Pastor’s Kid

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. James 3:1

Sunset baptism, 2014

How many times have you seen your dad cry? One? Ten? One hundred? I’ve got you beat. I’m sure of that.

He cries easily. He married someone who does, too. As kids, we’d look over at Mom during the sappy part of a cheesy movie and see her crying. “Mom!” we’d groan as she sheepishly shrugged. Well what goes around comes around. All three of us turned into criers. My brother choked back tears giving his senior research presentation about fish in a lake, which I assume is uncommon. My sister just let us know she was weeping listening to the heartfelt message from Steve from Blue’s Clues. And I cry every time rewatching certain parts of movies, most reliably Shoplifters, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and Shrek 2 (of course).

I’ve seen my dad cry after someone prays something especially heartfelt, and when his daughter gets married, and when he delivers bad news, and when he hugs me goodbye. There’s a certain way his voice cracks, a way his face tenses, a way his eyes water that I know so well. Sometimes as I hug him I can feel it before I see it. I know what’s inside and forcing its way out.

But, unlike most people – maybe you, for one – I’ve seen my dad cry in public. Dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of times. I see that same tension in his face, that same way his mouth opens part way in anticipation of the next painful word.

Many years ago, I was in London’s Hyde Park, and there was a street preacher, delivering a fire and brimstone sermon off the top of his head, citing scripture after scripture. All the while he was heckled by two young men, saying “What does it say, Jimmy? What does it say?” But he continued, undaunted. After listening for a little while, my companion and I turned to leave, expressing our admiration for his preaching ability. A stranger, who had been listening nearby, said to us: “But was he speaking the truth in love?” And then he walked away.

My dad is a preacher. No, a pastor. There’s a difference. Maybe what I write here will help you see that.

He cries when he preaches because he is a man of deep faith who feels what he says. He cries when he preaches because his sermons are drawn straight from the holy, sacred scripture, which he believes is the very word of God. He cries when he preaches because his teaching is not just for the edification of curious minds, but for the nourishment of panting souls. He cries when he preaches because he is the first to recognize his own shortcomings and he is always preaching to himself. He cries when he preaches because he knows his very next breath is never guaranteed.

And he cries when he preaches because he knows the people in the pews. And he can never, ever be away from them.

If he was a preacher, then he could, maybe, leave the Church in the church when he goes home. They might not be there when he comes into the office. There might be one or two middle managers between him and the supplicants.

But he’s a pastor, and they are his flock. When he goes home, they follow him. When he comes into the office, they’re waiting for him. And when they bring their supplications, they bring them straight to him. He can never, ever be away from them.

And how could he? He has seen them born and seen them die. Married and divorced. Succeeded and failed. Sinned, and sinned again. Repented, and repented again. Sickness and health. Rich and poor.

A number of us future pastors were in a discussion group, sharing our vision for ministry. One of the others spoke of his great ambitions for his church. In five years his church would be this, in ten years his church would be that. He was very sure of himself. And so I asked him: “What if that’s not what God has planned for you?”

For over 30 years he has been walking into the same small office, pouring coffee in the same kitchen, gashing his hand on the same pulpit. That’s uncommon. His father, a pastor sometimes and a preacher others, moved to a new church at about the rate of a presidential term. Many pastors do the same, for any number of reasons. Some of them are good. My dad has had opportunities to go elsewhere. Somewhere bigger, with more resources, a higher salary, a clean slate. He’s never taken it.

It is not a normal job. The cliché is to say that it’s not a job at all; it’s a calling. And that’s true: the writing was literally on the wall as my dad scraped chalk against blackboard on the first day of his high school teaching job. This is not what I’m supposed to be doing. But let’s call it a job – he goes into an office and sits at a computer and gets a paycheck. That’s a job. But it’s not like other jobs. There is no schedule, no timeclock. Many weeks he will go in seven days a week, and be there from sun-up to sundown. He is a professional with a post-graduate degree, which usually means you’re safe from people dropping by the office for a chat. You wouldn’t go to your dentist, doctor, or lawyer expecting them to set aside their work to have a cup of coffee with you and answer a few questions. But you can do it to a pastor. It’s part of the job. And when he goes home, he’s got a cellphone that is his work phone too, and it is always primed to receive an unexpected question or terrible news.

Maybe some of this burden is of his own making. There’s not any reason he has to be the one to rearrange the chairs in the sanctuary, or shovel the sidewalks in the winter. He could go home at 5 every night. He could have an “emergencies only” policy about his phone. But that is not what the job means to him. It wouldn’t really be the job if he did it that way. The coffee doesn’t drink itself.

“And we’ve decided that, considering our circumstances, it’s really just best for our family if we move on somewhere else. You know what I mean?” “No, frankly, I don’t know what you mean.”

The decades at his small church have gifted him with many friends. Fierce friends. People who would drop everything if he needed it. People who would die for him. People who feel comfortable bringing their pain and sorrow to him, but who will also go to him to celebrate their greatest joy. And it has also brought him face to face and heart to heart with many who have come and gone, and, in doing so, ripped him to shreds.

You can change your doctor, dentist, lawyer. You can leave your country club or sports club or pick a different bar. No hard feelings. Leaving a pastor is different. You’re not just leaving them – you’re leaving their church, their Church. You are leaving brothers and sisters. People do it all the time, and, sometimes, there’s a good reason. And sometimes there isn’t.

I’ve seen my dad carry this, time and again. Tears are not his tell these times. It’s in his sighs and his silence. As kids, we’d badger him to tell us what was going on, to give us the church gossip. But, most of the time, he wouldn’t. Some things are just for the pastor and his wife. And maybe some things are not even for her. Anyone’s dad can bring things home from work, seem a little worn down or broken. But it happens in a peculiar way for a pastor. Often I forget my dad’s experience is unique like that. Often I forget that our experience as his kids was (and is) unique like that.

“I want to be the guy who leads people in the Lord’s Prayer and then says to the others, ‘Let’s roll!’… By God’s grace, when I face the sword, so to speak – or really – I will be preaching Romans 8, and Second Corinthians 4, and Ephesians 2, and John 10, and Psalm 23, and Revelation 22 because I know how it all turns out in the last chapter of the book!”

Perhaps I’ve made it sound like my dad’s life is one long work of misery, years spent in Teresa’s Calcuttan limbo. This is not so. His work brings him great joy and satisfaction. He is a happy man. And God has provided him with stalwarts in the church, with a loving, devoted, sympathetic wife, and, in perhaps his darkest hours, a little black poodle with kind brown eyes. “Garbage and Grace: a lot of both in my line of work,” as he says.

And maybe some will say that I’m biased, that, as his son, I will be sympathetic to him and harsh on those who have caused him pain. This is not so. I am – privately, and sometimes publicly – one of my dad’s harshest critics. I’ve been angered by things he has said and done as a pastor. Forgive me, Dad, but I don’t know – I honestly don’t – if I would go to his church if I wasn’t his son. And if I did, I don’t know if I would be one of the ones who would leave.

My dad has faced trials and tribulations in his work, and while he is in the twilight of his career – even if he goes on as long as his dad did – there are many more ahead. It hurts to know my dad will face that, and I fear for what might happen if the ending is not as graceful, not as dignified, not as satisfactory as he would want. As he, I believe, deserves.

But this is the life he chose. And it is the life, full of profound joy and pain, that all pastors – whether they know it or not – are choosing. It’s not normal.

And neither is being part of a church.

Church participation and membership has become just another part of life that so many of us take for granted, making so many churches indistinguishable from the rest of our culture and giving us the belief that the next church is always better than the last. The uncommon nature of church community has lost its power, and the indwelling, uniting spirit of that community loses too many battles to the petty concerns we are all so ready to wield.

Being a part of a church is weird, and it is messy, and it is difficult. And in every one of those weird, messy, difficult communities stand men and women who have taken up the missive to bear so much of that weirdness, that messiness, that difficulty. You may have one major problem at church. If that’s true for everyone there, what do you think that means for the person who is the common denominator?

Extend them grace. You don’t know how badly they need it.

I love you, Dad. I’m praying for you.

 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 1 Timothy 5:17 

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

The Lives of Others

When creeping on your neighbors becomes an existential moment.

In his short life, my kitten, Hei Bai, never showed any interest in looking out the window. Some terrible infection in his infancy had left his retinas scarred and cloudy, and I could never quite tell how much this affected his vision. In retrospect, I think the windows must have been uninteresting to him because he couldn’t see the birds and squirrels in the nearby trees.

My kitten now, Oslo, certainly can see out the windows. It’s one of his favorite things to do. And when a bird or squirrel gets close enough he drops into a crouch and makes a little chirping sound at it, the same one he makes when a bug is in the house and he wants to kill it.

I, like my son, also like to look out the window at birds and squirrels and dogs, but I also like to look at the people. This hardly makes me unique among humans. Last summer a variety of emergency personnel showed up at my parents’ neighbor’s house and my mom and sister spent the entire morning trying to figure out what was going on (someone had died). Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock made an entire movie about a guy who is a big ole creep with binoculars.

My last two residences were hardly panopticons. My apartment in graduate school was on the first floor of a complex populated mostly by undergrads. The front window looked out on the parking lot, where I would make awkward eye contact with the people walking past as I sat at my desk. The back window looked out onto the pool. I’d be lying if I said I never stole a glance at a woman in a swimsuit, but I almost always avoided it. So, front and back, I didn’t have much to look at. I did, however, get a small glimpse into the life of the young people who lived beside me. The young man and woman were both shockingly good-looking and hella fit (for my numerous UK readers, those are not one and the same). They had a cat who would sit in the window and stare at me with wide eyes. The young man and his perfect jawline and bulging arms disappeared for many weeks. I wondered if he was studying abroad or maybe he was a Guardsman and had been called up. Shortly after he reappeared, I saw them standing beside his car talking one afternoon. When he got into the car and drove away, the young woman walked back to the apartment, tears streaming down her face. I never saw him again.

After graduate school I lived in a townhouse with my brother. Most of our windows looked out on the townhouses across from us belonging to retirees. They weren’t outside often. The window looking across the street gave little vantage onto anything save the fronts of other associated homes. Not much to look at. We had to get out of the house to see anything really interesting, like one night when our neighbor was up on the roof shoveling snow. (Hands down the best neighbor I’ve had. Mr. Rodgers and Totoro territory).

Not so in my current residence, an apartment in a part of town that sheltered Wisconsin kids think is the ghetto because there are *gasp* Black people. I’m on the second floor of a dumpy little building converted into a few different units, and since I’m as close to the alley as I am to the street, I have a view into the backyards of a dozen different homes.

This has opened up new possibilities for my voyeurism. I smell a grill and scan the neighborhood to see where it’s coming from. I see with my own eyes the incredibly loud dog that I have considered murdering more than once. I spot an old man retrieving the Sunday paper in his pajamas. I watch the cat go down the alleyway back to the house I know is his. I see the loud neighbor kids playing in the yard and getting older and older. I see the other loud neighbor kids playing with what looks like a very real knife and a very real gun and saying “fuck” a lot for being that age. I see two burly men burning a bunch of stuff in a firepit that is definitely not supposed to be burned in a firepit. I see a fat shirtless man and a skinny clothed man revving up a minibike again and again, for whatever reason not satisfied with the result. I see with my own eyes the other incredibly loud dog that I have also considered murdering more than once (sorry for all the casual murder talk I just watched Thoroughbreds last night).

These are fun little things, obviously. The small talk of being a neighbor, the most harmless form of gossip. But it has also brought something a little more serious.

There’s an aspirational aspect to my voyeurism. I had some twinges of this in my first apartment, living alone with no cat, seeing these two smoking hot people living together with their furry friend. I was jealous, but not in the green eyed monster sort of way. I was jealous in the wistful, wouldn’t that be nice sort of way. What they had seemed great, and I wanted it to work out for them. Maybe it would work out for me. My heart broke just a little bit as that car pulled away and the neighbor woman wept.

There’s one couple in particular in my neighborhood. They’re older than me, but still young. I’ve only ever been so close to them, but they’re attractive and seem pleasant. Their house is well-maintained, their yard is perfectly manicured, they’re growing a variety of things in the garden, and they have a giant schnauzer that is not so loud as to make we want to send it the way of Wellington. On pleasant evenings, they’ll sometimes sit on their porch next to a little fireplace, grilling meats and drinking beer.

On paper, that sounds pretty nice to me. I don’t know them, but what I know of them seems desirable. So I’m a little jealous of them, but I also aspire to be at least a little like them. I wouldn’t mind living in a pleasant house in a decent neighborhood with a dog and a yard and the capacity to sip beer and grill burgers in the yard with the person I love.

My life is fine. I’m not going to complain about drinking tea and cooking Sichuanese food and watching arty films with my cat. I’m a tried and true introvert who likes having his space. I don’t want anyone’s pity. But these people definitely have some things I wish I had. I don’t know what they do for work, but they leave in the morning dressed well and come home at reasonable hours and make enough to own a nice enough house. And they have each other. It seems like they’ve figured out some things that I haven’t quite gotten to yet. Without knowing the details of their life, it’s easy for me to look on with longing.

That was until I saw the young woman in the yard sitting and reading and her head was shaved.

Maybe she likes the Furiosa look. Maybe she shaved it in solidarity with someone else going through it. But in American culture, the safest guess when a woman shaves her head is, of course, cancer.

Now I feel when I see the man in the yard or walking the dog that there’s something he’s carrying, some awful burden. There’s something there in his face, or maybe not there, something I never would have picked up on had I still thought he was living my dream.

I’ve been working on trying not to compare myself to other people so much. That’s no way to judge what I’ve done, what I’m doing, or what I hope to do. By extension, I’m learning not to compare other people to each other so much: old friends and new friends, old love and new love, old kittens and new kittens. They can’t be compared. They’re their own thing. My neighbors may be feeling an agony that I have ever known. It’s also possible that, through this, perhaps their life is on the up and up. Maybe they’re headed for their very best times because of this. I can’t know. We’re on our own paths. I don’t believe God has pre-determined every single thing I will ever do, but I do think God has a plan for me and a plan for them. And I pray their plan has a healthy and happy future.

My seemingly harmless voyeurism was also giving space for another habit I’m trying to quit, which is the feeling that my life would be better if I could just have this one thing (or maybe two things). If this one thing about my health was fixed, or I got this one job, or saved this one relationship, then everything would be great.

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.'”

I can’t, of course, know that things would be better, let alone perfect, if I got what I want. It was wrong to look at my neighbors and think, now, if things could just be a little more like what they have, then I’d be happier.

What I’ve learned – or think I’ve learned – about my neighbors is a bit of a burden. I want to meet them and try to encourage them. I’d like to help them. But what am I supposed to do? Ring the doorbell and say “yes I noticed your head is shaved do you have the cancer?” We don’t know each other. It’s given me a new motivation to actually get to know the people I live around. What good is it seeing the neighbor lady cry if you can’t take her some cookies and ask if she wants to talk about it? Why spy on your neighbor and learn a horrible truth if you can’t offer to drive them to chemo? If you have to introduce yourself right before you say “my condolences,” maybe you’ve already messed up.

Since this is already a light, cheery post, let me close by telling you about my grandpa who has been pretty sick.

A couple months ago, his health looked like it was taking a turn for the worst. I got a FaceTime call one evening from my dad, who was in the hospital with him. He said that grandpa wanted to say hi. But Grandpa didn’t really say hello; instead, he informed me rather plainly that he might be on the way out. He said it like he was telling me where he was going to eat lunch tomorrow. He was perfectly at ease.

The next day, my dad sent an email to the church prayer chain letting them know his dad’s situation. Part of the email read: “There is a strong possibility that he will enter ‘hospice care’ at a nursing facility. He is at peace with the prospect of being very close to the end of his race, by all appearances. He does not have pain, but he is very weak and frail. He does not fear death.”

As it turned out, the doctors were wrong. He recovered and is doing fine for now. But that doesn’t make the way he faced the end any less meaningful to me.

About a year earlier, I got a call from Grandpa out of the blue. I mentioned that I was unsure about why some of the things in my life were going the way they were.

“But God has his reasons, and I’m just waiting to learn what they are,” I said.

“Yes, well,” he said, in his slow way of beginning a sentence that builds momentum for his carefully crafted phrase, “Sometimes we never do.”

Sometimes we never do. Evidently that’s enough for him. I’m trying to make it enough for me.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

My Life as The Christian Rap Guy – Part V

In this series, I’m recounting the years of my life when I identified with a Christian subculture, just as that culture’s music was taking off into a new phase in its history. For a time, Christian Rap (CHH) was not just my favorite music; I was The Christian Rap Guy. Part I covered my origin story. Part II introduced the main characters in an unforgettable concert experience, and Part III showed how my faith and fandom changed after being exposed to new Christian communities. Part IV covered the fracture between CHH and Evangelicalism. In this, the finale, I become a hipster on the left coast.

Looking from Marys Peak to the Pacific Ocean

Two of the pillars of this series, and especially of this part, have been the power of live music and collectives. There are a number of these star-aligning live moments I can’t weave into the narrative of this part, so as a prelude I want to mention a few of the truly remarkable team-ups I’ve seen in concert that haven’t been covered yet in this series. This will also serve as a brief introduction to some of the characters who will get a mention when we get into the post proper.

At Legacy 2016, a special honor was given to The Cross Movement, a legendary CHH group, headed by The Ambassador, known for their lyrical theology. After they were recognized, they performed – most of them still wearing the button-ups they had put on for the ceremony. Here they were, middle-aged men stepping back in time to their rapping primes, serving up theology through holy hip-hop. Most of them don’t rap anymore – they serve God in other ways – but seeing them get to run it back was pretty cool.

For a short time, Swoope, Dre Murray, Alex Faith, and Christon Gray came together to form WLAK (We Live As Kings). Swoope’s album Wake Up had recently become an instant classic, Dre was an established presence, and Alex and Christon were on the rise. The group (minus Dre) performed at Legacy 2014, highlighted by a performance of “Long Way Down.” Christon Gray has one of the the sexiest voices out there. He could sing some killer slow jams if he was in that world. At Legacy Fest that weekend, Swoope and Alex teamed up with others to perform “#SameTeam,” Swoope’s forthcoming posse cut calling for unity in CHH. It’s one of the most loaded feature lists in CHH history. One of the featured artists was a tall, thin man with a thick beard and big, warm eyes named Jeremiah Givens, aka JGivens.

Humble as a mumble in the jungles of shouts and screams
Diggin’ tunnels under a stampede, beast!
Okay-kay keep prayin’ for the grace
We stay cold but never freeze
Like water at four-four blap-blap degrees fahrenheit
Where was I, dare if I share a terabyte, we don’t care if you verified
Your lil’ branch is just a fraction in the middle of a grain of sand
Or the hand of a master crafter of sand castles with the passion
Imagine, decapitatin’ dragons
We are just a vapor on paper on another vapor of a microcosm
Of a remnant of minions runnin’ like Kenyans like Obama
In repentance to the Father
Better warn the town the beast is loose
And you on the same team if the dreams from the same king
If it floats from the same stream
If it don’t then it’s gangrene (chop)

I turned to my dad. “That guy can spit!”

I had heard of JGivens, who had recently joined Humble Beast Records, but had never listened to his work. This was my introduction, and I was blown away. I had never heard someone rap quite like this, carefully crafted syllables on top of an expansive array of rhymes, all delivered live with precision. I knew I was going to be a fan.

WLAK only ever released one album, with each artist having gone their separate ways. They were, for a short time, one of the most exciting developments in CHH.

Around the same time WLAK came together, three men aligned to form the Dream Junkies. Ruslan, who emigrated with his parents from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union collapsed, joined forces with Beleaf and Beleaf’s brother-in-law, the young John Givez. They announced themselves with NREM Edition, and it was immediately clear that lyrically, sonically, and stylistically, they were setting some sort of bar. Each was an excellent writer and rapper, and John brought a rich singing voice as well. I was fortunate enough to see them perform at Legacy, including a stirring rendition of their jaw-dropping take on Hillsong United’s peerless “Oceans.”

Dream Junkies would go on to do one more excellent album, and then the group would go their separate ways. John Givez doesn’t exactly qualify as CHH anymore. Beleaf is more engaged in being a dad and raising up other dads. Ruslan has continued the hustle as an artist and a versatile entrepreneur.

Here’s where it gets wild, though. John Givez and JGivens are cousins.

Together, they are known as Cousin Neighbor. They’ve collaborated several times, but have only released one single as a duo, the mesmerizing “LM2FY,” and they performed it after the Dream Junkies set. I don’t know, but I’m guessing one can count the number of times they’ve done that song live on one hand. And, when they performed it, one could make the argument that they were the two most talented rappers in CHH. They’re both that good.

And, at that same concert, J and Jackie Hill Perry, the preeminent woman emcee in CHH, teamed up with Natalie Lauren for “Better.” Incredible.

By 2015, JGivens and the Dream Junkies had become some of my favorites, not just because they were, objectively, some of the best in the game, but because their West Coast sounds were becoming my preferred style. Hype music didn’t work on me the way it used to, and the trap and Dirty South sound that dominated so much of the rest of CHH wasn’t my speed. West Coast was becoming much more my thing, and I was drawn to the laid back vibes, instrument-heavy beats, and clever sampling of producers like Anthony Cruz and Daniel Steele.

But this really all began with the most important rap collective in my life as The Christian Rap Guy, Beautiful Eulogy.

I explained in Part III how I came to be a fan of the Portland trio after seeing them at Legacy 2013. At the time, I was still fully into, shall we say, “mainstream” CHH, but Beautiful Eulogy was my go-to change of pace. I loved the instrumental, acoustic sound combined with their complex writing style and unconventional vocal features like Catalina Bellizi, Josh Garrels, and Marz Ferrer. The formation and rise of Beautiful Eulogy coincided with a gradual shift in my own interests and affectation. I was, in my way, starting to become a stereotypical English Major and a sort of budding hipster. I would have rejected those labels at the time, but it was starting to happen. And the Holy City of that world is is Portland, OR. It was the spring of 2014, before I had ever heard of the Dream Junkies or JGivens, that I first searched the internet for universities with English graduate programs near Portland, and I discovered that Oregon State University was just a short drive away. Put. A. Pin. In. That.

Beautiful Eulogy introduced me to the Christian indie folk artist Josh Garrels (also based in Portland at the time). I didn’t pursue his work for a long while, until a friend of mine played his music in the car on the way back from the Christian leadership camp mentioned in Part III. I became a big fan very quickly, and while in Chicago for Legacy 2015, my dad and I went to see him at The House of Blues. My dad walked in knowing next to nothing about Josh; he left in love. We would go on to see him in concert the following winter in Milwaukee (with the friends who properly acquainted me with him) and again the next summer in remote Baileys Harbor, WI (with those friends and my father’s associate pastor, who also went in blind and left a fan (Josh and his band are so good live)). Josh Garrels, brought to me by way of CHH, was my gateway drug to that broad category of music we might call indie folk.

But, earlier in the week before seeing Josh in Chicago, my dad and I went to see Beautiful Eulogy in concert. They were going to be at Legacy, but the Wednesday night before the conference they were playing at a hipster bar called Township. They had done something similar the year before, but it was 21+ and I was 20. But good things sometimes come to those who wait, and this time the opening acts would be Alert 312 and none other than JGivens.

We opted again to pay a few extra dollars for a pre-show Q&A. It was important for Beautiful Eulogy to offer things like this, because they, like all artists on Humble Beast, gave away their music for free (this was an even bigger deal then because CDs were still a thing). I was too shy to ask any questions, but my Dad loves to make a connection (I don’t mean that as a criticism, Dad!), and he asked a few questions, one of them being, considering our church was eager to partner with various ministries, would Humble Beast take charitable contributions separate from buying music/merch/tickets? The three men kind of shared a look, and then Courtland Urbano nodded, stroked his curly hipster moustache, and said “Yeah, definitely.” It was another one of those moments that was a reminder of how the stars in CHH always had been – and still were – regular people, even if I still got starstruck around them.

From left: Odd Thomas, Braille, Courtland Urbano

With the exception of the outdoor stage at Legacy Fest, all the rap concerts I had been to to that point had been in theatres and the large chapel at Moody Bible Institute. Each had fairly high levels of production, from sound to lights to videos. Township was not that. It was a small, dingy dance floor behind the bar, with a stage about as big as my cubicle at work. And let me tell you something, Balto: that is how you’re supposed to see a rap concert.

After Alert 312’s nice drum-heavy set, JGivens took the stage. He played the hits from his ingeniously titled album El v. Envy and the singles he had released so far while part of Humble Beast. J is a natural, charismatic performer, easily shifting between elegant and emphatic. One song is enough to know you’re watching someone special.

At the time of the concert, Beautiful Eulogy had released two albums, and they played almost every single song from their discography during their set. It was a delirious ride, encompassing their range of styles and sounds. One of the joys of seeing an artist do an extended set in a small venue is there’s plenty of time and space for audience interaction. Odd Thomas taught us how to sing Catalina Bellizi’s part on “Take it Easy.” Part of the audience fell flat on the first attempt, drawing a “BOOO” from Braille. At the end of the song, Braille, breathing heavy (rapping a Braille verse takes the masticatory toll of a bad New York strip), said “That was good. I had to boo you one time, but after that…” he pounded his chest in appreciation.

The set was not without its mistakes, which are prone to happen when you’re working with a sound person not your own. They still utilized the light bulb show that they had invented years earlier, and the show was supposed to begin with the lights coming up to reveal them on stage as they began “Cello from Portland.” It didn’t quite work. Later, when they did “Release Me From This Snare,” Braille came in at the wrong part, and asked to start over. When they did, he started on the wrong line. “Let’s maybe move on from this one,” he said, but then a woman behind me shouted out, “Uh-uh, you better rap that song, boy.” Can’t argue with that. They did. It was great.

After the show, I met JGivens. He smiled big and shook my hand, introducing himself as Jeremiah. We took a picture together and he gave me bunny ears. Then I asked if we could take picture using his signature pose (one hand over the mouth). “Now that I will do,” he said, and now I was feeling myself, so after the picture I admitted to him that I had a bit of a mancrush on him.

“I don’t know how I feel about that,” he said, with a roguish side eye.

“It’s not like that,” I said.

“It’s cool, it’s cool, I love it. Hashtag MCM.”

So, okay, I maybe could have left it without telling him that I had a mancrush on him. But this interaction took on a very different meaning a couple years later when JGivens came out as gay. There isn’t the time here for a proper sidebar, but you can see a fascinating interview with him here and what I wrote about him a couple years ago here. Suffice to say, here, is I wonder how I made him feel that day. I still think about that.

Coming out of that week in 2015, Beautiful Eulogy and Humble Beast (which included JGivens, Propaganda, Jackie Hill Perry, among others) had replaced Reach Records as my favorite music collective. That, along with my love of the Dream Junkies and Josh Garrels, had me starting to wear flannels (sleeves out, two pockets, buttoned to the top, you rubes) and training my fingers to make a proper W.

The following summer, my dad and I went to one last Legacy, and, for good measure, we were able to see Beautiful Eulogy and JGivens there again. J now had all of his masterpiece Fly Exam to play from, including “10, 2 Get In,” which he did with Odd Thomas, and “Super Lowkey,” which is him at his very West Coast best.

Time for a curtain call for my dad, who could very well write a series called My Life as The Christian Rap Dad.

He was always at least a little self-conscious about being the old white guy at these things, and I so appreciate that he not only was a good sport about it, but he actually enjoyed himself, too. And, even though he stood out, the young people at concerts and at Legacy always made him feel welcomed. One time during a workshop, the speaker was trying to remember the exact passage of scripture he was referencing, and my dad raised his hand and made the connection for him. Somewhere in the classroom a young woman said “Mmm, yes, say that preacher man.” To be clear, there was nothing obvious that would indicate my dad was a preacher.

At that last Legacy, my dad and I split up during one of the workshop times. He went to a session led by Odd Thomas. As my dad would later tell me, my dad had become quite involved in the session, helping Thomas find something he was looking for when Thomas’ computer quit working. After the session, a young woman (like, high school age), came up to my dad and said, “You are just so great. Can I give you a hug?”

After he got his hug and left, I met up with him, and he was walking with Odd Thomas. Given the Q&A the year before and their recent workshop, I assume he felt they were basically friends at this point. He mentioned to Thomas that I was moving the next month for grad school at Oregon State.

“Pacific Northwest is about to change your life, brother,” said Thomas.

“He’ll be looking for a church,” said my dad. “I suppose Trinity (where Thomas was on staff) is a little too far away, though.”

“Oh, I know maaad churches,” said Thomas. “Hit me up if you’re looking.”

Sure, no big deal, just one of the most important artists in my life offering to help me find a church when I move halfway across the country.

And move halfway across the country I did. I’m not saying I went to OSU because of Beautiful Eulogy, but I can’t say that, had I never heard of Beautiful Eulogy, I would have still ended up at OSU.

However, as I’ve written before, my time in Oregon didn’t go the way I wanted it to. But while I was there, I had a special day that will bring this narrative to its close.

Once again, a concert of interest was lining up with my birthday. Beautiful Eulogy would be playing in Portland as part of their tour for their third and final album, Worthy. I made a day of it; one day in Portland on my own. I went to a tattoo shop for a consultation, drank a lot of really good coffee, went to a creperie food cart, walked around some lovely little neighborhoods, went to Voodoo Donuts, and ended up in the Portland Greyhound Station after dark, which, word to the wise, do not do.

The venue was a little café and theater called The Analog. The concert was in a delightfully dark and dingy area on the second floor above the café. It was, of course, a fantastic show. They played what seemed like an impossible number of songs, including the entire Worthy album. It was a good crowd, albeit slightly unschooled in some of the customs of hip-hop concerts, struggling with the high hands so much on one song that a man near me actually said out loud to the white youths around us “No, on the beat.”

Many of the attendees were part of Trinity Church, which added to the hometown atmosphere of the show. At Trinity, they sing the same doxology that I grew up singing.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him all creatures here below
Praise Him above ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

Beautiful Eulogy turned this into the hook for their song “Doxology,” and their live performance was thrilling. It has a perfect beat for high hands, and the audience sang the hook with gusto. It was, as much as anything I’d experienced, one of those authentic moments of Christian communion at a rap concert. It was a hypostatic union of rap concert and worship service.

Near where I was in the crowd, there was a middle-aged man and his two teenage sons. He reminded me of my dad, and reminded me that this was the first rap concert I had been to without him. Five years earlier, he had agreed to drive me down to Chicago to listen to my loud, wordy music, and thus opened the door to my new identity. Now, here I was without him, and it was an experience representative of my new identity. I was an actual adult now – not a college student. I spoke my Westward journey into existence, and I got myself to the Holy City of Christian hipsters to see my patron saints. I wasn’t the wide-eyed youth group kid blasting “Don’t Waste Your Life” in the car anymore. I had aged, I had changed, and now I was an adult, a coffee-drinking, cigarette-smoking-and-quitting, indie-movie watching, Bon Iver-listening, critical race theory-reading, blue candidate-voting, grace-seeking adult. But I was still coming back to CHH.

It’s been three and a half years since I’ve been to a Christian Rap concert. These days I listen mostly to sad indie music, Classical Italian music, traditional Chinese music, and lofi hip hop instrumentals. My life as The Christian Rap Guy is long passed. But it is forever a part of me, and I can’t see anytime soon when I won’t keep tabs on what my old friends are doing, or when I won’t enjoy playing some of my favorites again.

Music, as much as any other art we consume, entwines itself with our identity. Perhaps that’s not the case for me anymore, but, during some of my most formative years, I knew what it was like to see faith and music working together in a way that augmented the spiritual elements of both. And I will always be drawn to that.

1-1-Six to the death, my homies.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

My Life as The Christian Rap Guy – Part IV

In this series, I’m recounting the years of my life when I identified with a Christian subculture, just as that culture’s music was taking off into a new phase in its history. For a time, Christian Rap (CHH) was not just my favorite music; I was The Christian Rap Guy. Part I covered my origin story. Part II introduced the main characters in an unforgettable concert experience, and Part III showed how my faith and fandom changed after being exposed to new Christian communities. In this part, CHH and I start to distance ourselves from evangelicalism, and our relationship is never quite the same.

(All photos in this series courtesy of Cory Dahl (my dad) who is quite a fine photographer)

In the fall of 2014, Lecrae was on the Anomaly Tour, named for his album that had hit number one on the Billboard. My dad and I, still in our concert-going prime, would catch him in Milwaukee. It was primed to be a must-see concert, given that Lecrae was reaching heights no Christian rapper had achieved, Anomaly had a bevvy of concert-ready bangers, and he was touring with Andy Mineo who was, by then, his primary wingman. To me, this was the CHH version of Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne Tour. On that tour, Yeezy and Hove had wowed city after city by doing “N—s in Paris” as an encore five, six, even seven times. It was almost certain that Lecrae and Andy would do “Say I Won’t” as the encore, and I was, going into the Riverside Theatre, considering trying to organize the crowd to be so raucous at the end of the show to demand they do it over and over.

I’m glad I didn’t try that, because it wouldn’t have worked.

There was a lot that was great about the show. Lecrae and Andy are both excellent performers, and there were several moments that rewarded us for being down in front: screaming You Can’t Stop Me” with Andy,”; the beat dropping on “Dirty Water“; and, most especially, Lecrae’s performance of “Fear,” the best song on the album, which gives chances to shout “I ain’t never scared! Never scared, never scared!” and “JesusJesusJesusJesusJesus!” Thrilling stuff. The concert production was also tremendous, with an array of practical and digital effects.

But it wasn’t quite right.

Two years before, in Chicago, Lecrae had the entire Congress Theatre at his command. From the front to the back, people shouted and sang and gave the high hands. That night in Milwaukee, the group of us up front were separated by a fair distance from the rest of the crowd who were standing by their assigned seat. There were no chairs on the floor of the Congress, but I guarantee you if there were the crowd would have pressed up to the front. To make matters worse, the group at the front – there because we bought the early access tickets – was not necessarily cliqued up 40 deep all saved all serious. There were a lot of kids, and even the adults in the room were a little less into it than one would expect. The most telling moment was when, during a break in the show, DJ Promote was spinning some tracks and he played “Don’t Waste Your Life,” and, as is common at these things, he would cut the sound on certain lines and let the crowd carry it forward, rapping in unison.

We failed. Miserably. And this is “Don’t Waste Your Life,” at that time maybe the most recognizable CHH song ever written.

At the end of the show, Lecrae and Andy only came out to do “Say I Won’t” because artists just schedule encores; we didn’t do nearly enough shouting to make them come back out. The crowd in the Congress Theatre would have called for another until security shut it down.

Really, against all odds, Anomaly in Milwaukee is not even one of my top 5 CHH concert experiences (probably slot it at number 8 or 9 tbh). It was awesome, of course – if nothing else had happened but Lecrae doing “Fear,” it would still have been awesome. But it wasn’t what it could, what it should, have been.

It was the same Lecrae (and the same Andy), but there was something different in the crowd. There was a youth group vibe, a mainstream vibe, that didn’t used to be there. This is not to say that youth group kids can’t know all the words to Lecrae or sing loud at a concert, and it’s not a rejection of entering the mainstream, but I believe those factors in some way contributed to this environment where Lecrae was not connecting with his audience in the way he had before.

The Anomaly Tour is not a perfect microcosm for what was happening for Lecrae and for CHH at large, and the reasons for that show’s shortcomings are not the same reasons for what would develop, but it is appropriately symbolic.

If this part of the series is brief, it is because it demands too much to do justice here, and because I started to write this series for fun, and this is the part that is most painful.

In the wake of the killings of Mike Brown and Tamir Rice (and Akai Gurley (and John Crawford (and Freddie Gray (etc. (etc.))))), many Christian rappers became vocal about police violence and other racial issues. And they were immediately lambasted for it. Sho Baraka was the first high profile artist to take this turn, earning his banishment in 2013 with the release of Talented 10th, but after Ferguson, many more would follow. Without fail, any tweet or Facebook post or song lyric about racism was met with the Evangelical party line of “stick to the Gospel.” And this has not stopped since, with one of the most visible recent examples being that [redacted for explicit language] Charlie Kirk saying that Lecrae should never be allowed to perform at churches because of his support of Raphael Warnock (that’s now SENATOR Warnock thank you Atlantaaaaa). Fans have left Lecrae and others in droves, and now CHH – once co-signed by John Freaking Piper – is absolutely estranged from Evangelicalism.

And, well, so am I.

I went through a big transformation in late 2014 and early 2015, adopting progressive views pretty much across the board but, first and foremost, on race. And I watched in horror as the Evangelical world not only remained ignorant on so many fronts, but eventually came to throw its full support behind that [redacted for explicit language] who became the 45th POTUS, not once but twice.

And so, for a time, CHH was one of the few places where I was finding what I believed to be a just and compassionate Gospel being preached. It was a haven for me in a Christian world I no longer recognized. Now I could listen to my favorite artists rap not only about God, but about the applications of Christian faith in an unjust world. The unmatched achievement is Sho Baraka’s The Narrative in 2016, but the flow of socially-conscious CHH has persisted. Swoope’s verse on Propaganda’s “We No Entiende” from just a few weeks ago is…man. MAN. I was able to feel this new community each summer at Legacy Conference, as bold cries for justice, like Propaganda’s jaw-dropping “20 Years,” were met with approval, not criticism. Christian Rap was still my favorite type of music, and I was still finding content and community in that world that was a great blessing to my soul – something that still seemed, at times, almost too good to be true.

But I wasn’t really The Christian Rap Guy anymore. My sense of Christian identity and my love of this Rap music were no longer in harmony. The faith I found in CHH, the faith that led me to write my Master’s thesis on Black Jesus after years thinking about Bonhoeffer in Harlem, wasn’t something I found reflected in the Christian communities I had grown up in.

This fission also set the stage for the next significant in my development, which was a waning interest in the music itself. In the last five years or so, the sound of much of CHH has mirrored mainstream rap in adopting trap-influenced sounds. Lecrae even released a mixtape called Let the Trap Say Amen. And I just don’t like this type of music as much, even if I’m down with the lyrics. Maybe 18-year-old me, feening for a game of pickup basketball, would have loved all this music, but as I got older, my musical tastes started to evolve and slow down. I was still finding CHH I liked, but not as easily as I had in the Golden Age.

And so – what? – is this the end of the story? Estranged from Evangelicalism and falling out of love with contemporary rap, I went from being The Christian Rap Guy to a guy who occasionally listens to Christian Rap?

Well, considering Christian Rap may or may not have made me move to Oregon, I’d say no. No, the story’s not over yet.

In the fifth and final part, I find a new niche.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter