RISE UP SHEPHERD!Advent Reflections on the Spirituals. By Luke A. Powery. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xiii + 89 pages.
Luke Powery is a powerful, thoughtful, thought-provoking, spiritually gifted preacher. That’s what I took away from my experience with him as a preacher. He understands scripture and worship and culture. He brings these gifts to this set of Advent devotions/reflections. Many people like to use devotional guides during Advent to help navigate the busyness and the commercial side of the season. It’s easy to get caught up in the race to Christmas, and miss the path of preparation. Many devotional guides start with scripture, maybe the lectionary texts for the season, and that is always a good way to go. This set, however, is unique in that the starting point for each reflection is a spiritual. Powery believes that spirituals are apropos for this age of political, racial, economic, and religious division. They speak to our “sense of hopelessness and despair with no end in sight.” This is because spirituals are "songs sung by weary throats, created in a brutal historical setting of slavery by the enslaved, yet resonating with hope through all the sinister splinters of social sin. They are musical memorabilia of hope in seemingly helpless situations" (p. ix). Yes, these are songs that speak to the depths of our own realities, and there is no better time for such reflections than at Advent.
Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of the Christ. Living this side of Easter and Pentecost, the coming of Christ that we anticipate is a second coming. While Advent ends with the revelation of the babe born in Bethlehem who will grow up into a teacher and prophet whose life will end on a cross, the spirituals look with hope and expectation to a future when Christ will come bringing justice and peace in its fullness. As Powery writes, the turn to the spirituals during Advent also serves to be build a bridge between the cultural literature of the black church with "high liturgical sensibility of the church calendar" (p. x).
Luke Powery, the editor/author of this set of devotions, is Dean of the Duke University Chapel. He also serves as Associate Professor of homiletics at Duke. He is also an ordained minister within the Progressive National Baptist Convention, and author of several books, one of which I have on my Kindle ready to be read.
With Advent near at hand, those seeking a devotional guide will find that this small book offers the user four weeks of daily devotions. There is a set of Scriptures assigned for each day—a reading from the Psalms, a reading from the rest of the Old Testament, and a reading from the New Testament. Then we encounter the spiritual for the day. words of a spiritual are presented, followed by a devotional reading by Powery. This is followed by an excerpt from one of the scripture readings, and then a prayer. Some of the choices will be very familiar to all readers, songs like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Go Tell It on the Mountain." Others will be less well-known. Some white progressive Christians might be taken aback by the strong eschatological vision present in these songs, which long for the time when the sweet chariot of God would sweep down and rescue the singer from their brutal enslavement. But such songs are not merely an expression of escape from this life, but a hope of escape from slavery itself. These are subversive songs, because they inspire defiance.
The singers of these songs won’t be defeated by their situation. We encounter these songs from our own vantage point, and thus Powery serves as interpreter and bridge builder so that boundaries can be crossed. He writes that the “aim is to nourish spiritually those who encounter the words on these pages through Advent reflections on the historical cultural literature of the Spirituals. But the subtext of this main text is to remember the future God has for us—a blending of time, culture, tradition, race, gender, and class into a beautiful bouquet of unity where all walls of division vanish. This daily devotional has an eternal gaze toward the reconciliation of all things, the bringing together of difference in the unity of the Holy Spirit” (p. x). Yes, in a time of great angst about the divisions and fragmentation of our world, as fear of the other casts a shadow over our conversations, here is a set of words that bring hope for this time when we can enjoy the unity of the Holy Spirit.
If you are looking for a unique and provocative way of approaching the season of Advent, one that takes history into the conversation, and looks forward to a new future, then Rise Up Shepherd! this is a devotional guide for you. I highly recommend it.