Gospel in a Blue Note

Lord Jonathan Sacks is the Chief Rabbi in Great Britain. He opens his most recent book with these words:

. . . . God weeps. So the book of Genesis tells us. Having made human beings in his image, God sees the first man and woman disobey the first command, and the first human child commit the first murder. Within a short space of time ‘the world was filled with violence’. God ‘saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth’. We then read one of the most searing sentences in religious literature. (Genesis 6:6) ‘God regretted that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.’[1]

Nothing was different by the time of Jesus. He was born into a world of mass murder (the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem), beheading (John the Baptist), and crucifixion (Jesus himself and thousands of others in the first century). This wasn’t the world of Hallmark cards and prosperity Gospel, sugar plum fairies and red-nosed reindeer, but a world of evil and pain.

In the reading this morning we heard John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, describing the world of “those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”[2]

Some years ago there began a movement to hold “Blue Christmas” services for people who couldn’t bring themselves to participate in the happiness and joy of the season—folk who were recently bereaved, depressed, wounded in some fashion. But there has always been a sense in which Christmas is blue, and we should never forget that there’s a contextual gloom.

This contextual gloom is so much a backdrop to our world as well. It seems that there’s a new report of evil, of carnage, of mass destruction in every news cycle . . . punctuated by natural disasters and pending disasters. Place names, formerly known and unknown, now carry a punch: names like Columbine, Nichel Mines, Sandy Hook, Ferguson, Paris, San Bernadino and so many others.

In his 2014 Beecher Lectures at Yale University, The Rev. Otis Moss, suggested that in this context, the Church must learn to speak the Gospel in a Blue Note. The blues combined African rhythms with the experienced pain of slavery. The result was the emergence of the negro spirituals that spoke of struggle in a way that sustained the slaves in their darkness.[3]

Many Christians speak of Jesus as savior and liberator of those who have their backs up against the wall. But before looking at Jesus as savior of the oppressed or as victor over the power of death—we need to pause and see Jesus as a victim—a victim who understands what it means to be terrorized, diminished, and demeaned.[4]

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.”

According to Flannery O’Connor, Christians . . . are burdened by their knowledge of an alternative world because they have encountered a God of grace and love. But the world that they look at does not fit the alternative world. . . . They see “the grotesque,” who are out of synch with God, as well as characters who demonstrate the grace of God even though they (too) are distanced from God. Through this tension (we are) drawn to the grotesque of blues and find that God is loose in the world.[5]

I think of Mother Teresa who felt separate from God—abandoned by God—but demonstrated God’s love every time she wiped the face of a leper—which of course was the face of Jesus.

Moss says that “Blue note (theology) is a way of knowing. We refuse to turn away from the beauty in the ashes; neither shall we turn from the ashes that were once a bouquet of beauty.”[6]

I think of the provost of Coventry Cathedral, England. On the night of Nov. 14, 1940, the City of Coventry burned to death. Wave after wave of German bombers spewed destruction from the heavens. It was the first attempt in the history of warfare to totally destroy a city by indiscriminate bombing in a single operation. It was not the last: Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. But Coventry was the first.

On the morning of November 15th the dawn revealed the full horror of a dying city. The silence was the silence of shock and terror. A small group of people gathered in the smoldering ruins of their beloved cathedral and caretaker Jack Forbes took two charred 14th Century roof timbers and fashioned them into a rude cross and drove it into the rubble, making it another Calvary, identifying human suffering, brutality, and pain with the Crucifixion of Jesus.

Provost Richard Howard then etched two words in the ashes at the foot of that rude cross, words from Jesus’ own lips when he hung on his cross: “FATHER FORGIVE.”

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.”

Otis Moss tells the story of learning about the Gospel in a Blue Note from a six-year old girl. His parish, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, was going through a stressful time.

My predecessor had been unfairly lifted up and attacked in the media because a person who’d been kissed by nature’s sun was running for the presidency.

As a result media were outside of our church everyday. There were a hundred death threats every week: “We are going to kill you. We are going to bomb your church.”

The stress was so painful that it was very difficult to sleep at night. One night I was half asleep and heard a noise in the house. My wife, Monica, punched me and said, “You go check that out.”

So I did. Like a good preacher I grabbed my rod and staff to comfort me. I went walking through the house with my rod and staff that was made in Louisville with the name Slugger on it.

I looked downstairs, and then I heard the noise again. I made my way back upstairs and peaked in my daughter’s room. There was my daughter Makayla dancing in the darkness—just spinning around, saying, “Look at me, Daddy.”

I said, “Makayla, you need to go to bed. It is 3 a.m. You need to go to bed.”

But she said, “No, look at me, Daddy. Look at me.” And she was spinning, barrettes going back and forth, pigtails going back and forth.

I was getting huffy and puffy wanting her to go to bed, but then God spoke to me. “Look at your daughter! She’s dancing in the dark. The darkness is all around her but it is not in her!”

Makayla reminded me that weeping may endure for a night, but if you dance long enough joy will come in the morning. It is the job of preachers to teach the Blue Note gospel, the gospel that sends this word to us in the hardest of times: do not let the darkness find its way in you. Dance in the dark.[7]

Don’t let the darkness live in you. No revenge. No hatred. No sense that getting even is part of our response to great evil. The only retort that does not encourage more evil is forgiveness and love.

The next time you hear of monstrous evil, and the pundits and politicians start their hateful rants, turn them off. Listen, rather to the angels. “Fear not.” Don’t be afraid.” Listen to the child dancing in the dark.

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Schocken Books: New York, 2015, p. 3

[2] From the Song of Zechariah, Luke 1:68-79. Quoted text is from Luke 1:79.

[3] Article in The Christian Century, Nov. 25, 2015 adapted from Otis Moss, Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World, Westminster John Knox, 2015, based on his 2014 Beecher Lectures at Yale.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.