Only a few days ago, we celebrated the Transfiguration. Jesus was on the mountaintop, glowing with God’s love. Even his clothes shimmered with light. His astonished disciples saw it themselves and heard the voice of the Sacred say, “This is my son, my chosen one; listen to him.”
That was then. Now it is Lent and the mood is decidedly tense. Jesus is in the wilderness, a barren stretch of desert where life is hard. He’s hungry, thirsty, alone. As the African-American spiritual reminds us, “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley, he had to walk it by himself.”
SPIRITUALS AS WILDERNESS SONGS
Every year during Lent, we retell the story of how Jesus was tested in the desert, confronted by the devil who tempted him with shortcuts* to comfort, riches, celebrity, power. But Jesus wasn’t fooled. After forty days, he turned his back on the tempter and walked out of the wilderness fully prepared to proclaim the good news of God’s love, confront the authority of church and state to the point of death, and walk in solidarity with broken, hungry, hurting people.
Contemplating this story, we realize what a friend we have in Jesus, especially when we most need one. The story of Christ’s suffering comes to our rescue especially when we face a long stretch in the wilderness, are up against the world, rebuked, scorned, talked about, judged.
Enslaved African-Americans created a wealth of songs about the suffering savior. Witnessing the despair and loneliness of Jesus, they believed he was with them in their undeserved suffering.
They sang that the world treated him so mean, “treats me mean, too.” Exhausted, they cried, “I been in the storm so long!” They sang nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody but Jesus.
They sang about feeling like a motherless child, a poor wayfaring stranger tossed about, rolling through an unfriendly world. Sometimes, in the valley on their knees, they couldn’t hear nobody pray.
I WANT JESUS TO WALK WITH ME
If the reality is that we sometimes must face our trials alone, our fervent prayer is to have Jesus beside us. He knows what we’re going through because he’s been through it, too. James H. Cone, the founder of black liberation theology, looks at race and religion through the lens of two symbols central to the African-American experience in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. He wrote:
In the mystery of God’s revelation, black Christians believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them, even in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.
We don’t have to look far to find the wilderness. In Plenty Good Room: A Lenten Bible Study Based on African American Spirituals, Marilyn Thornton wrote:
Life contains its lonesome valleys: times when you hit bottom, when you go so low, you can go no lower, times when you feel as alone as alone can be, with no shoulder to cry on and no one to hold your hand… Jesus, like all of humanity, had his “lonesome valley” moments.
The world is testing us now. Many of us toss and turn in our beds with nightmares of a newly terrifying reality, families torn apart, cemeteries desecrated, walls going up, societal and environmental safety nets coming down.
For some, the wilderness is endured in a jail cell, a nursing home, a hospital corridor. It is encountered in a violent home, at a graveside, in a courtroom. Its cold grip is felt in a crowded refugee camp, a detention center, a homeless shelter, a back alley, a soup kitchen, an unemployment center. It’s experienced on a bar stool or a lonely bridge, dark waters beckoning. The lonesome valley can be an office cubicle at a dead-end job or the kitchen sink, dreams of a fulfilling life going down the drain.
During periods of despair, it’s a gift to call on the name of Jesus. In the 1960s, moving fast, marching in the streets for peace, we turned to prayers by beat poet, civil rights activist, Episcopal priest Malcolm Boyd and asked Are You Running with Me, Jesus? But, when we’re slowed down by weakness or despair, walking is fine, too.
We pray, walk with us, dear savior, through this wide world of sin, this lonesome valley. Throughout Lent, we contemplate the wilderness experience, looking toward Easter and the relief of resurrection. Thank God for spirituals, “sorrow songs,” to help us sing the blues and see us through.
* I’m grateful to Rev. Dr. Constance M. Baugh, founding pastor of The Church of Gethsemane (Presbyterian U.S.A.) in Brooklyn, NY, for preaching a powerful Lenten sermon about the temptation of shortcuts.
TO GO DEEPER
Music and Lyrics, “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley” on Hymnary. org
The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone, (Orbis Books, 2011)
Plenty Good Room: A Lenten Bible Study Based on African American Spirituals by Marilyn E. Thornton, (Abingdon Press, 2016)
Are You Running with Me, Jesus? Prayers by Malcolm Boyd (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966)