Sojourner Truth, an African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist once stated: “Truth is powerful and it prevails.” I believe this statement to be very accurate – however, I wonder, how do we reconcile what we know to be “true” with one another. My truth may differ from yours. We can witness the same event and come away with very different experiences of what truly took place. This is why in his encounter with Jesus, Pontius Pilate asked – “What is truth?” What is it? Whatever it is – according to Ms. Sojourner – it is powerful and it prevails.
When Pastor Lynn determined that our Lenten preaching theme this year would be on hymns, I made a beeline for his office because I knew exactly which hymn I wanted to preach on… not because I already knew much of it’s significance or background, but because it is one that I really, really like to sing. Then, wouldn’t you know… when we created our Family Friendly Lenten Evening Worship Service, it was selected as the opening hymn, so we who have participated in this service regularly, are all acutely familiar with I Want Jesus to Walk With Me. At least with the melody & lyrics. The history, maybe not as much. So, here’s a little of its history…
This hymn comes out of the African American spiritual tradition (most likely dating back to times of slavery) and is a communal lament. The author of this hymn, is unknown, most likely because these words evolved, changed, were adapted, and were added to over the years and years of oppression and slavery. It was adopted by Appalachian culture and evolved into a “white spiritual” as well.
One person’s truth of this might be that those dwelling in Appalachia culturally appropriated this hymn. Another viewpoint is that the diverse groups that have embraced this hymn points more strongly to the communal nature and breadth of laments like this. All peoples universally understand pain, suffering, grief, and sorrow. These emotions transcend any one person, culture, or race.
Part of the beauty and genius of African American spirituals is that they continue to be adapted and developed. The tune that this arrangement is set to is known as Sojourner and is a heavy tune that breaks out in a syncopated cry in the last two lines. You may have guessed that this tune was named after Sojourner Truth, whom I quoted earlier.
Where the raw material originated or what the original compositional setting might have been, is not as important as the journey, or the walk, that it has taken. In this instance, the living lament, which was the truth of a slave’s existence, filled with pain and suffering, has culminated into a remarkable congregational song which we can relate to today.
We understand the desire for God to be with us in times of trial, when in trouble, and along our pilgrim journey, we too want to know that God is with us.
The feelings of lament and the desire for God’s presence with us is not novel or new. The Psalms, which were most likely sung much as we sing hymns today, are full of Laments which speak to the angst, pain, and sorrow of the Israelites years in exile and Babylonian captivity. Psalm 46 is both lament and hope all rolled into one. This psalm was the inspiration for Martin Luther’s hymn A Mighty Fortress and is most often used as a Reformation Sunday text.
However, when you look closely, there is a lot of fear and anxiety laced through this Psalm. “Though the earth should change, the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; it’s waters roar and foam, the mountains tremble…” – in that time, natural disasters were one of the most devastating occurrences. There was no understanding of volcanic activity, fault lines, el ninos, noreasters, tropical storms, hurricanes, etc… things just happened, often seemingly out of the blue, and when they did, pain, injury, and death were almost always a part of it. Honestly, not much has changed in this regard today, we just know when some of these things are coming before they actually occur, which may or may not be better.
The psalmist goes on to talk about nations in an uproar and kingdoms that totter. War, destruction, slavery, human trafficking, rape, pillaging, mayhem, chaos… this is what the Israelites experienced during the Babylonian siege and exile. This is the brutality that African-American slaves experienced. This is still reality for many, many people throughout our world today. This was and is their truth.
But the psalm is not all destruction and despair. The psalmist also ascertains that God is our refuge and strength. God is present. God is in the midst of the city. God will help. God makes wars cease – breaking bow and spear and shield. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
The Israelite’s truth was that God never abandoned them, even in the absolute most abysmal places and spaces. When it couldn’t possibly get worse – God was there. God was a refuge and strength. This was their truth.
For the African-American slaves who desperately wanted Jesus to walk with them – he did. Jesus was present. Jesus showed up and suffered with them, giving strength and comfort. This was their truth.
For us – when drama, trauma, pain, suffering, unexpected setbacks and sorrow ensue, Jesus walks with us. Jesus comes to us in water, wine, and bread… he is present. We know and we have experienced this truth – and it is powerful – and it prevails. This is our truth.
This truth is powerful and it does prevail. God is present. Jesus Walks with Us on our pilgrim journeys, in our trials, and in times of trouble… he has promised us this… he is our truth…always. For this powerful and prevailing truth, I say – thanks be to God. Amen.