Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
Reading the two verses cited above from the book of the prophet Jeremiah immediately brings to mind the hymn, “I Shall Not Be Moved.”
I shall not be, I shall not be moved.
I shall not be, I shall not be moved;
like a tree planted by the water,
I shall not be moved.
Verse 1:This Far by Faith: an African American Resource for Worship, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1999) #147
When my cross is heavy, I shall not be moved,
when my cross is heavy, I shall not be moved;
like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved. [Refrain]
The source of inspiration most often cited for this hymn is Psalm 1:3:
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
Regardless of its source, the image of the tree planted by the water quickly took this hymn out of the church and into the streets. It became the theme song for many protest movements and labor unions. It has been translated into several languages. Joan Baez popularized a version in Spanish.
In his book, The Spirituals and the Blues, theologian James Cone defines spirituals as, “The power of song in the struggle for black survival.” [p. 1]
Similarly, Sidney Hillman, President of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, said in 1939, “It is no great exaggeration to say that songs have played a vital part in the upward climb of humanity.”[i]
What immediately comes to my mind are the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement from the fifties to the seventies. Despite the cruelty of those in power, the marchers continued, absorbing beatings and much worse, in their quest for justice and equality.
The protesters courageously continue to march and to commit acts of civil disobedience in the face of intransigence, even to this day. They will not be disheartened by the current toxicity of partisan politics that persist in perpetuating prejudice and creating a climate of distrust.
Jeremiah urges the exiles of Israel to trust in the Lord, not in humans. It is no wonder, then, that his words still resonate in song today.
Most, if not all of us, often look to elected officials to save us from our distress. But Jeremiah warns that that trust can take us only so far. While humans (e.g. politicians) can perhaps supply the necessary material resources, only God can fulfill our deepest yearning – to live in a world where justice reigns over fear and anxiety.
This Holy Week, the tree planted by the water reminds us that only God’s abiding presence can sustain us in these difficult days.
The roots of our faith can only be fed by the waters of God’s love.
And it is only the living water of God’s love that can refresh us, renew us, and inspire us with a spirit of hope that flies in the face of adversity, injustice and despair.
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[i] Spener, David, We Shall Not Be Moved/No nos moverán: Biography of a Song of Struggle, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2016), p. 40