“Leave your burdens, down by the river side,
down by the river side, down by the river side.
Leave your burdens, down by the river side,
carry them no more! I say to carry them no more,
carry them no more, carry them no more.
I say to carry them no more,
carry them no more, carry them no more!”
By the second line you should have at least been inaudibly singing, rhythmically tapping your feet and bobbing your head all the way to the end of the chorus, to the simple and melodious refrain, “carry them no more”. For those familiar with the song, it may have reignited memories from long ago, when we stood collectively in a Sunday morning or revival service, committing to lay our burdens down, as the scales of trouble, stress and anxiety fell away.
Laying down our burdens is hard though, isn’t it? Particularly when we are so accustomed to organising, executing and monitoring everything in our lives. We order our finances, attend to meal preparation, ensure that bills are paid on time and stay on top of work obligations. How does one “lay down” a burden for which he/she continues to be responsible? What does ‘laying it down’ really mean?
Admittedly, the lyrics don’t exactly boast theological accuracy and I discovered while preparing this article that the name of the original song that was released in the 1920’s was “I ain’t goin’ to study war no more”, which was also the refrain. My research didn’t provide a definitive answer on the history of the song or how it made it into the church circle, but I suspect that it may have something to do with Mahalia Jackson’s cover of the song sometime in the 1950’s. As for the change of lyrics; us Caribbean Christians have quite a history of changing lyrics and even the tune to songs, to fit our unique social, cultural and religious context. Still, this song most likely arouses cherished memories but more importantly, deep biblical truths about trust and surrender can be extrapolated.
To explain, I’ll use a biblical equivalent, from 1 Peter 5:7, which says, “casting all your care upon Him for He cares for you”.
There is a not-so-subtle difference between the song writer’s directive and that of the bible verse in 1 Peter 5. The former suggests that one must simply neglect and then forget all the troubles one carries. It encourages a careless abandonment of your cares so that you can live easily and weightlessly. That is of course, unrealistic, because the burdens some feel cannot simply be to permanently discarded, as if it were a release of a physical object that crumbles when it falls to the floor. The weight of burdens associated with having a sick child or the lingering effects of trauma, loss or abuse, cannot simply be put aside and forgotten.
Conversely, the word “casting” evokes a different response and it is not arbitrary release, rather, it suggests a careful transfer and entrusting of one’s concerns. Among the many definitions of “cast”, the one that best explains the scripture is “to place as if by throwing”. Casting is a reasoned, careful and calculated decision to place one’s burdens, not in just any random location, such as by a river side; but placing it in the hands of God.
Fishermen cast their nets not by luck, but they understand the tide, current and seasons. They know which type of fish can be found in deep water, shallow waters, close to rocks or the shore line and out in the deep ocean. They never carelessly throw their nets or lines but they strategically and confidently cast in the locations that they are likely to succeed.
Instead of refusing help or ignoring our challenges, the Word of God implores us to place them in God’s hand. We don’t need to have the answers, neither do we need to resolve them on our own and we certainly shouldn’t ignore them, but what we should do, is trust God with our challenges. How do we know we can trust Him? We can trust Him because He tells us that He cares for us and He doesn’t lie; doesn’t change His mind and His word is eternal and unchangeable. He cared about Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden and He cares about you today. Unlike a riverside abandonment, God isn’t holding your troubles for just a time like a pawn shop, with the intent to return it to you whenever you’re ready. He is taking your cares and either making the situation better or making us stronger because of it.
It is our nature to try to resolve things on our own, to believe that we are capable to stop or change something about our situation on command, and this thinking is the main reason why we can't just “let things go”. Some people are entangled in toxic relationships, addicted to pain medication, enable wayward children, prioritise work above their families and though they know that they need to change, letting go is never easy, walking away is always painful and surrender is the opposite of our natural instinct.
My close friends and family would often hear me say that God won’t do for us that which we must do for ourselves, but the converse is importantly powerful: we must not try to do for ourselves what God wants to do for us. God won’t come in and wash up the dishes in your kitchen, but if you don’t have dishes and food for them, He will most certainly step in. God wants your cares because He wants you to know that HE is trustworthy. He wants you to know that He cares about you, cares about what pains you and that He is capable to do what you can’t. The things that drain your energy and steal your smile, those are the cares he wants. The things that make your heart sink with despair are the cares that He wants you to confidently place in his hands.
I still love that song, because apart from the catchy tune, our “riverside” will always be in El Roi, the Lord God almighty who sees all our cares and beckons us to rest in His unchanging love and abiding care for us.