Toe-tapping Spirituality: Personal Faith and Bluegrass Music
A sermon about John 3:1-20
Today we begin our Lenten sermon series, “Close Encounters of a Personal Kind,” where we see what we can apply to our lives from Jesus’ most intense engagements with individuals. First, we turn to the story in John 3 about a conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. John doesn’t provide a backstory, but John reveals that he came under cover of darkness, and Jesus tries to illuminate him and move him toward the light.
Whatever Nicodemus’ motivations, he greets Jesus respectfully. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.”
By his clothing, Jesus would have recognized that Nicodemus was a religious leader, a Pharisee. But he steers clear of any small talk, chit-chat. Maybe he senses what Nicodemus needs to hear. So, Jesus starts talking about how one must undergo a spiritual rebirth to experience the kin-dom of God. You will remember that Jesus spoke about the quality of life we experience. This starts a series of back-and-forth conversations that remind me of Abbot and Costello’s classic bit, “Who’s on First.” Jesus talks about spiritual things, but Nicodemus is too literal and doesn’t get it.
“What do you mean by ‘be born from above?’ Am I supposed to reenter my mother’s womb?”
It’s almost slapstick. Sometimes people who are oriented toward more practical things and think more linearly have the most difficulty grasping spiritual concepts and what Jesus was trying to express. Abstract thinking is not everyone’s forte, and it’s often hard to understand fully. Sometimes, it takes a little more work to let go of literal thinking and embrace the symbolic and metaphorical concepts of spirituality fully.
Nick and Jesus go back and forth for some time, and we’re still unsure if Nick caught on at the end of the encounter, but we can get it. We are capable of experiencing a spiritual rebirth that allows us to see the world differently. Rebirth begins with sensing God’s love for the world and you.
Spiritual rebirth is a personal and continual process.
We may have a vague and general sense of God’s love. Yes, God so loved the world. But it takes on a whole new dimension when we realize it means God loves you—with all your faults and foibles. This epiphany that God gives us a close encounter of a personal kind, sets off an ongoing journey of continuous transformation.
Thus, we are reborn and saved, not as a one-time event, but on a journey of continual transformation where we better understand who we are and the fantastic things we can do to help people have better lives.
This personal dimension of faith is the backbone of the bluegrass music we celebrate today.
The spiritual roots of Bluegrass music
The themes and lyrical content of bluegrass reflect a strong connection to faith and are deeply rooted in the religious traditions of the Appalachian Mountains. The genre pioneers spoke to people who lived simple but difficult lives, filled with the tribulations of poverty and desperation. But it’s not mournful country music that bemoans the suffering and retaliates with a Take This Job and Shove It mentality. Instead, the upbeat music elevates the spirit and finds a reason for hope.
With lyrics influenced by religious themes, bluegrass is a fusion of jazz, African American blues, and traditional Appalachian music. The quick tempos and extremely tight harmonies evoke an inner joy that life’s circumstances cannot stifle.
Bluegrass helps bolster people in faith. When you let yourself get caught up in the music, Bluegrass brings a piece of the kingdom of God to you in the present moment.
Bluegrass embodies the lessons of John 3
Many Bluegrass pioneers were deeply religious, and their faith influenced the songs they wrote and performed. The themes of the third chapter of John of redemption, grace, and salvation are prevalent in Bluegrass.
For example, in the song “Love of God” by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, they sing:
“The love of God is greater far / Than tongue or pen can ever tell / It goes beyond the highest star / And reaches to the lowest hell
The hope of heavenly rewards and reunions
One of the predominant themes Bluegrass musicians took from John 3 is the hope of salvation and the promise that the next life will be better than the tribulations suffered in this life.
- “Walls of Time” by Bill Monroe: “The world is full of people, some are good, and some are bad / The good ones always suffer, the bad ones always laugh / And when it’s all over and we lay this body down / We’ll be judged by our deeds, not by the walls of time”
- “I’ll Fly Away” by Albert E. Brumley: “Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away / To a home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away”
- “Long Black Train” by Josh Turner: “Mama’s taught me how to pray and how to live / And taught me how to be forgiving / I know she’s watching over me from Heaven. “
- Bluegrass evokes the themes of the kin-dom’s social justice implications.
Although there are a lot of songs about how the next life will be better, many bluegrass songs explore themes of poverty, hardship, and struggle. They often challenge listeners to reflect on their role in working for a more just and equitable society. It’s about pulling the dream of heaven closer to earth like we pray: Thy Kin-dom come on earth as it is in heaven. Consider these lyrics:
“Keep Your Dirty Lights On” by Hot Rize: “The rich man’s always happy, the poor man always cries / But we can make a difference, we can change their lies / So let us rise up together, let us make a stand / And keep your dirty lights on, and let them see our plan”
“A Few Old Memories” by Hazel Dickens: “There’s a land that’s filled with promise, a land that’s filled with dreams / But for many it’s a prison, and nothing’s what it seems / So let’s take a stand for justice, let’s fight for what is right / And together we can build a land that’s free”
Bluegrass reminds us that in the kin-dom we take turns and improvise.
The structure of Bluegrass reminds us of what the kin-dom on earth is supposed to be like. In Bluegrass, musicians take turns on the lead, letting each other take the lead, improvise on the theme, and use their artistry. The guitar will take the lead for a while and hand it over to the banjo and the drum. And they get to improvise. The kin-dom is about taking turns, working in collaboration, and working in harmony with others. It’s not always about going along with what someone else says, but rather about figuring out how to apply Jesus’ teaching to your specific situation.
I was surprised to learn that while sometimes people dance with bluegrass, it’s most often listened to by people sitting and enjoying the music—even at big bluegrass festivals. Maybe that’s because of so many Baptists and Methodists in the areas that birthed the genre.
Percussion is not generally used, with the insistent rhythm resulting from the interplay of the stringed instruments. There may not be dancing. What there is a lot of is toe-tapping.
You may or may not have your faith all figured out, but you can tap your feet and keep tapping in times of sorrow. Blogger Jay McDaniel said we should have foot faith. It is a way of saying, “I’ll keep going, no matter what sorrows I face. I am animated by a deeper rhythm.”
So let us tap our toes, and absorb the music and its messages, helping us to feel reborn with spiritual hope and vitality. Amen.