One of the authors I was exposed to in college was James Weldon Johnson, particularly his book of poems called God's Trombones, based on African-American sermons. One of the drama students in college performed several of his pieces during chapel, and I've never forgotten those presentations. I checked the book out from the library this weekend and read several of the poems/sermons to Bobby this afternoon.
Johnson took liberties in his poetry, which many black preachers tend to do, but he captured the cadence of the sermon extremely well. I can hear the rhythm and deep, bass voice in my head every time I read one. While "Creation" is probably the most well-known of the seven sermons, it's actually not one of my top two favorites. As morbid as it sounds, one of them is "Go Down Death". I've heard it read at many funerals, though I never realized it was a Johnson poem until I checked out his book. I found it somewhat fitting and comforting that a book I checked out for the poem "The Judgement" also included a piece about grieving and hope. Over Christmas a college classmate lost her husband. And Welch college alumni (formerly Free Will Baptist Bible College) are still reeling with the death of 32 year old Bethany Atwood Lytle last week, missionary to Peru, wife, and mother of 3 very small children. I find assurance in the reminder that God has allotted all of our days, and he knows when the time is up, even if it takes us by surprise. I still ache for those families and her close friends. I doubt they'll ever know how many people have taken them before the throne of grace this last week, and will continue to do so in the year ahead. It won't make their grief go away, but I pray it will at least be a little more bearable.
And in case you've never read anything by Johnson, here's one of my two favorites:
Go Down DeathJames Weldon Johnson
Weep not, weep not, She is not dead;She’s resting in the bosom of Jesus.Heart-broken husband—weep no more;Grief-stricken son—weep no more;Left-lonesome daughter—weep no more;She’s only just gone home.
Day before yesterday morning,God was looking down from his great, high heaven,Looking down on all his children,And his eye fell on Sister Caroline,Tossing on her bed of pain.And God’s big heart was touched with pity,With the everlasting pity.And God sat back on his throne,And he commanded that tall, bright angel standing at his right hand:Call me Death!And that tall, bright angel cried in a voiceThat broke like a clap of thunder:Call Death!—Call Death!And the echo sounded down the streets of heavenTill it reached away back to that shadowy place,Where Death waits with his pale, white horses.And Death heard the summons,And he leaped on his fastest horse,Pale as a sheet in the moonlight.Up the golden street Death galloped,And the hoofs of his horse struck fire from the gold,But they didn’t make no sound.Up Death rode to the Great White Throne,And waited for God’s command.
And God said: Go down, Death, go down,Go down to Savannah, Georgia,Down in Yamacraw,And find Sister Caroline.She’s borne the burden and heat of the day,She’s labored long in my vineyard,And she’s tired—She’s weary—Go down, Death, and bring her to me.And Death didn’t say a word,But he loosed the reins on his pale, white horse,And he clamped the spurs to his bloodless sides,And out and down he rode,Through heaven’s pearly gates,Past suns and moons and stars;On Death rode,And the foam from his horse was like a comet in the sky;On Death rode,Leaving the lightning’s flash behind;Straight on down he came.While we were watching round her bed,She turned her eyes and looked away,She saw what we couldn’t see;She saw Old Death. She saw Old DeathComing like a falling star.But Death didn’t frighten Sister Caroline;He looked to her like a welcome friend.And she whispered to us: I’m going home,And she smiled and closed her eyes.And Death took her up like a baby,And she lay in his icy arms,But she didn’t feel no chill.And Death began to ride again—Up beyond the evening star,Out beyond the morning star,Into the glittering light of glory,On to the Great White Throne.And there he laid Sister CarolineOn the loving breast of Jesus.And Jesus took his own hand and wiped away her tears,And he smoothed the furrows from her face,And the angels sang a little song,And Jesus rocked her in his arms,And kept a-saying: Take your rest,Take your rest, take your rest.Weep not—weep not,She is not dead;She’s resting in the bosom of Jesus.