My mind is going back to a day several years ago when my lovely wife Amy and I were returning from a wonderful Seventh-day Adventist Church-sponsored marriage retreat in Zion National Park, and we had plenty of time to talk and listen to music on the long drive back home.
As I went through my Stevie Wonder CDs somewhat early in the drive, I recalled a unique church service we’d had once when our church was between pastors. One of our prominent church members came up with a service and a message built around the music of Johnny Cash, and his album “The Man Comes Around,” and Cash’s embrace of religion as he neared his own death. In my mind, the message was effective.
That service came to my mind as I played Stevie Wonder’s music.
“I wonder if our new pastor would mind me doing a similar service built around Stevie’s music?” I asked Amy.
“All you can do is ask,” she replied.
Well, it’s never happened through no fault of anyone’s except mine for not pursuing it hard enough. So I’ll do that “service” here today. As I fight a nasty chest and head cold, and as I try to whip it before helping our church school move into a nice new building in the next two days, this might have to be my own stay-at-home church service for today.
I’ll start with the album “Innervisions,” which seemed to be the first of a few that really focused sharply at times on Stevie’s spiritual beliefs. And it might not be a “spiritual” song, but “Visions” hits the mark on the perfect kind of world this blessed blind man envisions as one that he’d like to see with his own perfect eyes someday.
With the song “Higher Ground,” Stevie sings, “I’m so darn glad He let me try it again/’Cause my last time on Earth I lived a whole world of sin/I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then/Gonna keep on tryin’ ’til I reach my highest ground.”
There’s some deep meaning there, right?
Then there’s the follow-up song, “Jesus Children of America.” Stevie didn’t pull any punches on that one, spiritually speaking.
Stevie touched on it with just as much force with his next album, “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” and the song “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away.” In this song, he tackles the age-old question of non-believers: If there is a God, where is He and why does He allow so much suffering to take place in this world? And Stevie’s answer is as true today as the day he wrote the song … we’ve still got so far to come.
If I may be so morbid, when I first started listening to the song “They Won’t Go When I Go” in my early teens, I always thought, “If there were one song I’d like to have played at my funeral when that time comes, this one would be it.”
As for the album “Songs In The Key of Life,” that’s one album I’ve often driven to church on a Saturday morning while listening to the first three songs alone.
When it comes to the third song, “Village Ghetto Land,” I play that one in preparation to go out and help the homeless with our church’s Inner City Outreach (ICOR) ministry. People may ask, “If there’s really a God, why does He allow so much suffering in the world?” I guess my answer to that would be, “Is that really what God’s all about? And what are we as a people doing ourselves in His name to help ease that suffering? Or do we just choose to grumble about it instead? How about having Him live through us?”
But Stevie’s “spiritual vision” didn’t stop there. From his vastly underrated soundtrack album, “Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants,” came three more instrumental gems, allowing the listener to form their own “visions” in their mind of “Earth’s Creation,” “The First Garden,” and “Ecclesiastes.” To me, they were breathtaking pieces of music, imagery, and spirituality.
This is the musician and these are the kinds of songs I would listen to — over and over — as a child and even through today to get a dose of “religion.” It’s from “The Church of Music,” with the branch known as “The Congregation of Wonder.”
And that, folks, is the end of my “sermon.”