If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things…? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
…I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
-Romans 8:31-32, 35, 38-39 (NIV)
Back in 2002, when Bruce Springsteen released his post-9/11 record The Rising, he did an interview with John Pareles, the longtime music critic for The New York Times, in his living room in New Jersey. Talking about his music in general, and the album in particular, he said something for the first time that he’s said in many places since. It’s just a short sentence, but it’s stuck with me since I first heard him say it.
He’s describing the way he writes music, and particularly how he wrote after September 11th. He talks about feeling that he has to write about “real horrors” that are part of peoples’ lives, but also the hope that people find in friendship, family, work, and day-to-day life.
And then the line about his songs that’s stuck with me: “The verses are the blues, the chorus is the gospel.”
You know people whose verses are full of the blues, don’t you? More than their share. Some of us meet them every week in our food pantry, hearing updates on lives characterized by struggle, health problems, age, addiction, insecurity, and fear. Some are strangers here, immigrants bewildered by the system they have to navigate to enjoy what I take for granted because of the accident of my birth. Some need help with food because of the cost of medications that sustain their lives — lives they wonder if there’s much reason to sustain.
Some of us meet folks singing blues-filled verses in the nursing homes they visit each week. They sing and pray and speak words of comfort and hope from Scripture to people whose spirits are imprisoned in failing bodies, who have no one to care for them, whose only visit each week are from those of us willing to sacrifice a Sunday afternoon to listen to them, smile at them, laugh with them.
We hear colleagues at work or school singing the blues of alienated families, lost marriages, financial setbacks, health issues, and grief. Closer to home, our hearts break hearing our kids sing the blues, our parents. We hear the blues from our neighbors, or from high school or college friends on our social media feeds. They dominate the headlines, sung in unfamiliar languages by people we don’t know. But we know the blues when we hear them.
That’s because we know the blues ourselves. Job, the ultimate bluesman, once pointed out, “Mortals, born of woman, are of few days and full of trouble.” He may have been depressed when he came up with that, and there is much more to a life than the trouble he bemoans. But he wasn’t wrong, was he? That’s a song we can identify with. Even when we have it good, when life is going well, we know the blues are lurking. Maybe not in this verse, but quite possibly in the next one. Or the one after that.
When the verses of your life are the blues, there are a few ways you can go. One is to whistle a happy tune anyway, plastering on a fake smile and singing Don’t Worry, Be Happy, or Keep on the Sunny Side while everything around you is Hurt. Sometimes that’s our impulse in the church, that we shouldn’t feel pain or disappointment or anger or fear, that somehow to acknowledge the darkness is to turn away from the light. That’s a mistake. The light shines in the darkness, John’s Gospel says.
The darkness is real, but it doesn’t snuff out the light. That’s the other mistake: to believe that the blues are all there is. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it. The darkness is real, but the light’s still there. The verses of our life are the blues, sometimes at the very least. We have loss and grief and pain and disappointment, and it’s easy to sing about that in a loop. But don’t forget that there's a chorus, and our chorus is the gospel.
While I was writing this, I got a call that my great-aunt, Mozelle Payne, had died. She was my maternal grandmother’s last living sister, 98 years old. I always called her Aunt Mozie, and I guess I was a teenager before it dawned on me that she was actually my great-aunt. Aunt Mozie had a long life, but it wasn’t always easy. Its verses had their share of the blues about them. Her children had lifelong health problems. She had her own struggles. But I never saw Mozie that she didn’t smile and hug me. She wasn’t afraid to acknowledge the hardships and grief in her life, but she faced all of it with hope, courage, and joy.
She knew the chorus, and that made the difference.
It will make the difference for you and me, too. Seems like our world is about getting rid of the blues. If we elect the right party, “cancel” the right people, call out enough injustice, then we won’t have to sing the blues anymore. Or is it eating right, exercising, and taking the right vitamins or essential oils or antioxidants? Or maybe we just need to be more tolerant. Or watch our children more closely. Or quit watching them so closely. Or arm ourselves. Or get rid of all the guns.
No. The chorus is the gospel. It’s the counterpoint to the blues in the verses of our lives. It draws our eyes and hearts upward to the hope that God has given us in Jesus. The blues are part of our lives, but the answer is neither to ignore them nor to wallow in them. The answer is to, periodically and regularly, sing the chorus.
That’s the chorus there in Romans 8 — one version of it, anyway. There are many variations on it in the Bible and in the life of the church, but that one that Paul sang is pretty compelling. It reminds us not to sing the blues without singing the gospel. Hardship, trouble, grief, shame, violence, disease, death — all of that is real, but it can’t separate us from Christ’s love, from God’s love as experienced through Jesus. The blues are real, but so is God’s love.
So may we sing the blues when we need to, and may we care enough about each other to sing them together. But may we then sing the chorus of the gospel even louder, and may the tears of our joy mingle with and finally wash away the tears of our sorrow.