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“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.”

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5 Responses

  1. Thank you Bob for a gentle nudging toward the reality of my limited experience in life’s real struggles. But I will confess that the most profound worship service I ever experienced was my dad’s funeral as a 16 year old boy. The great grief of that trauma was overshadowed by God’s overwhelming grace. I could not escape that wonder.

  2. Bob, beautiful article. Just finishing up a historical fiction about the Port Royal experiment. Amazes me that in the heart of slavery, every song recorded from the freedmen pointed to God. Not one was secular. Here’s an amazing book that studies their modes of worship, along with noted songs! http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/allen/allen.html

  3. Bob,
    I am thankful you are writing again. This was a blessing and dovetailed with what Dr. Lawson preached tonight about being serious when preaching the Word. One of the things said is that good preaching will cause us to mourn our sin. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. […] “Dey just rattles it off – dey don’t know how for sing it”: When the Ambassador Played the H…Good words about sad worship. […]

  5. […] – “Dey just rattles it off – dey don’t know how for sing it”: When the Ambassador Played the H…May 23, 2010 – Good words about sad […]

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