It was early in 1994 when I was listening to an album in my room and received the strangest and yet beautiful experience. I was seventeen years old and had been navigating the rollercoaster of life and had got burned; I was venturing into the early beginnings of adulthood. As the music flowed over me, I began to feel something I’d never felt before. My ears homed in on the sound of the bass line: the rhythm, the frequency, the depth of the sub bass pulsating through me. But something else was happening, deeper and more ethereal than the usual listening experience. It was life changing healing on a profound, unexplainable level. There were no words spoken, just a spiritual, fulfilling moment emanating from the timbre of the music. 

Largely in our western society, we negate the idea that something non-medical could bring healing and our culture is bemused by the idea of the spiritual being able to heal us. Unless it’s a medicine or treatment we can see, it’s not considered to be genuine. The general feeling is that if the medics can’t help us then there is no solution to our problem. We’ve lost our awe, wonder and respect for the divine as it removed the power from our hands. Unless we have the knowledge of how this works, we don’t see it as viable. Modern life dictates that we must understand in order to receive, whereas God wants us to receive without the borders of understanding. However, in receiving from him our knowledge of his power and omnipotence increases. 

It was a unique experience for me, one that has not been replicated since in my life. The metred pulse of the bass line allowed me to receive the frequency of the Lord’s healing as it poured over me. This unusual healing touched me in a way that no counselling, therapy or medical cure could have done. The Lord’s power was able to reach places, emotions and scars that were deep within me, pulling out the root of the problem so that the divine answer to my situation had finality and no possibility of reoccurrence. I am not for a minute suggesting that we shouldn’t put our faith in medical science and psychological therapies, however, that we should start our healing process by asking the Lord which route he wanted to take.  

I find it interesting that the healing only took place between myself and the Lord; no one else was in the room. There is an intimacy to this moment that was just between me and him. I do know other people that have encountered similar healing moments during worship services. Yet this isn’t something that we see in church life on a regular basis. Why? In 1 Samuel 16:14-23, we’re told that David literally drove Saul’s sickness away with music. The very act of playing the lyre soothed Saul into peace. The spiritual frequency prophetically moving through the music made him complicit and disarmed in the presence of the Lord. Only the Lord could offer Saul healing in his circumstances and music was the channel he chose to administer this.  

I suspect that musicians who played on the piece of music I was listening to, had no idea how the Lord use their gifts in that recording. This begs the question for all musicians: how might God use you in your gifting? Have you asked God to use you in a greater way than you could ever imagine? And for those listening, are there preconceptions or limiting beliefs that you need to abandon in order to experience healing? To encounter the fullness that both the divine and music can offer, we must put aside our knowledge and natural understanding, so that we encounter the supernatural. Many years ago, I was improvising over an instrumental during worship, not singing words but using my voice as an instrument. Afterwards, I was approached by a woman who told me that she heard the Lord speak clearly through the sounds I was vocalising. Perhaps by not singing words, God had space to speak clearly through a different medium.  

We’re all waiting for healing of some kind, perhaps we shouldn’t be asking “when will you heal me Lord?” but “by what means do you want to heal me?”. The time has come for us to be more creative in our approach to worship, intimacy with the Lord and more open to the way the Lord wants to work in our lives. It’s time to raise our expectation in what can and will do for us. If we are open to what the Lord may have for us, we may gain more in our relationship with him. He is a creative God and loves to do more for us than we can imagine.  

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A few weeks ago I went to see the Amazing Grace film about the recording of the famous Aretha Franklin gospel album. Filmed and recorded in 1972, it is the only gospel recording that Aretha made after becoming a Grammy Award winner. Granted there are recordings of her leading worship as a teenager at her father’s Baptist church, but this is the only album she made with a Christian emphasis in her professional singing career. As a star she often talked her of faith in God and how it underpinned her life, let alone her career.

One of the issues that has distressed me over the years, is the constant criticism from some Christians who declare that she turned her back on God and the church in order to follow a musical path. My own experience is that the church often tries to keep musicians and artists within its walls should they try and do something that would lead them astray and destroy the reputation of the faith. Yet musicians and artists are visionaries who hear and see what God has placed within them. Aretha’s journey wasn’t so much about walking out of the church, but more about being sent by God into an industry that needed him. She was often described as shy and quiet, yet when she opened her mouth the passion and conviction poured out through her singing, a talent and drive that come from the strength of something much greater than her.  

This album celebrates Aretha’s personal testimony of her journey through a difficult life. A single mother by the time she was 13 years old, divorces, an abusive home life and the back drop of slavery and the civil rights movement all led her into a deeper relationship with God. However, while some Christians decry her fame and status as ungodly, there’s also the possibility that God put her into that position so that he could use her to help others. Aretha’s Amazing Grace album is the best selling gospel album of all time, beating her gospel rivals. Not bad for someone who made their name as a soul singer. 

What is also interesting about this album is the rawness of the occasion compared to other recordings of that era. It is reported that Aretha wanted to capture live worship as she knew it in her own church and present it to a wider audience who had no church background. The album allows us to hear Christians worshipping openly in a Baptist church in Los Angeles with a small congregation of both believers and non-believers. This album wasn’t about creating a studio atmosphere with great musical prowess, but about opening a window on praise and adoration of the Lord for those who had never experienced it. Aretha displays a dedication to take the church and God’s love out to the world rather than to wait for people broach the church door tentatively. As Christians, we are asked to take the message of God to our mission field, Aretha just does on a much grander scale using her status and platform to spread the gospel of Jesus. What is notable is that on the second night of the recording, the congregation doubled in size as word spread about the “free” Aretha concert. Even Mick Jagger makes an appearance in the crowd.

However, it isn’t just this album which makes Aretha’s legacy so unique. She was known for singing about women’s rights and independence, performing strong and powerful lyrics that women across the world identified with. Many of her songs became anthems for change and breakthrough; we’re all familiar with Respect and Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves and the powerful message that pervades these performances. 

While the some factions of the church may be mourning the loss of musicians who follow a different path, others are valuing the mission work that they are doing. The music business is one of the most uncharted industries when it comes to Christian missionaries. Aretha’s entry into this world meant the gospel was spread further. I’m not suggesting that all church musicians and artists should up and leave, more that the church should recognise their call and prophethood into an area that needs light and hope. Artists and musicians are called to carry the very heart of God into a world that needs help and this includes the entertainment industries. 

I know the church feels the need to protect creatives from sex, drugs and rock n roll, however in doing so, sometimes it stops people from fully fulfilling their calling. There needs to be an element of trust that God knows what he is doing. I’ve often been criticised for writing secular songs, however I do believe that this is what God has called me to do. One wonders if the church lets down artists, such as Aretha Franklin, by not supporting them more. Perhaps less stars would go off the rails if the church walked with them through their musical careers. I think what we can glean from Aretha’s life is that God used her powerfully and that her music touches the lives listeners around the world. Music is more than worship, some songs heal by the fact that we identify with the pain, others uplift when we feel down, or build community when we all sing together. Music has more than one role in life. 

Perhaps it is time for the church to let more creative people go and do what they do best and reap the harvest of music and art that comes from it. We’re not walking out of church, but walking into what God has called us to do.

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