but within is full of all filthiness. “An evil disease cleaveth still unto him, so that his inward parts are very wickedness.” Our Lord fitly compares him to a “painted sepulchre,” which “appears beautiful without;” but, nevertheless, is “full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” The bones indeed are no longer dry; the sinews and flesh are come upon them, and the skin covers them above: but there is no breath in them, no Spirit of the living God. And, “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” “Ye are Christ’s, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you”: but, if not, God knoweth that ye abide in death, even until now. . . .
Wherefore, “awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead.” God calleth thee now by my mouth; and bids thee know thyself, thou fallen spirit, thy true state and only concern below. “What meanest thou, O sleeper Arise! Call upon thy God, if so be thy God will think upon thee, that thou perish not.” A mighty tempest is stirred up round about thee, and thou art sinking into the depths of perdition, the gulf of God’s judgements. If thou wouldest escape them, cast thyself into them. “Judge thyself, and thou shalt not be judged of the Lord.”
Awake, awake! Stand up this moment, lest thou “drink at the Lord’s hand the cup of his fury.” Stir up thyself to lay hold on the Lord, the Lord thy Righteousness, mighty to save! “Shake thyself from the dust.” At least, let the earthquake of God’s threatenings shake thee. Awake, and cry out with the trembling jailer, “What must I do to be saved” And never rest till thou believest on the Lord Jesus, with a faith which is his gift, by the operation of his Spirit.
It is a good thing to hear that before we hear the words of pardon we always hear the words of judgment. It is good to remember that our faith is not our own, but a gift from God, the gift that speaks to our hearts and lives, the Spirit that gives life and offers new life. Conviction of sin keeps us honest, particularly when offered in the starkest terms. This thing we do, we don’t do through any power of our own. This life is not ours, but is lived in and through the crucified and risen Christ, the Spirit quickening our dead lives for the glory of the Father. No matter how well we think of ourselves; no matter how well others think of us, no matter how awake we believe ourselves to be, it all may yet be a dream, the consolation of our hardened hearts.
No, no more plural here. This is addressed to me at the moment. I believe that no matter how much I claim to confess; no matter how much I may, indeed, love; no matter how I hope for the coming of the fullness of the New Creation already begun in the Risen Christ; no matter all this, there is always that part, the chaff that needs to be separated and tossed on the fire to be burned. My prayer this morning is that chaff is not all of me, that my life no longer serves whatever purposes I might have, but that I will lives only for the glory of God.
I wish to remember that it is the Spirit who brings life. I want only to confess this simple reality: that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, proving God’s love for us.
Hellfire-and-brimstone is good for the soul. It helps keep us humble, reminding us whose we are, and that the alternatives are stark and eternal.
1. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.
2. Sing lustily, and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of it being heard, then when you sing the songs of Satan.
3. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.4. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.5. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven. – John Wesley’s Rules For Singing, 1761
After the explosion of the New Theology after the First World War, Karl Barth, along with his good friend Eduard Thurneysen, and later Friedrich Gogarten, began a theological journal entitled Zwischen Den Zeiten, which means Between The Times. The purpose was to highlight the tension within which we Christians live “between the times” of the crucifixion/resurrection and parousia/eschaton. With the rise of the Nazis and their Christian sympathizers (including, for a time, Friedrich Gogarten) and those Barth in particular considered unconscious apologists (specifically fellow Swiss Reformed theologian Emil Brunner), the journal collapsed. Nevertheless, the perspective at the heart of Barth’s project is one with which we just don’t wrestle enough. We Christians are people who live in constant tensions between the promise of the resurrection and coming consummation and transformation of the New Creation all the time immersed in this reality of sin, evil, and death.
This tension does not just have an ethical, evangelical, or dogmatic dimension. It has liturgical and ecclesial dimensions as well. We experience this in our churches when conflicts arise, and conflicts arise all the time. There are two main things that cause more conflict in local churches than any other: money, and music. Money is a constant worry, an existential threat to the ongoing work of the local church. While certainly a sign of the tension within which we continue to live, the conflicts over music in worship bring out that tension in surprising, sometimes hurtful, ways.
Often, the conflict revolves around demands that music and hymnody remain “traditional”. Yet, it is precisely this word – tradition – that creates so much confusion. The history of music in Christian worship is as old as the Scriptures; St. Paul exhorts the Christians in Corinth to include hymn singing in their worship. As the church spread, then engulfed, Europe, and as music composition and musical literacy spread and codified harmonic and melodic relationships (the birth of the tempered scale was a real breakthrough in the west) offered opportunities for creating compositions not only of subtle complexity, but transcendent beauty.
After the Protestant Reformation, there was an explosion of hymn-writing, in particular from the Lutherans (Calvin and the Reformed traditions preferred lining Psalms, not feeling the need to create new songs of praise). In Britain, after the religious wars settled down, with the rise of the Wesley’s reform movement that came to be known as Methodism, there was yet another explosion of hymn writing. Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns, some of which continue to be beloved by congregations of many traditions.
In the United States, religion and slavery spread together, and converts to Christianity heard the theme of resistance to evil, and created their own set of hymns and songs of praise, defiantly singing their demand for freedom, and the dream of a real place of freedom in this world, away from the tyranny of the slaveholder.
When we hear people who wish to keep our “traditional” songs in worship, it is these last that are often meant. Songs that comfort through familiarity. Songs that bring us back to a time when our faith was untroubled by the worries of life. Songs through which we feel the Spirit touch and speak of comfort in the face of change and trouble.
And there is nothing wrong with this. This is a service of the healing work of God in the life of the congregation that cannot and must not be ignored. At the same time, it is not only the purpose of Christian worship to soothe our troubled hearts, or provide only a space of comfort and rest. If our liturgy only comforts without confronting us with the reality of our mission, then we have not heard the Good News that God will be with us.
The rise of so-called “praise music”, a commercial product from the song-writing factories of Nashville, certainly fills part of the gap in the need to sing that new song the Psalmist repeatedly tells us we need to hear.
There is no reason to reject this out of hand, despite it being primarily about making money for Nashville-based song-writers. It feeds the hearts and is watered by the Spirit in congregations across the land; no one should gainsay its power for all its earthly and earthy origin and intent.
All the same, there is, quite literally, a world full of music and types of music that can and do speak to people where they are, asking the questions we don’t hear asked often enough; saying the things that need to be said, yet aren’t out of fear of offense.
We in the churches need to be open to the movement of the Spirit singing, playing, rapping the Word to us, even in ways that don’t comfort. Maybe in words that make us acutely uncomfortable. Precisely because we live in between the times, we cannot rest in any one place because both comfort in the presence of the Spirit and discomfort by the risen Christ exploding our assumptions about who and what we are and what we are to do. This is our lot. No, more: This is the call to us as those baptized in the blood and raised in the water of eternal life that is not yet ours. For that reason, we need to hear all these, and so much more, as we worship the God who gives the power to give them voice.