Saturday, January 26, 2019
Most people do not eagerly invite a curse upon themselves. Instead, if someone asked for an advantage or for someone to be treated well, that would be reason to say ‘Amen’, or ‘so be it’, ‘yes, I agree’. So, whoever decided to create the responsive chant “Amen” was perhaps not thinking about the biblical episode (Deuteronomy 27:15-26) in which Moses (see him pictured here) and other leaders of the Israelites directed that the people should assent – by saying ‘Amen’ -- to curses on themselves if they broke the sacred laws to which they had agreed. They said ‘amen’ twelve times in that episode. On the other hand, eight times in Revelation do people say ‘Amen’ in the context of worshipping God, a recognition of His divinity. Was “Amen” rooted in the negro slave era of the U.S., and was the author thinking about the Revelation emphasis, rather than the Deuteronomy one, as he coaxed others to join in this spiritual endeavor? See what you think.
There are various versions of ‘Amen’ that substitute different phrases to which a chorus assents with the song’s title word. The most common theme of the verses is a focus on the life of Jesus. His birth, miraculous life, suffering, death, and resurrection are truths that believers accept readily, not with just a casual head nod, but instead as exclamations to shout. A group of slaves, if indeed they were the first to worship with “Amen” sometime in the 18th or 19th Centuries, would have reason to draw upon Jesus’ powerful example. They were a powerless group, without hope seemingly. So much of the slave’s life was in the negative, perhaps the author wanted to declare something to which he and others could cry ‘yes!’ Jesus entered the same world as a baby that you and I inhabit; showed himself while still a boy to have power and insight; drew people to Himself as an adult; agonized over His impending death; and, yes, died and was buried; but, rose to defeat death once and for all. That’s a summary of how eight or nine verses of “Amen” would progress, a movement between highs and lows that are common for mortals, even one like Jesus who was simultaneously mortal and divine. “Amen” sums up the life that was given, but not surrendered indefinitely. The final ‘Amen’ could be accompanied by a ‘Hallelujah’, as an acknowledgement that He overcame death, and so can I. That should be an easy one to verbalize, correct?
Everyone needs this Amen. Moses charged his people to say it, and John foresaw it proclaimed many times in his vision on Patmos. Whoever crafted ‘Amen’ must have thought it needed to be uttered energetically, with an exclamation mark like the 12 times that the Hebrews did in the wilderness (Deuteronomy). Today, I cannot say I willingly cry ‘Amen’ to my own punishment as those followers of Moses did; but, I do link myself to Him eagerly as age and the inevitability of the end draws closer. Amen to rising as He did! And, Amen that He decided to come and experience everything else about which I can sing in this old spiritual. Is ‘Amen’ on your lips today?
See background on the word here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amen
Saturday, January 19, 2019
Was this author in touch with suffering, perhaps seeking to know it more intimately? Maybe he wanted to draw closer to the suffering of the One from whom he could draw strength and consolation, and asks “Were You There?” to see if others had experienced this connection. After all, if He – the God of the universe – could die in a most cruel way, and yet still be Almighty God, is that something I dare not ignore? What other event in anyone’s life would be more momentous than death? It’s something no mortal has yet been able to avoid, except for a choice few who bypassed it (Enoch [Genesis 5:24] and Elijah [2 Kings 2:11]) because of God’s intervention. It’s said that some people’s bodies have shaken when life ends – the throes of death. Is that because life is so opposite from death, that a transition from one to another cannot happen peacefully? The body revolts at this transition, and yet there was One who gave Himself up to the grave. That’s a shuddering thought, too.
African-American spiritual songs originated during the era of America’s slave culture, perhaps the heart of which was the Deep South of the early-to-mid 1800s. “Were You There?” is thought to have emerged from that musical tradition, not with an ascribed author, but from an ethos that urged members of the community to experience God’s presence deeply. Perhaps that’s why when someone mentions he’s had a “spiritual” experience, we generally understand something deeply felt and personal has transpired for him. The author of “Were You There?” evidently was recommending that others dwell on what Jesus felt as He was swallowed up in death’s pit. It must have appeared to those watching at the time that He was going into a certain abyss. Jesus’ own reaction in a garden shortly before this event indicates His own dread of the upcoming event. And so, the song’s author wants me to suspend my knowledge of Sunday. Walk in the shoes of those companions of Jesus on Friday and Saturday first. He wasn’t just the friend of the Apostles; they were convinced He was God. And, then He’s dead. Losing a close companion is enough to shake up a person, but what about losing God? ‘Tremble’ might just be the weakest way to describe how they felt. The world of the Apostles was rocking – splitting or disintegrating might be more accurate. And, He didn’t merely keel over one day from a heart attack. Flogged, crucified, ridiculed, and, pierced, and that’s only some of what He bore. Let those dark thoughts cloak your being for a moment – that’s the author’s intent. Let the scene’s horror surround you. Then, wake up on Sunday to the brilliant sunshine of a new reality, one that flips all the three previous days’ events upside down.
Still trembling? Try leaping and cartwheeling all at the same time, even if one has been in a wheelchair a moment beforehand. That’s how you transition from death to life with the Jesus calculus. But, it’s only possible to experience this radical shift if one goes to the very bottom first. The mountain’s peak is only really impressive because the foot is so low. Put yourself in the place of those who actually watched Him descend, not believing an ascent was around the corner. They trembled, since they hadn’t accepted that Sunday was coming. But hey, Jesus knew, and He still trembled, right? That gives me pause, to know that He knew, and still was afraid. But then, He rose, with some earth tremors to accompany that part too. Are you ready for your own tremblings?
See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; and Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990.
Also see this link, showing all the song’s words:
Also see more background on the song here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Were_You_ThereSee background to this type of music here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritual_(music)
Saturday, January 12, 2019
The author was probably not thinking of a plant that might have looked like this one (see picture of the Commiphora gileadensis), nor its derivative substance, but instead a person, someone even more unique than the ancient medicine produced from this rare vegetation. Perhaps the one who first imagined the words to “There Is a Balm In Gilead” was someone who actually handled another plant or crop – cotton – in a region far from the place where Gilead’s balm could be found. The healing, or at least soothing, effect of medicine like this balm was no less necessary from one geographic area to another. And, unlike those of the biblical era who traded for the balm from Gilead, the therapeutic substance the writer sought more likely identified with an ancient prophet who asked plaintively why none was found where it should have been. Perhaps the circumstances of the writer made him feel that he was, like the prophet, observing and living in a wounded condition among people who had no other hope than this precious balm.
The prophet Jeremiah certainly did not enjoy his mission as the weeping prophet, and thus his melancholy while watching his countrymen suffer without relief from the One who could help (see Jer. 8:22) provides a fitting backdrop for “There Is a Balm…”. It was an answer from a suffering people many generations removed from the Israelites, who around 600 B.C. failed to avert their own disaster. Perhaps it was a slave in America’s Deep South in the 19th Century who identified with the Israelites, a persecuted people. Can you imagine him in a cotton field, certainly as someone who needed medicine frequently after a day’s toil in the sun and yet did not receive it? After years of subjugation, maybe he and the other slaves saw Jesus as the only way to cope with their circumstances. Discouragement and work that must have seemed pointless except as punishment (v.1) was undoubtedly a common theme for this people. So, don’t focus on the visible and physical, but instead on the internal and eternal that Jesus represents. This poet and his co-laborers knew of Peter and Paul (v.2), yet instinctively understood that a person need not mimic them. The way to transport oneself out of destitution was something the plantation owner could not suppress – Jesus and the love He gives. Jesus was not only the Power to a powerless people, but also a brother with whom beaten and scourged folks shared stripes. Jeremiah suffered too, as he watched his people suffer centuries earlier, and not just from a physical calamity, but also an unbridgeable spiritual deficit. Both he and slaves over 2,500 years later knew who the Balm of Gilead is, the One who can span the chasm between the human spirit and the Creator-God. The sin-sickness (refrain) is especially deadly, no matter what century you inhabit. But, the God-balm is still more potent.
If you’re like probably most people, you routinely take medicine. The human body doesn’t go for very long without hurting, and Jeremiah’s words from so long ago underscore that this has been true for ages. Gilead’s balm is considered a rare commodity, particularly for combatting gastrointestinal maladies. People traded in it since the days of Joseph and his brothers, who encountered some of these dealers (Gen. 37:25) who had evidently learned of its value. Unlike some other hurting parts (a skin sunburn, for example), something that is amiss in my innards cannot be as easily managed. I need the Gilead cure that can navigate internally and do its job. That’s even more true for the Gilead cure that Jeremiah sought. Are you still searching for that special salve from Gilead?
See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.
Also see background on the song here:
See a scientific explanation of the medicine and its source here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balm_of_Gilead and here
Also see this link, showing all the song’s words: