Our churches need to sing songs of the good news of our great redemption in Christ and the hope that we have because of that truth. However, we also need to sing songs of sojourning in our gatherings to train believers how to walk as pilgrims through this barren land with an enduring faith in God.
The seeds of my faith were sown in a little red brick church building found on a sharp bend of an oil-topped road in East Texas. To the eye that cares more about impressive appearances than anything else, that place is just another little church building, on another country road, in another small town, in the middle of nowhere. If you are looking for a place that depends on impressive, multi-syllabic theological terms, proper light temperatures, and musical builds into thunderous bridges attempting to express deep, abiding faith, then you took a wrong turn somewhere. By these superficial characteristics, it would seem like that red brick church building couldn’t possibly be the soil for spiritual growth.
But it was there–in that little church building—that I heard the gospel of Jesus proclaimed every week. It was there that I was taught to love the Word of God, under the instruction of my favorite Sunday School teacher—my mother. It was there that I heard my dad and other deacons pray and sing “with their chest” as they led us in our devotional period to open our services, showing me that men could lead with deep resolve and display deep emotion in worship. It was there that I learned the value of having older saints around who could testify to the goodness of God. It was there that doctrines of the sovereignty and providence of God—words that I later learned and had to define in seminary—were living, experienced realities. It was there that I learned that God is not a concept to be examined but a person to be worshipped, adored, delighted in, and trusted.
It was in that little red brick church that I learned the power of songs of sojourning and shared testimony. These were a means of reminding of the goodness of God, inviting others to share in our joy and resolute faith in that goodness, and strengthening the faith of those who were having a hard time holding on to faith because of the persistent and unrelenting presence of suffering. I later learned through studying the Scriptures that these rhythms and practices of song and testimony were part of the spiritual diet of God’s people throughout the generations. These rhythms and practices have been critical for my own growth and steadfastness in the faith.
Songs of Sojourning
I recently spent time with a friend who, like me, grew up in a historic black church in the south. As we reminisced about what it was like growing up in that environment and what got instilled in us there, I realized that while we grew up a little over 1,000 miles away from each other, we shared a spiritual hymn book, a heritage passed to us from the generation before us. We both had our seasons of drifting and hardship in young adulthood, and when things became unbearably difficult, our souls turned to the same collection of songs to stabilize and strengthen our faith.
Those songs were sojourning songs. By sojourning songs, I mean songs that tell the narrative of how God meets with, walks with, and sustains his people through the various hardships of life. These songs are part testimony and part prayer, training our hearts to look for and trust God in uncertainty, songs that instill an expectant longing for the fulfillment of all of his promises to us.
Most Sunday mornings, the deacons would come out to open the service with a devotional period where they would pray for the gathering, as we responded by singing lined hymns together in the call-and-response style that is rooted in the Black church. I loved (and still do) when those first lines rang out,
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land
That would be followed by the congregation’s response as we recounted the story of the exodus and asked God to be with us on our own sojourn through this “barren land” on our way to the promised land of the new Jerusalem. My favorite line in the hymn, the one that resonated with me most and brought tears to my eyes as I belt it out to this day, is:
Strong Deliverer, Strong Deliverer
Be thou still my strength and shield.
I think it was in those lines that I learned that part of God’s unchanging character was that of a strong deliverer. The request to “be thou still,” was a request for God to show up again to protect and deliver me when things got rough. It is a reminder to my doubting heart and an act of defiance against the surrounding circumstances to call on and expect God to be that for me again. It was another seed of faith sown into the soil of my soul.
On most of the Sundays of my childhood, that deacon-led devotional period was followed by the choir singing Albert A. Goodson’s “We’ve Come This Far By Faith.”
We’ve come this far by faith,
Leaning on the Lord.
Trusting in his holy word.
He’s never failed us yet.
Oh, oh-, oh- can’t turn around,
We’ve come this far by faith.
There is a point in everyone’s journey of faith where the road gets rough, and you can’t see how the Lord is going to get you through. There is an internal alarm that goes off in your soul, saying, “Abandon ship! The journey is too hard this way. Surely there has to be a better way. Surely you can find a self-salvation strategy to get you through.” But I was reminded yet again that the only way that we have even gotten this far is through faith—leaning on the Lord and trusting in his holy Word. He has never failed us, and because he is unchanging, always faithful, and always working all things together for our good, we can trust him with our next step and all the way home.