Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Long ago, on an overcast Saturday morning, while lacing up my hiking boots, I firmly decided I would hike further than ever before. I would go all the way to the Tennessee River, many miles away from our small town of Waverly, Tennessee; Dad’s hometown. I’d hike far, far away from all my problems. We moved back there out of sheer desperation because Dad became too sick to work full-time anymore. A series of heart attacks, strokes, and cancer operations ravaged his once powerful constitution and his bank account. Grandpa allowed us to live in one of his rental shacks for whatever we could afford; a long way from when we were the richest family in Norris, Tennessee with the large, custom-made house we had once proudly lived in. Before sickness, before the avalanche of bills and operations and persistent fears.
As my pounding feet crushed the leaves and twigs and acorns on my trail, worries over Dad’s failing health filled my young mind with fears and my weary eyes with tears. I was barely sixteen and my brother James, who was seventeen and a half, dropped out of school and was escaping more and more into hard and dangerous drugs. I hated that. I also hated our new school and sorely missed all the great friends I had while living in Colorado; especially my classmate Myron Gooch, the funniest, friendliest guy I’d ever met. His family was originally from the continent of Africa and he was such a joy to be with. Denver in the 1970’s prided itself in being a non-prejudiced city where minorities could excel as far as they desired. For example, the best and most popular teacher in our school was a brilliant African-American science teacher named Mr. Banks. Everyone wanted to be in his exciting class.
We had only lived in Aurora (a suburb of Denver) for a few years before moving back home to Tennessee, but its influence upon our family was unmistakable and permanent. Coming back to the South, I was immediately struck with how deeply prejudiced so many people were. How wrong, stupid, ignorant, and downright evil it is to judge someone based solely on the level of pigment in their skin. I fully espoused Martin Luther King Jr’s famous statement: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” As a teenager, I determined not to allow prejudice to have any room in my young heart. (It’s amazing to realize now that God was preparing me to be a pastor in New York City, even before I became a born-again Christian!)
After a few hours of intense hiking, I came over a ridge and found a wire fence in front of me, barring my way into what seemed to be an old plantation estate. I could see a large, dilapidated mansion up on a hill, surrounded by fields overgrown with weeds and young evergreen trees. I could tell that the Tennessee River was to my left and down past the next ridge, but curiosity seemed to compel me to climb over that wire fence instead.
When I reach the old plantation house, there was another and taller wire fence built completely around it. Someone in the recent past had already cut a huge hole in the fence for me. The enormous place had once housed a winding staircase going up to the second floor, much like the classic movie, Gone With the Wind. I found a way to get to the second floor, although the staircase had been destroyed long ago by decay and water damage. I walked over to where a large window had once been and pictured the rich Southern family who had once sat in that very room, looking out over their fields that stretched for miles.
I looked out across the field below that had surely once been the workplace for hundreds of slaves. How in the world did they endure such horrible conditions? I had recently, along with much of the country, been glued to the TV screen as the mini-series Roots was televised for the first time, jolting the conscience of our nation over the brutality of the African-American slavery that dominated the South for hundreds of years. (Roots still holds the record as the third highest rated episode for any type of television series.)
How did those poor slaves survive? I sat down and pondered that hard question as I pictured Kunta Kinte in chains and hopeless bondage, perhaps in the very field I was looking down upon. Those folks were driven from their African homes, thrown upon ships like cargo, mercilessly separated from their families and then sold to plantation owners throughout the South. They all were cursed to a life of abject slavery, poverty, brutality, shame, and heartache. How could human beings treat other humans that way, and how in the world did they survive? I wouldn’t find the answer to those nagging questions for decades. But I did take some comfort in knowing that they somehow did survive. There surely was an answer, even though I didn’t have a clue as to what it was. Somehow, maybe, perhaps I too would survive the painful world I also felt trapped in.
Twenty long years later, with my painful years in Waverly behind me and my treasured experience with Myron Gooch imprinted within me, I was pioneering my first church in the South Bronx. When my worship leader, Samuel, moved in with me, suddenly all the people in the neighborhood were unusually friendly towards me.
I boldly asked some neighbors, “What’s up with that?”
“Well, it’s like this, white boy,” they cheerfully answered, “now we know you aren’t prejudiced.”
“And how do you know that?” I replied with bewilderment.
“You got a black man living with you!”
“I do? Oh yeah, I guess I do! I never thought about it. He’s my brother in Christ and he’s on staff at my church. I’m a single pastor, so naturally, I offered for him to live with me.”
My first congregation was made up of Hispanics, African-Americans, and me. I was constantly amazed at the unwavering faith I witnessed in so many Hispanic and African American grandmothers, surely the unsung heroes of New York City. Many of them are valiantly raising kids and grandkids while some of their husbands, daughters, and sons have tragically fallen into crack, alcohol and other addictions. Many of these saints migrated from the South and come from a heritage of African American slavery.
I have learned that those Southern slaves not only survived but miraculously thrived. Even biased secular history books reluctantly tell us that revival swept through the Southern plantations, ushering hundreds of thousands of people into the Kingdom of God. The winds of heaven-sent, Holy Ghost revival came to them and plantation owners allowed itinerate preachers to minister to them because “Christian” slaves became better, more productive workers. On their one day of rest, many of them would spend the day in church services right there on the plantation. Those traveling evangelists would come and preach the message of the Gospel and when the slaves got saved, God would place a joy in their hearts stronger than the anguish of slavery.
So they got saved during Sunday revival services, but still, they had to endure barbaric conditions Monday through Saturday. Yes, those dear brothers and sisters in Christ would spend those long, hard days working out in the fields, singing songs to their newfound Lord and Master, singing about the fact that one sweet day…they will fly away…and be forever at home in the presence of God in heaven. From a website entitled, Negro Spirituals, we read:
On February 7th, 2007, the House of Representatives [finally] passed a bill recognizing the Negro Spiritual as a national treasure. This body of music, which “sprang” into existence out of Africans expressing their dissatisfaction with their enslavement and the horrific conditions under which they were surviving, became powerful tools with which they were able to endure everyday life situations.
A whole new genre of music called the Negro Spiritual was birthed in those scorching fields as newborn believers in Christ sang about the glorious world awaiting them in heaven. These dearly loved classics take on a whole new meaning when we realize they were birthed in the iron furnace of horrible Southern slavery:
I was standing by my front door
on a cold and cloudy day,
when I saw the hearse come a-rolling
oh, to carry my mother away.
Will the circle be unbroken?
by and by, Lord, by and by.
There’s a better home a-waiting
in the sky, Lord, in the sky.
* * * * *
Swing low, sweet chariot
coming for to carry me home…
* * * * *
I sing because I’m happy.
I sing because I’m free,
for His eye is on the sparrow,
and I know He watches me.
* * * * *
When I get to heaven gonna wear a robe.
No man can a-hinder me.
Gonna see King Jesus sittin’ on the throne,
No man can a-hinder me.
* * * * *
In the morning when I rise,
give me Jesus.
And when I come to die,
give me Jesus.
There are many other famous Negro spirituals, such as He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, I’ve Got Peace Like a River, Go Tell it on the Mountain, Michael Row the Boat A-Shore, When the Saints Go Marching In, and This Little Light of Mine. Thank God that thousands of these songs have been collected and preserved.
Gwen Warren, a renowned African-American opera singer who performed at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony, later became the awesome Minister of Music at Times Square Church when I also was on staff there as the Pastor of Prayer. We became great friends and my faith and worship went to new levels just by watching Sister Gwen get lost in God as she wholeheartedly worshiped her Lord, leading the choir and the congregation into God’s holy presence over and over again. She was surely one of the greatest worship leaders I’ve ever known. She wrote in her book, Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit: 101 Best-Loved Psalms, Gospel Hymns & Spiritual Songs of the African-American Church:
Torn from their homeland and forcefully transplanted to a strange new country where their basic human rights were stripped away and replaced by barbaric and shameful treatment, these remarkable individuals managed to survive as a race of people. Amazingly, they adopted their oppressor’s religion, welcoming Christianity’s message of a loving, forgiving God, despite the fact that they seldom saw that message lived out by those who claimed to believe it. The very circumstances that were meant to subject those enslaved and restrict and repress their cry of pain were instead used as vehicles to release songs of victory…These songs are so much more than deep, beautiful outpourings of despair. They are songs of “jubilee” because the enslaved, in the midst of their despair, found fortitude, hope, and faith in God.
Those born-again, yet bound and worshipping slaves are a shining example of what it means to become so heavenly minded that they could endure—and joyfully endure—anything that was thrown at them. The legacy of the Negro Spirituals is an example, not just of the strength of the human spirit to survive (as some PBS documentaries would want us to surmise). They are examples of how a believer in Christ can joyfully endure any and every trial or tragedy that we may face on our way to heaven.
The reason I began this study on Hebrews by focusing so much on their example is two-fold: First, the faith legacy of the African-American community is an amazing picture and parallel of the early church. And secondly, to become like them in the sense of becoming so heavenly minded that we can endure anything is the major theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Hebrews was written by a concerned pastoral leader to a floundering group of believers who were not ready for the second round of hard times that was about to hit them in the mouth. It makes me wonder, if our nation doesn’t experience a spiritual awakening soon, what type of intense persecution could we all be facing? I don’t know. And I surely don’t know if the average, lukewarm, fence-straddling Christian in modern-day America is ready to lay down his or her life for a God who can be so easily pushed out of our busy, materialistic, self-centered lives.
So the word relevant comes to mind when I read and study this Epistle: God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets…also has chosen to speak to us through the means of sermons (Hebrews 1:1a NKJV). And Hebrews is a full sermon, the only complete sermon in the entire New Testament. Jesus’ most famous sermon The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels are both summaries, as well as is Peter, Stephen and Paul’s sermons recorded in the book of Acts. All the other epistles are just that, epistles or letters to individuals or churches. But Hebrews is a full 45-minute sermon that was to be read aloud to a floundering congregation in desperate need of encouragement, perspective, and exhortation. It’s author, in his closing statements wrote, “And I appeal to you, brethren, bear with the word of exhortation, for I have written to you in few words (13:22). That same phrase is used when Paul was asked to preach a sermon in the synagogue in Antioch: “The rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, ‘Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on’”(13:15).
This sermon has been as mysterious as Melchidezek, puzzling the Body of Christ for centuries for various reasons. No one knows for sure who the author is, when exactly it was written, and even who the recipients were! A good sermon doesn’t necessarily need any of those things to minister to us. However, figuring out the context of these Scriptures (so we can accurately interpret it’s 2000-year-old message for today’s audience) has been a daunting task. After personally studying this book for decades and hearing hundreds of sermons based upon its inspirational words, many of its verses have become favorites of mine, such as…
1:3-4: When He (Jesus) had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.
8:6: But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.
11:6: But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.
What was most puzzling to me was how to read this Epistle as one unified, whole message. We can summarize it into three words: greater, better and faith. Christ is GREATER than the angels, than Moses, Aaron and Melchizedek (Chapters 1 through 7). His ministry and Covenant and promises are BETTER than what was under the Old Covenant (Chapters 8 through 10). And then the final chapters deal with the importance of walking by FAITH. For decades this Epistle still seemed to me like three different, unrelated sermons. (Have you ever been in a church where the pastor preached two or three sermons in one sitting? Usually an unforgettable and painful experience!)
In Chapter Ten, I discovered a key that began to unlock how this sermon can unfold. The Lord didn’t give me insight in a linear way (by studying from Chapter One through Thirteen), but rather like a pebble being dropped into a lake and its ripples going outward from the center. Although we don’t have the context of who, where, when or to whom, we do have in Chapter Ten a change where the preacher suddenly makes this sermon very personal through using his recipients as an example of what he was preaching on: how to faithfully endure any and everything that may come our way.
10:32-34 But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven.
Those three verses are the pebble, the epicenter of this sermon. David de Silva wrote:
Hebrews 10:32–39 is one of the few passages that give us a window into the history of the community being addressed by Hebrews.
Before we move on to Chapter Two, let’s dwell on verses 32 through 34 by examining them in different versions (one simple way to begin studying in-depth a particular passage of Scripture):
King James Version: But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions; partly, whilst ye were made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, whilst ye became companions of them that were so used. For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance.
Contemporary English Version: Don’t forget all the hard times you went through when you first received the light. Sometimes you were abused and mistreated in public, and at other times you shared in the sufferings of others. You were kind to people in jail. And you gladly let your possessions be taken away, because you knew you had something better, something that would last forever.
Amplified Version: But remember the earlier days, when, after being [spiritually] enlightened, you [patiently] endured a great conflict of sufferings, sometimes by being made a spectacle, publicly exposed to insults and distress, and sometimes by becoming companions with those who were so treated. For you showed sympathy and deep concern for those who were imprisoned, and you joyfully accepted the [unjust] seizure of your belongings and the confiscation of your property, conscious of the fact that you have a better possession and a lasting one [prepared for you in heaven].
 deSilva, D. A. (2000). Perseverance in gratitude: a socio-rhetorical commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews” (p. 357). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.