When Ashley Cleveland sang There is Power in the Blood the other night at the Bluebird on the Mountain it took me back to a small Methodist church in Oklahoma on Sunday evenings when I was young.
Unlike the morning service, the evening was informal and we’d sing favorites from the small red, Cokesbury Hymnal. Gospel favorites. About being washed in the blood, walking in the garden alone and dwelling in Beulah land.
I don’t think the graphic words meant that much to us, certainly not to me. And we were not millenialist in theology. In fact, we were mainline Methodist. And that meant we were responsible for others, like the poor here and around the world.
Kate Moody, the teacher of the Adult Bible class, and Bobbie Unglesby, youth leader, reminded us a man called John Wesley went into the coal fields in England to preach to the miners and that was our inheritance. It didn’t come out like a lecture on social justice. In this little oil patch town with working people, it came as a teaching about responsibility and citizenship. This was how faith took expression.
And a symbol of our faith hung high above the altar in the sanctuary, a polished wooden beam cross backlit by a lavender neon tube. As darkness gathered outside, it always seemed reassuring and permanent.
There was also reassurance in the rhythmic, comforting sounds of those songs. They conveyed acceptance, hope and safety. Some places were not safe and accepting for some of us, whose families were plagued by alcohol or poverty. They were dark and fearful; tempestuous and chaotic. But not here. This was a place where alcohol-induced violence did not enter. For boys and girls from the edge of town and the edge of society, that was truly sanctuary.
The songs took us from dark places and into the light. They were like refreshing water on a hot day, cooling and soothing.
Out of this community, I experienced the call to ministry. When I went away to seminary, I was surprised to learn that these songs were unacceptable to some. They were too individualistic, too laced with piety and too theologically narrow. I recall being told by one professor that I had to learn to appreciate the “great hymns” of the church. By that, he meant the hymns of the Reformation, not the gospel hymns of the Great Revival.
I understand what the professor meant, but did he understand what these songs meant to people like us? I remembered that when I heard Ashley sing last Saturday night.
These songs were healing to people whose lives were broken. Beulah land was a land of hope to those exiled by poverty. The promise of power in the blood was a promise to get through the struggle to folks who lived on the margin. This wasn’t pie in the sky, not like the opiate of the people, as Marxism charged. It was healing and comfort; assurance and empowerment. It was gritty faith in the midst of gritty everyday reality.
When Ashley spoke briefly of her own struggles, she brought authenticity to the song. But she sings it like we didn’t. She makes it rock. It’s real in a different way, not merely in performance style, but in something more; in interpreting life and its power in a spiritual way.
Those songs in that small church were forming us, me in particular. They were providing a view of the world, a view of justice, hopefulness, purpose; a view of empowerment, dignity and shared responsibility. They were birthing an understanding that Christian faith doesn’t take the world at face value and accept it and let it beat you down. Instead, it looks at this world as the place where God is active, and it seeks to create change for all God’s children, to end suffering, discrimination and exploitation; to get to Beulah land, where justice and mercy would be available for all.
Because there is power, power, wonder-working power in the blood…