“Dey just rattles it off – dey don’t know how for sing it”: When the Ambassador Played the Harmonica
Even the former slaves in South Carolina immediately after their liberation were having “music wars.”
The young people sang a favorite song too fast for the taste of an older songstress whose life had been unhappy. “Dey just rattles it off – dey don’t know how for sing it. I likes ‘Poor Rosey’ better dan all de sons, but it can’t be sung widout a full heart and a troubled sperrit.” (Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction, p. 94).
I was particularly moved last Sunday morning when the seventy-nine year old Ambassador for the nation of Haiti stood before the church congregation and pulled from the breast pocket of his suit coat a harmonica, saying, “I want to play a song for all those who lost their lives on January 12, 2010 and for the thousands of people who are mourning their death.”
Then, without accompaniment, he bowed his wise hoary head over the small blues harp cupped in his aged, black hands and began to play in doleful worship, “It is Well With My Soul.”
It is well. It is well?
His music conveyed his message: “It is well with my soul even ‘when sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot’ – whatever my lot! – “Thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.”
It was sad worship. And some worship is supposed to be sad. Only the Christian can fully grasp the paradox that a deep sense of joy can be discovered and expressed simultaneously with excruciating sorrow. Only the Christian really knows instinctively that the whole earth is groaning in anticipation for the day of resurrection (Romans 8:22-23). And even then it is not every Christian that can grasp it. It is the suffering Christian, particularly the one who comes from a people that has known nothing but suffering for generations. The secularists from Easy Street in America (and their similarly shallow Christian compatriots) were befuddled by the singing and praising of God heard in Haiti immediately following the earthquake; singing that oftentimes started in the dark morning hours.
I heard it too. And it disturbed me that too many of the volunteers from the rich country had the temerity to even mention the early morning singing as a disturbance! In fact, some had the audacity to ask me to appeal to the early-morning worshipers to desist so that their first-world saviors could get their beloved sleep. I, of course, refused. I refused because I felt ashamed, ashamed that we Americans are so hollow we don’t know the sound souls make. But I was also ashamed that I didn’t know how to worship as they did. With tears and smiles at the same time. At 4 AM. In front of the rubble that was once my home. With loved ones recently dead.
Explanations are attempted that range from the inane to the condescending to the blatantly racist. Listening to some secularist psycho-babblers, one is not imagining to discern a latent racism and first-world superiority-complex that practically suggests that the Haitians are too primitive to know how to cope except by singing. Cut through the crap of their professional blather of sympathy and self-congratulating diagnoses of their Haitian “clients’” mental health needs and what you really hear is “If they were more sophisticated they’d be depressed and seeking therapy. They’d realize how awesome it is to have me here pro bono. If they were just a little bit more civilized they’d realize that they could be suicidal. They could be demanding – and get addicted to – psychotropic meds. This is a mental-health worker’s dream. Except they don’t pay.”
Sigh. Let them sing. Just don’t wake the therapists up.
But I am a Christian. And I know just enough about the life of the soul to know that there is something better than therapy taking place. Or, should I say, a better therapy is actually taking place? As I lay on the rocky ground in my small tent listening to the singing outside, I stared up through the netting into the stars and asked myself what I was missing. I had this strange feeling that the people singing were rich and I was poor. But I could not figure out what their commodity was that made them rich and me feel poor.
The words of James came to mind, almost as if he was audibly speaking to me personally: “Listen, my brother, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he promised to those who love him” (James 2:5)? I listened. Literally. To the singers, that is. And, though I could identify a shared faith and a shared love and a shared hope, I still could not put my finger on the ingredient of their worship that distinguished it from mine.
But several months later as I sat in church while the Ambassador blew the moaning tones of It is Well through his simple diatonic harmonica, it struck me. The commodity that enriches their worship is sadness. Sadness enriches worship.
“It is better,” said the wise preacher, “to go into the house of mourning than into the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). Ever since my first trip to Haiti, I’ve been laying it to heart. And I’ve been little by little getting a clearer idea of what the wise preacher in Ecclesiastes meant when he said, “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:3-6).
Sometimes I wonder if the worship in most churches is not sort of like the crackling of thorns under a pot, the laughter of fools. The happy, happy, happy pep-rally of superficial worshipers who avoid the face of sorrow at all costs and therefore really know nothing of the heart “made glad.”
The Johns Hopkins University historian, Willie Lee Rose, astutely commented on the worship of the just-freed slaves in South Carolina in 1862 in her fantastic history, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. The band of white missionaries from the North did not quite know what to make of the “praise house” worship that the former slaves devoted themselves to night after night. Some of the Northerner relief workers who had come down to help rebuild the South Carolinian islands after the disaster of institutionalized slavery could not understand all the singing and were actually frustrated by how it interfered with their schedules for rebuilding! The style of singing and dancing was, some thought, barbaric and frightening. But they could not deny a real affection for things spiritual and not earthly. And the lyrics were thoroughly Christian, though sometimes lacking in the theological depth that is inherent with literacy and biblical training.
One missionary, Ellen Murray, opined that the faith of the islanders was marked with a sign of true religion because “the fear of death seems to be in a great measure obliterated by their own numerous songs of heaven.” The former slaves’ style of singing was new to the missionaries from the North because it had “distinctive echoes” of West African culture, but the real distinction was that it was sung in the spirit of the new faith, Christianity, and that they worshiped “with the sense of the approaching heavenly kingdom possessed by the earliest Christians and by the downtrodden everywhere.” There was, said Rose, “no more telling commentary upon the stringency of the life of the slaves than this constant gazing upon heaven.” The real distinction was that life down here made them sad. And that affected their worship.
We Americans have too many toys to play with to be constantly “gazing upon heaven.” We have bought into Pastor Perma-grin’s lie that this life is our Best Life Now and we have no real reason to anticipate a life in heaven. Sadness has been banished. We’ve replaced it with complaining, whining, pouting, and bitterness. But real sorrow, the sorrow that leads us to repentance (the repentance that turns our hearts from earthly things to spiritual things) has been expunged from our lifestyle and liturgy (2 Corinthians 7:10). We think sadness and worship are incongruous.
But for many people, going to church and worshipping is still the place to go to be sad; sad in a way that dignifies the human soul, magnifies a Sovereign Lord, and replenishes the human spirit with deep, inexpressible joy. It’s the kind of worship that actually believes the words of Jesus: Blessed – blessed! – are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted (Matthew 5:4). This was certainly the case for the slaves many years ago, African-Americans during the Civil Rights conflict, and it still is the case for places of oppression.
But what does the 21st century American really know about sadness? We try so hard to hermetically insulate ourselves from the hardness of life that, too often, our worship has the glib triumphalism of people who are trying to sing perky hallelujahs to God every Sunday because we have the Americanized conception of worship that we are not really worshiping until we have a happy experience. So be perky! Smile! Put your hands together! Shout! Make a joyful noise! But our peaks of joy are so low because our valleys are so shallow.
The Ambassador played a second verse. I don’t know what he had in mind, but I couldn’t help but ache as I cried another verse of the tune: “And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back like a scroll, the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend!” Haste the day! Oh, please haste the day. Because until then I am sad.
Sad. Because of the death of thousands in sudden, cataclysmic horror.
Sad. Because of the poverty that oppresses millions.
Sad. Because of the trafficking of little girls.
Sad. Because of countless unloved orphans.
Sad. Because of the sin still in me.
Sad. Because of the pain.
Sad. Because of the bitterness of consequences.
Sad. Deeply sad.
But it is well with my soul. Why?
Another verse. Out of the depths of sadness I cry, my soul elevating to a raised, heart-throbbing, full-voiced pitch: “My sin,” I shout, “My sin – O, the bliss of this glorious thought! – my sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more! Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”
Bliss! Joy unspeakable and inexpressible! My mind races to the line of another old hymn that is particularly loved in the African-American culture, and my soul confirms the words: “Earth has no sorrow but heav’n can remove.”
As the Ambassador of the Nation of Sorrows pockets his harmonica, I snap back into the analytical person that I am and I realize some countries, some generations, and, yes, even some races will have a component of worship that results in more soul, a greater appreciation for hymns that recognize the reality of sorrow like “Come, Ye Disconsolate,” and “a full heart and troubled spirit.” And I suspect if the old songstress of Port Royal, South Carolina who had lived an unhappy life were to hear us sing some of our hymns today she’d say,
“Dey just rattles it off – dey don’t know how for sing it. It can’t be sung widout a full heart and a troubled sperrit.”
What does it mean to be Gospel-centered?
If you are a conservative Christian the word gospel is precious to you. It is part of the Christian DNA to love the Gospel and to want to define it and defend it. So, naturally, anyone that names the Name of Jesus wants to be considered gospel-centered.
In recent years compound terms and titles that contain the word “gospel” have become buzzwords that, like a badge, is quickly flashed among evangelicals to certify one’s credentials as, for example, a bona fide non-legalistic, non-fundamentalist, non-seeker, non-liberal and pro-Calvinistic and T4G defender of the faith: the guys with the real balance. The clique with the best grasp of the essence of the Gospel and its accompanying ideas of worship and ecclesiological philosophy. One would think that they own the word gospel.
And I say that as a Calvinistic 3rd Time Attendee of the Three Time T4G.
Yesterday I read an e-book from a former fundamentalist turned PCA devotee and realized that the whole idea of Gospel-centeredness is still an elusive holy grail that cannot be claimed merely because one has rejected non-Gospel-centeredness. The book was entitled Gospel Quality and was endorsed by a person I respect deeply for having been used by God’s Spirit to open my eyes to some of the thrilling facets of my salvation in Christ. And it was also on a topic that is relevant to what I am and do: the qualifications of the pastor. But it was the title Gospel Quality that grabbed my attention and nailed me to my seat until I had read every one of its pages. I am, after all, a Christian. And the word gospel is precious to me.
Gospel Quality is indeed a catchy title, but the only quality that impressed me was in the title. There were enough typos and syntactical problems to prove quite distracting and I couldn’t help but rejoice that the book was free; at least I had not wasted precious money on shoddy workmanship. I am certainly sounding a little bit harsh, so I want to assure my readers that I am saying this with a shrug and a sincere aw shucks smile. If the author, a person I can claim to be a FaceBook friend, had simply labeled his work as a “blog post,” he could be forgiven all kinds of errors, no matter how egregious. Sadly, by claiming to be a book, even an e-book, one naturally expects a higher quality. Especially when Quality is in the title. So, read it like a lengthy blog post instead.
But my biggest disappointment was in the Good News part of it. That would be “gospel.” I felt so burdened and clammy after reading an exposition/commentary on the qualifications of an elder as listed in 1 Timothy 3 that I thought I had just listened to a moralistic, wind-sucking fundamentalist guilt-trip me to the point of despair. Only I had been reading, not sitting in a pew, and the author made it very clear that he had the liberty to drink alcohol; so clearly I wasn’t in some fundamentalist church. Other than that, take me back to Bible School chapel.
But what does it mean to be Gospel-centered? Everybody is starting to lay claim to the word. One fundamentalist gadfly calls his blog “In Defense of the Gospel” and promotes himself as a champion of the true gospel against almost everybody who doesn’t know html enough to highlight things in bold red. Even Speaker Pelosi as late as May 6, 2010 appealed to the word gospel in a speech on immigration reform. “The people, some (who) oppose immigration reform, are sitting in those pews, and you have to tell them that this is a manifestation of our living the gospel,” she said. So, who am I to hope that I could possibly redeem an expression that is, in my opinion, almost meaningless anymore?
I do not believe that I can. But I think that I must enter into the conversation about gospel-centeredness or gospel-anything because, well, it’s about the gospel. I cannot possibly give a comprehensive answer to the question What is gospel-centeredness? But I do think that it is more than what is often being suggested. I would like to add to what most of the brothers and sisters are saying, not suggest an alternative. It is both/and, not either/or, I think.
1. to be gospel-centered does not only mean that you believe the Gospel and preach it. It is more.
2. to be gospel-centered does not only mean that you make a gospel application. It is more.
3. to be gospel-centered does not only mean that you talk a lot about the gospel. It is more.
I think one mark of a gospel-centered pastor and ministry is the felt satisfaction and felt impact of the present-tense saving by the grace of God from the present-tense corrupting of our sin. The gospel is good news; and the effect of good news is a real experience in the emotions and psychology of the recipients of that good news. “As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country” (Proverbs 25:25). The gospel-centered pastor is not only speaking as one who has been saved, but he is speaking with the passion of one who is being saved from his sins and the fresh reception of the Good News is like fresh water to his thirsty soul. “For to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). The hearers of that man’s ministry can practically hear a satisfied exhale of “Aah!” as if he had just been rejuvenated by a long, guzzling quaff of cool water through his parched throat. Their spiritual eyes see the white knuckles of their pastor clinging to Jesus for dear life.
Gospel means “good news.” Thus, gospel-centeredness is good news-centeredness. And this is not merely rehearsing the news. It’s experiencing the good! It is feeling it. Feeling the goodness of the news requires, then, a felt sense of sinfulness. In other words, I think being good news-centered is not merely developing a mastery of the news and rehearsing the news every time we can. I think it is experiencing the deliverance!
It’s not formulaic. It’s not tacking on Gospel truisms to every activity, every book, and every message. It is power. It is experiencing the power of the Gospel saving a pastor and his congregation from their sins. They are people with issues; and they know it! And until they get to Glory they will always have sins from which they will need to be saved. They will always have sins that cannot be deftly put off with nifty nouthetic counseling techniques. They will always have problems that cannot be resolved by the four rules of communication. They will always need grace; grace that does the miraculous grace-thing of training them how to live (Titus 2:12). And that is the power of the Gospel.
I think a gospel-centered pastor looks like Peter and Paul. Peter fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man.” Depart from me even as he clings to him. Even while being called. And Paul said, “I am (present tense)the foremost of sinners that in me the patience of Christ might be made evident” and “I beat my body (right now!) into subjection lest having preached to others I might become a castaway.” Even while he said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and “I am an apostle of Jesus Christ.”
Gospel-centeredness is not only the objective inculcation of the gospel facts into every thing that we do, nor is it even the sincerely deliberate subjugation of every ministerial activity to gospel purposes. It also the subjective experience and felt conviction of the leaders and church as a whole that the fact that they are actually standing at this very moment is because of stupendous present-tense grace toward present-tense defilement. It is the “grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2).
The gospel and the claim to gospel-centeredness do not belong to any one person, any movement, any non-movement, or any anti-movement. Gospel-centeredness is the simple miracle of grace that flows between God and sinners, between the Father and assemblies of sinners. Gospel-centeredness is not Calvinistic, conservative-evangelical, fundamentalist, or “Biblicist.” Grace flows freely to the humble, wherever they are.
There is sort of an anti-fundamentalism that has evolved that implies that to be fundamentalist is to be something that is inconsistent with the gospel. Tragically, this misses the point. To be anything is to be inconsistent with the gospel, including to be not-fundamentalist. To be a flesh and blood human is to be permanently contaminated with anti-gospelism. We come to the discovery that to be who we are near Jesus is to be like two opposing magnetic fields. Yet we cling to him even as we say, “Depart.” Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a fundamentalist. Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a T4G groupie. Depart from me, for I am a Calvinist. Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.
But despite who we are, Jesus calls us. He says, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And that is good news! And it mysteriously empowers. Even while we are saying depart, He is making us draw!
So many people are leaving churches in pursuit of a formulaic gospel-centeredness. But they have not experienced it, nor can they define it. They simply emphatically assert that it is not what they are now repudiating. Delusional, they are now persuaded that to be fundamentalist is to be non-gospel-centered. Some of these same poor souls also think that now they have repudiated fundamentalism they are therefore non-judgmental, to be non-fundamentalist means that they are now broad minded. And the list goes on. They define everything but what they are not.
While it is true that many fundamental churches are dying in legalism and traditionalism, it is also true that some leaders have quietly borne the stigma of reproach of being confused sinners in a confused movement and have humbly cried out to God to save them. Because of their manly self-criticism and their humble self-identification as desperately entrapped sinners and a developing habit of praying for salvation from their sinfulness, they have started to feel a mysterious surge of power in their ministries that can only be explained by the fact that Almighty God condescends to pour grace into a man and ministry even if he is – gasp! – fundamentalist.
The reason for this is that the Arminian fundamentalist, or the KJV-onlyist, or the T4G attendee, or the Presbyterian minister who considers the essence of his identity to be that he is a sinner being saved from his persistent badness and blindness by the unceasing flow of grace from his crucified Lord will have a ministry that is energized by the joy of Good News. The joy of the Lord is his strength.
Gospel-centeredness is not a denomination or a movement or an anti-movement. It is in many parts of the Body of Christ. The important thing is to make sure that if we use the term that we are not simply claiming glory for a particular partisan perspective and marketing ourselves with the sure-fire, guaranteed-to-lure them bait that every true Christian longs for: gospel reality in their sin-burdened lives. The important thing is to desperately plead for the reality of it. To be saved.
I have the particular handicap of being confined to only one place at a time so I was not able to attend more than one breakout session. I would not have chosen my session prior to the conference, but it had been chosen for me by Scott Aniol (I bought his registration from him). I couldn’t have been more blessed. After talking with the other guys about their particular breakout sessions, I think that I got to hear the best one. Kevin DeYoung was outstanding. An amazing topic. Worshipful. Deep.
I have to take my copy of Lucy Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder back to the library soon so I’ve been meditating on her great exposition of Genesis, the first epic poem in English by a woman, as often as possible. I found it interesting that Lucy (a Puritan literary genius of the 17th century) and Wendy, a blogger of the 21st century have the same interpretation of Genesis 3:16. And I think they’re right. Simply put, the curse on woman is not that they are constantly bucking the authority of their men, a natural effect of sin, but that they actually have life-dominating desires for their men. Exactly like it reads. Which explains why, despite themselves, women sometimes attach themselves to loser men. Because they want to. My wife and I find ourselves counseling young women all the time, begging them not to marry down. Most of the time they cling to their man as if hypnotized by a desire that is stronger than the most obnoxious common sense clamoring to get their attention. Within months they start seeing what the rest of us saw so clearly. But then it’s too late.
Read Wendy’s thoughts and then read Lucy’s exposition of the verse in the following lines. Lucy blends the two interpretations, I think.
Alas! How sadly to this day we find
Th’effect of this dire curse on womankind;
Eve sinned in fruit forbid, and God requires
Her penance in the fruit of her desires.
When first to men their inclincations move,
How are they tortured with distracting love!
What disappointments find they in the end;
Constant uneasinesses which attend
The best condition of the wedded state,
Giving all wives a sense of the curse’s weight,
Which makes them ease and liberty refuse,
And with strong passion their own shackles choose.
Now though they easier under wise rule prove,
And every burden is made light by love,
Yet the golden fetters, soft-lined yokes, still be
Though gentler curbs, but curbs of liberty,
As well as the harsh tyrant’s iron yoke;
More sorely galling them whom they provoke
To loathe their bondage, and despise the rule
Of an unmanly, fickle, froward fool.
Whate’er the husbands be, they covet fruit,
And their own wishes to their sorrows contribute.
Death, danger, sickness, losses, all the ill
That on the children falls, the mothers feel,
Repeating with worse pangs the pangs that bore
Them into life; and though some may have more
Of sweet and gentle mixture, some of worse,
Yet every mother’s cup tastes of the curse,
And when the heavy load her faint heart tires,
Makes her too oft repent her fond desires.
Then Eve was also called from her retreat.
‘Woman, what hast thou done?’ th’Almighty said;
‘Lord,’ answered she, ‘the serpent me betrayed
And I did eat.’ Thus did they both confess
Their guilt, and vainly sought to make it less
By such extenuations as, well weighed,
The sin, so circumstanced, more sinful made:
A course which still half-softened sinners use:
Transferring blame their own faults to excuse,
They care not how, nor where, and oftentimes
On God himself obliquely charge their crimes,
Expostulating in their discontent
As if he caused what he did not prevent;
Which Adam wickedly implies, when he
Cries, ”Twas the woman that thou gavest me’;
Oft-times make that the Devil’s guilt alone,
Which was as well and equally their own.
His lies could never have prevailed on Eve,
But that she wished them truth, and did believe
A forgery that suited her desire,
Whose haughty heart was prone enough to’aspire.
The tempting and urging was his ill,
But the compliance was her own will.
And herein truly lies the difference
Of natural and gracious penitence:
The first transferreth and extenuates
The guilt, which the other owns and aggravates.
While sin is but regarded slight and small
It makes the value of rich mercy fall,
But as our crimes seem greater in our eyes,
So doth our grateful sense of pardon rise.
From Order and Disorder, Canto 5 by Lucy Hutchinson