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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

"Were You There" (Luke A. Powery)

TITLE: Were You There?
AUTHOR: Luke A. Powery
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019, (144 pages).

The Christian season of Lent is approaching. On Ash Wednesday, the Christian world would be entering into a period of prayer, meditation, and reflections on the 40-days journey of Jesus right up to Holy Week. It is a significant time for believers to ponder about the way of Jesus who obeyed God the Father all the way to the Cross. God in His pleasure and power raised Him up on the third day and gave us hope that in the same way, all believers will also be resurrected together with Christ. Lent is a time of remembering the pain, the sorrow, and the suffering Christ. Author Luke Powery defines Lent as "a season of penitential reflection and repentance on the path toward the hope of Easter." It's a nice way to introduce the theme of this book, which is essentially to understand the nature and underlying contexts of many negro spirituals.

Right from Ash Wednesday, the first spiritual "Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel?" gives us a clear path of where the author is going. In a powerful reflection about the need for deliverance, Powery deals honesty with the issues of pain and suffering. He points out the hope that one day, we will all be delivered. The spiritual "Many Thousand Gone" gives us a troubling insight into actual slavery situations. The spiritual "Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep, Don't You Mourn" is a way for negro slaves to connect their plight with the story of Christ's suffering. "Kum Ba yah" is a hymn of personal need and plea for God to come. However, not all spirituals are sad and somber. The song "Do Lord, do Lord, Lord, remember me" is an upbeat prayer of asking God to remember us. This is especially poignant in a world full of short memories. Other songs include "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," "My Father, How Long," "Steal Away," "We Shall Overcome," and many others. Of course, the one that bears the same name as this book title is also included. Of particular interest are the songs selected for Holy Week. Powery carefully matches the day with a particular theme that expresses the mood and meaning of the road to Calvary. Maundy Thursday is a short meditation on Calvary. Good Friday challenges us to see Jesus at the Cross. After so many weeks asking God to help us, we are left pondering if we would do the same for Jesus. Silent Saturday looks at the atmosphere of silence surrounding the death of Christ. Just like the way the book of Malachi ends, followed by 400 years of silence, Saturday compresses the world's hopes into silent prayer and anticipation. We all know what happens on the third day, but that would need another book.

This is a unique book of negro spirituals that capture a large essence of what Lent means. Carefully chosen and creatively written, readers are given a mini-worship devotional to help one along the Lent season. Some of the hymns and spirituals are familiar. Others are not so familiar. In fact, readers might be surprised that folk or popular songs they have sang are negro spirituals in the first place! This delightful collection of meditations can also be a collection of spirituals for us to learn and to use in our churches. The scripture passages at the beginning of the daily devotional should be read and meditated upon first. Readers might be tempted to skip these passages and jump straight into the rest of the book. Doing so would distract us from the key themes in the biblical passages. At the end of each day, there is a short prayer that could be used to end the devotional.

I enjoyed this book and recommend this for use through the Lenten season.

Luke Powery is dean of Duke Divinity Chapel and associate professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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