by Lindy Davies
I don’t usually use the “try this” headphones at the big record store, but a new album by Ramsey Lewis caught my eye — with upraised hands of many colors, on the cover — so I had a listen, and from the very start of the joyous processional, “Oh Happy Day,” I was hooked. This CD of righteous Gospel music, with fine piano work by a jazz master, has brought me more sheer boogie-across-the-kitchen happiness than any I’ve heard in years. Lewis — a top-shelf jazz stylist for over four decades — joins the 60-voice choir of St. James Memorial A.M.E. Church in Chicago, and a joyful noise is made. In the big numbers, the full-throated choir trades licks with the piano, Hammond organ, the hardworking drum and an enormous, force-of-nature electric bass, further and further up to huge crescendos. These alternate with flowing, meditative piano interludes, during which one can palpably hear, between the wisely-spaced notes, the silence of that whole church full of people.
As good as this record is, it wouldn’t be Georgist Journal material, if not for one song, which serves as a kind of touchstone for all the rest, and compelled me to “consider in the spirit” some of our familiar questions of economic justice. The song is called “Bless me (Prayer of Jabez).”
Its arrangement is lush; the choir introduces it with deep, grateful reverence — the first few bars of the song are deeply moving. It took me a few hearings to even care about the words: “Bless me — Bless me — Oh Lord, Bless me indeed, Enlarge — my territory!”
Now, what in the world is up with that? I found out that the Prayer of Jabez comes from 1 Chronicles 4:10: “Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!’ And God granted what he asked.”
In 2000, The Prayer of Jabez was a best-selling book, by one Bruce Wilkinson. It was such a hit that it generated a spin-off campaign of ancillary “Jabez” items such as bracelets, shirts, posters, videos, etc. The Jabez prayer was touted as a talisman that would bring all manner of worldly goods to those who competently uttered it; it was, in Wilkinson’s words, “the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God.”
I found that a bit off-putting; it wasn’t the sort of theological message I thought I was getting from this (in every other detail) incredibly beautiful musical offering. Nor did it seem to jibe with the message set forth in the rest of the songs, resounding as they did with community, solidarity and love in the face of suffering: the message of liberation in the black gospel tradition.
“Pass Me Not,” for instance, begins with Ramsey Lewis playing a solo, folksy rendition of the old melody, and then powers up, by degrees, to a choral performance with energy enough to light Times Square. Lewis’s featured piano skillfully calls-and-responds the choir up and up, to dizzy heights — it’s impossible not to dance to this. Yet the power of the song is in the singer’s need: if the Savior does pass me by, I will be utterly forsaken.
There can be no doubt that the other two “big” numbers, “God Can Work It Out” and “Healed Heart,” also draw righteous power from tough, hard times. The things that lead singer Smokie Norful asks the Lord to work out aren’t minor workday problems; they are the challenges found in darkest hours, when one is as alone as Jesus was, when we mistrust even ourselves. Similarly, “Healed Heart” (sung by Darius Brooks) is a gut-wrenching celebration of friendship in need: “The heart can be healed, if you have all the pieces/ Many have won, and you’re not alone… / Trust me, you’re not this far from home.” The song doesn’t mention God at all — yet it celebrates the Divine found in friendship, when all seems lost.
So, perhaps what struck me as naked acquisitiveness in the “Prayer of Jabez” should be seen in the light of the “the preferential option for the poor.” Perhaps the singer of these gospel songs has earned, through enduring every injustice and misfortune, a chance at winning a bigger piece of the pie, and does not feel ashamed to pray for it.
However, there is a deeper, and better-grounded rightness to this prayer. Jabez, after all, made his request in the context of the Old Testament, in which “territory” was not granted (as it is today) to the greedy, the ambitious, to those who disdain the Law by working on the Sabbath, or seizing their neighbor’s fields. Territory was granted to — and held by — the righteous. The Lord granted Jabez’s request, and kept him from hurt and harm, because he had followed the Law, and therefore had every right to prosper.
Here, then, is a lesson that brings us right back to the Georgist message! For is not prosperity the natural result of a just society? My initial reaction to that song — feeling outraged that people would have the nerve to pray, actually pray, for material increase — shows how I had internalized the notion that material success is somehow wrong. But it’s not material success that’s wrong, is it? It’s injustice. It’s deriving success from denying opportunity to others. In the just world that we are trying to build, one need not be ashamed of wanting — or having — success. It would be a measure of what one had earned, which is what I now hear that singer asking for: “Bless me, indeed…”
In the meantime, I suggest you pick up a copy of Ramsey Lewis’s With One Voice, on the Narada Jazz label. You’ll boogie across the kitchen, I guarantee it.