Thursday, September 30, 2004

Gospel Music and Theology: "Lord, I'm Out Here on Your Word"

I love gospel music. And I enjoy hearing almost every new form it takes as it evolves (as a matter of fact, I’m listening to ShonLock’s “Boogie Bounce” as I write this). I believe that the “gospel” in gospel music should be defined by the message, not the sound, the artist or even the constraints of the gospel music industry (most of the time). At the same time, I’m concerned by a trend I see in a lot of the music that’s currently out there. I believe that as the music has improved, the theological underpinnings behind the work haven’t always.

Specifically, I think a lot of the music we hear now is only telling one side of the story. Presenting an incomplete picture of life as a Christ-follower. It highlights the glory—the miracle on the way, the dance-like-it’s already-here, the reach-up-and-receive side. And parts of that are true. God’s promises to provide for us, to care for us, and to bless us when we act in faith are real. We need that encouragement. We need that uplifting part. We need to bob our heads, clap our hands and stomp, to bask in the hope and realization of victory.

But there’s another part, too. Like Jesus’ disciples during the days of the early church, and like many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world, there are times when we are called to suffer for our faith. Sometimes we’ll suffer because of our own bad choices, or those of others. There are times we will suffer, simply because we live in a fallen world. Jesus shared this with his disciples: “ . . . In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) So our ultimate hope, then, is not necessarily in overcoming our tribulations here on earth. It’s in our belief that God is good, that he is with us, and that he triumphs ultimately.

More gifted voices than mine have described the way the spirituals blend hope and solemn realism. One of my favorite spirituals is “Lord I’m Out Here On Your Word,” which can be heard on The Fisk Jubilee Singers’ 2003 album In Bright Mansions . (I’ve written more about this album here). Here’s the chorus:

Lord, I’m out here on your Word
Lord, I’m out here on your Word
If I die on the battlefield
Lord, I’m out here on your Word

If anyone in the blogosphere knows of a way I can find this song online and link readers to it *legally,* please leave a comment and let me know. In the meantime, let me describe the way this song begins: A lone baritone sings the first line as a simple declaration: Lord, I’m following your plan. Then his voice rises, a bit, insistent, almost too forceful: Lord, I am at this point because you brought me here. If I die on the battlefield . . .

If I die.

The song acknowledges the possibility that one may die on the battlefield. Despite our faith, despite our commitment to follow and serve and live for God’s purposes, things don’t always turn out the way we hope they will. Just as we experience moments of joy and triumph, we also know struggle and pain. The story of the original Fisk Jubilee singers bears this out. These young ex-slaves enjoyed some amazing moments. For example, they sang before important figures of the day such as Henry Ward Beecher, Charles Spurgeon, and Queen Victoria. They bravely faced the social burden of showing the world that African Americans were educable. But they also faced terrible hardship, illness and social conflicts. Yet they trusted, as we can:

If I die on the battlefield, Lord, I’m out here on your word.

There’s a touch of bravery, of hopeful resignation that is both yielded to God’s will and unbroken by tragedy. Acceptance that caring for us, making good on his promise, is God’s responsibility. A sense that making it work together for good, making our lives resolve, is something that is up to him and his obligation as the One Who Cannot Lie. An acknowledgment that he is God, and he is faithful, if our change never comes, if specific prayers aren’t answered the way we hope, if we grapple with sins and struggle to make our way until we breathe our last.

Lord, I’m out here on your Word

For I know the plans I have for you, saith the Lord . . .

Lord, I’m out here on your Word

The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord. . .

If I die on the battlefield

. . .and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented;(Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.

Lord, I’m out here on your Word.

Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.


Friday, September 24, 2004

Welcome to

I love music. But gospel music is my first, truest and deepest love. For a while now, I've wanted a place to write and think about the music that has meant so much to so many and has shaped my life in myriad ways.

I don't always have a place to talk with folks who care as deeply for this good stuff as I, so I've created as a place where I can write, and anyone who's interested can come and join me.

Perhaps someday it'll be a big, fabulous site with news, views and more. I've got the storyboards for it worked out--just need to wait for my html skills to catch up! Eventually I'll build the online equivalent of a concert hall or a fabulous e-cathedral, but for now, it's just me and my readers in this tiny online storefront church. Or maybe is an old wooden edifice in a small rural town, built with lots of love and carefully maintained. But maybe that's appropriate. After all, aren't those the places where so much of the music we love is rooted?

I don't have a row of deacons to come out and signify the beginning of the service, so instead let's begin with an inaugural question: What, exactly, is gospel music?