Hearing Caedmon’s Call sing his song with such power, it was like Rich Mullins had risen from the dead. These were Messianic lyrics, rendered in youthful energy, recalling the Sermon on the Mount or Mary’s Magnificat. Christ had come to bring Good News to the poor, and Mullins was trying to follow him. Rich didn’t die because of his faith, so you probably can’t call him a martyr. But the word simply means “witness,” and in creating songs that shine for the meek, the peacemakers, the prisoners, and poor in spirit, Mullins’ witness outlived his body. Isn’t that what makes a martyr? Martyr or not, his words reframed for me the text of Romans, chapter 10, which I had taken as a specific pastoral call on my life two years earlier: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” These words had originally come from chapter 52 in Isaiah, the same prophet who would promise the Messiah nine chapters later, in a passage that Jesus would recite in announcing his ministry in the Jerusalem temple:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair
This was the Good News Jesus delivered. He didn’t need “roaring lambs” to gain cultural power so we could complain about the liberals and the welfare-queens, the environmentalists and the peaceniks, as I had been taught to do. If Jesus had any use for earthly power, it was to give it away for those who didn’t have any. You might argue that Jesus roared a lion’s roar when he threw the moneychangers from the temple. But that was the vulnerable cry of the poor, oppressed by the first-century TV preachers getting rich off others’ longing for God. Like so many of Jesus’ prophetic acts, this one would help to ensure his victimhood. Far from an act of social change, it was more like a suicide mission.
And if I was honest with myself, this was a calling both more faithful and closer at hand than the ambition of the roaring lamb. To preach good news to the poor is to preach good news to myself. It is to stand with my neighbors, not to fight against them in a Culture War. Which of us has not felt poor, like something was lacking in body or spirit? Who has not been heartbroken by a lover, a parent, a sibling, a boss, a friend? Who has never felt trapped, like every option was a bad one? Living in darkness: sadness, anger, injustice, depression, grief, despair? Didn’t that cover everyone, big sinners or small? Who doesn’t need rescuing from such things? You mean Jesus brought Good News for us? You mean we get freedom, communion, comfort, provision, beauty, “the Lord’s favor”? Is this what I was called to announce? What we were all called to announce? As a word guy, I love the King James English:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings,
that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good,
that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!
Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing:
for they shall see eye to eye, when the LORD shall bring again Zion.
Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem:
for the LORD hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem.
The LORD hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
— Isaiah 52:7-10
Isaiah brought new (or is it old?) meaning to the saying, “Publish or perish!” His words themselves offer a kind of salvation: Tell this story, and it shall be so! Better yet, it IS so, whether you believe it or not! All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God! Now tell the world! I had been singing in choirs for years and was learning to play bass, but at this point I heard my main calling as a pastor or writer. No matter: Whatever power my words would one day have, by pulpit or pen or song, this I knew: I should write or preach or sing for the meek, the hungry, those who pray for peace.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham, N.C. He’s posting a series of music videos that go along with excerpts from his spiritual memoir, This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World. This pairing is part of a sub-series drawn from his chapter, “I Will Sing for the Meek,” which explores what he learned from Christian musicians Caedmon’s Call, Rich Mullins and Over the Rhine about how to live out faith in a public vocation. These excerpts will appear each Monday in August.