Hold On! – Traditional Spiritual arr. Marques Garrett
Keep yo’ han’ on-a the plow
Hold on ! Hold on !
Nora, Nora let me come in
Door’s all fast’ned an’ the windows pinned
Keep yo’ han’ on the plow
Hold on! Hold on!
Nora said, “Ya lost yo’ track
Can’t plow straight an’ keep a-lookin’ back”…
If you wanna get to Heaven, let me tell you how
Just keep yo’ han’ on de Gospel plow
If dat plow stays in you’ han’
It’ll lan’ you straight into de promised lan’…
Work and God. It’s a strange topic for me, personally, and I think an even stranger topic to look at in the context of the African American Spiritual and the current American system.
In the context of the Spiritual, the slave singers were singing songs like this one – of glorifying work, keeping your hand on the plow – because they had to find some sort of reason to go on working. Whether its purpose was to avoid punishment, find purpose in forced labor, or wring hope out of their subjugated existences, these songs came from hard places and dire circumstances.
In the context of America today, there are still many forms of subjugation that happen. And we still glorify “work” as the way out of many of these forms of subjugation. In some instances, work can certainly lift people up. Hard work has lifted people out of poverty to economic independence, it has given people control of their lives through building a business, it has given people new leases on life through the hard work of physical therapy of working out.
But what do we do when work isn’t working?
For every person who has built a company from a garage, there is a person whose painstaking novel can’t find a publisher. Surely in the times of slavery in America, the work of these slaves was not “working” to get them a better life. It’s likely that there were children who grew up singing this song on the plantation and died while the tune still rang in the fields.
The trouble that we often run into with “work,” whether it be vocational, relational, or spiritual, is that we are culturally accustomed to work towards an end. A goal.
But biblically and psychologically, the point of work is how the discipline of work shapes us. The change we should be looking for is an intrinsic change, rather than an extrinsic one. In his 2008 Article in American Psychologist, David L. Blustein says, “working can promote connection to the broader social and economic world, enhance well-being, and provide a means for individual satisfaction and accomplishment.” He goes on to mention how individuals without work tend to struggle more with anxiety, substance abuse and depression, and a study which details how the consequences of high joblessness in a community is more devastating to a community than higher rates of poverty in terms of quality of life and criminal activity.
In the Bible, the importance of deeds is clearly outlined as a critical aspect of faith in James Chapter 2.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
James 2: 14-16, 20-24
Clearly, as we look at our city and our world, there is work to be done. Sometimes it is daunting, and success is not guaranteed. Do it anyways. Because even if it pans out to nothing, the world will be better by that work, because you have been edified in the doing.
Director of Music
First Presbyterian Church