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As I sit down to write, I can’t help but reflect on the words of the song, “Strange Land” by the group Commissioned. The lyrics go like this: “How can we sing when we’re in a strange land/ How can we face adversity/ How can we stand in the midst of trouble when the enemy laughs at our beliefs?”

These lyrics echo back specifically to Psalm 137:4, but looking at Psalm 137:1-3 as well, we see some very interesting things. Psalm 137:1 says, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” The waters of Babylon? They wept while remembering? Why the weeping and why aren’t they in Jerusalem?

The third verse of Psalm 137 provides more details about the situation: “For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’” We are able to see that this Psalm was written during the Babylonian capture of the Kingdom of Judah. Here we see a people conquered by outside forces, transported against their will, and brought to a strange land where they are set to live a life of servitude under the hand of their captors. This story sounds all too familiar for those belonging to the African-American community. Even when placing some of the details from the Babylonian captivity of Judah with facts from the time of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, we see strong similarities.

For a moment, I imagine that it’s 1837, and I’m peering into a small slave shack tucked behind a plantation mansion deep in the heart of the Georgia hills. I can hear a gathering of my ancestors gathered inside, talking about the toils, aches, pains and lashes of the day. I hear the faint sounds of someone quietly humming and singing, which is suddenly interrupted by a fist pounding on a table and a strong male voice full of hurt, anger, and frustration. His voice cracks as he says these words saturated in pain: “How can we sing?”

How can we sing here? How can we sing now? What if my only son was sold to work at another plantation and I could only watch it happen; my wife was raped and is now pregnant with the child of the same man who beats us and treats us lower than animals; and yet I still have to act as if it none of it had happened. How can I sing?

Yet in the midst of situations like these and many others, these people found a way to sing.  From their most painful experience, they found a way to produce the songs of hope that we now call “Negro spirituals.” Although simple in conveying theological concepts, these songs still point us to set our gaze on the full glory of God and to drink freely from this ever-flowing stream. Churches have recognized this and have incorporated some of these songs into their hymnals.

As I sat back to consider the legacy of Negro spirituals to the African-American experience, I see this same importance of hymns for the life of the believer. In this day and age, many African-American churches have set the hymns and spirituals aside  for the songs of the latest praise and worship band or for the latest top hits on the Gospel charts. It is my prayer that we would find a way, by the Spirit of God, to create a place where we can marry the contemporary with the traditional through the lens of sound doctrine. Here are four reasons why I believe we should:

  • Hymns call us to view God in all of his glory
  • Hymns reaffirm the hope of our salvation
  • Hymns serve as encouragement for the believer in both trials and triumph
  • Hymns point us forward to our eternal home

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

The call to view God in all of his glory

We, as reformed believers, understand this concept very well. We hold the biblical truth of the sovereignty of God in high regard and preach this with boldness and conviction. In that same light, hymns and spirituals call us to constantly reflect on this concept. Our ancestors understood and taught us this concept with a simple song: “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” We sing, “He’s got you and me brother/ you and me sister in his hands!” How comforting is it to sing songs like that and then look over to hymns like, “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” and “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise.” These songs call us to look at God for who he truly is: the supreme Lord, the sovereign King of all creation.

The reaffirming of our salvation

As believers, we know that our only hope is found in the Lord Jesus.  He is our souls’ glory, joy and crown, as one hymn writer penned. So many hymns have pointed us to look again and again to the cross and our risen Lord. Hymns such as, “In Christ Alone,” “Near the Cross,” and “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” make our hearts swell with awe and praise for the redemptive work on the behalf of God’s elect. Our hearts overflow in gratitude as we survey the wondrous cross and exclaim in victory that Christ the Lord is risen. This is what we stand on; the entire existence of our faith lies on these truths. While we sing boldly these beautifully penned lyrics, sometimes just the simple words of the spiritual, “Give Me Jesus” will be enough for me. We look for the deep significance of theological truths, but sometimes the simple truths of finding all we need in Christ himself is enough to last us throughout the ages of eternity. We can declare with our whole heart, “You can have all this world/ Give me Jesus!”

Encouragement through trials and triumphs

In this life, we understand that sometimes we will stand upon emotional mountain peaks, and in the next moment we will find ourselves walking through the valley of the shadow of death.  In these moments, we can look to the hymns to echo the heart’s cry: hymns that remind us that our God is a mighty fortress, a bulwark, and a defensive wall full of strength and power that never fails, or hymns that tell of God’s faithfulness, saying, “morning by morning, new mercies I see/ All I have needed, Thy hand hath provided.” This emotion of need is not lost when we also cry out in the words of the Negro spiritual, “I want Jesus to walk with me/ all along this pilgrim journey/ I want Jesus to walk with me,” or even when we whisper, “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus.” These songs are pillars of strength in our weakest hour and give us hope and peace in the midst of life’s fiercest storms.

Our eternal home

As we look at the words of these precious spirituals, there’s a gem hidden amongst the lyrics of hope and freedom. These words were not pointing to the day when the Emancipation Proclamation would be enacted. These words weren’t satisfied with the removal of chains and the remittance of the burning white-hot sting of the whip from bare flesh. There was something more burning within the hearts of those that sang these songs while picking cotton in the heat of a South Carolina summer. As the writers of these spirituals tended to aches, pains and wounds, or as tears of joy mingled and flowed with tears of grief as they comforted a family who lost their son to the slave trade or death, there was something deep inside that couldn’t be erased, even by death itself. These songs pointed to a freedom that no president or earthly king could ever grant them. This freedom didn’t come with papers, 40 acres and a mule. Songs like “Ride On King Jesus,” or “In That Great Gettin’ Up Morning” pointed to a greater day coming. So as they worked, they sang “Soon-a will be done a-with the troubles of the world/ Goin’ home to live with God.” They kept their eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of their faith, knowing that he who began a good work in them would carry it to completion on the day for which they waited.

Songs like these give us hope that this world is truly not our home, and we must live with eternity in view. We embody the same spirit that carried our ancestors through, for we too look forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. We look ahead with eager anticipation for the great wedding feast of the Bride and the Lamb, the consummation of Christ and his Church. That is the day we live for so that we can truly experience these words from the hymn, “Christ is Coming”:

Christ is coming! Let creation
from its groans and labor cease;
let the glorious proclamation
hope restore and faith increase:
Christ is coming! Christ is coming!
Come, O blessed Prince of peace.

So as we worship in our corporate gatherings, it is my prayer that we cling to these precious hymns and spirituals. Let us take hold of the immeasurable truths within them as we stand in awe of the sovereignty of God, reaffirm that our salvation is sure, find strength as we lean and hide ourselves in the cleft of the rock, and as we look forward to that great day, when we as the people of God will, in the words of hymnist James Weldon Johnson, truly be able to “lift every voice and sing.”

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