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Morning Song – Keep Your Lamp Trimmed & Burning

January 29, 2017

Be prepared and remain watchful.

The lyrics of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed & Burning”—like the Parable of the Wise & Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25: 1-13) on which it’s based—is eschatological; it’s talking about the end of times and the final judgment of our lives.

But like the parable—and for similar reasons—it’s a coded song. Jim Crow Texas in the 1920s—like occupied Roman Palestine 20 centuries earlier—wasn’t the kind of society where freedom of speech was a viable option for the underclass.  In fact, both were the kinds of societies where speaking the truth too plainly could get you killed.

So it’s best to hear the ministerial injunction to “keep your lamp trimmed & burning” as it was originally intended: as also being a metaphor for daily survival and daily living.  Survival because you’ve got to take care of yourself if you’re going to survive the oppressive grind of daily life, and somehow keep hope for a better day alive. Living because the opportunity to “serve the Master” won’t just come when your life is over; God—as Jesus teaches later in Matthew 25 (31-46)—in the guise of the hungry, the thirsty and the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned can show up any day, unannounced.

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