Category Archives: Music
I have become convinced that people in my line of work have a lot in common with rappers. You see, I am a pastor. I have discovered that much like rappers, pastors often face a societal expectation to be some sort of one dimensional character. Perhaps this is true for all religious folks. Perhaps it is true for people in general, regardless of race, religious creed or profession. Perhaps we all have a hard time seeing outside of our own narrow cultural context and even narrower inner world of personal experience. We often encounter the “other” on a superficial level. We have a difficult time trying to seeing the world through the other’s eyes or feeling the world with another’s heart.
I recently fielded some “constructive criticism” from well meaning family and friends who complained of me writing about Hip Hop here on this blog and posting Hip Hop videos on my Facebook timeline. Their “concern” was that it seemed “inappropriate for a pastor to listen to that kind of music.” I get this a lot actually. My conservative Christian friends often complain that Hip Hop is too full of colorful language, braggadocios egos and explicit references to sex for them to engage or take very seriously. My more progressive religious friends often lament Hip Hop’s long standing reputation as a medium for expressing (and sometimes even defending) misogyny and homophobia. Their complaints sound an awful lot like Donald Miller in his book “Blue Like Jazz.” Miller writes,
“If you believe something, passionately, people will follow you. People hardly care what you believe, as long as you believe something. If you are passionate about something, people will follow you because they think you know something they don’t, some clue to the meaning of the universe. Passion is tricky, though, because it can point to nothing as easily as it points to something. If a rapper is passionately rapping about how great his rap is, his passion is pointing to nothing. He isn’t helping anything. His beliefs are self-serving and shallow. If a rapper, however, is rapping about his community, about oppression and injustice, then he is passionate about a message, something outside himself.”
I make no denial that there is some validity to Millers claims and those of my friends. A lot of Hip Hop is overly vulgar, sexist, homophobic, etc. But that is certainly not the all there is to Hip Hop. I think part of the problem is that there is a lot of snobbery these days about what really counts as true art. It seems popular music in general, gets a bum rap and perhaps Hip Hop gets the worst of it. People will sit down with a Novel or a movie with plenty of disturbing parts and take the good with the bad in their entertainment. In many religious circles, and especially in the Reformed tradition, which I am a part of, people almost make a sport of looking for the redeeming qualities of Catcher in the Rye or the latest Wes Anderson film. But people treat popular music – and especially Hip Hop – like it doesn’t tell the same stories of broken lives, shattered dreams and redemption. But it does. Oh it certainly does.
We just have to be willing to listen. We have to know how to listen. And we have to treat rappers/emcees like real artists, more importantly real human beings and not one dimensional characters or worse caricatures. In contrast to Miller, rapper Jay Z invites us to think of the rapper as an authentic “other” a real human being. In his book decoded, he writes,
“So many people can’t see that every great rapper is not just a documentarian, but a trickster—that every great rapper has a little bit of Chuck and a little bit of Flav in them—but that’s not our problem, it’s their failure: the failure, or unwillingness, to treat rap like art, instead of acting like it’s just a bunch of n***as reading out of their diaries. Art elevates and refines and transforms experience. And sometimes it just f***s with you for the fun of it.”
Jay points us to the humanity of the Hip Hop artist. To the human being who loves and hates, cries and gets angry, and sometimes just wants to have a little fun. He continues,
“But this is one of the things that makes rap at its best so human. It doesn’t force you to pretend to be only one thing or another, to be a saint or a sinner. It recognizes that you can be true to yourself and still have unexpected dimensions and opposing ideas. Having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other is the most common thing in the world. The real bulls**t is when you act like you don’t have contradictions inside you.”
I say Amen! But I would add a very important caveat. Acknowledging and to some degree, even accepting that we all have our inherent contradictions does not necessarily mean glorify or fully embrace our flaws. We all think. We all feel. We all love. We all hurt. We all have hopes, dreams and disappointments. We all have our own deep flaws and enormous potential to say and do things that are damaging to others. And we are all trying to find our way in the world. The easiest way to get lost in our own selves and never see the “other;” the easiest way to never change for the better, the easiest way to become and remain toxic and damaging to our neighbor and ourselves is to be insular and consumed with own image and self-portrayal.
This is equally true for a rapper trying to portray a criminal image, exposed as a family man as it is for the religious and community leaders and self proclaimed family-men exposed in our news headlines each day as criminals.
Until next time,
Last night a former student from my youth ministry days (back in 2000- 2003) called me. He has grown up to be a young man that I am quite proud of; and I am happy to have been a part of his spiritual journey. He invited me to an Easter Vigil at his parish as he is joining the Roman Catholic Church. He said he felt he has finally found his place.
He also said he felt compelled to share a passage of scripture with me, for me to meditate on. He said he had taken note the difficult time I have been going through and meant this as a word of encouragement. It was the last thing I read before I went to bed last night and I read it again this morning:
Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him (Acts 10:34-38).
Here is the context: Peter has just had his roof top vision of God’s inclusive mercy. Peter went up on a roof top to pray and he had become hungry. Then he had a vision of heaven opening up and a large sheet being lowered down full of all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air: read foods that were considered unkosher to eat. For Peter this metaphoric vision translates into a new understanding of the scope and depth of God’s Mercy and the wideness in God’s kingdom vision, as to include Jews and Gentiles and indeed in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right.
This morning another friend, a sista, a preacher and a wonderful seminary colleague inboxed me with a word, a word she once shared with another friend and ministry colleague whose time and ministry was cut short. She has now passed it on to me. As I read I felt as I imagine Elisha might have as he picked up the mantle of Elijah. She wrote:
God has a special place for you to live out your call. It’s a place where broken people want to be put back together, to feel strong, to feel proud. It’s a place where rejects remember but what it feels like to be accepted. Its a place where people who don’t even know how to love are able to receive love again. It was a place that only you would know how to pastor.
Placement. We all desire it. We all crave it. We all need it. We have invented a world of prime time television where we can live out this desire vicariously: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” We create sitcoms and dramas where the family dysfunction and banality of the work place that we all know so well becomes a place people are accepted and able to make familial, romantic or professional relationships work despite – and sometimes even because of – the flaws, quirks or idiosyncrasies of our favorite characters.
We also seek it out in virtual communities:Facebook, twitter, blogs, Pinterest or an online gaming alternative universe. And I do not want to diminish the power of social media to connect us, and even to be used to change us, or our world. But nothing, absolutely nothing beats the real thing: Entering into the messiness of real life human relationships and all of the dirt and conflict and mess that is inevitable if and when we so chose to open our hearts to love these other fleshy creatures who more often than not are more like ourselves than we would wish (probably the source of a lot of our conflict actually).
But if we can enter into those kind of relationships in an atmosphere permeated with grace, acceptance and unconditional love, well that truly is a piece of “Heaven on earth.” My story, unlike so many who I know have been so deeply wounded in the church is exactly that, one of finding a home. A place. When conflicts beyond my ability to cope with in my family of origin would arise (which was often) I ran to the church. I was literally taken in off of the streets by a youth pastor for well over a month when I had no place else to go. While it was never perfect, and there were times I felt I had to hide my imperfections, idiosyncrasies or true parts of my identity, it still somehow was enough. It was enough for me to develop a vision for ministry like the one described above. It was enough for me to develop a sense of place and a desire to work for a world were others never go without one.
After 8 years of school, denominational exams on top of that, and a lifetime of student debt to look forward to one can – as I did momentarily – develop a sense of self that says, ‘Okay, there you go, God, Church, World I have done all of this for you! Now provide me a place of ministry for me ASAP.’ Ahh, but that would be to easy and too contrary to the story I’ve known, the laments I have encountered and the vision I have been given. But the good news is that this last two years of feeling completely and utterly without place, without home have only strengthened my resolve to be in a place where I can partner with the right group of people in casting a vision of a place, a church, a home, a world where all are truly welcome; a place where grace permeates, where the oppressed are healed, and where there is a palpable sense that God is with us when we are with each other.
“Broken hearts want broken necks
I’ve done some things that I want to forget but I can’t”
I hope Isaac Brock will forgive me. I know he is not big on the whole religion thing. There are a handful of people in the world whose art moves my spirit in such profound ways that it boggles my mind to find out they don’t see much validation for a spiritual component to life. Isaac is definitely toward the the top of that list for me. Still I want to be respectful of him as a human being with his own beliefs and perspectives and not leave any allusion: Brock believes religion is a crock.
If I am honest, music has always been one of the places I feel closest to God. So finding consonance between my faith and the music that moves me has been kind of a big deal for me. This started long before I ever learned this to be a sort of in vogue exercise for Christians, especially in Reformed circles. There is much about the sort of business as usual way this is often done that bothers me. I don’t like how Bono and Sufjan Stevens have unwittingly been sainted by a lot of Christians. I don’t like how popular worship music is popular in part because it purposely follows radio trends and offers a lot of interchangeable and too often hollow love songs.
Still there is much about music that does move the heart/soul/spirit or whatever that intangible part of us is that connects us to God, each other and the world we live in. I hope to say more in the coming days about how this is true for me and perhaps a bit more about some of my frustrations with how it is often done as well as my thoughts on some things that often unfairly gets excluded as “legitimate” art. But for now I could think of no other songs that dovetailed so well with this, a favorite quote from one of my favorite professors in seminary:
“How do we move from being a stagnant pool to being a gushing river of life? How do we become persons overflowing with justice and righteousness? Justice and righteousness flow from persons when they open their heart to the pain of the world… And Justice and righteousness flow from persons who open their heart to their own pain. God creates us with a spirit of exuberance. We see this in children and remember it from our own childhood. Joyously unrestrained and enthusiastic children open themselves to the world. Yet they and we soon learn that the world is not a safe place. People wound us deeply, often in spite of themselves and sometimes without knowing it – loved ones as well as strangers. In self defense we close ourselves off to the world and withdraw to nurse our wounds. But closed off to the world our wounds fester… hurt becomes anger. Anger becomes hatred. And hatred becomes rage and self loathing. Far from being a river of justice and righteousness in the world we become rivers of aggression and anxiety.” ~ Dr. Tom Boogaart
I am thinking deeply this morning about the death of Rodney King. Indeed as this article indicates, King’s caught on camera ordeal and the riots that ensued months later in LA served as a catalyst for reform in police procedures in LA and around the country.
I am also thinking how King has inadvertently touched my life with his life and struggles. I was 14 and just still transitioning from New Kids on the Block to more aggressive forms of music when the tape of Rodney King’s beating made its way into my family’s living room.
A little over a year later, officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno were acquitted of assault charges. It was April 29, 1992. That day the LA Riots began in protest to the verdict. For six days the city burned. There were 53 casualties of the riots and thousands of injuries.
In November of that year Ice Cube released The Predator. It was a brilliant, violent and frightening summery of the American Zeitgeist. The album references, King the trial and the riots repeatedly. Somewhere in the course of that year between the video and the verdict, I had begun listening to Hip Hop, in particular the omnipresent gangster rap of the early 90’s. I am sure that teenage rebellion, allegorical identification with the angst young urban youth, MTV and the 15 inch subwoofers in the car of my childhood best friend all had an impact on my burgeoning taste in music.
But none of that can sufficiently account for what happened when I heard Ice Cube’s “Predator” album. It was the first hip hop album – the first album in any genre really – that I thoroughly devoured. I listened to it day and night. On my headphones into the wee hours of the night it was playing. I fell asleep listening to it:
I have often said that I discovered God under the lilac tree just outside our bedroom window listening to Ice Cube. While there is a lot more to my story than that. The statement is only partially hyperbolic.
I am not kidding whatsoever when I say that listening to this album fostered the birth of my awareness and my concern for, racism, economic disparity, abuse of power and injustice. It is at least part of the reason I ended up in seminary. It is definitely directly related to why I found myself taking electives in the Hebrew Prophets when I could in undergrad and seminary.
Like the prophet Isaiah, Ice cube was part of a larger collective, a tradition of voices that pronounced judgment and yes provided comfort for people suffering from many afflictions. Both men wrote to warn and also empower a people who had been dragged away from their homeland enslaved and impoverished. There are of course ways in which the historical context and message are dissimilar. But both Ice Cube and Isaiah surveyed their land and saw “a sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly!” And certainly Ice Cube, like the prophet Isaiah, was a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips, whose eyes had seen the disparity between the Holy and the way we live. As Ice Cube was fond of saying and would later put into a song on a subsequent album, “They wont call me N!**er when I get to Heaven.”
In the end it is Isaiah who has provided me with what I have come to believe is God’s answer, God’s eschatological or ultimate vision for a world torn apart by racism, classism, ageism, sexism, religious bigotry and persecution and a seemingly endless list of other injustices. God’s vision for a day when badges and batons will cease to be wield as weapons. A day when by God’s grace we will all do one better than just getting along. Isaiah provides nothing short of God’s vision for Heaven on earth:
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:2-4).
“I don’t believe in karma,
I don’t believe in luck
I’m sad as hell in this place
but don’t believe I’m stuck
I’m running out of energy
but I don’t believe I’m running out of time
I’m running on caffeine and anger
and I don’t believe in holding it inside
There’s a time for everything
and everything will be okay in time”
“I once believed that God became flesh in order to destroy flesh that I might escape flesh on the day God destroys all creation. I now believe God became flesh in order to test flesh by death and make flesh new by resurrection that I too might be resurrected on the day God restores all creation. If it’s not a completely different gospel, it’s certainly better news.”
The first quote I guess you could say is a note from my 23 year old self. It is from lyrics to a song I wrote back when I was trying to be a rock star. The song was called “Sometime Somewhere.” It seems somewhat applicable today despite me being in a drastically different place in life than I was 12 years ago. The second quote is a note to self from the not too distant past. Back in May, my final question during my denominational exams before the Classis of Holland in the Reformed Church of America was this: “Describe one way you have changed or matured in your faith journey during seminary?” The above quotation about flesh and resurrection was my answer.
I don’t like to quote myself often. But I these two seemingly disconnected fragments were running through my head this morning in conjunction with each other and with the 1965 protest song “Eve of Destruction.” For me I suppose this is all serving as a reminder that my current lot in life is but one small speck in a vast cosmos, in a human drama that predates me and will likely continue after me (unless you know something I don’t know). In this I am neither insignificant nor omni-important. I am trying to do my part to make the world a better place. But no matter how fantastic or shitty life seems at the moment, all things are in God’s hands.
I know this seems a counter-intuitive claim when times are tough for us personally. Times have indeed been tough for me lately. I graduated from seminary in May. I have been looking for a church for the past six months. Despite several interviews all I have to show so far is tried and tested patience and tenacity and a stack of rejection letters. I have also been looking for any part time job in the meantime to supplement my wife’s income. But despite 20 or so job applications or resumes sent out, 11 years experience in retail, and a couple of degrees under my belt I still have not found work. Like many others – especially in Michigan – my family is feeling the sting of these tough economic times.
Recently my daughter has been experiencing hindering muscle contortions in her arms and legs. Yesterday we received a tentative, preliminary diagnosis of Torsion Dystonia. I have a form of this called Cervical Dystonia which manifests itself with odd postures, some discomfort and contortions mostly in my neck (which makes job interviews all the more interesting). With my diagnoses and a history of tremors and spasms on my father’s side of the family, her condition is quite possibly genetic in origin. We are still in the midst of much testing and waiting to find out if this is indeed what has been bothering her. While now I am hoping and praying she does not have to be treated with deep muscle botox injections someday (as I know how painful it is to receive them), I am nonetheless very happy and relieved to be moving towards some clarity and potential treatment for our baby girl. But it does not always feel like this too is in God’s hands.
My faith informs me that God has a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. But in the face of true tragic and evil occurrences in the world this claim often seems absurd. Take recent headlines in Uganda for instance. So many men, women and especially children are suffering there. For some time the “Lord’s Resistance Army” has been abducting children, killing or forcing the children to kill their own families and then training the boys to fight wars and forcing girls into horrible forms of slavery (an estimated 66,000 children have been abducted). For several years there has been an ongoing outcry in Uganda and around the world against a still pending proposed anti-homosexual bill supported by some prominent American “evangelicals.” If passed it would demand the death penalty for homosexuals and jail time for people “protecting homosexuals.” And most recently reports are surfacing that child sacrifices have resurfaced in Uganda over the past several years to appeal to deities for wealth. God is in control? God is making all things new?
While many people in Uganda and around the world cry out with the Psalmist, ‘How long O’ Lord,’ I too often repeat another cry of the Psalmist – the one repeated by Jesus on the cross – ‘My God! Have you forsaken us?’ And it seems like all of creation groans with us like a woman crying out from labor pangs. In the midst of personal crisis or natural disasters we may question the strength of our faith or God’s Character. But in the face of war, atrocity, injustice and violence – especially when acted out in the name of God – many question the validity of faith in general or the existence of God altogether. I am one of those who question. My personal conviction is that Christians ought to take more seriously than anybody else the Marxist critique that religion is a tool of the upper-class to prevent people from protesting their present sufferings. In the face of so much abuse of religion I would probably have agree if it were not for a couple of often forgotten, perhaps absurd, yet indispensable tenets of the Christian faith:
1) Contrary to much popular belief my faith does not inform me to roll over and play dead. Yes all things are in God’s hands and at the end of the day it is God who makes all things new. But the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are full of prophetic laments and protests against the systems of injustice in this world. They are full of instructions to take care of the orphan and the widow. They also contain the assertion that in Christ all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. And while the powers that be at present may kick and scream and rage against it, God is reconciling himself all things in Christ. We are invited to be part of a counter protest movement, daily declaring to these powerful systems that their days of corruption and abuse of power are numbered.
Of course, these systems sometimes raise their ugly head even within the scriptures themselves in the form of patriarchy, slavery or other institutionalized transgressions against humanity. Unfortunately this is the kind of thing that does often become a tool in the hand of the powerful, claiming the Bible and religion in general to be in on the sanctioning of oppression. And this all becomes fuel for the fire of righteous indignation –in the believer as well as in the nonbeliever – against the misuse and abuse of religion. One of my theological heroes Jürgen Moltmann has addressed this quite eloquently:
Observations about cultural history of this kind have little to say about the content of the narratives and testimonies about God in the Old and New Testaments… The fact that the Bible grew up in the world of patriarchy and slavery still does not tell us anything about the presence of eternity at that time or about the future in its past… No one reads the Bible in order to take over a world picture that is past and gone. No one has to adopt the social concepts and the patriarchal sexual hierarchies of the Bible. If that were so, for biblical reasons we should have to reintroduce slavery into Christianity, revert to absolute monarchy instead of democracy and so forth.
I am reminded of these words often as I attempt add my small voice to the chorus that cries out against patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, racism, classism and other forms of injustice. And as I confess and try to expunge such sickness of heart when it crops up in me.
2) Also contrary to popular belief, the rules or Karma and perhaps Deuteronomy, my faith does not inform me that everyone gets just exactly what they deserve. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God by loving God, walking in God’s ways, and observing the commandments of God, then you shall live and become numerous, and God will bless you in the land says the deuteronomic historian. But God calls Abram and blesses him based on nothing he has done. And God declares Abram righteous not because of the good things he has done, certainly not for the lack of trust and respect Abram sometimes showed in God’s presence. Rather God blessed Abraham because of God’s claim on Abrahams life: God declared “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” And in this Abraham places his faith. This blessing of the whole earth has and always will be the reason God calls a worshiping community into existence. Jesus told Nicodemus that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
The church too exists for the sake of the world and not for its condemnation. In the meantime as Jesus reminds in the sermon on the mount we should pray for those we perceive as our enemies and remember that God for whatever reason causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
When a deuteronomic or karmic faith is our lens for viewing the Christ event it can indeed quickly become aid to the powerful systems of injustice currently in place in our world. I think there is an ever present temptation for Christians especially to develop an attitude of ‘let’s just grin and bear our present suffering. Someday it will be over and the good people like us will bask in glory and the bad people will burn.’ But when we view God as entering into our suffering with us – for our sake and the sake of making the whole world new it radically changes everything!
I again turn to the German theologian Moltmann who in World War II became a prisoner of war to the British, during which time he was given his first Bible, and in his language he was ‘sought and found by Jesus.’ After surviving a few years of war and witnessing several deaths, including a friend who died in his arms, Moltmann became a POW on February 15, 1945. It was in the camp Moltmann was confronted with “a feeling of profound shame at having to share in shouldering the disgrace of one’s own people.” This made him all the more surprised and forever changed by the kind and loving ways of the Scottish men who worked at the camps and their families. They treated him and the other prisoners with dignity and respect. This, together with a Bible given to him by a Chaplain at the camp turned Moltmann’s despair into a new hope for life. He writes about his discovery of Jesus in the gospel of Mark,
Then I read Mark’s gospel as a whole and came to the story of the passion; when I heard Jesus’ death cry, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ I felt growing within me the conviction: this is someone who understands you completely, who is with you in your cry to God and who has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now. I began to understand the assailed, forsaken Christ because I knew that he understood me. The divine brother in need, the companion on the way, who goes with you through this ‘valley of the shadow of death,’ the fellow-sufferer who carries you, with your suffering. I summoned up the courage to live again, and I was slowly but surely seized by the great hope of the resurrection into God’s wide ‘wide space where there is no more cramping’
The rest of Moltmann’s life could be aptly characterized by the title of his first book, “a theology of hope.” This hope led him to seriously consider and participate in various liberation theologies, to speak up for women, to lend his white European voice to the endorsement of American Black theology in the 60’s and to be an early voice in articulating an environmental theology of creation care and not dominion. Despite personal sufferings greater than I have known and an up close view of some of the greatest atrocities humanity has known, Motlmann refused to believe we were on the eve of destruction. He refused to believe this because of his profound sense that God is with us in our suffering and gives us voice to cry out against suffering! We cry out against the oppressor. And we cry out with Jesus to God, ‘Have you forsaken us?’ God is big enough to handle or complaints. Our complaints are a sign of faith not doubt, even though they might express confusion as to God’s timing and even seeming lack of presence at times.
God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. This is the gospel or in Greek εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion). It is indeed good news! This good news gives me comfort in times of personal crisis. It also gives me a prophetic voice to speak out against injustice in the world and to admit and submit before God the evil that crops up in me. And it gives me a vision of hope to offer a hurting world. I have gone through some pretty difficult times lately. I too am saddened and outraged at the evil in the world. And in myself. Life can be fantastic and life can be quite shitty at times. The world is full of captivating beauty and at times overwhelming ugliness. When life is great I am learning to accept this as a gift from God and refuse to believe I have done anything or believed anything or said anything “right” in order to deserve it. And when life is painful and headlines are tragic, I too refuse to believe that we are on the eve of destruction.