Blind Willie Johnson Sunday 1: Trouble will soon be over

Over the last few years, I have become more and more interested in the music of Blind Willie Johnson, an early 20th-century black blues guitarist (his complete works can be downloaded, legally, for free). His music has exerted significant influence on later musicians. “Nobody’s fault but mine” was famously recorded by Led Zepellin, sadly secularising what was a profoundly spiritual message.

From a theological perspective what makes Johnson’s music so interesting is the combination of a deep faith in Christ with a brutal honesty concerning the reality of suffering. Suffering dominated Johnson’s life, from his blindness in childhood, allegedly caused by an abusive stepmother, to constant poverty and his death, a consequence of health problems caused by a racist arson attack on his home. Johnson’s knowledge of scripture seems to have been predominantly oral and can go a bit awry (notably in his song on Samson), nonetheless, he shows a unique ability to apply scripture to contemporary trials. Hence, the aim of this series is to provide a theological/missiological reflection on his music from the Peruvian context.

Trouble will soon be over

Johnson’s version can be heard here

A cover version by Maylin and the Mad Machine can be heard here

Oh, trouble’ll soon be over, sorrow will have an end

Recognition that trouble will be over, that sorrow will come to an end, is evidence that for Johnson life in the present was full of trouble and sorrow, even for those who have faith in Christ. In fact for Johnson,

Well, Christ is my burden bearer, He’s my only friend
Till the end of my sorrow and tells me to lean on Him

Christ is not the one who takes suffering away, rather he is the friend that we can lean on until sorrow comes to an end. This seems, for example, a better approach for those who are grieving, than the contemporary obsession with “closure”, and “getting over” bereavement.

There is a strong eschatological expectation,

Well, though my burden may be heavy, my enemies crush me down
Someday I’ll rest with Jesus and wear a starry crown

Yet, in good old NT Wright fashion, this eschatological hope serves to encourage correct living in the present,

I’ll take this yoke upon me and live a Christian life
Take Jesus for my Savior, my burden will be light

I have observed that this eschatological hope can be embarrassing for many British Christians who often (over?)emphasise changing reality in the present. Yet, among the poor in Peru it is fundamental. In poorer churches it is quite common to sing, “la vida pasa, todo se acaba, solo Dios hace el hombre feliz”

(Life passes, all comes to an end only God makes man/people happy” 

An over-realised eschatology can easily lead to burnout and frustration, holding on to the conviction that “trouble soon will be over, sorrow will have an end” can encourage us to live holy, active lives in the present, be it in Peru or elsewhere.