Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Chance Encounter: Good News About Connecting with God

(One of my goals for 2020 is to notice and amplify the diverse ways people share the Good News.)

Three years ago, in Berkeley, CA, I was working with members of a community organization made up of faith communities on a "Remember Our Names Black History Month Prayer Vigil."

We were setting up our materials -- banners, displays, literature -- in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, opposite City Hall in Berkeley. Two young men came up and started talking with us -- I supposed they attended the high school that is next to the park. We were partly grateful to be able to engage these young men in conversation about the purpose of the important event that we were preparing for -- never too early to start promoting! -- and we were partly distracted by the need to get everything set up before the main event began.

"Remember Our Names Black History Month Prayer Vigil"
(Photo: Mark Coplan)

As I worked to drape banners over a low wall and secure them in place, one of the young men talked to me. The first things I noticed about him was that he was smoking, he was dressed head to toe in some team colors, and he was a white guy. He was talking about some musician he liked -- some "rapper something" -- who had been on TV the night before and he was really relishing the glow of that event. He said that he, himself, had made a point to wear that performer's signature clothes -- he pointed to his hat, his shirt, his pants, and his sneakers. I have to confess that I thought this was a little silly -- he was so happy to be communing with the rapper guy in this way, and I didn't even recognize the name he kept mentioning.

I tried to listen respectfully, but I also remember thinking, "Hey, I'm trying to hang a banner here! I can't seem to figure out a place to tie it down. Did you notice that I could use a little help?"

But instead of coming to my aid, the young man pulled out his phone and says, "Here, I've got it on video, just watch this!" So here I am, an old white guy standing in the middle of a park squinting at this little screen on a phone being held by this young man all dressed in red and smoking a cigarette, listening to rap.

Now, as someone who is endlessly trying to get people to watch stuff that I think is interesting, I felt the irony of this situation. Here was someone who was trying to change my world by showing me this important video, and all I wanted to do was pry myself loose and finish hanging the banner.

(And anyway, didn't he see how important this vigil was that we were preparing?)

*     *     *

That night -- for reasons that I can't quite explain -- I remembered this exchange, and I wondered about that video. I wondered what had felt so meaningful to him. I remembered that it was a video of the previous night's Grammy awards, and so I searched for the video of "some rapper."

This is what I found: a performance by Chance the Rapper at the 59th Grammy Awards ceremony.

Please take a moment to watch ChancePerform on Vimeo.

Chance the Rapper: "The first is . . . . "

I wasn't expecting to hear these words:

The first is that God is better than the world's best thing

God is better than the best thing that the world has to offer

Magnify, magnify, lift it on high

 . . . and . . .

Exalt, exalt, glorify, descend upon the earth with swords

I wasn't expecting the camera to pull back, the stage lights to go on full, and white-robed gospel singers flanking the stage, singing and swaying exuberantly, doing a full-blown rendition of "How Great Is Our God."

"How great . . . is our God . . . "

Most of all: I wasn't expecting to see the huge crowd of music industry VIPs attending the Grammy ceremony joining in -- standing and waving their arms in unison as the choir sang.

And I wondered: who would dare choose to perform this song at that event in front of all those people?

And I thought: this is what it means to spread the Good News!

(You can read the full words here.)

*     *     *

Chance the Rapper's Grammy performance of "How Great is Our God" made me think about a lot of things. I thought about going to a friend's church in Chicago and seeing how that congregation used praise music like "How Great is Our God" to create a completely different feeling than I was used to during worship. I thought about other times, when we've incorporated popular music in our own worship, and how great the response was to that. But most of all I thought about the enormous power of music of all kinds to enable us to connect with God, and I wondered why I wasn't doing more to contribute to that. And I decided to change that.

*     *     *

And when it was all done, I realized that what had happened was that the young man all dressed in red and smoking a cigarette had run across me in the park, and had taken the time to give his testimony about a message of Good News that was life-changing for him, and that he hoped would be life-changing for me.

And it was.

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