During the Christian season of Lent, many Christians focus on spiritual practices or disciplines that bring them closer to God. This year, I did not really engage in this type of reflection until the end of Lent. I have been wrapping up my first year teaching college students full-time, I’ve been focused on several writing projects, and I’ve been traveling. I did not intentionally think about spiritual practices until I participated in a silent retreat before Holy Week and traveled first to spend the holiday with my family and then again to mourn and remember the life of my aunt. I reflected on them when I most needed them.
There are many spiritual practices that sustain me when I feel anxious or overwhelmed or just plain sad. Prayer is an obvious one. Free writing in my journal, blogging, and preparing academic essays provide a verbal outlet for collecting my thoughts. The writing process helps me think through and confront conflicting emotions swirling around in my mind, spirit, and soul.
But anyone who has wrestled with the elusiveness of finding the appropriate words or groaned at having to make the umpteenth revision to a draft that just is not coming together as she would like to knows that sometimes writing is a lot of work.
So there are also my spiritual practices that focus on receiving words from others and those that focus on receiving the Word of God. Reading the Bible, memorizing scriptural passages, practicing lectio divina, immersing myself in memoirs and reflections of my favorite heroes, and consulting one of the numerous theological works on my shelves at home, in my office, or in the library enable me to access the knowledge and experience of others who confront the realities of their own contexts. I have quotes and inspirational sayings scattered around the spaces I claim as my own: on the walls in posters and art works and records; scribbled on chalkboards; printed on fragments of paper that rest on desks and countertops and tables and even beds.
But even that takes some work. When I am at my most exhausted or when I need to muster the will to open my eyes and start (or restart) the day, I listen to music. Gospel music. Hymns. Inspirational songs delivered by soul musicians. Some mornings, especially during difficult seasons of my life, I set my alarm to wake me with a prayer:
Walk with me, Lord, walk with me. Walk with me, Lord, walk with me. While I’m on this tedious journey, Lord, Walk with me, Lord, walk with me.
These words are a variation of the Negro spiritual “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” They come to me via an iPhone alarm app in Lizz Wright’s version of “Walk with Me, Lord.” Her soulful vocals, backed by percussion, bluesy guitar and organ accompaniment can cut through a morning haze of fatigue, confusion, or grief. The folksy tune and simple lyrics “Walk with me, Lord,” “Hold my hand, Lord,” become my own pleas. Repeated a few times, alternating with “Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly”—both on Wright’s 2003 album Salt—I am gradually made ready to face the day. For three weeks until yesterday, this is how I began every weekday.
In Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit: 101 Best Loved Songs, Gospel Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of the African-American Church, Gwendolin Sims Warren explains that the Negro spirituals are the sacred and religious folk songs that originated during the painful time in history when African-Americans endured slavery. The songs simultaneously express despair, hope, and faith in God. They influenced the development of gospel music as well as blues, country, rock, soul, rhythm and blues, and jazz. (Sims Warren, 14-15)
At the recent memorial services for my aunt, we sang “We’ll Understand It Better By and By.” The words and music were written by Rev. Charles Albert Tindley in the early 20th century. It has a moving chorus that offers comfort to those who grieve, which is why it is widely sung at funerals:
By and by when the morning comes,
When the saints of God are gathered home,
We’ll tell the story how we are overcome
For we’ll understand it better by and by.
Even when I simply write the lyrics, this song has the ability to bring fresh tears to my eyes. It never fails to provoke an emotional response when I sing or hear it. Not only does the song predictably bring forward memories of loved ones’ memorial services, it invokes an eschatological vision– anticipation of a time when I’ll be reunited with my beloved ancestors, sistren and brethren in the presence of God. There is a hope and joy in that imagery. For the same reason, I’m often choked up and strained when I sing the last stanza of the hymn Amazing Grace:
When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.
I am amazed by the beauty expressed in the way that real hope and authentic pain coexist in these songs. I draw on spiritual songs and gospel tunes to give me strength for specific tasks (like getting dressed to return to work even though I’m grieving). They also provide inspiration to orient that general sense of purpose and calling in my life. How do I continue to work for justice when I see so much evil, degradation, and exploitation in the world? Thankfully, the answer is close by. My mother has been putting together a CD of gospel songs as a stocking stuffer for many of her friends and relatives every Christmas for several years. I have CDs like this floating around in my car and my office and my home. (And, yes, I have devices that still play compact discs!) Last week, I was specifically reflecting on the difficulties of staying focused on feminist work when these words played in my car:
I know the issue seems unchangeable
And that there’s no reason to shout [in praise]
But the impossible is God’s chance
To work a miracle, a miracle
So just know
It ain’t over until God says it’s over
It ain’t over until God says it’s done
It ain’t over until God says it’s over
Keep fighting until your victory is won…
Keep fighting, keep praying, keep fasting…
Keep pressing, progressing, keep moving…
Keep reading, interceding, keep believing…
Keep trusting, keep trying, keep travailing…
Keep living, keep giving, keep going
It ain’t over, no
Keep fighting until your victory is won
These lyrics come from “It Ain’t Over“ by Maurette Brown Clark. Singing a song like this as loud as I can is one of the most effective spiritual practices that connects me with the divine. Yet music is both performed and heard. A mysterious power of music is how its refrains come to me when I need them. When my eyes are closed, I cannot read inspirational words. When emotions are swirling, I can’t always make sense of my thoughts and feelings. But when music comes into my mind or when it enters my consciousness through my ears, it can guide me with clarity: Keep progressing. Keep moving. Keep believing. It ain’t over!
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.