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Singing the Blues in Faith

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BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor of Oakwood Presbyterian Church 

           I love blues music.  I think I first discovered it through its influence on the great rock and roll singers and bands that I loved as a teenager, like Eric Clapton, the Who, the Rolling Stones, and the Allman Brothers Band.  Later, I graduated to more blues-oriented style as I became a passionate fan of the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan, and now my current favorite is Davy Knowles.  That form of rollicking electric blues is still my favorite, but I also enjoy listening to the earlier pioneers of blues music like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King.

            Blues music developed largely out of the African-American community of the late 1800’s that had endured the sufferings and indignities of slavery.  The music is known for its shuffling rhythms and melancholy sound, which is produced by adding “bent” or flattened notes to produce darker sounding chords.  Its lyrics are usually simplistic laments sung in a call-and-response style about life gone wrong or angry rants against those who have done the singer wrong.  Here’s an example from a song by Ray Charles called “Hard Times”:  “My mother told me / 'Fore she passed away / Said son when I'm gone / Don't forget to pray / 'Cause there'll be hard times / Those hard times / Who knows better than I? / Well I soon found out / Just what she meant / When I had to pawn my clothes / Just to pay the rent / Talkin' 'bout hard times / Those hard times / Who knows better than I?”  There’s never been a musical style better fitted to address the darker side of life.

            I used to be a little ashamed of my love for blues music.  I thought, “Aren’t all mature, Spirit-filled followers of Christ supposed to smiling and cheerful in all circumstances?  Isn’t that why, according to the old hymn, we ‘trust and obey’, so that we can always ‘be happy in Jesus’?”  But the more I studied God’s Word, the more I came to understand that real wisdom and spiritual maturity are found in honestly affirming the hard times in life, not in denying them.  Yes, Jesus is our Redeemer, He is risen from the dead, He is Lord, and we are heirs together with Him for all eternity.  But we are still sinners, living among other sinners, on a planet crippled by the curse of God upon our sin, and we constantly long for something far better. 

            Authentic Christianity is well summarized by the phrase, “Life is hard, but God is good.”  My life is overflowing with undeserved blessings, including my wife and kids, my career, my possessions, my health, and on and on.  But I also look in the mirror every morning and am reminded that I fall far short of God’s glory, and I’m again disappointed that I’m not nearly the husband, father, or pastor that I once dreamed I’d be.  My body is breaking down slowly.  Thorns and thistles, dirt, decay, and rust continually threaten to take over and destroy everything I own.   I experience as many conflicts in relationships as kindnesses.  For every spiritual victory I celebrate I face eight or ten spiritual defeats.  On my best days, it’s three steps forward, two steps back.  My redemption and deliverance are certain in Christ, but they are far from complete, and there are many dangerous and painful miles to go between here and there.

            If we look to the Psalms for a picture of spiritual health, we will find a wonderful balance of joyous elation and praise alongside of honest expressions of doubt and lament, sometimes all in the same Psalm.  In Psalm 13, David begins with this lament:  “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will You hide your face from me?  How long must I…have sorrow in my heart all the day?”  But by the end, he speaks of the confidence that the Lord will lift him out of his pit of despair:  “…my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.  I will sing to the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with me.”  The range of expressions of human emotion in the Psalms, from deep anguish to unbridled happiness , puts to shame any man-made hymnal or book of choruses.

            There are many whole books of the Bible that should come with a blues soundtrack.  Solomon cries out in Ecclesiastes 2:11, “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after the wind.”  He later says in Ecclesiastes 7:2-4, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.  Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.  The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” 

            The Word of God teaches us that the life of a wise and mature believer in Christ will be characterized by consistent joy, but joy isn’t always, or even most often, exhibited in exuberant happiness.  It is even more powerfully exhibited in the undeniable peace and strength of one who sorrows over the death of a loved one, or the pain of disease, or the unjust treatment by an opponent while clinging to Christ in faith.  When I’m facing the hard realities of my life and I listen to the blues music that affirms the immensity of my struggles, I often experience a soothing and reassuring inner embrace from the Spirit of One who is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses…one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15). 

            Of course, it wouldn’t be healthy for me to only listen to music that affirms the hardness of my life as a sinner in a fallen world.  I need both minor and major keys in my music, to balance my diet of “mopey music” about the hardness of life with powerful musical affirmations of the goodness of God. 

            Paul says, “…we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:23).  So we both groan and wait eagerly in faith.  When I face and embrace the pain of conviction and the shame of confession, I find the relief and joy of forgiveness and reconciliation.  Honest reflections upon the effects of sin and suffering must always resolve in a cry of faith and hope:  “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” (Psalm 42:11).


Too Many Words

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BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor of Oakwood Presbyterian Church

            As we advance in technology, we are always creating new “needs” for ourselves.  60 years ago, televisions were a luxury; today they are found in 99% of American households.  35 years ago, personal computers were a luxury that only the wealthiest and most progressive people owned.  Today they are in 87% of American single-family homes.  30 years ago most people didn’t even know what a cell phone was, but today 96% of Americans own a one. 

            There is no doubt that these inventions have made our lives easier and more efficient.  But, as thankful as I am to live in the age where we have e-mail, cell phones, texting, and social media, I have the uneasy feeling that all of this extra communication is having a negative effect on our lives and culture.  Although it is true that communication is essential to healthy relationships, not all communication is good communication.  The book of Proverbs repeatedly distinguishes between the two.  Proverbs 12:18 says, “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”  Proverbs 15:2,4 say, “The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly…The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.”  Our words can bring the precious gifts of truth, wisdom, and healing; but they are also capable of doing incredible damage. 

            Jesus taught us that “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).  Just as opening a spigot allows the water under pressure to flow freely, so does opening our mouth to speak allow the content of our hearts to spew into the world around us.  And the more we know the Lord, the more we realize how much ugliness and filth still resides in our hearts.  That is why the book of Proverbs encourages us to carefully parcel out our words.  Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” 

            The new forms of technology encourage a kind of “stream-of-consciousness” communication that allows thoughts and emotions to be expressed with very little filtering or restraint, and what overflows from our mouths and keyboards is often foolish or corrupt or hurtful.  A hundred years ago, the only way to communicate with someone at a distance was by writing a letter and sending it by mail.  If you go back and read the correspondence between people during those times you are immediately struck by how thoughtful and eloquent their letters were.  Compare those letters to the typical texting and social media dialogue that people carry on with their friends and you can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something very important.  Watch a movie based upon a Jane Austen novel, such as “Sense and Sensibility” or “Pride and Prejudice”, and you can’t help but long for conversations that are filled with carefully chosen words and respect for others.

            E-mail, social media, and cell phones have certainly made our lives easier, and they are valuable tools that I can no longer imagine living without.  But with the increased communication has also come increased temptation and sin.  The Apostle Paul set the standard for our communications with others pretty high:  “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).  I’m not arguing against the use of modern methods of conversing; I’m arguing for a godly caution in how we use them.  Well-thought-out, carefully chosen, prayer-saturated words can be a powerful force for truth and goodness.  “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).  How valuable is your correspondence?