After the Miracles are Gone, 2017
"Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth…. Furthermore, graces does not mean simply that we are making progress in our moral self-control, in our fight against special faults…. [Grace] strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’ If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed...."
"The blues…is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”
In the Gospels, we find many stories in which Jesus healed people. A woman follows quietly behind him and touches the hem of his garment and is healed instantly. Four good, strong friends lower a man through the roof of a building to interrupt Jesus so he will heal their friend, and Jesus does it. In Jericho, a blind panhandler named Bartimaeus, despite being sternly ordered by the authorities to be quiet, yells out to Jesus as he passes by, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus heals him. The healing stories are surely dramatic. Who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned miracle story?
But when I am honest, I must admit that these stories leave me with as many questions as answers. What about all those other people in the crowd just as much in need of healing as the woman but who couldn’t get close enough quickly enough to touch Jesus’ garment because he was moving too quickly or the crowds were too thick? What about all those other broken people who don’t have four good, strong friends willing to dismantle a roof to get them healed? What about all those other quiet panhandlers in Jericho in need of healing whose voices were drowned out by the one loud mouth who stole the show? For every individual fortunate enough to be healed miraculously by Jesus, there are throngs of people just as much in need of healing that he never heals, at least not miraculously and dramatically.
Where do these folks go to get healed? Some go to church, I suppose. Others go to Blues festivals, at least that’s now what I believe after photographing the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi for several years. Clarksdale and the Blues are for broken and flawed people, suffering people who, for whatever reason, can’t seem to get healed instantly, dramatically, and miraculously by Jesus in the usual places.
Whatever the seat of our particular suffering, when the Blues are performed, we run our fingers over the jagged edges of our brokenness, our inadequacies, our suffering. We feel the sharp-edged pain of our failure to get skinnier, smarter, wealthier, healthier, younger, prettier, or holier. We confront the loss of failed relationships and the host of other moral inadequacies and untamed compulsions that still reign in us. And we touch the hopelessness and despair awakened by a world hellbent on violence and injustice. The Blues give voice to this tragic reality, this tangle of finitude and brokenness that is inescapable in all human life. In this regard, the Blues are more honest than what often happens in church. The Blues are a much messier form of healing than miracles, and perhaps that’s why they persist long after the miracles are gone.
But the Blues do more than give voice to the brokenness in our lives. They enable us to transcend it, to squeeze from it some inexplicable, ineffable triumph. Let's call it grace. No, let's be bold. Let's call it Gospel, "good news" that blesses Luke's "poor" and Matthew's "poor in spirit." By singing about suffering, the Blues ultimately beat it, well, kind of. They beat it, albeit in an oblique way, with humor, pathos, and permission to embrace our bodies and spirits as they are. They beat it by unshackling bodily and spiritual desires, emotional longing, and the satisfaction of all of these from the shame and violence of false moralism and the politics of domination.
The Blues knit wounded selves back together again. They do so not by extricating us from the cruelties of life. That would be too easy; that would be cheap grace and bad music. The Blues are cruciform grace; they make power present through weakness. In them, we find divine grace incarnate in human suffering well after the miracles are gone.
It is foolish, of course, to say that everything sung in the Blues is Gospel; surely the Blues too are fragile and susceptible to the very tragic misdirections and distortions that they themselves identify. To say this is simply to recognize that old truth that not every word the preacher utters is Gospel; and yet sometimes the preacher's clumsy or even self-serving words become Gospel through the power of Another. So it is with the Blues.
 Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted,” The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948); pp. 161-2.
 Ralph Ellison, "Richard Wright's Blues," in Shadow and Act (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1994 (1964)); p. 78. Quoted in James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (New York: Orbis Books, 2013); p. 16.