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Michael Morgan, founder and Executive Director of the African American Music Foundation, visited my church this week to celebrate Black History Month. During morning service his thrilling bass voice highlighted an inspiring memorial to Paul Robeson. That afternoon he delivered a recital and lecture on spirituals to an overflow crowd.

I’ve been humming these spirituals and mulling their words ever since. Mr. Morgan is charismatic and riveting and he adores spirituals. As he explained, this is not only African American music. It is American music — never composed, but arising organically from the depths of human experience and longing.

Often beginning in woe but always ending in joy, the words of spirituals express struggles against injustice, oppression and the sadness of mortality. So many of them, like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “I Stood on the River of Jordan,” give voice to our hopes and fears in the face of death. They arch beyond American slavery to express hard truths about the burdens every human bears and how we cope.

 

Oh, Freedom

Freedom, oh freedom,

Oh freedom over me

 

And before I’d be a slave

I’ll be buried in my grave

And go home to my Lord and be free

 

No more moaning, no more moaning,

No more moaning over me

 

And before I’d be a slave

I’ll be buried in my grave

And go home to my Lord and be free

 

There’ll be singin’, there’ll be singin’,

There’ll be singin’ over me

 

And before I’d be a slave

I’ll be buried in my grave

And go home to my Lord and be free

 

That song is about all kinds of slavery, Mr. Morgan said. “Think about it. There’s a whole lot of things you can be slave to in your life.”

Indeed there are.

Increasingly, people feel in jeopardy of being slaves to medical technology and an imperative to apply all that is available. As awareness grows, people grow leery of the assumption they would choose to eke out every second of mortal existence, even as terminal disease ravages the body and suffering exceeds the ability to bear it.  Often slavish devotion to prolongation of life means only prolongation of suffering.

In his book, Facing Death, my friend Reverend Paul Smith reminded us that death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person.  When we act as though it IS the worst thing, we can fall victim to much worse.

Choices mean freedom. Freedom from all that may be worse than being “buried in my grave.”


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