Introductory Note:

Have you ever thought about how hard it would be to focus your attention fully on God if you were enslaved?

This excerpt from chapter 9 of Barbara Peacock’s book Soul Care in African American Practice introduces the life and writings of Dr. James Washington. Combining Dr. Washington’s teachings on rest with a thought-provoking reflection on the absence of rest in the lives of African slaves, Peacock builds a compelling invitation for us to let go of all the “doing,” be still, and focus our attention on enjoying God.

I am moved by her reflections on the spiritual lives of slaves: “What did their rest look like? How did it feel? Were there ever moments of contentment and solace?” Their pursuit of God in the midst of slavery casts a harsh light on the pettiness of those things we allow to steal us away from companionship with the Lord. Washington poignantly calls our distractedness “captivity.” And so it is, but one of our own making.

Peacock’s message is especially pertinent for those of us in professional ministry or with hyper-structured spiritual lives: “We must come back to our first love, our Lord God, come back to the ‘Lawd’ that our ancestors were willing to put their lives in jeopardy for as they sought to fellowship with him.”

May the image of the slave’s pursuit of God at all costs encourage us never to squander opportunities to seek and enjoy God’s companionship.

Grace Pouch
Content Manager

Excerpt from Soul Care in African American Practice

Dr. James Melvin Washington, who was a professor of church history at Union Theological Seminary and adjunct professor of religion at Columbia University, wrote a very compelling book titled Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayer by African Americans.1 In it, he reflected on the significance of spending quantitative as well as qualitative time with God. Both aspects of being in God’s presence are necessary and valuable for an intimate relationship with him. It is a beautiful experience to carve out extensive time with him, and it is also a glorious event to be in the moment with him, just appreciating a conscious, fresh breath of his presence. A selah moment. A pause. A time to stop and be with your Creator, your Savior, your God, your friend, your companion. How precious it is to rest in his presence, rest in his arms, rest in him. Just being. No doing. Selah.

Due to the unimaginable oppression of their daily lives, many people of the African diaspora did not have the luxury of entering into such rest. Their focus was on surviving their rigorous schedule of working from sunup to sundown. How was one to find rest burdened by chains, excruciating beatings, and loved ones being sold at the auction block? Even when the labor ceased, the mind often remained tormented. What did their rest look like? How did it feel? Were there ever moments of contentment and solace? Then after taking care of obligations for the master all week long, there were many tasks to fulfill in their own households. Perhaps rest existed between the hush harbors, or during the night hours while sleeping with one eye open and one eye closed, or in cotton fields while singing hope-filled slave songs. Surely God, in his merciful ways, provided his unexplainable, incomprehensible, and unimaginable rest. Somehow. Some way. Somewhere.

But such forms of rest are different from the type of rest Dr. Washington addressed. In his writings, he noted that ignorance, reluctance, and scholars of spirituality are some of the reasons that people pull away from God. Any of the three can be hindrances to entering into God’s presence. These are tactics that the enemy utilizes to hinder a believer in Jesus Christ from being with their God. It is the intent of the adversary to distract, to discourage, or to cause ignorance about intimacy with the Lord. Even well-meaning prayer can become an activity on a check list.

For fourteen years, I attended prayer at six in the morning at our church. However, I found myself plummeting into depression despite being faithful in ministry commitments and in corporate worship. Undoubtedly God’s presence was in all those places. At that time I did not know that good spiritual rituals can lead to burn out. Was I seeking burnout? Absolutely not. Somehow it crept in unknowingly, and before I knew it, I found myself at what appeared to be a point of no return. But that was not God’s plan for me. No way. He was right there waiting for me. He was always present. He was always there with welcoming arms, inviting me and luring me back into his infinite loving arms.

Dr. Washington was cognizant of the way the vicissitudes of life can separate us from God:

Far too often many of us do not miss you. We yearn to feel your presence. But do not comprehend the nature of absence which we often call emptiness. We have been absent from you for so long that we either never knew, or have forgotten, that the soul must be nurtured and nourished. Spiritual malnutrition besets us. We have become servants of instant gratification that is devoid of both thought and purpose. We are hurriers with narcissistic agendas.2

He also adamantly spoke truth to the generations. Yes, he spoke to his generation, but this statement is also relevant to the technological world we live in today. Either we have had an opportunity to spend quality time with God and now know we are missing him, or we have never known him in an intimate way and, as a result, do not know what we are missing. In either case, we are living in a spiritual drought. When the soul is not provided spiritual food, it becomes malnourished. And because the soul was designed to be fed, if not properly monitored it feeds on whatever is placed before it. It feeds on worldly enticement and an inadequate diet unless our intent is to provide it with a nourishing spiritual diet. That would be real soul food.

A spiritual hunger for resting and being in the presence of God is birthed and grows innately in the human soul. Within each individual, God has implanted a hunger to be with him. He created us to desire more of him. He crafted us to hunger and thirst for his righteousness (Matthew 5:6). Unfortunately many people have become so attached to their plans that they don’t notice the absence of God’s divine plan. Their agendas are filled with to-dos that become a temporary substitute for the divine. Eventually this well runs dry, and an awareness of the need to be with God is heightened.

Dr. Washington was very much aware of how busy schedules sap spiritual intimacy, and he encouraged men and women of God to be intentional about preserving sacred times. The people of God must steal away to be refilled in the presence of the Lord. It is imperative that saints of the most high God stop allowing the never-ending activities of life to dry up their souls. We must take time to refill and refuel our spirits. We must come back to our first love, our Lord God, come back to the Lawd” that our ancestors were willing to put their lives in jeopardy for as they sought to fellowship with him. You and I may not have sugar cane fields to kneel in or wash pots to buffer the sounds of our boisterous voices, but we do have church altars, bedside mats, and free home space for communicating with our God

It is high time to make companionship with God a priority as we deliberately put him before mass media, modern technology, movie attending, concert going, shopping sprees, and luxury vacations. There is no end to the attractions that take us away from sitting with Jesus.

Dr. Washington expressed this to God: The tragic consequences of our alienation from you are manifold. But none is greater than our captivity to a busyness and profanity that devalues visits to your archives.”3 I love this! I am intrigued by the whole notion of Yahweh’s archives. The beauty of his archives is that they never run dry. Yahweh’s streaming never ends. His springs of living water are forever lush, green, healthy, and available. Whether we come and drink of his fountain is up to us. Whether we experience his presence depends on our noticing him and seeking and desiring to be with him. There are no substitutes for soaking in his holy presence. I ask, Will you come?” He replies, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

  1. James Melvin Washington, Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayer by African Americans (New York: HarperCollins, 1994). ↩︎
  2. Washington, Conversations with God, 283. ↩︎
  3. Washington, Conversations with God, 284. ↩︎

Adapted from Soul Care in African American Practice by Barbara L. Peacock. Copyright © 2020 by Barabara L. Peacock. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

Photo by Andre Taissin on Unsplash

Text First Published May 2020 · Last Featured on November 2021