The Devil’s Music?

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In a BBC Newshour report on a day in May, just two years ago, I heard a sad but beautiful report by journalist Colin Paterson. The sad report was that legendary blues guitarist and singer B.B. King was dead. The beauty was in Paterson’s moving biography of the music legend’s early life which included some audio from B.B. King himself, recorded years earlier. King spoke of getting off the cotton plantation, and going to Memphis to make money ‘busking’ in the streets as a gospel singer. King continued:

Usually I would sing Gospel songs because that’s what I wanted to be—a Gospel singer and preacher. But if I’d sing a Gospel song, which most time they would request, they’d pat me on the head—"That’s nice son. That’s good. Keep it up." They’d never put anything in the hat. But a guy asked me to play something bluesy, so I tried to do it. Then they’d always give me a tip.

Busking gave way to writing jingles for the local radio station. That gave way to DJing. And then in 1949 King cut his first blues record. The rest, as they say, is history.

But King reflected more on those early days of playing the blues:

A lot of my people from home, from Mississippi, used to get on my case and they would say, ‘You’re playing the devil’s music!’ And I’d think about that sometimes, but then I’d think to myself, "When I was picking cotton, was I picking the devil’s cotton? When I was driving truck, was I driving the devil’s truck? I was doing the same thing I’m trying to do now—make a living!"

B.B. King could cut a riff and sing the blues. It turns out he could talk vocation, too!

Here’s something beautiful that Martin Luther wrote about vocation:

As long as he (e.g. a shoemaker or a blacksmith) clings to these two, to the Word of faith toward God by which the heart is made clean, and to the word of understanding which teaches him how to act toward his neighbor in his station in life, everything is clean to him, even if with his hands and his whole body he deals with nothing but dirt.[1]

Picking cotton! Driving trucks! And playing the blues! Those clinging to God in Christ can be assured that it’s all clean. For by those things you ‘make a living’ while serving your closest neighbors—husband, wife, child, niece, nephew, mom, dad, and more. And by those vocations you serve many more neighbors, too—patient, customer, student, and many, many more.

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Author Gene Veith sums this up nicely when he writes:

Our relationship to God is not determined by our good works (since those with a sinful nature can never have enough of them to earn anything before God)—what we need, rather, is forgiveness for our sins and the perfect good works of Jesus Christ. But our relationship to our neighbors is determined by our good works, which themselves are only made possible by God working through us.[2]

So be at peace, dear friends. Be at peace in Christ Who is your perfect righteousness. And be at peace, for the Lord is at work through your vocations—your good works—to care for the many neighbors in your life.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. —John 15:1-5

[1] Wingren, Gustaf. Luther on Vocation. Trans. Carl C. Rasmussen. Minneapolis: Augsburg; reprinted, Evansville, IN: Ballas Press, 1994. p123.

[2] Veith, Gene Edward. The Spirituality of the Cross. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House. 1999. p78