When I was growing up in Mexico, a son of missionaries who saw Jesus as the light to share with those they believed lost, I listened for hours as round and round on the Wollensak turned the tapes on which Roy, a stateside supporter, had recorded countless gospel songs.
Amid culture-shock-related traumas, those songs saved my life. When little else brought comfort, those tapes assured that I was tenderly watched over as the storm passed by, hope whispered, I walked in the garden or talked in the fields, or rested, with the Lord my shepherd, beside the still waters of peace.
The day would come when many of the lyrics, more passionate about saving inner souls than bodies lost to injustices shattering communities, would trouble me. When HIV-AIDS struck so hard in one context that funerals for those lost to it became a weekly ritual, a worship service enveloped in gospel lyrics sung as if souls sailed serenely on while bodies shipwrecked in storms of oppression and rejection unsettled me.
Yet I recall loved ones for whom gospel-song metaphors motivated soul salvation and invited compassion for human sisters and brothers drowning in life’s daily wreckages.
I wonder what such loved ones, mostly gone, would make of today’s Christians who love old or new gospel songs but now mesh saving the lost with policy cruelties. If you’re not the right kind of good Christian American, whatever must be done to you to keep me safe just must be done.
Even this doesn’t entirely shock: I’ve not made sense of a loved one who so nurtured my love of gospel songs that to hear her favorite ones stirs tears. Lovingly she’d minister to prisoners’ souls. And passionately she’d preach, this Mennonite follower of the Jesus whose love for enemies she embraced, that their bodies should be executed.
I don’t know how to navigate such complexities as cruelty becomes ever more popular across political and theological viewpoints. But recently I stumbled across a gospel song that encourages continuing to seek light. “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy,” by P.P. Bliss, was supposedly inspired by evangelist D.L. Moody’s story of a ship that wrecked in a storm. The captain could see the lighthouse, but with lower lights meant to reveal harbor channel hazards extinguished, disaster still ensued.
Though my boyhood self loved that song, when the algorithms of Spotify threw out almost miraculously a version by The Lower Lights band, I heard it afresh.
For Bliss, the lighthouse beams God’s mercy. But humans also must “trim your feeble lamps,” those lower lights along the shore for which the “eager eyes” of sailors fainting in the angry billows “are watching, longing.”
Yes, the focus remains on spirits and sins. Yet in The Lower Lights version I also seemed to hear the metaphor spreading to bodies and communities the tendernesses, the compassions, the divine mercies we humans are to share as well as experience. I could imagine trimming harbor lights not just to beam out our own visions but also to illumine safe harbor for each other. It seemed fitting, then, to learn that many Lower Lights band members have connections with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which some who love Bliss would reject.
How do we get theologies just right? I still don’t know. But I yearn with soul and body for faith expressions reaching beyond cruelty to blend harbor lights with Mercy brightly beaming.
Michael A. King is publisher of Cascadia Publishing House and blogs at Kingsview & Co., cascadiapublishinghouse.com/KingsviewCo.