Blue State Blues
Ever since last winter when Rick Wilson led an after-hour program on
the blues, I have been singing that opening line from our response in
praise today: God is Good. (sing: God is good, all the time…)
Whenever I sing it I say "de," too: all de time. We
try to teach children to pronounce "t-h," but when I sing this I
say "De." That's because I am usually singing it
all alone while I am walking somewhere or in my office or of course in the
But the other thing about my singing is, I can't get any farther than
this affirmation of God's goodness, because I didn't memorize any more
words last spring. But for these several months this has been perfectly
fine for me.
Then, yesterday in the shower I realized something that I particularly
love about this song. It's the way that the word "good" is
constructed. It takes three notes to say good - three syllables where
usually we have only one. Plus, I can slide in and out of the notes to try
to find my place, even if I don't have it just right at first. "Go-oo-ood."
And I realized that those three notes really open up the concept of
goodness for me. I like this three in one.
Now, the orthodox ordained representative of a Trinitarian tradition in
me kind of likes this sneaky popular culture infusion of three traditional
notes in a secular expression. God in three persons, blessed trinity, has
found an outlet in the blues. Which is nice, and perhaps even better if
I'd never mentioned it and left it a subliminal call to piety and
catechism, and I hope I haven't gone and blown the secret, making it
Because my meta-orthodox side likes the three notes for another reason.
When I sing this tune, or even mis-sing this tune, I find that in
God, in God's goodness, in these three notes, there is space to expand. In
three notes, there is space to explore. And with my off key searches for
the note, there is space to be
imperfect and to wind up somewhere interesting just the same.
But there is more in this blues note, more than expansive, exploratory
acceptance. There is room both to celebrate and to mourn. There is an
option of singing up-tempo and joyfully or of getting a little Tom Waits
and wailing a bit: against the system, life's experience, or even our
experience of God, which aren't, from our perspective, good all the time.
So all I've got are three words, and one of them has a mere three
notes, but in them I find a range of possibilities in the faith. I love
this little phrase.
However, my own personal affections and obsessions don't translate into
theological, ecclesiological, or hermeneutical wisdom just like that.
Which is to say, just because I like the tune doesn't mean it's got a
message. You've got to engage that notion for yourself. But here's one
thing that does strike me.
In a moment of American history when those of us with several notes in
our Christian hymnbook are sometimes feeling eclipsed by those who have
only one note in their tune, I think we need a reminder of God's harmony.
In a moment of national but moreover Christian expressions that claim to
perceive and prioritize only one value, I'm seeing and hearing more than
one this morning. In fact, I can't ever describe God or God's mission with
only one note, one value, unless that one has multiple expressions:
expressions such as expansive and exploratory and imperfect and joyful and
Let me go one step further: the mere claim that God can be reduced to
one expression, one note, one value is idolatry in its classic and modern
sense. The contention that God can be trapped by one people in one place
for one purpose with one song is heresy in its ultimate and demonic form.
It wouldn't be loving of me not to say so.
Is there a oneness to God? Of course. Is there a central truth to God?
I believe so. But oneness does not mean singularity, and centralities do
not translate into unconditional creeds but into confessional quests. Our
God's goodness has many notes, and we're learning to sing them as best we
can and sharing them even with people who don't yet know about harmony. Our God's goodness
is diverse and powerful and loving all the time, and our God is their God,
I had a powerful experience this Friday at around 10 am when we had
some smoke in the kitchen of this church, coming from a possible
electrical fire. Jim Harper was here, and we took about 90 seconds to
examine the situation, and my colleague Ellen hit the fire alarm, and we
evacuated the building. Which meant that our weekday nursery school, a
self-directed mission of this parish, had to clear out two classrooms in a
hurry. If you remember 10 am on Friday, that is just about when the
freezing rain began to fall, and the kids did not have jackets yet,
although some of us went back inside to get them along with blankets and
food. But the kids were waiting out back in the freezing rain for fifteen
minutes when the fire chief said that they'd found the smoke, and we could
all go into the sanctuary, this sanctuary, while they isolated its source.
So about thirty-five kids came in through the choir door, and spread out
blankets on the floor in front of the chancel and it was still chilly in
here so they kept their jackets on. Now the communion table was still up
from last Sunday, so teachers laid out their little paper cups there and
poured water in them, and they put orange slices and pretzels on plates,
and then the teachers took them off the table and served all the kids who
were still concerned and even a little frightened about what was going on,
but they ate, and then I suggested that we sing a song.
Now I need to tell you, as you likely know, that our nursery school is
made up of Jews and Christians and agnostics and kids from Eastern
religions and from Eastern Europe. It's quite a diverse group. Some of
them have complex life-changing health conditions or two mommies. There is
a seriously ill parent and also the arrival of twin brothers just Friday.
And I looked at them with their little cups and salty pretzels surrounding
the table, and it was all I could do not to make liturgical signs over
them. It's a preacher's habit. But of course I didn't need to. Because
they were the sign and symbol of safety and sanctuary and community
already. Their diverse gathering was holy, already. They started singing a
song of thanksgiving, I think one from Barney, and after that I didn't
even need to come to church today.
Except to say this: this is the people who provided the sanctuary for
safety on Friday, through your gifts. Those are the children who belong in
God's sanctuary: diverse people of every type, with silly songs of
thanksgiving, a little fear, and some human hunger. We are the people who
need to share our sanctuary, our story, our songs, our multiple notes, out
in the world around us, proclaiming that our God has infinite ways to
offer divine goodness.
This is not easy all the time. It is disheartening some of the time.
But God calls us to explore and expand and accept and be accepted. There
is so much to God's goodness, and it is a tragic loss, even a mistake, to
think anything less.
You know, I wish that I had learned the rest of the song back when Rick
was here in the spring. But the truth is that three words, three notes,
are enough to get me started. And once we are started together there is
simply no reason not to sing on and sing on and sing on. God is good.
Copyright © 2004 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by