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Steal away, steal away

Steal away to Jesus!

Steal away, steal away home;

I ain’t got long to stay here.

Yesterday’s choir honored Junteenth by singing the African American spiritual, Steal Away, composed around 1862. Its yearning to make a radical change, in secrecy, smarts the senses, provokes shortness of breath, enhances identification. Repetitious lyrics and the melodic line afford rapid learning and lodge in the heart-memory. Such is my take on this spiritual, in my present circumstances.

Although Steal Away was composed by Wallace Willis, a field slave of a Choctaw freedman in the old Indian territory, Doaksville, Oklahoma, its widespread use among enslaved Africans is questioned by Frederick Douglass, freed slave and African American social reformer, and other current critics.

The spiritual’s use, as code for fugitives on the Underground Railroad, is also questioned as little evidence substantiates this claim. Douglass maintained only small groups planning escape to the North found courage in singing Steal Away. Such singing the white populace regarded as the “many silly things they do.”—Viewing them as less than human.

I ain’t got long to stay here.

So, the declaration concludes, impacted by strong metaphors: home: realm of freedom and eternal life; thunder and lightning: sources of dangerous energy; the trumpet: instrument of authority used in Old Testament for worship services, teaching, correction, and announcing war; call: a summons that demands immediate compliance, thunder, lightning, and green trees bending that suggest nature’s influence. At work here is the redemptive power of the Lord among sinners, falling short of the mark.

I include myself among them as I wait…

Words skitter as I plumb my depths. None seem to hang around for my use—as if they, too, were stunned by what happened.

It had stormed that evening, like being thrashed about in a washing machine, with no turn-off switch. An explosive crack sounded; then, the thud and splatter upon the street compelled me to my front window streaming with rain. Barely could I make out what happened. Shuddering seized me—It was my sweet gum tree.

Only at daybreak did I learn the full extent of the damage: the uppermost limb had been twisted off like a corkscrew; its lustrous leaves already crimping around the edges. With such an injury, the tree could no longer grow. The rest of it would have to come down.

Over fifteen years I had benefited from the sweet gum’s shade, its radiant greens and red-golds, its lofty branches, its symmetry enhancing my bungalow, even its gumballs I raked each March until I was unable.

The sweet gum’s demise accentuates the impermanence of life, including my own. Yet, its welcoming limbs, in all seasons, had heartened me, and I am grateful.

There will be another tree to replace the sweet gum, and eventually there will be shade, symbol of God’s protection and care.

The sun-packed earth continues expelling earthworms onto the pavement and certain death. Sidestepping six of them, crusted and dark like wintry twigs, gave me pause during yesterday’s walk. Their wiggle-room hardening around them, they had bolted for a different milieu, only to be fried by the sun. Such mayhem ushered in the summer solstice last Sunday.

In a parallel sense, the inflamed media spews images of the hard and unyielding world around us, images contrived to undermine spirit and to incite fear. Like the earthworm in dire straights, we cast about for relief. But where do we go? How wrap words around our restlessness? Who or what can moisten our imagination, empower us to try something different?

There is a response to this madness. Within our sacred depths, moist gardens bloom with lantana, marigolds, Gerber lilies, and so much more; bold colors that hearten, that take a stand. Access to this inner realm requires daily cultivation with silence, with humility, and with truth. Through these practices, we learn to screw on our soaker hoses to the Source and thrive.

And like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar, we “walk in the heart of the flames, praising and blessing the Lord. Daniel 3:24

Note: This blog was composed before last weekend’s thunderstorms; their violence recreated wiggle-room for earthworms. We give thanks.









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