Every Time I Feel the Spirit
By Rev. Alicia Randolph Rapking
Music is a powerful gift in our lives. It offers us a way to express ourselves. It brings us together, often around a cause or a celebration. It is calming to us or cheering to us. It encourages us or sets a mood for us. It is part of ritual for us and so much more. Lately, I have been reminded again of this powerful gift from God in our lives.
When I was a little girl, Sunday mornings had a certain rhythm to them. As a pastor’s family there was a certain feel to the morning–a gentle urgency about getting up, eating breakfast together, morning prayers, and getting ready to go to church. My mother always wanted us to be in a proper mood for going to church, so she put on one certain record and made certain that we could hear it all through the house. The recording was of the Lake Junaluska singers and the music was beautiful anthems of choral music.
By the time I had reached Jr. High age, I knew the words of all the anthems and so Sunday mornings would find me getting ready for church and singing at the top of my lungs, which probably irritated my brothers. My favorite anthem was the very last song on the record. It was the William Dawson arrangement of the great African American spiritual “Every Time I Feel the Spirit.” What a resounding, glorious setting of this spiritual! I loved it!
Even as this choral work has meant so much to me over the years I had never sung this arrangement until several years ago when I sang it with the Blue and Grey Choir during one of the Blue and Grey Reunions. The performance was powerful for me, but what surprised me even more is the amount of time I spent pondering the words and the people who sang this song first. This week I found myself thinking about this song again, especially as we observe Pentecost and think about the presence of the Spirit coming upon those gathered like the rush of a mighty wind and the presence of a descending dove! And also, as United Methodist delegates from every Annual Conference throughout the world are meeting in Portland, Oregon.
Who wrote this spiritual? Who were the first people who sang this spiritual? What did these words mean to them? What can they mean for us? These are the questions that have come to my mind as I have pondered this spiritual.
We will never know the name of the individual or individuals who first sang the words and sang the tune. This is an African American spiritual, which means that we know that the song came from the slaves, but we do not know who wrote them. Maybe the strains of this song first came from the tobacco fields in NC or maybe the words were first heard in the cotton fields of Georgia or maybe the song was sung in the rice fields on the coast of SC. Wherever they came from they expressed something very powerful about faith in God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in life: “Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart I will pray.”
For a group of people who were enslaved and had very little to encourage their days the presence of the Holy Spirit and the presence of each other became the encouragement needed each day. Not only did this spiritual help remind them that they were not alone, it also helped them to speak of the deepest desire—freedom.
Not only was the song about praying when the spirit moved in their hearts, it was a prayer that they prayed together in loud voices ringing through the fields or alone when they felt the most desperate: “Oh I have sorrows and I have woe/And I have heartache here below. But while God leads me I’ll never fear/For I am sheltered by his care.”
This spiritual is also an expression of freedom; a prayer for God to hear them and lead them to safety. Clearly, these words speak of the Underground Railroad and that hope: “There ain’t but one train upon this track/It runs to heaven and right back.”
So what does this spiritual say to us in the 21st century? Do you and I pray when we feel the Spirit moving in our hearts? Do we even feel the Spirit moving in our hearts?
Our lives are so noisy, there is sound everywhere. We have all kinds of gadgets that are supposed to help make our lives so much easier. So many of us have so many commitments that there is little time to pay attention to the movement of the Spirit in our hearts and yet we are people of faith and the presence of the Spirit in our hearts is there to remind us of the core of lives–the most important part of who we are. We are people of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ, and guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
What do we need to give up in our lives in order to feel the movement of the Spirit in our hearts? What noise do we need to silence? What distractions do we need to give up in order feel the Spirit move in our hearts? What anger do we need to let go of? What do we need to forgive in order to feel the Spirit moving? What holds us captive that we need to be free of in order for the Spirit to move in our hearts?
It feels difficult to silence all of the noise at the moment. We are in the middle of an election year where there is much noise and shouting and negative voices all vying for our attention and our votes. There is much going on in our world that grips our souls and cries out for attention—violence, dangers, disasters, pain, fear, agony, financial difficulty, addictions of all kinds, racism, consumerism, and all sorts of desperation that lead to irrational actions. The presence of all this “noise” in our lives is the very reason why we need to seek silence in order to feel the Spirit moving in our hearts, calling us to prayer and teaching us to pray.
For several years I have studied the writings of St. John of the Cross, particularly his poem and commentary “Dark Night of the Soul.” Living in the sixteenth century, St. John understood the movement of the Spirit deep within our souls, calling us to prayer, although he would have described it as a call to be in union with God’s Spirit. He also understood the need to quiet all the distractions and “voices” that demand our attention. He said, “What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetite and with our tongue, for the language God best hears is silent love.”
There is so much in this world and in our lives that need the constant faithful prayer that we are called to when the Spirit moves. The Spirit calls us to deep prayer, the kind of prayer that listens for God’s loving, silent language of love and the kind of prayer where we respond with that same love. It is the kind of prayer that brings all of our concerns and concerns for the world to God. It is the kind of prayer where we recognize that we do not always have the answers and that sometimes the answers that God gives us are not what we are expecting. It is the kind of prayer that loves and listens, listens and loves and then responds in a way that reflects the Gospel.
The Spirit moves and we are called to deep prayer. It is not a “wish list” kind of prayer, but deep prayer where the hurts and fears of the world can reside along with the powerful, life-giving, grace-filled love of God. May it be so in our lives.
To God be the Glory!