A friend of mine once described to me a way that he would pray sometimes without words. Instead of using words, he prayed in images, or, I should say, he imagined himself right in a Bible story with Jesus. So if he was feeling overwhelmed by his troubles, he would close his eyes and imagine himself like Peter in the story of walking on the water. Peter was first of all doing fine, but when he took his eyes off Jesus, focused on the wind and the waves, he became afraid and started sinking. My friend would imagine himself sinking, like Peter, beneath all of life’s troubles. Then, he would imagine Jesus reaching out to him and lifting him up, just like Jesus did for Peter. Other times, when he felt weak in his faith and far from the Lord, he imagined himself like Zaccheaus, way up in a tree, just trying to get a glimpse of Jesus. Then he would imagine Jesus coming over to that tree, looking up at him, and saying, “Mitchell, come on down, I want to go to your house today.” And then he would imagine himself having a conversation with Jesus, and that became his prayer. Other times he would imagine Jesus saying to him, in person, what he said to the disciples in his last meeting with them, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” My friend would describe to me how in his mind he would imagine the whole scene in great detail, and this would become personal and meaningful for him.
This is what is going on in many of the old Negro spirituals. The song is designed to put you in the story, imagining yourself as being right there. For example, the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” creates the image of the chariot which came to take Elijah to heaven, also one day coming to take the singer to heaven. This is also done in the song “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” which calls to mind the story of Jacobs dream of a ladder going right up into heaven. The song “Let My People Go,’ the image was of the Hebrews slavery in Egypt, a situation that the old Negroes, slaves themselves, would have had no trouble imagining.
The clearest example of this type of spiritual is that most popular of all spirituals, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” “Were you there?” the song asks over and over again, while creating in our minds the image of what it must have been like to be there. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord… Were you there when they nailed him to the tree… Were you there when they laid him in the tomb.” Simple words, repeated over and over again, but the song is very effective in creating an image of an awful scene that we might otherwise begin to take for granted. This hymn reminds us in a powerful way to not take it for granted, but to be ever mindful of the painful sacrifice Jesus made to save us from our sins.
Be reminded again as you watch Paul Robeson sing “Were You There?”:
Were You There was likely composed by enslaved African-Americans in the 19th century. It was first published in William Eleazar Barton’s 1899 Old Plantation Hymns. In 1940, it was included in the Episcopal Church hymnal, making it the first spiritual to be included in any major American hymnal.
Matthew 14:25-31 — Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
Luke 19:1-6 — Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
Luke 23:46-49 — Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,
Make thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for thee. Amen.