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Center for Action and Contemplation
Holding the Tension
Holding the Tension

The Gospel and the Blues

Thursday, January 18, 2024

In a sermon preached in the fall of 2014, shortly after the shooting of Michael Brown and weeks of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III spoke about the unique way Black Americans hold the tension between despair and hope:

It’s a strange affair to be Black and live in America, and even stranger to be Black and a person of faith in these yet-to-be-United States, to carry around the burden of a socially constructed idea called race and yet be filled with a divinely inspired mandate to eradicate all limitations to the human soul. Being Black means you are born with a Blues song tattooed on your heart, and at the same time you still have a Gospel shout that is welling up in your soul about to come out.

Another way to say it is that we live with repression and revelation simultaneously swimming in the same tributary of our spirit. There is nothing more confusing to the postmodern personality, to the millennial sojourner, than to have to exist between the strange life of dealing with your Blues and Gospel all the time. Madness and ministry, chaos and Christ. My father heard an elder in Georgia say it this way. When he asked her, “How are you doing, Mother?” she said, “I’m living between Oh Lord and Thank you, Jesus.”

For the most part, many of us are living in between, not quite at “Oh Lord” and not quite at “Thank you, Jesus,” but somewhere in between. If you choose to be conscious and understand the system at work, study the history of repression, know what hate will do when it’s turned inward onto your own spirit, examine the forces of consumption, get a picture of colonialism, understand the root of imperialism, and begin to deconstruct the powers that be. At some point, you will find yourself leaning upon the Blues and facing despair, and wondering if you should give up.

Moss offers the example of Rosa Parks (1913–2005) as someone who faced despair and chose hope and nonviolent action. Moss preaches:

For those of you who have fallen into a level of cynicism, thinking that we “cannot” and “nothing will work,” let me tell you, when you get up tomorrow on Monday morning, it will be December first. That means nothing to you, but let me break it down, because you should shout every December first. December first was the day … Rosa Parks sat down so you could stand up.

When you get up tomorrow, you say, “God, I thank you for Rosa. That she could sit down so I could stand up.” And only God can teach you to do two things that sound contradictory at the same time, that she sat down and stood up at the same time. We must make our history sacred.

Otis Moss III, Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World: Finding Hope in an Age of Despair (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 96–97, 102.

Image credit: Oliver Hotakainen, Untitled (detail), Finland, 2021, photograph, public domain. Click here to enlarge image.

How do we keep fire afloat on water? How do we act for justice and stay humble and listening?

Story from Our Community:  

After my 16-year-old daughter was killed, God arrived into my home and held me for a year. She [God] was with me in my endless tears and the moments of trying to explain grief to my two living daughters. She was with me when I drove to the store, when I faced the grief of my daughter’s friends. She was there, holding me tight. Returning to church, She held me as my friends cried. She revealed herself to me in the silent afternoons as I sat in my chair. In the years that have followed, I have never doubted that God is near. —Peggy W.

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