This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Powell: Why I sing gospel

It’s hard to keep focused on God’s preferred future when marginalized communities are attacked and deprived of justice. People use different coping mechanisms to deal with it. Some let anger, resentment and frustration take over. Many express their moods and feelings through music. Some sing the blues, which laments the loss of someone or something precious. Some sing protest songs to bring attention to the need for change.

John Powell

I sometimes struggle to find cohesion between faith and practice as I work for justice. Now is one of those times. I need to retreat to fortify my resolve.

Gospel music provides that for me. It binds me to my ancestors, who struggled or died to gain freedom from oppression and degradation. It connects me with my grandfather, who was a slave. His mother and her generation used the spirituals (the forerunners of black gospel) to convey the message of promised freedom. The rhythmic message of “Steal Away” captures the core of the gospel song that enlivens me.

Gospel music is a window into my soul.

It is a communal enterprise. The community is invited and united in one voice to give praise, admonition, prayer and thanks to God. Through it the community expresses its relationship to God and Jesus as Savior and emancipator. God calls, and we respond. The spiritual community experiences Jesus as a personal and collective friend. There is a simultaneous connection to God, who is present, listens and speaks truth to God’s people. My community affirms my status as God’s child under God’s protection.

There’s a sermon in every song. It admonishes everyone to accept grace, love, forgiveness and freedom. It says Christ has broken down the walls that separate us. Whether singing or listening, we are aware of each other and can affirm the message of the song: “God has spoken, so let the church say amen.”

Congregations around the world hear the gospel of Jesus Christ every Sunday through word and song. Services bring hope and encouragement. Many leave church ready to join in the work for God’s liberating justice. Every Spirit-filled justice seeker needs to be fortified with music for the journey.

The English playwright William Congreve wrote, “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” Gospel music does this for me. What kind of music comforts and inspires you?

If your spiritual foundation is shaken, I recommend you begin to rebuild it with music. Find the music that connects your soul to humanity and your Creator. Let it soothe the anger and delusion that the current state of our community presents. Let it replenish your soul for the rocky journey ahead of us.

For the past several months, I have been listening to “Lord, Help Me to Hold Out,” a gospel song by James Cleveland. It has been a fortress for me. It’s a prayer for God’s intervention. He says to God, “My way may be not easy. You did not say that it would be. But when it gets dark, I can’t see my way, you told me to put my trust in Thee. That’s why I’m asking you: Lord, help me to hold out.”

This song lifts my hope. I declare with it, “I believe I can hold out!”

Find the music that keeps you focused on the justice trek. It will help you to hold out. When you do, you will be able to say with me and others, “God has spoken, and I can say amen.”

John Powell, of Ypsilanti, Mich., is a regional pastor for Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference.

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