Denzel Washington: “Put God first”

Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 10.44.42 AMBy Steve Beard

Denzel Washington’s rousing commencement address to graduates of Dillard University was met with amens and applause. The Academy award winning actor’s May 9 speech went over well at the historically black university in New Orleans. Washington’s advice to the graduates dealt with God, failure, materialism, and gratitude.

1. Put God first: “Everything that I have is by the grace of God, understand that. It’s a gift. … I didn’t always stick with Him, but He stuck with me.”

2. Fail big: “Don’t be afraid to fail big, to dream big, but remember, dreams without goals, are just dreams. And they ultimately fuel disappointment. … I try to give myself a goal every day, sometimes it’s just not to curse somebody out.”

3. You’ll never see a U-Haul behind a hearse: “I don’t care how much money you make, you can’t take it with you. … It’s not how much you have, it’s what you do with it.”

4. While you’re on your knees in the morning, say thank you: “While you’re [on your knees], say thank you. Thank you for grace, thank you for mercy, thank you for understanding, thank you for wisdom, thank you for parents, thank you for love, thank you for kindness, thank you for humility, thank you for peace, thank you for prosperity. Say thank you in advance for what is already yours … True desire in the heart for anything good is God’s proof to you sent beforehand that it’s already yours … When you get it, reach back, pull someone else up.”

Washington admitted to the graduates that 40 years ago he was flunking out of college with a 1.7 GPA. “I remember sitting in my mother’s beauty parlor [in New York] and I’m looking in the mirror and I kept seeing this woman looking at me,” recalled Washington who was a 20-year-old student at Fordam University at the time.

“‘Somebody give me a pen!,” said the woman. “I’m having a prophecy!” It was March 27, 1975. “Boy, you are going to travel the world and speak to millions of people,” the woman told Washington.

“Now mind you,” recalls Washington, “I’m flunking out of college and thinking about joining the Army. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

“Well, I have travelled the world and I have spoken to millions of people. But that is not the most important success that I’ve had….I’ve been protected. I’ve been directed. I’ve been corrected. I’ve kept God in my life and it has kept me humble. So stick with Him.”

Washington was raised in church. His father was a preacher who simultaneously worked for the water company during the day and as a security guard at night. The woman in the beauty parlor was Ruth Green, one of the elders in the church with the gift of prophecy.

As a young man, Washington found himself exploring Eastern philosophies and reading the Qur’an in his search for personal meaning and inner peace. In 1979, director Robert Townsend took Washington to West Angeles Church of God in Christ—a Pentecostal megachurch in South Central Los Angeles. He has been a faithful member ever since that Sunday.

Like many other artists with a spiritual yearning, Washington was tempted to follow in his father’s footsteps and be a minister. He even asked his pastor, Bishop Charles Blake, if he should become a preacher. Blake and Washington agreed that he was right where God wanted him. “So my work is my ministry,” he told BeliefNet. “I’ve always understood why I’ve been blessed to be put in this situation. And I’m more than happy to take advantage of it and to preach, if you will, about what God has done in my life.”

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. 

Soul man: The sweet sound of Al Green

By Steve Beard

When British musician Elvis Costello was asked if he had ever had a religious experience, he responded, “No, but I have heard Al Green.” Not a bad compliment coming from Costello, a musical legend in his own right.

AL_GREENAl Green rose to international fame with timeless hits such as “Let’s Stay Together,” “Call Me,” “Take Me to the River,” “I’m Still in Love with You,” “Tired of Being Alone,” and “Love and Happiness.” In the early 1970s, he sold more than 20 million albums. He was the Prince of Love, the man with the trademark smile that made women swoon in near-riotous concerts as he tossed long stem red roses to adoring fans. A few years ago, Rolling Stone declared that Green is “the greatest popular singer of all time,” describing his songs as “unsurpassed in their subtlety, grace, intimacy, and invention.”

His silky smooth voice was coupled with stage charisma, sex appeal, and undeniable charm. He was the consummate ladies’ man. His voice was a liquid calling card, wooing the listener into a sensuous and lush boudoir of his own creation.

In the summer of 1973, he had an experience that would forever change his life. He had flown from San Francisco to Anaheim, California, for his next show. Shortly after four in the morning, he was awakened by the sounds of shouting. “I sat bolt upright in bed, frightened that some crazy fan had broken into the room,” he writes in his autobiography, Take Me To The River. Green then realized that the commotion he was hearing was coming from his own mouth. “And while the words I shouted were of no earthly tongue, I immediately recognized what they meant. I was praising God…and lifting my voice to heaven with the language of angels to proclaim his majesty on high.”

He laughed. He cried. He knocked on doors of the hotel, telling complete strangers what had happened to him. One woman slammed the door in his face. Someone eventually called security.

Saint Paul was converted on the Road to Damascus; Al Green was made righteous off Interstate 5 near Disneyland.

Green had been singing about love and happiness, but there was a war going on inside—a battle for the substance of his soul. He eventually abandoned his mainstream singing career and began pastoring Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, Tennessee.

For eight years, he sang only gospel until he sensed God give him the green light to sing his old songs. Today, the soul man still puts on the pizzazz in mainstream venues. Resplendent in his white suit and Ray Ban sunglasses, and loaded with long stem roses like a florist, he still has the magic to commandeer the human heart, making it pulse in romance or worship—our very own funky St. Valentine.

“Now I am comfortable mixing everything up, and my audience has responded favorably,” he told the Los Angeles Times several years ago. “When I finished a short prayer at this gig…, people stood up and cheered. That told me that I could give audiences a little bit of the Reverend and they’d likely rejoice.” He sings “Amazing Grace” in casino showrooms in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, knowing that many of his admirers hunger for redemption just as he once had.

Full Gospel Tabernacle’s unassuming geodesic sanctuary is tucked in on the side of a quiet residential road, a few miles south of Graceland, off Elvis Presley Boulevard. It has played host to a myriad of music fans who make it a part of their Memphis pilgrimage. They stick out like sore thumbs, showing up promptly at 11 a.m. for a service that will not start for another half-hour. One Sunday while I was visiting, they appeared from Ireland, Arkansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, North Carolina, and England.

The visitors are greeted warmly. After all these years, the congregation has become very familiar with the novelty factor involved with having a musical icon behind the pulpit. Nevertheless, they are here to get down with God, not impress the guests (for example, there are none of Green’s Greatest Hits collections sold in the church lobby). The choir marches in and the B-3 Hammond organ starts to crank up the funk, while the electric guitar starts to wail.

Reverend Al walks around the sanctuary fiddling with his lapel microphone, gently patting visitors on the shoulder as he glides to the back of the sanctuary to adjust his own sound at the mixing board.

Back at the pulpit, Reverend Al is feeling the “unction of the Holy Ghost,” as he calls it. He starts to bob and weave like a boxer as he delivers his sermon on faith. “Hold on, God is coming!” he shouts. “Help is on the way,” he purrs. When he calls for the assembly to give a wave offering by lifting our arms, you can see the nervousness rise in the visitors. Awkwardly, we wave our arms in the air. Who is going to refuse Reverend Al? “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus! Stop looking at Al Green,” he says. “Al Green himself came to worship God. He’s been soooo good to me,” he starts to sing as the musicians crank up the volume.

When he starts singing “One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus,” you know you have been to church. “You are not here by accident,” he says. “I am the same person you heard sing all those songs, but I am not the same person,” he testifies. “I couldn’t preach for 25 years if something didn’t happen to me.” Speaking to the visitors with a winsome grin, he says, “Come and see Al, but Al doesn’t hold the key to your salvation. I can sing ‘Love and Happiness’ four times and I still will not hold your salvation.”

The Reverend closes out the 11 o’clock service at 1:25 p.m. with a soul-felt version of “Gonna Sit Down on the Banks of the River” by blues legend Reverend Gary Davis. He leaves us at the banks, and the decision is ours. Shall we jump in or walk away? You can tell what Green has done. You can see it in his eyes, in his smile, in the intonations of his honey-like voice.

Otis Redding died in a plane crash at 26, Sam Cooke was shot at 33, Jackie Wilson’s career was over at 41, and Marvin Gaye was killed by his father at 44. Al Green is alive—and he is grateful. Somebody shout, Amen!

It is one thing to sing about love and happiness; it is an entirely different enterprise to experience it. As he grabs hold of the pulpit, festooned in his preaching robe, you can see it on his face. He arrived at the river’s edge and took a dive into faith. He looks up at us with a grin and seems to say, “Hop in. The water’s fine.”

I, too, thought the world was coming to an end. Here’s what ‘Kimmy Schmidt’ gets right.

kimmy

Ellie Kemper in Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” (Eric Liebowitz/Netflix)

By Alissa Wilkinson

The poster for “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” features a background crowd of grey-clad New Yorkers scuttling along in the rain. In front of them, Kimmy (played by Ellie Kemper) — in magenta pants, a yellow cardigan and purple sneakers — is jumping ecstatically into a puddle. The tagline: “Life begins when the world doesn’t end.”

I smiled when I first saw the poster. A decade ago, I was a puddle-jumping newbie New Yorker, too.

And Kimmy joyfully splashed in puddles for awfully similar reasons to my own.

Tina Fey’s new Netflix series opens when Kimmy and three other women emerge from a bunker and into a world, they’d been told, was scorched and dead. For 15 years of captivity, their captor, Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, said God wanted him to protect them from the destruction above. Now free, Kimmy decides she’s not going to settle for Indiana. She wants New York.

I was never in an apocalyptic cult, or even just a regular old cult. But in the 1990s, I was part of a certain branch of fundamentalism that flourished among Christian homeschoolers. Leaders called for women in calico jumpers and long hair, and also a total break with most culture, including no contact with Christian things deemed too worldly: magazines for teenagers published by Focus on the Family, contemporary Christian music, youth groups or Amish romance novels.

To read the rest of Alissa Wilkinson’s article in the Washington Post, click HERE.

Barbarians in our Midst: How the Irish Spread the Gospel

George G. Hunter III is distinguished professor of evangelism and church growth at Asbury Theological Seminary. He served as the founding dean of Asbury’s E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism. Dr. Hunter is the author of numerous well-known books dealing with evangelism, mission, church growth, ministry and emerging ways of “doing church.”

When he wrote The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach The West…Again (Abingdon), Steve Beard sat down with Hunter to talk about the Celtic vision of evangelism, discipleship, imagination, spiritual warfare, and the supernatural.

 What inspired you to investigate Celtic Christianity?

For longstanding reasons — partly subconscious, perhaps rooted in my genetic makeup or ancestral memory — I have always been more interested in ancient Celtic Christianity than practically any other Protestant that I know.

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 11.39.54 AMSeveral years ago a book came out called How the Irish Saved Civilization written by Thomas Cahill, a cracker-jack historian. It stirred my interest in the expansion of Celtic Christianity. He tells the story of how Patrick’s evangelization of Ireland developed an alternative way of doing church and reaching people. Cahill describes how the Celtic monks copied decaying scrolls on to new scrolls and thereby kept much of the Greek and Roman learning of antiquity alive—thereby “saving civilization.” The monks rescued learning from the oblivion of the Dark Ages when the Vandals, Franks, Frisians, Goths, Visigoths, and other “barbaric” peoples overwhelmed the Roman Empire and destroyed the libraries. The Celtic monks kept “civilization” alive.

Cahill tells the story of how people—joining apostolic leaders such as Patrick, Columba, Columbanus, Aidan and others—reached one barbaric population after another across Britain and western Europe. They did this even though the Roman branch of the church thought it was “impossible.” The Romans thought that barbarians could not be Christians. The Celtic movement proved you could evangelize people first and civilize them second.

Then a book came out by Anglican Bishop John Finney entitled Recovering the Past. Finney profiles the Celtic movement’s basic mission approach. My book spells out much more specifically how the Celtic Christian movement reached and discipled the barbaric population of Europe.

How do you see this relating to Christianity in the 21st century?

I see, all around us, the rise of “new barbarian” populations. These are the people whose lives are sometimes out of control — driven by compulsion or hijacked by substance abuse. Growing numbers of people have a “rough edge.” If they came to church, they wouldn’t know when to stand up, sit down, or what to say to the pastor afterwards. They wouldn’t know how to find II Kings or II Corinthians. If they said anything, they might split an infinitive or utter an expletive! There are a growing number of people, across the whole western world, who aren’t quite refined and aren’t always nice. Over the years, I have observed that almost all churches overlook those populations. At least nine out of ten churches I’ve worked with will never get around to offering the Christian faith to people who aren’t already sufficiently “civilized” by the church’s standards. Most churches never reach out to people who aren’t “refined” enough to feel comfortable with us, or to people who are too out of control for us to feel comfortable with them.

 What kind of rethinking must take place in the modern-day church in order to learn from the Celts?

First, the church probably needs to entertain the idea, as though for the first time, that lost people matter to God, including people who are not “like us” or recognizable “good” church people.

Second, within our Wesleyan tradition, people need to entertain a fresh understanding of the doctrine of prevenient grace. The Holy Spirit is working through the events and circumstances of people’s lives to awaken receptivity to the gospel. If we believe that lost and out-of-control people matter to God and that the Holy Spirit is already initiating an engagement with them, some of the other things will follow.

Sometimes when I’m leading a seminar I’ll ask people if they remember their first kiss? Most people will raise their hands. I ask, “Did you really know what you were doing?” Then, I ask, “Did that stop you from doing it?” Of course it didn’t. The point is that love finds a way. I discovered that the way forward with out-of-control populations today is astonishingly consistent with some of the ways Patrick, Columba, Aidan, Columbanus, Brigid, Hilda and others found to reach the “barbarians” of their time.

hunter

Dr. George G. Hunter III

This is a much more vast population than most church leaders are aware of. Vast numbers of people have a genetic vulnerability for addiction, like other people have a genetic vulnerability to diabetes. But we now know about the added factor that drugs, some more than others, change the chemistry of the brain at varying rates in a way to induce a lifetime of “craving.” At that point a person’s life is, more or less, hijacked and, by themselves, cannot always control what they do. They experience unspeakable guilt and shame, and a profound spiritual battle that the Evil One and the demons exploit.

Years ago, I heard Art Glasser, who taught mission theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, say, “The form that possessive destructive evil takes varies from one generation to another and from one culture to another. It’s most dominant form in our culture and this generation is addiction.” The more I circulate, the more convinced I became that Glasser was right.

In most every city you can find a church or two that steps out of polite conventionality and targets those lost, hijacked people. Likewise, you can find churches that have a dozen, or even a hundred, 12-step meetings at different times of the week in various places.

Some of these churches are invading enemy territory and visiting people in bars and high drug-use neighborhoods, rediscovering that the “sower goes forth to sow the seed of God’s word.”

Addiction can be attached to alcohol, nicotine, heroin, crack cocaine, or even sex. Millions of people live lives out of control; addiction is destroying them inch by inch. These people matter to God. Christ died for them and the power of the Holy Spirit is available to them. Tragically, the Church has what they need, but most churches aren’t offering it to the people who need it most.

Nevertheless, the Recovery Movement is the “underground awakening” of this generation. More people are discovering the grace of God for the first time in their lives through a recovery ministry than through all of the evangelism programs combined. As a professor of evangelism and church growth I had to take that seriously.

 Some might flinch at the notion of welcoming out-of-control segments of our society into “perfectly good” congregations. It sounds a bit explosive and adventuresome. Is risk-taking part of Celtic Christianity?

Yes. The gospel song about the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep has the other 99 sheep safe in the fold while the shepherd searches. But that is not the way Jesus’ parable reads. The parable has the 99 huddled together in the wilderness while the shepherd leaves them to hunt for the lost sheep! The parable suggests there is some inherent risk in being a Christian.

Within the Celtic outreach model, people are being grounded in Christian truth and spiritual disciplines, are part of a small group, and they reach out in teams. If these elements are held, probably no one will be lost to “the other side.” But when we keep the people in the church — to eliminate all risk, we rob them of the greatest adventure — following Christ as his ambassadors in the real world.

 Celtic Christianity appears to invest heavily in creativity, imagination, and spiritual experience rather than merely spiritual knowledge. Does that play a role in their evangelism and ministry?

Yes. There is now more latitude, and more need, to be creative in how we “do church” and present the gospel. That means engaging people with the gospel in lots of different ways in addition to preaching and didactic teaching. The approach involves culturally relevant music, using the people’s language rather than church’s traditional language, employing poetry, drama, and the visual arts. More and more churches are discovering a kind of multi-media approach to dramatize the gospel in as many different ways as they can. The key to this is allowing the “rebirth” of our imagination.

As the enlightenment has faded, western humanity appears to rely less on logic and reason — we are speaking of differences of degree — and relies more on imagination and experience. The Celtic movement would coach today’s communicator to engage people through their imaginations in a range of creative ways. You maximize the possibility that people will get the message and they’ll discover the beginning gift of faith.

 Celtic Christianity also seems to emphasize the interconnectedness between life and theology in a more profound way than most churches today. The Celtic cross incorporates a circle in the center, representing our physical world and nature. The Celtic prayers acknowledge the every-dayness of life and its connectedness to theology.

The Celtic movement presents a whole range of options for our churches. Celtic Christianity was enormously more “culture friendly” than the Roman branch of the church. It even believed that you could find things in the people’s primal religion that could be used to help interpret the gospel. They believed that the gospel came not to destroy but to fulfill the prior religious aspirations and some of the experiences of the people. Celtic Christians believed that the High God that their neighbors believed in — who was unavailable — had indeed come to us and is one with us in Jesus Christ.

Celtic Christians were also “nature friendly,” believing that the animals and birds and fish of the fields, forests, jungles, and rivers are more kin to us than the Roman branch of the church believed — which took a kind of exploitative approach to nature. Defenders of the Roman branch of the church will point to figures like Francis of Assisi. However, Francis discovered Christianity’s love for animals from the Celtic monastery at Bobbio, just a few miles from Assisi, which had been founded by Columbanus.

 One aspect of Celtic Christianity that seems to be similar to Third-World expressions of Christianity is an openness to spiritual warfare. There also seem to be many more episodes of what the late John Wimber called “power encounters” or supernatural displays of God’s power — healings, deliverances, dreams and visions.

This issue would need to be nuanced very carefully. Compared to present-day traditional western Christianity, Celtic Christianity emphasizes much more experience, the revelation of God through dreams, the power of intercessory prayer, etc. There also appears to have been a significantly greater emphasis on healing — physical, spiritual, and emotional healing — than what we usually find in the church down the street.

When it comes to what Wimber called power encounter, its cousin exorcisms, and some of the other Halloween-oriented ministries, those appear to have been occasional projects of the Celtic movement. They would do it when necessary but they didn’t count it necessary very often. It appears there were such ministries but they were episodic. The later “hagiographers,” who wrote about the lives of the saints, were enormously more interested in spiritual warfare than the saints had been!

 Yet even in the Celtic prayers, you read a greater sense of the recognition of the Evil One, of dark forces. Perhaps it was because they were surrounded by Druid culture, but even their written liturgical prayers reflect far more of a cosmic struggle than what we see in mainline, denominational Christianity.

Yes, they certainly had a more vivid sense of the supernatural. They had a vivid sense of the presence of God and a vivid sense of all three persons of the Trinity. They had a vivid sense that we are to pray without ceasing. It meant praying into each situation, and their prayer life reflected their awareness of evil forces in their midst. Part of their life of prayer was to be protected from the Evil One and delivered from the powers of sin, evil, and death. Frankly, I have learned to pray for protection; Christians who are in denial of the presence of evil are more vulnerable than they know.

How would a local church adopt a more Celtic way of “doing church?”

I would recommend adopting the four-fold Celtic approach to preparing people for ministry. It appears to me to be vastly more sophisticated and effective than anything now being attempted in most churches.

First, every person in a monastic community spent some time in solitude, out in nature. They had a saying, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Patrick himself discovered the presence of God, that he had learned about in the catechism, in the midst of nature. The Celts believed that time alone in nature is indispensable for triggering a God-consciousness.

Second, everyone had a soul friend. This is not a superior such as a spiritual director, but more like a peer with whom one could be totally vulnerable.

Third, most Celtic Christians were members of a small group who met weekly. Ten or fewer people were led by a person who was most chosen for his or her transparent devoutness.

Fourth, everyone was involved in the life of the monastic community—worship, and Scripture memorization, etc. A great many illiterate Celtic Christians knew all 150 psalms by heart because they rehearsed 30 psalms a day; as a community, every five days, they rehearsed all the psalms.

Everyone, in the community, was involved in ministry with seekers. At some point in their development they would be a seeker’s soul friend, or they would observe and help a seeker in their small group who was discovering faith.

That fourfold approach: solitude, soul friends, small group, and ministry of the community — including ministry with seekers — appears to be a potent synergizing combination to produce contagious saints than any of the “improvements” in the last 12 centuries.

What kind of ministry did the Celts have to seekers?

It was, essentially, the “ministry of hospitality.” The monastic community would simply admit into its ranks people who had not yet discovered the gift of faith. The community seems to have believed Christianity was more caught than taught. The people were more likely to catch it in the community of faith rather than by being left to their own devices in the world. That strategy was recovered by Wesley in 18th century Methodism. The Celts, and the later Methodists, welcomed and involved seekers who hadn’t yet experienced justification.

In the book, I feature 18th century Methodism as a historic case of “unconscious reappropriation” of the Celtic Christian vision. I’ve read all of Wesley’s writings and cannot find much evidence that he consciously drew upon ancient Celtic Christian materials. A number of those themes, such as small groups, hospitality and imagination, were by that time in the DNA or ancestral memory of British Christianity. From time to time, various movements in the Christian community have rediscovered and reinserted those themes.

The current Alpha course is a more recent case of a movement reappropriating many Celtic Christian outreach principles without being fully aware of their ancient source.

 You spent time in Ireland, Scotland, and England — at places like Iona — while preparing your book. Many people seem to be doing that. Why?

I think that Celtic Christianity virtually invented the pilgrimage, and our generation has rediscovered its subtle power. The Celts believed that the “veil” between earth and heaven is much “thinner” in places historically associated with a monastic community, or faithful preaching or service, or conversion of a tribe. We experience, in ways we cannot fully explain, that we are more likely to experience God at Iona, or Lindisfarne, or Glendalough, than at Rupp Arena or downtown Manhattan.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. This article first appeared in the March/April 2000 issue of Good News.  

Ramps in Cathedrals

skateBy Steve Beard

When you hear about ramps being built in sanctuaries, it’s usually to provide easier access for wheelchairs. Outside of Amsterdam, however, the ramps in one abandoned church are there to help young skaters get gnarly air.

“Two dozen scruffy skateboarders launched perilous jumps in a soaring old church building here on a recent night, watched over by a mosaic likeness of Jesus and a solemn array of stone saints,” writes Wall Street Journal reporter Naftali Bendavid. “It is one of hundreds of churches, closed or threatened by plunging membership, that pose a question for communities, and even governments, across Western Europe: What to do with once-holy, now-empty buildings that increasingly mark the countryside from Britain to Denmark?”

Bendavid was reporting from amongst the well-used skate ramps and the distressed religious imagery at the Church of St. Joseph. The sacred décor that once had been center stage now serves only as a faint reminder of yesteryear’s 1,000 congregants praying and singing at the cathedral in Arnhem, Netherlands – an hour train ride south from Amsterdam.

“At the Arnhem Skate Hall, the altar and organ of the church, built in 1928, have been ripped out, while a dusty cupboard still holds sheet music for a choir that hasn’t sung in 10 years,” Bendavid reports. “Two dozen young men speed along wooden ramps and quarter-pipes, their falls thundering through the church, as rap music reverberates where hymns once sounded.”

The years of abandonment and water damage have made the building’s upkeep financially impossible. While it searches for potential buyers, church leaders have allowed skateboarders to take refuge in the sanctuary.

“It creates a lot of atmosphere — it’s a bit of Middle Ages,” Puck Smit, 21, one of the Dutch skaters observed about skating in the gothic cathedral. “When I first saw it, I just stood there for five minutes staring.”

For those not raised in the church, a cathedral can be awe-inspiring. For those raised in the church, however, abandoned sanctuaries are unsettling. There can be a disconcerting feeling when browsing through an antique store that used to house a Presbyterian congregation or sitting down in a restaurant that once was an Episcopal sanctuary. Where prayers and hymns and sermons were once offered, now appetizers and gourmet coffees are served. Where once the Bread of Life was broken on an altar, now gluten-free scones are sold with brambleberry jam.

The news of gutted churches is as painful as driving through the upper Midwest and seeing the dilapidated factories that served as the work places for droves of men and women from a previous generation. Time shifts, technology evolves, populations migrate. All the while, the Church attempts to proclaim a message of redemption that is translatable in all languages, in all neighborhoods, for all eras. Sometimes, however, the message gets stifled, sidetracked, and eventually muted.

“For Christians, a church’s closure — often the centerpiece of the town square — is an emotional event,” writes Bendavid. “Here people have worshiped, felt grief and joy, and quested for a relationship with God.” Those closures are now moving at a clipper pace. Roman Catholic leaders in the Netherlands report that “two-thirds of their 1,600 churches will be out of commission in a decade, and 700 of Holland’s Protestant churches are expected to close within four years.”

In Europe, ex-churches are being repurposed in many ways. They have become supermarkets, floral shops, bookstores, gymnasiums, and high-end fashion boutiques. One cathedral is now a circus training school for trapeze artists. Another houses a Frankenstein-themed bar that features lasers, bubbling test tubes, and a creepy monster descending from the ceiling at midnight (one assumes there is a poignant sermon illustration in this example).

Communities are scrambling to see how best to transpose these empty houses of God into community centers, libraries, art museums, and even homes. The widespread nature of this crisis is Europe’s modern day reality.

For the happily secular, it is a civic issue about empty buildings. For the faithful, however, the abandoned chapels are prophetic illustrations of a nation’s empty soul.

“These buildings were designed to be places of wonder, mystery, countercultural adventure, risky intensity, places of freedom and joy,” Dr. Duffy Robbins observed when I shared the Journal story with him. “Sadly, what they became over time were places of safety, predictability, blandness and irrelevance.” Robbins is a prolific author and professor of youth ministry at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.

Pelle Klomp, 14, another of the Dutch skaters said visitors occasionally stop by to complain. “Especially the older people say, ‘It’s ridiculous, you’re dishonoring faith,’ ” he said. “And I can understand that. But they weren’t using it.”

That last line should be read twice. “But they weren’t using it.”

“What I think a lot of these kids have settled for in these empty buildings are cheaper answers to the authentic and deep cravings of their souls,” Robbins said. “Let’s don’t blame the kids for this outcome; they have a (Jesus-shaped) hunger in their hearts. Let’s blame the churches that have removed most of the Water and Bread and salt from the menu.”

This is not just a European problem. Between 2012 and 2013, United Methodism in the United States closed the doors of more than 300 churches. Part of the United Methodist ritual for deconsecrating a church building is to be reminded of its purpose: “It has been consecrated for the ministry of God’s Holy Word and Sacraments. It has provided refuge and comfort for God’s people. It has served our holy faith,” reads part of the litany in the Book of Worship.

There is also thanks given for mutually shared experiences: “We have celebrated the Lord’s Supper here and been nurtured by it through our journey of faith. We have rejoiced here as believers have confessed faith in Christ. Here we have baptized our children and mourned our dead.”

After the prayers have been uttered and the hymns sung, it is eventually proclaimed: “We now deconsecrate and release [this building] for any honorable use.” This may not seem like a profound ritual, but it signals important closure to those with deep roots and long memories invested in a particular sanctuary – whether it is a gothic cathedral or a rough-hewn tabernacle at a campmeeting.

Of course, behind every cathedral is a message. When the doors are padlocked and the roof is leaking and the pews are barren and the pulpit is empty, the message about the love of God through Jesus Christ is silenced. In the case of the Church of St. Joseph, the tragedy of the broken down cathedral is compounded by the missed opportunity to reach out to young skateboarders.

“Ironically, skaters are notoriously told to leave every place they try to skate,” observed Kit Tomlinson, Pastor of Recreation at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio, when I shared the Journal article with him. “The church isn’t even having to work to get these skaters on the premises – but they aren’t offering the Gospel to them. They don’t see this a mission opportunity.”

Tomlinson spearheads a ministry at University UM Church to expose every skater in San Antonio to the message of Christ. More than 2,500 different skaters have been exposed to the church’s ministry, and 175 skaters have committed their lives to Christ within the last seven years.

“Because skateboarders are almost always being chased around by security guards and authorities,” Tomlinson said, “we wanted to be different than the rest of the world and invite them in and share the Gospel with them.”

And what should be done with all these abandoned churches? “I don’t know why they don’t turn them into skateparks,” he said. “Seems like exactly the demographic the church needs.”

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.  

Take My Hand: The Gospel and the Blues

Gospels-Spirituals-Hymns-CD2-coverBy Steve Beard

The first of several pivotal scenes in the film Selma occurs when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes a late night phone call to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. The undeniable weight of what lay ahead for King and the civil rights movement was heavy on his soul. In quiet desperation, King (played masterfully by David Oyelowo) awakens the gospel music legend with the phone call and simply says, “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.”

Mahalia Jackson (played by Ledisi Young) breaks the stillness of the night with an impromptu and stemwinding plea in her housecoat and slippers:

“Precious Lord, take my hand / Lead me on, let me stand / I am tired, I am weak, I am worn / Through the storm, through the night / Lead me on to the light / Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”

This iconic scene in the film was indicative of King’s dependence upon spiritual strength, Jackson’s healing voice, and the Savior’s nail-scared hands. “Precious Lord” was King’s supplication, his way of reaching out for the hem of the garment. It was his last request only moments before his voice of eloquence was forever silenced on April 4, 1968, with a .30-06 bullet. King had just asked Chicago saxophonist Ben Branch to play the song at the rally later that night in Memphis.

As a farewell to her civil rights compatriot, Jackson sang “Precious Lord” at King’s funeral. This would be the last of innumerable times they would share the same stage. Whenever King requested it, Jackson was willing to lend her voice for the cause – despite the death threats. As the granddaughter of slaves, Jackson sang the gospel classic “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned” right before King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington D.C. Jackson is credited for steering King off his prepared text by shouting from behind the podium, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) was the undisputed queen of gospel music. She incurred the wrath from some church folks who resented the way she unveiled the power of gospel music outside the sanctuary in secular venues. Others thought that her soaring style, hand-clapping, and foot-stomping borrowed too much from the blues and jazz singers of vaudeville, the sin bins, and the juke joints.

Despite heavy-handed pressure, Jackson never compromised on her personal vow to only sing gospel music. “Blues are the songs of despair,” she said. “Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing gospel you have the feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong, but when you are through with the blues, you’ve got nothing to rest on.”

Thomas-Dorsey2-playingNo one understood the spiritual chasm between blues and gospel more profoundly than did Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993), the songwriter of “Precious Lord” and the legendary father of gospel music. For more than a decade, Dorsey was also known for writing bawdy blues under the alias “Georgia Tom.” As the prodigal son of a church organist mother and a father who was a Baptist minister, Dorsey’s double life embodied a very real spiritual warfare.

“My soul was a deluge of divine rapture,” said Dorsey after hearing spirit-filled music at a revival. Not long after that, however, Dorsey was playing piano as Georgia Tom for blues legends Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Tampa Red.

Two severe and lengthy bouts with what he dubbed as “unsteadiness” incapacitated him from playing music and caused him to tailspin into depression. His mother told him to give up the blues and get back into the good graces of the Lord. But every time he would lurch in a righteous direction, it seemed as if the blues would lure him back. The war for his soul raged back and forth for many years.

After a miraculous divine encounter and prophecy at a church service, Dorsey made a heartfelt commitment to focus on gospel. A remarkable professional collaboration between Dorsey and Jackson began shortly thereafter.

In 1932, things would change forever for Dorsey. He had become the choir director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago and was selling his songs to mass choirs. As he was preparing for a gospel concert in St. Louis, he received a telegram instructing him to immediately return home. By the time he arrived, his young wife Nettie had died giving birth to the couple’s son. Two days later, the baby also died.

Dorsey was crushed, despondent, and trampled underfoot. Social critic Stanley Crouch once observed that the New Testament contains perhaps the greatest blues line of all time — “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”

It was in the forsakenness of that hour that Dorsey chipped away at the piano and wrote, “Precious Lord, take my hand …” In the sorrow of the desolation and flood of his loss, the song that inspired Dr. King was the dove that Dorsey released in search of dry land, the flight of hope. It was his blues: “I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” It was his gospel: “Lead me on, let me stand.”

“If a woman has lost a man, a man has lost a woman, his feeling reacts to the blues, he feels like expressing it,” Dorsey told his biographer Michael W. Harris in The Rise of Gospel Blues (Oxford). “The same thing acts for a gospel song. Now you’re not singing blues; you’re singing gospel, good news song, singing about the Creator; but it’s the same feeling, a grasping of the heart.”

For Dorsey, life was both gospel and blues. He had seen it in the juke joints and the sanctuaries. “It gets low-down. Now what we call low-down in blues doesn’t mean that it’s dirty or bad or something like that,” Dorsey said. “It gets down into the individual to set him on fire, dig him up…”

“Precious Lord” became a universally beloved song because it grasped the heart. You can hear how it inspired King, energized Jackson, and bandaged up Dorsey. It enabled King to weave a civil rights message to a white audience over the growling police dogs, shouted racial slurs, and the segregated lunch counters. It empowered Jackson to take traditional gospel music to locations beyond the choir loft and to audiences beyond the black church. It inspired Dorsey to blend the juke joint blues with the Sunday morning hope of gospel.

It was both Good Friday heartbreak and Easter Sunday jubilation ­– somewhere right there in the grit and toil of life.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

 

U2 observes the passing of its “North Star”: Pastor Jack Heaslip, RIP

jackBy Steve Beard

On Wednesday, February 25, members of the band U2 gathered at St. Mary’s Church outside of Dublin in order to observe the passing of the Rev. Jack Heaslip, the band’s long time friend and “traveling pastor.” The 71-year-old Anglican priest passed away after a lengthy battle with motor neuron disease.

Heaslip’s pivotal spiritual guidance and pastoral care was recognized by the band when he was referred to as “our North Star” on the liner notes of U2’s last album Songs of Innocence.

Heaslip performed the marriage ceremony between Bono and his wife Ali, baptized their children, and conducted the funeral for Bono’s father. Bono described Heaslip “as a source of inspiration and calm for us over our lives,” in the collaborative autobiography U2 by U2.

As a guidance counselor and English teacher at Mount Temple Secondary School, Heaslip is credited with helping walk Bono through the agonizing death of his mother when the singer was 14-years-old. “I liked him – more than liked him, I trusted him,” Bono writes.

Almost always outside of the glare of the spotlight, Heaslip garnered the attention of spiritually-minded fans of U2 when an audio recording was released of the blessing Heaslip offered to the band and entire crew on the night before the Elevation Tour began in March 2001. The tour consisted of 113 shows and was seen by more than 2 million fans.

Heaslip began by reading a verse from Isaiah 61 that had been read by Jesus in the Gospels. “The spirit of the sovereign Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”

“I felt that what we want God to do tonight is to pour his anointing,” Heaslip told the band and crew. “That’s not just a dab on the forehead – that’s a rich anointing of his oil. We’re told the oil would flow down from the top of your head – and in my case into your beard – and down your front and make a mess.

“But that’s the richness of God’s anointing,” Heaslip continued. “And what I felt God wanted me to do today was to pour out, in his name, that anointing on everything to do with this tour – every body, every thing. We think of the band, but we think of every piece of equipment and everyone who works that piece of equipment, everyone who packs up, everyone who drives a car, everyone who does the catering, everyone who is responsible for technology, every joint of wire, every plug, every soffit, every light.

“So we ask for that anointing to be poured out by the power of his spirit. So we simply say: Come, Holy Spirit, and reign. Pour out your rule and anointing on this tour. Let nothing be an obstacle. Just melt away anything that is not of you, so that your power can flow without interruption. We claim your blessing and your anointing, because we ask it in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

According to news reports from the funeral, the Rev. Kevin Brew said that Heaslip would not have wanted the focus to be on himself. “Jack made a lasting impression on so many people in so many ways. Jack being Jack, he would have had certain views on how his funeral to be conducted.

“It was not to focus on him but rather on the Christian faith he proclaimed in so many different ways,” Brew said.

U2 members Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton and the Edge were among the congregants. Bono’s role in the service included reading a passage from Isaiah 61 – the text used as the Elevation tour blessing 14 years prior.

Last year, Heaslip wrote a meditation in Disquiet Time: Rants and reflections on the Good Book by the skeptical, the faithful, and a few scoundrels (Jericho). His devotional contribution was called “A Tale of Two Mottoes,” and was a reflection on a verse from Psalm 127 that was publicly displayed on the wall of the assembly hall at Mount Temple.

“Jack was a magnificent man with wisdom surpassed only, perhaps, by his humility,” said Cathleen Falsani, religion journalist and co-editor of Disquiet Time. “He had a way of gathering people under his wings, quietly shepherding them in courageous directions and to embrace a Creator who is exponentially more than we ever could imagine. God’s fingerprints were all over Jack’s life and in turn all over the lives of those who knew and loved him best. It was an honor to call him friend, to know him the wee bit that I did, to be kept in his heart and lifted in his prayers.

“I think about the countless concertgoers and lovers of music who never knew the gentle Irish sage — this Polaris who called attention not to himself, but pointed to the One whose lights shines upon us all — who covered them with his benedictions,” Falsani continued. “And as I give thanks for Jack’s life, the words of another great Irish sage — the late poet/mystic John O’Donohue — play in my mind: ‘You would want us to find you in presence / Beside us when beauty brightens / When kindness glows / And music echoes eternal tones.’”

Steve Beard is the founder and editor of Thunderstruck Media.

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Fitting tributes and insights about Father Jack Heaslip:

• Tim Neufeld http://www.atu2.com/news/our-north-star-tribute-to-rev-jack-heaslip.html

• Steve Garber http://www.washingtoninst.org/9607/requiescat-in-pace-jack-heaslip/

• Cathleen Falsani http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thedudeabides/2011/06/14/jack-heaslip-what-if-god-is-even-greater-than-we-think-oh-yes/

 

The Blood of the Martyrs

copts1By Steve Beard

“They were stoned, they were sawn in two; they were put to death with the sword. They [were] … destitute, afflicted, ill-treated – the world was not worthy of them.” Hebrews 11:37

Added to the ever increasing list of demonic atrocities conducted by ISIS was last week’s beheading of 21 young Coptic Christian martyrs on a beach in Libya.

“Jesus help me” were the final words from many of these Egyptian believers.

“To the last moment, the name of Jesus was on their lips,” Hana Aziz told CNN. Aziz was in the next room when his nephew and uncle were kidnapped by masked ISIS terrorists. “As they were being martyred, they were calling God’s name, saying, ‘God, have mercy on us.’ The entire village is proud.” Thirteen of the men in their 20s were from a village called Al Aour, 125 miles south of Cairo.

“The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard,” Pope Francis said. “It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.”

Calling into SAT-7 Arabic Christian channel show, Beshir Kamel was grateful that ISIS failed to edit out the declarations of faith in Jesus Christ of the dying men in the brutal video. Kamel had two brothers who were martyred on the Libyan beach. He said that their faithfulness unto death “had strengthened his own faith.”

“Since the Roman era, Christians have been martyred and have learned to handle everything that comes our way,” Kamel said. “This only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us,” he said.

“As we recall these brothers who died only because they confessed Christ,” said the Pope. “I ask that we encourage each other to go forward with this ecumenism which is giving us strength, the ecumenism of blood. The martyrs belong to all Christians,” he concluded.

Steve Beard is editor of Good News. 

LL Cool J on tithing and career longevity

CBS Summer 2009 Press TourBy Steve Beard

“Every dime I get, no matter what it is, I give 10 percent to the church,” rapper and actor LL Cool J recently said. The interviewer from Hot 97, a hip hop radio station in New York City, said that she had first heard LL Cool J (born James Todd Smith) testify about tithing at Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral in Jamaica, Queens, New York.

“I mentioned earlier longevity, versatility and originality,” LL Cool J said about his success. “What I didn’t mention was spirituality and believing in God.”

His commitment to faith in God and tithing has been highlighted in interviews over the last several years. “I tithe. I’m a life-long tither,” he told Hot 97. “For many years, I’ve been a tither. I believe strongly in giving. I believe you got to have that faith. And I’ve seen it work in my life, because as much as people in the world like to take credit and claim to be geniuses, at the end of the day there’s a higher power than you, and you’ve got to answer to that power. And you have to recognize that power.”

As a rapper, LL Cool J’s first record deal with Def Jam was in the early 1980s. Today, he is co-star of “NCIS: Los Angeles,” one of the most popular TV franchises. With songs such as “Mama Said Knock You Out” and “Goin’ Back to Cali,” LL Cool J has sold 20 million albums, with Grammy Awards and platinum albums gauging his success. He had his own sitcom in the late 1990s, and has been in more than 20 films.

“I’ve been blessed to be able to transcend eras,” he said. “That’s like a blessing. I’m kind of an anomaly. I’m unique in that way. Sometimes the stars line-up. God gives people favor in different areas, and in that particular area he’s just blessed me to be able to relate consistently to all different generations.”

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This was a very similar message that LL Cool J passed on when I first met him several years ago with a handful of journalists while he was promoting Last Holiday, a romantic comedy about how a church-going store clerk (Queen Latifah) who thinks that she is going to die spends her final three weeks. LL Cool J plays her romantic interest in the film.

Gospel music and faith are a strong part of this film. Can you talk about how you relate to that?

LL Cool J: First of all, I am Christian. So for me, faith is a huge part of everything I do on every level. And I mean from salvation to tithes to offerings to every other level and every other dynamic that you can think about.

I think that the film obviously shows you that there are many types of blessings. Obviously, health is a major kind of blessing. Living life, abundance in life, is a major blessing and obviously the type of abundance that [Queen Latifah’s character] was after was not only material abundance, but abundance of joy, happiness, and freedom.

Jesus said, “I came so you would have life more abundantly.” So, she obviously got to experience that. And I think that’s beautiful. Well on my end, I think that the fact that [his character] was continuously and constantly searching for love, the fact that he was loyal, the fact that he was willing to sacrifice and commit—those are all Christian principles.

Obviously Christ gave the ultimate sacrifice. But you know, willingness to sacrifice your life, your job, everything you know and love, to go around the world and follow someone is extremely important. Everyone knows here that true sacrifice and your level of commitment always dictates what you’re going to get. If you’re not willing to sacrifice in the hot sun and sow those seeds and go out in the field and really sacrifice your body and your time and your energy to sow those seeds, you’re not going to reap the type of harvest that you’d like to reap.

He did that. She did that. She was willing to sow the seeds of taking risk, of crossing the bridge, of fear, and dealing with fate. You know, she wasn’t fearful anymore. She operated with faith. And I think that it turned out well for her. She looked past materialism. She trusted—in the movie they don’t say God—but in reality, she trusted God more than money. Instead of taking the riches and trying to find a cure, she took the riches and tried to live life and just enjoy her last days. She was willing to detach from the money and anything worldly on certain levels, and I think that’s a pretty powerful message.

Have you ever thought about being a preacher?

LL Cool J: I believe in God completely. And it’s always refreshing to me to be able to talk about it freely with people who are on the same page and on the same wavelength. I mean, I don’t often get that opportunity.

You’re in an industry that does not nurture that faith. How difficult is that for you?

LL Cool J: It’s kind of interesting. Sometimes you have to let your life be the testimony. Sometimes you have to let your life and let yourself be the example. If I can be successful in the secular world and give God the glory, then it’s not so difficult. Because ultimately, he gets the glory, and the proof is in the pudding. If I can go out and claim a victory for God, and if I can go out and do incredibly exciting things and take my life to new dimensions and to new levels and then turn around at the end of the day, when I’m standing in the end-zone, and give God the glory, then I’m doing my job.

You have that crowd in the industry and the entertainment world that when you mention God, they want to giggle. Or you want to say religion and then they sort of peer at you with this weird face. Is it okay? Is it not okay? These are weird vibes that people have because they fear being looked upon as different from everyone else. But you know, for me, I love God. I’ve never had a problem with going out in front and saying that it’s because of the tithes and the offerings and because of the faith and because of the fact that I’m willing to step out of everything worldly that I’m able to be in this position. I don’t have a problem with saying that. It doesn’t bother me, you know.

Who nurtured you in your faith?

LL Cool J: I was raised in church. I read the Bible constantly. I stayed in the Word constantly, on every level, you know. Because I think that ultimately we need that strength. You need that power in your life, you need that wisdom in your life, you need that discernment in your life, and you need to constantly nurture the potential that God placed inside of you by watering it with that Word. You need to get it in you so that you can deal with the industry, so that you can deal with the trials and the tribulations and the temptations that come your way because of film, television, and music. For me, it started off just as a boy and here I am.

You went through some pretty tough stuff as a child. Was this the reason that you became a believer?

LL Cool J: You know what? Everybody has gone through a lot. The most God-fearing people in the world have gone through a lot, even in order to achieve victory. When Joshua was leading the Israelites and they were fighting their way through those lands that were promised to them, they were going through a lot. But they were on their way to victory. So going through a lot doesn’t necessarily mean that you didn’t believe in God, or because you went through a lot, God wasn’t with you. Even though the Israelites had to go through all those battles and all those trials and tribulations, God was with them.

I went through a lot, but it was no one thing that made me want to love God because I was going through a lot and he was with me, too. You see what I’m saying? There were a few times where God cleared certain towns and villages for them and they didn’t have to raise their swords; but not all the time. Sometimes he said, “Hey, you want those mountains and you want that promised land up there? You feel like what you have is not enough? Then you guys gotta go up there and clear the trees yourselves.” Sometimes you gotta go through things yourself. It’s not always easy, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not correct. You know what I’m sayin’? I didn’t have to be in a jail cell or be in solitary confinement or lay in a hospital bed in order to understand that God is with me. I didn’t need that.

Since family-friendly films are the ones that do well at the box office, why doesn’t Hollywood make more of them?

LL Cool J: C’mon, because a lot of people don’t believe. I mean, for every Chronicles of Narnia, which obviously, is what it is. We know what it is when we look at it. You know what that is—the resurrection of that lion! For every one of those types of things that come out, there are a lot of people who don’t agree, who aren’t on that page. Everybody doesn’t believe. While certain people are serving the one true God, there are people who are serving Baal or you have people who are serving other gods. So, that’s why. Not everybody’s serving the same God. And everybody doesn’t want to promote a product—that’s really what it is—that speaks to those principles because sometimes it doesn’t have to be direct. Sometimes those principles can be enough to promote the Spirit. Because God will come like a thief in the night as well, right? Sometimes the Spirit gets promoted without it being obvious.

In Last Holiday, you portray a working class man making a living selling barbecue grills, and you make that very believable. How different is that world from your world?

LL Cool J: Well, it rains on the rich and the poor, right? The foolish and the wise both die, right? First of all, I am a regular guy. I am a normal guy. I’ve done some things and got a name out there and had some success in the world, but I am a human being and I do have normal feelings. I have normal people in my family to think about. My lifestyle isn’t average; people know that. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t relate.

You know what, it’s a stretch. I mean, I want to do different things.

With Christ, the script came and he was able to be weak, even though it was the ultimate show of strength. When he laid on the cross it was the ultimate weakness and the ultimate strength at the same time. So you don’t always have to be the heroic guy with the gun, jumping up, flexing your muscles in order to be strong.

You played a sensitive guy, a wounded man, in Kingdom Come, with Whoopi Goldberg. Is that the kind of role you’re talking about?

LL Cool J: Being a rap artist and making the music that I make and doing the things that I do, there’s a certain preconceived notion that just comes with what I do. When I walk in the room, it’s already understood, people have an understanding in their minds of who they’re dealing with just based on my profession. But your profession is not you, that’s what you do. What you do is not you. There’s more to you than what you do. So these types of roles give me an opportunity to become someone different, to touch people in a different way. And even to actually be more relatable to people. It actually works better for me to have a make-down, than a make-up or a make-over. It works better for me to strip down and go the opposite direction. I think people can relate to me more when I get on a bicycle as opposed to jumping in a big, white limousine—especially in this capacity. You know what I’m sayin’? I mean, the blind can’t lead the blind. I’m not saying I want to be poor. I want to be as wealthy as possible and be able to fund the Kingdom and help as many people as possible. But at the same time, in order to relate to the people, it’s better for me to be considered one of the people.

You’ve got kids. How should families view the music industry and rappers?

LL Cool J: There’s that old Christian cliché that you don’t want to be so heavenly-minded that you do no earthly good. And then there’s the flipside of that. Jesus was eating with the tax collectors and he had ladies of the evening washing his feet and kissing his feet, and all different kinds of people judging who he was with and where he was at and what he was doing. And he was shining light in the darkest places.

He said, “I came to save sinners.” Not saying that I started on rap to do that, but what I’m getting at is this: There’s nothing wrong with being a part of the rap industry, there’s nothing wrong with watching videos or listening to music. You just have to keep God in your heart and have a true understanding of where your place is at in this world.

[Jesus] did not put blinders on and ignore everything that went on [while he was on] the earth. He wasn’t a monk, and he wasn’t like the Pharisees or the Sadducees who would try to be perfect and sit in high places in the synagogue and ignore all the regular people and be uppity and uptight.

I say this about rap music and hip-hop: Enjoy it. But, if you’re a Christian, you want to make something people can relate to and enjoy, but add some God in there, too. It’s alright, like on my new record. I have a song I did with [Christian recording artists] Mary, Mary. That’ll be attached to another film that’s coming out. This is how you do it—with balance. And other than that, I don’t mind if my kids watch the videos. But we’re not going to overdo it. The videos are not going to raise you; but you can watch them. If you were a young lady, like one of my daughters, and you see the girls, like what they do in the video, I’m gonna talk to you about it. But I’m not going to not expose you to it.

You have to be prepared for [spiritual] war. I mean, war. There’s swords, battles, blood, and horses getting hamstrung. There’s everything that goes on in war. So to raise your kids by themselves, isolated from everything. They’ll never be able to handle the war when it comes. We have to be prepped. And we have to be prepared for those types of situations.

 

The way of faith for Alice Cooper

By Steve Beard

Back in 2002, MTV announced that the biggest hit in its history was a program called “The Osbournes.” The half-hour show — complete with constant bleeping from excessive foul language — was a curiously fascinating docu-comedy starring the members of Ozzy Osbourne’s family — wife and two teenage siblings (the eldest child bowed out of the show). Ozzy, of course, is the British rock singer acclaimed for his ghoulish heavy metal performances.

CooperThe Osbournes had just moved into a new Beverly Hills mansion where they promptly bemoaned the loss of their former neighbor, Pat Boone. Ozzy dottered and mumbled around the house trying to figure out the TV remote control, his wife hired a pet therapist to get the dogs to stop pottying in the living room, and the kids screamed and chased one another around the Osbourne compound.

Truth be told, I found the show captivating in a strange way. Others, justifiably, hated it. The television networks were scrambling to tap into the newly minted genre of “reality” television. At that time, I recommended that the next MTV show should feature Alice Cooper’s family. That’s right, the spooky granddaddy of shock rock who festooned his stage with guillotines, electric chairs, and boa constrictors.

Imagine watching the reactions of parents as they take their sons to their very first Little League baseball practice only to discover that Alice Cooper is going to be the coach. Or where he tries to organize a carpool to his daughter’s ballet lessons (he had three kids ranging from 10 years old to 20). Or what about when he gets thrown into an unsuspecting golf foursome at the country club. It would be a hoot.

Today, Alice Cooper (born Vincent Furnier) still tours around the world doing his theatrical rock and roll show about three or four months out of the year. He still watches kung-fu movies before his performances and downs Quarter Pounders with cheese afterward. This zany character even shows up regularly at Alice Cooper’stown, his sports-n-rock themed restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona, where he serves Mom’s Tuna Casserole and Megadeth Meatloaf.

At the height of his worldwide fame, Cooper drank a bottle of whiskey a day. But the bottle almost destroyed his marriage to Sheryl, his wife of 37 years. He started heading off to church with her and felt as if God was speaking to him every Sunday. Even at the pinnacle of his ghoulish career (which he believed was no more provocative than a horror movie musical) he still believed in God. The son and grandson of preachers, Cooper’s faith was crippled by the weight of fame and the toxicity of alcoholism.

He experienced every pleasure that money could buy but found it did not satisfy. “I was the prodigal son. I left the house, achieved fame and fortune, and found out that that was not what I wanted,” he told HM magazine. “Now I read the Bible every day, I pray every day. That’s really what I’m about.” He continues: “I was one thing at one time, and I’m something new. I’m a new creature now. Don’t judge Alice by what he used to be. Praise God for what I am now.”

Cooper has taken the opportunity to speak to curious fellow musicians about the reality of the devil and the change in his life. “I have talked to some big stars about this, some really horrific characters…and you’d be surprised,” he says. “The ones that you would think are the farthest gone, are the ones that are the most apt to listen.”

Although Cooper’s shows still explore the haunting and ghastly aspects of human nature, its message carries a different twist. “It might sound absolutely insane coming from me, but what the world needs is a good shot of morality,” he said. Several of his albums have been dramatic interpretations of what the world would be like without the grace of God. The horror is there, but the message is profoundly different — redeemed. His alter ego is a theatrical prophet of doom, or a rock and roll version of a character pulled from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters.

As for the lifestyle found in some quarters of the rock world, Cooper says, “Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s real rebellion,” he once told the London Sunday Times Magazine.

In describing the importance of his Christian faith, he says, “It’s everything. It’s what I live for. If you gave me a choice between rock and roll and my faith, I’d take my faith,” Cooper told The Observer in Australia. “Rock and roll is fun — it’s what I do for a living. But it’s not what I live on. I believe in classic Christianity. I’ve given my whole life to the Lord. But I don’t think that means you can’t be a rock and roller.”

After all, as Cooper said when his kids were young, “I must be the only father that bangs on the bedroom door and says, ‘Turn that music up!’”

I still think that would be a fun show to watch.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.