“A meditation — that’s what it says by my name, but I think you’ve been tricked,” said Pastor Julian DeShazier, preaching to delegates and visitors of General Synod 2013 after a long day of work. “Because I’m not only Pastor Julian, I’m also J. Kwest, and so, when the music comes on, some of you will be trying to meditate.
“You shouldn’t do that,” he joked, to a swell of laughter.
Sure enough, a hip hop beat soon rocked its way across the hall as the delegates stood and clapped — mostly in unison — and joined in the poetry. “And I will light your darkness until it looks like sunshine, and I will be your flashlight,” he cried, and they shouted back, “Yo, gittem! Yo! Yo, gittem!”
The senior minister of University Church in Chicago (a joint UCC/Disciples of Christ congregation) has explored the links of music and faith for nearly 10 years, both in the academy and on the stage as the rapper “J. Kwest.” At last summer’s National Youth Event, he raised hearts as well as the roof of Purdue University’s music hall.
Acknowledging that some dislike and even fear hip hop, DeShazier noted that “light” is a common word in the Bible (mentioned 263 times, “but who’s counting?”). “Tonight is not about an apology for hip hop,” he said. “Tonight is about doing a new thing, Church, which usually means that an old thing must cede some of its space and authority to allow room for the new thing to do what the new thing do.
“It means loss, certain loss.”
In Chicago, DeShazier observed, churches stand at every corner, but with 506 murders in 2012, the city’s homicides lead the nation. “We don’t need more church,” he declared, “we need better church.” And he rhymed:
“We don’t want to change
’cause it worked for so long
Made it so strong
Never go away ’til it stopped
Now it’s yo’ church stranded on the highway
God passed: ‘Should’a did it my way.’”
Praising the technological achievements of the human race, he lamented, “But for this great portfolio, we have still not figured out how to live in peace, or how to love our neighbor, or how to be fair to one another. … No, we are still stuck, and in love with the idols that illuminate our stuck-ness.”
DeShazier turned to the Biblical image of fire, because like change, fire is debatable. Just the day before, 19 firefighters had died in an Arizona wildfire, pointing to the dangerous side of fire.
“I was taught to avoid fire. … Our society is averse to fire. But we never think of the other side. Fire,” he noted, “makes s’mores.”
In the Hebrew Bible, said DeShazier, God most frequently appears as fire, a cleansing rather than destructive fire. Even in nature, fire frequently serves, creating ecologies that benefit several plant species. A variety of pine tree requires fire to open its resin-coated cones and release the seeds.
“Did you know,” he asked, “that there are some things that can only reach their full potential by going through the fire first?”
“We need not fear the fires around us, Church. Destruction is not the end of the story. God’s fire is expanding us, creating new opportunities even right now inside this room and all around the world that awaits us when we leave here.
“Our greatest efforts have brought us again here to the throne of God, seeking fire for our wet logs. Come, Holy Spirit.
“Come, Holy Spirit, for the thing that needs doing is waiting to be released. It is an energy we have not felt yet. It is the Spirit of God burning in us.”
The Synod dancers accompanied the reading of the Scriptures and provided a visual response of grace and power to a song with the refrain “I look to you.” Worship closed with a musically challenging hymn, “Total Praise” by Richard Smallwood. Though a profoundly different style than the J. Kwest’s rap earlier, delegates’ faces displayed deep passion as they sang the words of Psalm 121:
“Lord, I will lift my eyes to the hills, knowing my help is coming from you.”