Tag Archives: gospel


Lifting Up Jesus Isn’t Always What You Think It Is

Sometimes all it takes to properly contextualize a verse of Scripture is to read the next one.

This is John 12:32 (NIV):


“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

I grew up hearing preachers and worship leaders quote John 12:32, and the application was, “we need to lift Jesus up on our praises! Honor him with your songs and your prayers, and God will use that to draw others around you into relationship.”

Now, let me be clear. I don’t think that’s wrong in the sense that it’s untrue… I believe we SHOULD lift Jesus up on our praises, and I believe God *does* sometimes use our public displays of affection as ways to engage others into relationship with him.

It’s a tricky thing, though, because, while Jesus did encourage people to pray and give privately to avoid showiness, he also publicly blessed the woman who showered him with expensive perfume. There’s a tension to be managed… it’s less of an either/or than a both/and situation.

Cause a lot of times, outward displays of piety come off as phony and calculated, like we’re doing it more to impress others with how holy we are. Or worse, trying to impress God! To Jesus, these displays are ridiculous and sad, akin to Ted Cruz trying to court Indiana voters by referring to the “basketball ring.”


The End Is Near, Still. Yup, Still Near. Any Day Now. So … What Are We Gonna Do?

So, I grew up a music nerd.

Specifically, I grew up as a Christian music nerd, and while I know the term “Christian music” can be problematic, let the record reflect that in the beginning of this sentence, the word “Christian” is modifying “nerd,” not “music,” which means that really what I’m saying is I was a music nerd who was also a Christian.

(Lest anyone doubt my nerd credentials, I present as Exhibit A: that previous sentence.)

I listened to a lot of contemporary gospel, and to what people later in the 90s referred as “CCM” (contemporary Christian music) which means that because my parents were harbingers of diversity — or, more accurately because they were New York transplants in the Pacific Northwest and needed to retain elements of blackness in order to retain their sanity — they exposed me to the best Christian music from both white and black artists. My love for the music of Andrae Crouch is well documented, but there was plenty of Russ Taff and The Imperials, Edwin & Tramaine Hawkins, The Winans, Reba Rambo & Dony McGuire, Commissioned, Michael W. Smith, Sandy Patti, the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, Rev. Milton Brunson & The Thompson Community Choir… on and on.


The One Where Jelani Introduces Himself.

I recently started writing for a publication called Off the Page, from the creators of the popular Our Daily Bread devotional series. It’s a new forum for me to start talking about my favorite examples from pop culture and to show how the Bible can be relevant to everyday life. Anyway, I thought it might be important for any new readers to get a sense of who I am if they’re new to my writing, so I wrote this piece as an introduction.


You know how sitcoms always have that one episode full of flashbacks?

Growing up, I always loved those to watch those episodes, mostly because they always included scenes I hadn’t seen yet. I didn’t grow up with DVRs or video on demand, so the only way I could ensure that I saw every episode of my favorite series was to make sure I was in front of the TV at the same time every week — which rarely happened. (And that was assuming my behavior was good enough to warrant TV-watching-privileges that day.)

So yeah, those clip shows were always showing me what I’d missed along the way.


If You Love American Music, You Have Andraé Crouch to Thank

(Editor’s Note: Yes, the title is a bit clickbaitey, but hang with me. I’ll back it up.)


Yesterday, Andraé Crouch slipped into eternity, present in full with the Lord, in perfect peace.

I’ve been half suspecting, half dreading that this day would come for a while now, and yet now that it has, I still feel completely unprepared — probably because it’s hard for me to imagine a musical landscape where Andraé Crouch was not still creating such soul-stirring, inventive, revolutionary music.

Part of the reason why it’s always profoundly bothered me when I hear someone make the blanket declaration that “Christian music sucks” is that it never tracked with my reality.

Because how could it? Sure, my parents played Earth Wind & Fire like any self-respecting Black people did, but my childhood musical diet consisted mostly of Christian music, from luminaries like The Winans, Walter, Edwin & Tramaine Hawkins, The Imperials, and then much later, Commissioned (then eventually as a teen and college student, Fred Hammond). But towering above them all was Andraé Crouch, a man who I would later come to realize was a musician’s musician — that is, the kind of musician that other great musicians consulted, collaborated with, and gathered around.


Reconciling My Opposite Perceptions of Joel Osteen & Israel Houghton

Life is full of irony.

For example, one of my favorite worship musicians that I respect tremendously, happens to serve the congregation of a church led by a pastor that I have very little respect for. Because they are both very prominent personalities, and because their ministries are often recontextualized for purposes that extend far beyond Lakewood Church itself, it’s easy to forget that Joel Osteen and Israel Houghton are, in a very basic sense, ministry coworkers.


We Belong

So for the past sixteen months or so, I’ve been serving as the interim worship director for a church plant just west of Portland, called Kaleo Covenant Church. How I ended up there is sort of a long story for another time, but it will suffice to say that it’s more than just a gig for me. The pastor there is Troy Hoppenrath, a man whom I enjoy serving alongside immensely, in no small measure because of his crazy stories, the manic energy that only a former youth pastor can bring to the pulpit, and what I perceive as a fearless willingness to take ministry risks (case in point: me).


The Sentient Song Fallacy — Why Christian Music Sucks

If you’ve ever wondered why it is that Christian music sucks, I have a hypothesis.

But first, I just have to say —  “The Sentient Song Fallacy” — doesn’t that sound like an episode of The Big Bang Theory? Get at me, Chuck Lorre! I’m a budding screenwriter, I do some stand-up, and I can even act a little bit. I promise I won’t go on any drunken tirades about tiger’s blood.

Anyway, here’s my definition:

The Sentient Song Fallacy is the erroneous idea that a song can be Christian.

Jam of the Moment

Jam of the Moment: #putyourloveglasseson

Beckah Shae

#putyourloveglasseson (Single)

Shae Shoc Records



There are so many things that I love about this song.

And let me be clear. This song is probably not going to be considered by anyone as “great art.” It is not rife with moral ambiguity, or a profound sense of personal identity, and it doesn’t make any statements about any of the defining issues of our day, unless a general lack of love qualifies.

(Actually, now that I’m thinking about it… yes. Yes, it does.)

Because this is a song about love, wrapped up in a modern R&B/hip-hop shell and adorned with the most original and gimmicky song title in years, complete with Twitter hashtag for maximum trendability.

And maybe on a subconscious level, part of what I respect about this song is that it knows exactly what it is, and doesn’t try to do more. The style of the song, especially the hypnotic rhythm of the chorus, suggests a lyrical paradigm that doesn’t ask much of you, other than to nod to the music, and agree with the general premise, that we all need to put our love glasses on — whatever that means.

See, I’m already getting ahead of myself.

First, I really dig Beckah Shae’s voice. She has the voice of a modern R&B diva — playful but assured, smooth but still powerful. It carries enough punch that you want to hear what she has to say, but not so much that you can’t enjoy the delivery.

The playful vibe is augmented by her husband Jack “Shoc” Shocklee, who has a good feel for production. His synth chords and 808 beats are evocative of classic hip-hop, but unlike the more famous Shocklee duo (The Bomb Squad of Public Enemy fame), he eschews the overcrowded sampling or overly aggressive beat subdivision. Rather, he establishes a groove and lets it variate throughout the song. His instrumentals might not be that interesting by themselves, but he wisely gives room for Beckah’s expansive voice to fill the aural space.

And also, let’s just be honest, I love the chorus itself. It is, very, very catchy and fun to say — almost the evangelical equivalent of the classic woodchuck tongue twister, with all the “love”s and “putcha”s moshing around in your mouth. This is the positive version of the ridiculous pimpin-pimpin-pimpin-murder-murder-sell-drugs song from that Don’t Waste Your Life promo video. Catchy enough to spread.

The last, and most important thing, of course, is the meaning of the song. In case the above hyperlink to Beckah’s blog failed to interest you, I will just tell you. The meaning of the phrase “put your love glasses on,” is to abide in Christ to such a degree that you begin to see the world around you more like how he sees it, through a lens of love.

And I’m not ashamed to say that I need more reminders to do this, to walk and live in this way. Someone inconveniences me, someone gets on my nerves, and I need to be like, “RIGHT… love glasses… got it.”

Really, this song is one of the best examples I’ve seen recently of “Christian music,” that is, music by believers in Christ intended to virally spread His worldview. It’s not soul-wrenching emo, it’s not going to bring anyone to their knees or be the rock-you-to-the-core catalyst for a dramatic life conversion (at least, not that I can tell).

But it’s sticky, and according to Seth Godin, idea diffusion means that the sticky ideas rule. Well, in this case, sticky songs rule.

Which is why, “#putyourloveglasseson” is today’s Jam of the Moment.



Jam of the Moment

Jam of the Moment: Only Help

Tye Tribbett, Fresh, “Only Help”

So I’m going through some things.

Like, the kind of “going through” that you might hear from one of the saints who’s been around the block a few times and is waiting on the Lord to get their breakthrough… that kind of “going through.”

One of the things I’ve noticed is that when I’m going through something big, or maybe not even anything that’s a super-big deal, but if I’m just in a bad mood or whatever, the music I’m playing tends to fall into one of two camps.

Either it’s…

1.) I’m really not doing okay and I want to listen to something languid and full of melancholy and ennui that expresses a measure of the blah feeling that is plaguing me… or,

2.) I’m going to be a grown-up, practice what I preach as a professional Christian and worship-leader-type, and listen to something that will encourage me and/or help me to worship, despite whatever I happen to be feeling.

Many times I’m quite aware that the right thing to do, the thing that will promote the most edification and be the best for me long-term is option number 2, but sometimes I just can’t stand doing option number 2, because sometimes it just feels so doggone FAKE. It’s like, no… I don’t feel like being a happy, shiny, good Christian. My life sucks right now, and *I* suck right now, and I feel like garbage, so I’m not trynna hear all that bless-the-Lord crap.

Into the void comes, “Only Help,” this tune by Tye Tribbett, from his 2010 release, “Fresh.”

I love it because when it starts out, it’s a great confessional tune. Like David the psalmist laying his soul bare before the Lord, Tye holds nothing back:

I can almost tell you each time I’m gonna fall
Devil always paint the same picture, sweet frame and all
I wanna change
And you would think by now I’d catch the scenario
Sorta like a old sitcom playing the same show
I wanna change

I’m listening to this and I’m like yep… that’s me. THAT’S ME. *I* feel that way, yes, thank you. Thank you for voicing these feelings!

But he doesn’t stop there. As a response to his own futility and brokenness, a desperate plea of praise and adoration wafts out…

I lift my hands to You

You’re my only help.

And just like that, Tye Tribbett has done what few songs can do for me… help me to get from where I am, to where I need to be.


What a tremendous gift.


And apart from the emotional and spiritual dimensions to the song, I like how the accompaniment really sets the mood. The verses are sparse, with a few bass notes and a few chords and sound effects scattered about, like hardwritten scribbles in a journal.

But when the chorus comes, the vocals usher in a soft, floating ascent into a different musical space, and even though it’s auto-tuned, it’s anything but cold or antiseptic. And at the end of the tune, the Hammond organ swells and takes over, providing the only accompaniment, and after the vocals fade, it keeps going, like a testament to the rock-solid faith of saints who have gone before and made the same plaintive cry… yes, Jesus, you are our only help.

I had to put that one on repeat for awhile.

And that is why it’s today’s jam of the moment. You can listen here, buy it here.

(And by the way, if you’re really blessed by this song, don’t just use the first link. Use the second link, too.)

You can listen  to Tye Tribbett talk about the song here:


The Keys Beckon

(Author’s note: the following was written as a short story, intended for submission into a competition. At the last minute, I balked, because I didn’t want to pay what I felt was an outrageous entry fee. But I selfishly kept the story to myself. Consider this post an apology.)

(Author’s note, redux: this story, by the way, is quite true, to the best of my memory.)

My music is loud, my countenance is low, and my bag is heavy.

The music I use to keep my energy up, and to repel the equally hostile glances of fear and indifference from my fellow travelers. Sadly, my history of city life has made this normal. I don’t take it personally. As the booming bass underscores the kaleidoscope of frequencies through the headphones that massage my brain, I keep my poker face handy.

I’m through the security checkpoint, and I’m ready to sit. I won’t let my posture show it quite yet, but I’ve been walking for awhile. The trip has just started, and already I feel worn out. I’m like Steve Martin in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”  Ideally, I’d just like to get to the gate, plug in my computer, and relax. As I trudge forth, that’s pretty much the plan.

Except, there it is.

Ever since college, I’ve always been drawn to the sight of a grand piano in public space. Something about the combination of private escape and public exhibition, I find irresistible. Maybe it’s because size of the piano shields my visage from public gaze, yet I still get to make a connection.

Or maybe it’s because I love confounding people’s expectations. Like gun owners who hackey-sack, or vegans who barbecue, I love being a hip-hop minister who also plays the piano. Every time I get to share those gifts together, the competing cultural connotations get all mashed up and spun around until they no longer divide like they’re supposed to.

I’m a veritable Kanye Tesh.

Of course, none of that is on my mind right now. I mostly just want to feel the weight of the keys, and hear the sound of grand, majestic chords echoing through the concourse.

So I discreetly lay down my carry-on, and slide onto the black cushioned bench.

I don’t really have a plan at first, I just fumble around a bit. G-major nine, A-sus over B. Plunking and noodling around. Eventually I end up in E-flat. Silently, I ask the Lord to guide my fingers. And when He does, I don’t even really recognize what I’m playing until I’m halfway into it.

What. Can. Wash.

A… way… my… sins…

A smile leaks out, as the truth sinks in.

I’m supposed to be meeting a friend at the gate, and I don’t know if I’m late or not. At the moment, I don’t care. Flight or no, this is my calling in the moment.

Oh, precious, is the flow.

Another hand joins mine.

What the… ?

I look up and see the grin of an older man. Eastern European, looks like. Though a stranger, his eyes sparkle with familiarity. He has come to join me.  I slide over and give him room on the bench.

As he plunks along the upper register of the keyboard, I’m holding it down along the middle and low.

We get louder. I’m breaking out my gospel chords. He’s starting to solo a bit. What started as a stilted, tentative melody has now become a spirited, rollicking cadence. I look up, and a few people have stopped to listen.

And watch, apparently. As I scan the room, there are people in various poses and shades of professional dress, who have stopped to take in the spectacle.

We must be quite a sight, I think.

The head-bobbing fitted cap and the cackling, gleeful trench coat, grooving in awkward synchronicity. What on earth could’ve brought these two together, other than a grand piano in the middle of Portland International Airport?

Nothing but the blood, of Jesus.


We finish our musical jaunt to a smattering of scattered applause. I shake his hand, we pose for a picture, and I’m out.

*           *           *

At the gate, I spy my friend and fellow emcee.

“Was that you on the piano?”

I nod, sheepish.

“Sounded like there was somebody else with you.”

“Yeahh,” I stammer, not really knowing how to explain what just happened.

He looks at me, and smiles

“Next time, you should bring some of your beats.”

Now that would be cool. Maybe next time.