August 18, 2020

Worship Blues

Wise and honest Christians sing the Blues. Regularly. We sing them habitually, so we know the words by heart and soul.

Someone somewhere is singing the Blues.

Someone somewhere is always singing the Blues.

Many people, of course, like their worship scrubbed and safe, scripted and predictable. They like their prayer well-organized and their music tidy. Like their theology. And their pews. But people who’ve lived a little. People who’ve found themselves in the mess of life, the incredibly broken mess of life, sing the Blues.

Sometimes they sing to confess blunders. Their pain boomerangs back to them. They had let words fly. They had thrown out anger and misjudgment, or folly and spite. They did wrong. And wrong came back to them. They deserve what they’re getting. But other times, many times, most times, someone’s pain has precious little connection to their own misdeeds. It just is. And so they sing the Blues. And invite us to sing with them.

I’m not a musical expert. I’m no musicologist or ethnologist. Through an undergraduate degree I’m at best a minor league sociologist. I can’t really sing, or write songs, or play an instrument. I can barely ride my bike. But I’ve been a pastor for a long time, and a Christian for longer. And as a human living in this wrecked world, I know we need the Blues.

Some experts say the Blues are particularly American. Born in the Deep South sometime around the 1870s. African-Americans sang work songs and spirituals, shouts and chants and hollers, songs from deep within the musical legacy of Africa. And out of this mix grew the Blues. Often songs grew as ballads telling stories of pain and longing and brokenness. Some with blue notes, worries that mingle harmoniously with jazz, rhythm and rock and roll, and even the English hymnody of Isaac Watts. (Joy to the World anyone?)

Someone, somewhere is singing the Blues. Someone is always singing the Blues. Especially now. And we should join them in our worship.

A good friend told me last week that with her church building shuttered she was feeling distant, isolated from her faith community. She loves her church. And her church loves her. But now, while quarantined during a COVID pandemic and an overdue racial conversation, she can’t fully express her love and faith. And so, she told me, “I feel small.” She needs the Blues.

A friend described his congregation’s liturgy, designed to engage people of all spiritual experience and background: Three fast, two slow, one with the message, and one to go. Each week seven songs are strategically aligned, pulsating with high octane energy. Lively lyrics and rhythms are designed to be gripping and contagious. They don’t see a need for the Blues, and never sing them. Energy and enthusiasm should win the day, convert the sinner, and provide enough inspiration for another week. Sing the Blues? It never occurred to them. It was as if their brand of faith disavowed pain.

I know this pastor well, well enough to know the pain he carries inside. His church grows steadily, but rather than be an antidote to his worry, it’s growth makes it worse. With more happening, more can go wrong. Only in private conversations, in cafés and quiet offices, do his fears pour out. Tipped over by a listening ear, misery and sorrow spill, emotions he doesn’t allow his congregation to see. He sings the Blues. Alone. But never in church.

Twenty years ago, Bono, front man for the revered rock band U2, wrote an introduction to a fresh translation of the Psalms. At twelve he was already a “fan of David.” David endured beatings, hid in caves, drifted and looted, surviving by slouching from one no name place to another. In David’s sung experience of chaos and isolation and God’s abandonment Bono felt his own. David’s psalms, written from his tangled life, felt like the Blues. That’s “what a lot of the psalms feel like to me—the Blues.” We shout at God in Psalm 22. We spit out our need for vindication in Psalm 17. We speak our darkness in Psalm 88.

We may try to promote the illusion we are in control. We may try to neatly shape our church, our lives, our children, and our spirituality. We may be tempted to create a neat and orderly liturgy, steering our spirituality from one protected harbor to another. But pandemics and racism remind us, tempests are everywhere. Even inside.

That’s why wise and honest Christians sing the Blues. Regularly. In times of personal peace we sing them alongside our struggling and suffering sisters and brothers. In times of chaos we voice them from our own experience. We sing them habitually, so we know the words by heart and soul. Call them laments. Call them cries. Call them howls. Call them psalms. But take them inside and make them yours. And in so doing, join the congregation of three Millenia.

Someone, somewhere is singing the blues. Or at least, they ought to be. In church.

Digging Deeper

Kevin Adams is the author of Living Under Water: Baptism as a Way of Life150: Finding Your Story in the PsalmsThe Book That Understands You, and The Gospel in a Handshake: Framing Worship for Mission. In 1991 Kevin and his wife Gerry began Granite Springs Church, a congregation that has helped inspire a movement of church planting in the Sacramento area. He was Director of Formation at the Newbigin House of Studies in San Francisco, and has taught at Calvin SeminaryWestern Seminary, and William Jessup University. Besides serving as senior pastor, he is writing a book about living our baptism. Kevin is fascinated and intrigued by how worship forms and shapes individuals and contagious communities of faith. His special interests are in the missional depth and wisdom of the psalms, sacraments, and preaching.