Posted by: rcottrill | March 20, 2017

Lord, I Want to Be a Christian

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Words: (unknown)
Music: (unknown)

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Note: Both the text and tune of this song were first published in Folk Songs of the American Negro (1907), compiled by brothers Frederick Jerome Work (1871-1925) and John Wesley Work, Jr. (1873-1925), who laboured long to preserve the heritage of music found in the oral tradition and culture of the slaves of America in earlier years.

T hings can be quite different outside and inside–different in how they appear to us and what they actually are like.

There can be, for example, a cleverly made plastic replica of a famous statue. It may have the appearance of the artist’s creation, chiseled from hard and heavy marble. But pick it up and you will realize the difference. It doesn’t have the weight and substance of the original. It’s an hollow imitation.

This can be the case with people too. Perhaps actors or actresses play wonderful characters in films or on television, portraying moral and reliable family members in fictional stories. But when details of their personal behaviour appear in the news, we discover they’re nothing like that. That their lives present a sad history of marital unfaithfulness, dishonesty, abuse of others, and so on.

Or what about the woman who seems well off, and moves in a social circle of people who are wealthy and powerful, but it’s discovered that she lives way beyond her means and is, in fact, deeply in debt? Or the man who boasts of his talents and accomplishments, but we learn that it’s all an act and a fraud?

In the time Christ was on earth, many of the Pharisees were like that. They were the religious conservatives of the Jewish world. They not only claimed to be faithful followers of the Law of Israel, but adopted hundreds of man-made rules meant to show how very pious they were. And they loved to show off their religiosity to others (Matt. 6:5).

But, for many of them, it was all a hollow sham. The Lord compared them to “whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27). They were among those who “honour Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me” (Matt. 15:8). Outside and inside.

There’s an old African-American spiritual that relates to all of this. We do not know the poet’s name, but historians have placed the time the song was created to be during the ministry of an evangelist named Samuel Davies, who served in the state of Virginia between 1748 and 1756. During that time, a slave came to Davies to learn more about the Christian faith. He said to the evangelist:

“I come to you, sir, that you may tell me some good things concerning Jesus Christ and my duty to God, for I am resolved not to live any more as I have done….Sir, I want to be a Christian in my heart.”

What did he mean by that last statement? Likely this. He had observed his slave masters attending church, and talking about their religion. But, he wondered how they could truly be filled with the love of Christ and enslave other human beings, so often cruelly mistreating them. The man wanted the kind of Christianity that affected the inside, as well as the outside of his life.

It was out of that encounter that the spiritual was born. And it was intended as more than a prayer. It was a kind of declaration of purpose, a testimony of how the singer was determined to live. In succeeding stanzas it says:

Lord, I want to be a Christian in-a my heart, in-a my heart,
Lord, I want to be a Christian in-a my heart.
In-a my heart, in-a my heart,
Lord, I want to be a Christian in-a my heart.

Lord, I want to be more loving in-a my heart…

Lord, I want to be more holy in-a my heart…

Lord, I want to be like Jesus in-a my heart.

And there’s another stanza of the song less often sung today. It comes just before the last one above, and says:

I don’t want to be like Judas in-a my heart…

Judas Iscariot was a hypocrite and deceiver (Jn. 12:4-6). This had a special meaning in the slave culture. Slave owners and overseers liked to play one slave off against the others. Those who brought them tales of the misbehaviour of another slave were given special privileges. But this was seen among the slaves as a betrayal of their people, much like the way Judas betrayed Christ (Matt. 26:14-16).

May the simple declarations of this old song be our own, as we walk in faith and obedience toward God.

1) What will the difference be between a person who tries to act like a Christian on the outside, and one who is a Christian from the inside out?

2) Do you have a favourite spiritual?

Wordwise Hymns (none)
The Cyber Hymnal


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