Singing and Praying Justice

Singing and Praying Justice

“What’s going on?” — Marvin Gaye

The soundtrack of the 1970s still speaks to us. Life, as many had known it, was rapidly changing back then. A generation had found its revolutionary voice and was confronting oppression domestically and abroad. Disenchantment with status quo Americanism had sparked the nation’s social consciousness. And from the center of this whirlwind emerged a cry for deep justice.

A singer captured the ethos of the age: “What’s going on?” he asked.

War, social decay, and racial unrest conspired against a generation. Too many mothers were crying, too many brothers dying. “We don’t need to escalate,” he urged. Please stop judging and punishing picket signs with brutality. “We’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.”

Fast-forward almost 40 years and Marvin Gaye’s music feels as timely as ever.

Where’s the “Lovin’ Here Today”?

At its core, the Gospel is a story about a loving God who reconciles humanity into loving relationships with Himself, themselves, and each other. Justice fits into the story as Christ rights the wrongs that prevent those relationships. Worship as both music and lifestyle should reflect this. But does it?

In a world marked by wars, genocide, street gangs and terror thugs, ethnocentrism, generational poverty, famine, AIDS, substandard housing and education, rampant materialism, religious hatred, and environmental degradation, where’s the lovin’ in our church music? The kind of lovin’ that rights wrongs and reconciles relationships?

The songs that typically rank as the “most popular” in mainstream evangelical churches today are filled with beautiful expressions of God’s holiness and love. But they seem to lack a consistent emphasis on worship that moves beyond a personal experience to include a clear declaration of the social-justice dimension of God’s activity in the world.

Sadly, too often our church music is directed inward as a distorted, selfish facsimile of worship. We long for God to meet personal needs and mediate justice on our own behalf, radically reducing our songs to individualized laundry lists of wants. Consider these popular contemporary worship song lyrics:

“Every time I turn around there will be blessings on blessings, blessings on blessings / The favor of the Lord rests upon me, in my hands I have more than enough” (from Blessings on Blessings from Anthony Brown & group therAPy)

“I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone / When the praises go up, the blessings come down / It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap” (from “Blessings,” by Chance the Rapper featuring Jamila Woods)

“I can feel [the ‘presence,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘power’ of the Lord] / And
I’m gonna get my blessing right now”
(from “The Presence of the Lord is Here,” by Byron Cage).

“I can feel [the ‘presence,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘power’ of the Lord] / And
I’m gonna get my blessing right now”
(from “The Presence of the Lord is Here,” by Byron Cage).

“In my life I’m soaked in blessing / And in heaven there’s a great
reward / … I’ve got Jesus, Jesus / He calls me for His own / And He lifts me, lifts me / Above the world I know”
(from “God Is in the House,” by Hillsong United).

“(I got the) anointing / (Got God’s) favor / (And we’re still)
standing / I want it all back / Man give me my stuff back / Give me my stuff back / … I want it all / … I want that”
(from “I Want it All Back,” by Tye Tribbett).

Contrast those with the three recorded songs that accompanied Jesus’ birth. While the melodies have been lost to time, the lyrics reverberate through history.

The first, a spontaneous soulful utterance by a pregnant virgin, marveled about the Mighty One who miraculously conceived His child within her. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). What of the Rolls Royce-driving, private jet-flying, multiple mansion-dwelling, high fashion-wearing preachers and modern Christian subculture profiteers? What about the good life to which their songs and sermons aspire? What fills them?

The second, a choir song performed by heaven’s finest angels for an audience of outcast shepherds, proclaimed: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). The peace of which they sang is shalom, and favor refers to “the year of the Lord’s favor” embraced within Christ’s mission (Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61). More than the absence of strife, shalom is what the Prince of Peace came to reestablish: The interdependency of vibrant communities; the vitality of healthy bodies; the manifold mysteries of parental love; and the majesty of the cosmos. The condition of sin robs shalom, but Jesus’ justice restores it. When the most affluent people in recorded history attempt to co-opt Jesus’ favor as a rationale to get more stuff, we cheapen everything the gospel represents.

The third song, by an old man long past his prime, declared Jesus, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” He then explained the lyrics to Jesus’ parents: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:32, 34-35). Not much touchy feely hoopla here either.

Not one of these songs celebrates the themes that predominate our weekly worship services. No mention of “me,” except in the context of calling and responsibility beyond oneself. No focus on “blessing,” except as it relates to our ability, empowered by God, to bless others. No pursuit of personal comfort; rather, the promise of a sword to pierce one’s soul.

Indeed, the soundtrack that accompanied heaven’s lyric — the Word made flesh and dwelling among us — bears little resemblance to popular songs we sing in our churches. When that timeless Word “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message) his manner of doing so invited shame and ridicule, not material bounty. He lived among us as a child of poverty (born in a barn); political refugee (in Egypt); social pariah (survivor of unmarried pregnancy, a capital crime); ghetto immigrant (“What good comes from Nazareth?”); and blue-collar subject (carpenter) of an imperialistic colonizer (Rome). He was a friend of prostitutes (such as the woman who anointed his feet with perfume), crooked bureaucrats (tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus), and terrorists (including his disciple Simon, the Zealot, a card-carrying member of a first-century Palestinian terror organization).

If He actually showed up to one of our stylized worship experiences, He may well sing a different tune, one that sounds more like the warning He gave through the Old Testament prophet Amos:

“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice — oceans of it. I want fairness — rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want” (Amos 5:21-24, The Message).

Taking Amos at his word, if all God wants is oceans of justice rather than egocentric noise, then the needs of a broken world must reclaim center stage from personal blessings during corporate worship experiences. Notwithstanding the public repentance for neglecting the poor by high-profile leaders like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, many churches remain mute on such issues and have abandoned prophetic moments in lieu of religious protocol.

What to Do?

How can worship leaders help navigate oceans of justice within congregational gatherings? First, in the music and expressions of worship we embrace; and second, by facilitating worship as lifestyle, not just musical ritual.

Marvin Gaye’s opus reminds us that music ennobles ideas, emotes passion, and defines eras. Because we feel it, music penetrates hearts and stimulates a response. Combine inspired notes with well-crafted lyrics and the results can be liberating. Or lethal.

In Call and Response, a 2008 documentary about sex trafficking, Dr. Cornel West describes music’s power to accentuate and ultimately eradicate injustice:

“Music is about helping folk … by getting them to dance. Getting them to move. Getting them to think. Getting them to reflect. Getting them to be themselves, to somehow break out of the conventional self that they are.”

As musicians use that power to draw attention to injustices, people cannot help but get involved, West contends, because “justice is what love looks like in public.”

Historically, some denominational traditions have embraced justice-oriented hymns and music (e.g., Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and “O Healing River“), and Native Peoples have more than most (e.g., “Every Part of this Earth,” words by Chief Seattle). CCM pioneer Keith Green was an anomaly among evangelicals through the ’70s and early ’80s with songs like “Asleep in the Light,” which challenged: “Open up, and give yourself away / You’ve seen the need, you hear the cry, so how can you delay.” But increasingly music ministers across traditions are giving voice to justice within worship services (e.g., Jason Upton’s “Poverty,” Brian McLaren’s “A Revolution of Hope,” and Aaron Niequist‘s “Love Can Change the World”).

Jesus’ mission — Good News for the poor, sight for the blind, and liberty for the oppressed — requires the courage to break free from convention, perceive the new things God is doing in our midst, and zealously pursue them.

How We Get There

1. Refocus. Reductionist Western worship is possible because we have lost a sense of awe and reverence for Who God is, fashioning instead a God in our own image. Mark Labberton in his book, The Dangerous Act of Worship, writes:

The God we seek is the God we want, not the God who is. We fashion a god who blesses without obligation, who lets us feel his presence without living his life, who stands with us and never against us, who gives us what we want, when we want it.

Rather than appealing to God on account of his character — a holy, righteous, just, and mighty God — we have become gods unto ourselves, presupposing long before we encounter His presence what He needs to do on our behalf and prejudging what matters most. Let’s refocus on Who really matters.

2. Repent. The failure to incorporate laments for justice into corporate worship underscores a much deeper problem. Fundamentally we misunderstand what worship really is. Worship is neither the rhythmic pursuit of a euphoric high nor the somber embrace of silent reflection. Such either/or myopia forgets that Jesus describes true worshipers as those who worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).

Paul elaborates that “our spiritual act of worship” requires offering our very selves as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1-2). First century Romans familiar with ritual sacrifices understood that phrase to be a contradiction. One did not sacrifice living bulls, for example. The peril of potential impaling demanded that sacrifices be dead first. Yet God invites worshipers to voluntarily self-sacrifice. Paul continues: “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world” — white picket fences, trendy fashions, and such — “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Where our will conforms to the world’s patterns and trumps God’s will, let’s repent for rejecting true worship.

3. Remember. The holy God we revere is also our righteous king who exacts justice on behalf of his people. Moses and Miriam remembered in Exodus 15 when they praised Yahweh for demonstrating justice in his dealings with Pharaoh and liberating his people. Hannah remembered when she thanked God for his justice on her behalf (1 Samuel 2). King David remembered when he declared, “The Lord reigns!” and embraced a heavenly King who ruled above him and all other powers, whose eternal justice and righteousness are irrevocable. Let’s also remember that our “Lord loves justice” (Isaiah 61:8).

4. Reconnect. No longer should worship gatherings embrace the first part of the Great Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” at the expense of the second part, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Let’s reconnect His love in a coherent whole.

5. Realign. Justice and worship at their core both deal with power and the abuses of power. By emphasizing God’s kingship, his rule over all creation, and his impeccable character, we intentionally create space for the Most High to address the fallen powers in our churches, states, nation, and world. Let’s realign our congregations under God’s power as work within us rather than the abusive power structures dominating the world.

6. Rediscover. As we identify and proclaim the laments of the marginalized with a deep understanding that their cries are our cries, we will begin to see our perspectives shift and the power of God move in ways that we never would have imagined.

Let’s rediscover the unleashed, all-powerful God, not our tempered and tame God in a box. Like Aslan of Narnia, He may not be safe, but “He is good.”

Whitney’s Final ‘Sparkle’

Whitney’s Final ‘Sparkle’

SHINING STARS: Whitney Houston and Jordin Sparks star as a mother and daughter in ‘Sparkle,’ the remake of the 1976 classic about the highs and lows of a family singing group during the Motown era.

Sparkle hits movie theaters this weekend with a star-studded cast of black actors and entertainers. Based on the 1976 classic, this remake is a cautionary tale that chronicles the story of three sisters in their rise to fame as they navigate the twists and turns of the music industry.

American Idol-winner Jordin Sparks, in her film debut, plays the lead role of Sparkle, while pop star Cee Lo Green, actors Derrick Luke and Carmen Ejogo, and comedian Mike Epps appear in supporting roles. But there’s no doubt that throughout the film, all eyes will be on the late Whitney Houston, who plays the mother of the aspiring girl group.

In the film, the three sisters (Sparks, Ejogo, and Teka Sumpter) move up the record charts as they sing and dance in high fashion. In their search for fame, the girls are swept away by mesmerizing men, challenged by the demands of life, and overcome by the dreams that almost tear their family apart.

It’s quite ironic, then, that this is the last project Whitney Houston completed before her untimely death on February 11, the night before the Grammy Awards. At 48 years old, Whitney accidentally drowned in her hotel bathtub. The coroner’s report later revealed that cocaine was a contributing factor in her death.

After her tragic passing, the world reflected on Whitney’s life and how we watched her grow up to fulfill her dreams. Much like the girls in the movie, she was beautiful, rich, and famous. She had it all, and yet there was immense sorrow which ultimately led to her demise. Until her final days, she continued to smile, pursue her dreams, and to profess her love for Christ. And she continued to sing!

Singing, of course, will be a highlight in Sparkle, which features songs from the original film written by the great Curtis Mayfield as well as new compositions by R. Kelly. The movie was preceded by a soundtrack release which includes Whitney’s final musical recordings. In what is sure to be a highlight of the film, she sweetly sings “His Eye is on a Sparrow,” a song that encourages us to sing even in the midst of suffering and sorrow. And even in her absence, Whitney’s performance emanates with hope.

Yet I wonder, what is a proper response when singing and dream chasing is the catalyst for sadness? The painful reality is there are almost too many parallels between Whitney’s life and the lives of the girls in the movie. I wonder what kind of responses that will elicit in the theaters this weekend. As we sit and watch, I wonder if we will “Celebrate” as she and Jordin encourage us to do in their recently released single from the soundtrack. I wonder if we will shed a tear at the new images of Whitney, her gentle grace, or the sound of her voice as she lifts her hands to worship God during the church scene. Will we pause and reflect?

You see Sparkle causes us to consider important questions. What happens when we get exactly what we want? Will we hold on to our family, faith, and friendships? Will we hold fast to our dreams at all costs? And what happens to us — our identity — when those dreams are lost or deferred? How will we respond when our dreams are fulfilled? Will we sparkle? Will we shine like a light, or will our lights flicker and go out like an ember in the darkness?

Whatever the case may be, Sparkle opens tomorrow, August 17, in theaters everywhere. So grab your girlfriends, get a date, and head to a cineplex near you. And then let us know what you think.

Stop Singing About God’s ‘Favor’

Stop Singing About God’s ‘Favor’

If I hear one more contemporary gospel song talk about God’s favor, I’m gonna lose it.

“Favor,” wails Karen Clark Sheard. “You will never want for anything.” “Nothing can stop the favor of The Lord,” proclaims Israel and New Breed. “It’s my time for God’s favor,” shouts Kurt Carr. “I ain’t waitin’ no more!”

Since these aren’t exactly new songs, let me offer instead an example from the world of holy hip-hop, a song called “Favor” by William “Duce” Branch, a.k.a The Ambassador (formerly of The Cross Movement), from his latest album entitled Stop the Funeral:

It wasn’t a fancy car, it wasn’t a diamond ring / it wasn’t friends or lovers at the end of the day / ‘cause we know this life’s hard, and it can bring trouble / in the midst of this trouble, no one can take it away / you need His favor, His favor, His favor, His favor

I don’t want to sound like Debbie Downer here, because the truth is, I really like each of these songs. They’re good songs.  Musically and emotionally, they have been a blessing to me at various times.

But I’m concerned that by continually singing songs like these, gospel musicians might be unintentionally sending a bad message.

The truth about favor

The problem with songs like these is not that they’re not true at all, but that they contain enough truth to be dangerous. (After all, the worst lies are mixed with the truth.) So for example, I do believe that as Christians, each of us do have divine favor. We love and serve a God that is for us, and not against us. And this favor isn’t because of what we’ve done for Him, but because of what He’s done for us — specifically that He made us alive in Christ, even when we were dead in our transgressions.

But this news isn’t complete if we are not articulating more clearly and accurately the basis of God’s favor on our lives. After all, most Christians believe that God loves everyone, but I don’t think the folks who sing these songs believe such favor is universally accessible to everyone regardless of faith background or life experience. We sing these songs with the mindset that God’s favor rests exclusively on those who are … well … Christians.

In other words, God’s favor may not cost money, but it costs something. However one defines the Christian life, that’s what it supposedly costs.

The view from the outside

Unfortunately, what we on the inside see as a joyful celebration of God’s favor can appear from the outside to nonbelievers as either selfish gloating (“Favor? Why you and not me?”) or indulgent self-delusion (“Favor? Who are they kidding?”). This misunderstanding often comes because of moralistic therapeutic deism, which says, among other things, that good people go to heaven because they do good things (like going to church). So if you’re not socially accepted within your church circle, too bad. No church, no heaven, no favor.

This is clearly NOT the gospel message, but we shouldn’t be surprised when people get it twisted up. Gospel music has become so appreciated and appropriated by mainstream culture that the very term “gospel” means and connotes Black church style more than it does a message of salvation through faith in Christ.

I suppose it’s fair to say that different songs are aimed for, marketed toward, and enjoyed by different segments of people, so that a song written by and for Christians shouldn’t be evaluated by non-Christians, because that would be like an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Except that I compare apples and oranges all the time. (I like oranges better.)

And it’s also fair to say that one song should not have to serve as an overall theological representation of a particular artist, church, or organization.

But what if one song is all that gets heard?

In the marketplace of competing ideas and ideologies, we Christians can’t afford to ignore our public perception. We need to be aware of what it might look like to our nonbelieving friends on Facebook if or when the dominant themes reflected in the gospel songs we share are about a divine favor that looks and feels alien and inaccessible to those not steeped in Black church culture.

Theology from below

The truth is, God’s favor truly is open to everyone. Anyone can receive the good news and become a follower of Jesus. You don’t have to know the lyrics to “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” to get in on it. An authentic Christian life does not need to be stamped with cultural markers for divine approval.

So part of what we need is to be able to view our theology “from below” — that is, with the needs of the marginalized in mind so that we can make sure that what we’re saying actually sounds like good news to those who need it.

The bitter irony in seeing The Ambassador record a song about favor is that he operates within a cultural persona that is, in the Black church, particularly unfavorable. First, he is a hip-hop emcee, so by cultural association he is seen as loud, audacious, and overly confrontational (or borderline demonic if you ask G. Craige Lewis). Second, he has recently rebounded from an infidelity scandal that could have torpedoed his marriage and career, though thankfully both have survived.

Either way, his artistic and pastoral voice represents a growing segment of Black men who no longer feel at home in the church. So in the context of all the other songs about God’s favor that fail to address many of the social ills that afflict Black people, Amba’s song “Favor” seems like another example of a popular Black artist drinking the prosperity Kool-Aid in order to gain broader acceptance within the church.

Having listened to the rest of Stop the Funeral, I don’t really think that’s true.

But that’s how it looks.

My plea is for Christians who make music for a living to pay closer attention to the words and ideas they use, and do the best they can to be as accessible as possible to listeners of different cultural backgrounds.

Because Ambassador is right — God’s favor is a wonderful thing.

I just hope his listeners get the rest of the message.

The Ghost of Christmas Pride

The Ghost of Christmas Pride

O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant …

It was a chilly December night in downtown Chicago, and about a dozen of us from a suburban Christian college were Christmas caroling. My best friend, Uriel, stood next to me as we sang. A few people stopped to listen.

… O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem, Come and behold him …

A black man edged closer as we sang. He seemed to eye me, the only African American in our group. His head nodded in rhythm with the melody.

… O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

“Say, brother,” he said, approaching me as the song ended, “would you please help my family? We ain’t got no money and my baby needs formula.”

He was probably in his 20s, but his tired and ragged appearance made him look much older. “Please, man. I need to get us some food.”

I glanced at the others in my group. We knew the safest response was to politely refuse. Yet we were Christians. Weren’t we supposed to help needy people?

“Would you please help me?” the plea came again. “Just a few dollars.”

I looked at Uriel.

“We can’t give you money,” we finally said, “but we can buy you what you need.” If the guy was telling us the truth, it was something we had to do.

“My name is Jerome,” he told us as we hiked toward a nearby convenience store. He lived in a city housing project with his wife and three kids. As we entered the store, I noticed that his eyes seemed to brighten. Maybe we’d brought a little hope into his life.
Soon we’d bought him baby formula, eggs, and milk. This seemed a fitting conclusion to our evening of caroling.

As we handed Jerome the groceries and bus fare, I noticed his eyes had darkened into an frightening stare. “You think you better than me, don’t you?” he said. “You all think you somethin’ ’cause you come out from the suburbs, buyin’ food for the po’ folks, but you ain’t no better than me.”

“No …” I struggled to find more words, but nothing came. I realized there was nothing I could say that would change his mind.

After a moment of awkward silence, Jerome grabbed his bag of groceries and walked away. Then he suddenly turned and said sharply, “Merry Christmas.” It was not a warm wish, but a condemning statement filled with broken pride.

The December air blew colder. No one said a word.

There wasn’t anything to say. Our holiday spirit had suddenly evaporated, and there was no way to bring it back.

We might have resented Jerome and felt justified. But was he wrong? We gave him a gift. He accepted it. Should there have been anything more?

That’s sort of how it was at the first Christmas. Jesus wasn’t born a helpless baby for applause. Years later, he didn’t hang on the cross for the praise and adulation — many of those he died for made fun of him. Still, he gave selflessly and unconditionally. So, why had we expected gratitude and warm fuzzies for our gift to Jerome?

Strangely enough, Jerome gave us something far better than another opportunity to feel good about ourselves. He made us look hard at our motives and gave us a sobering lesson on the real reason for giving.

We were expecting a pat on the back. Jerome reminded us of what the true reward of Christmas is all about.