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'God Is Everywhere Present and in All Things': Experiencing the Sacred within Secular Music

10/03/2011 03:03 pm ET | Updated Dec 03, 2011

Professor Kirk Byron Jones messed me up. In a good way. His Jazz of Preaching class that I so joyfully attended during my second year of seminary at Andover Newton, was a symphony of holy mischief with each class session simultaneously graying and clarifying where the believer may encounter the Presence of God. Back then there was much talk in seminaries and divinity schools about "border crossing" and that is exactly where this course was taught - at the closely watched and fiercely guarded border between the sacred and the secular. And that's a dangerous place to be. The few who dare step over the clearly delineated lines are either labeled as groundbreaking ambassadors or lost, wandering ex-pat heretics.

Jones invited students to not only visit the border between what is also called the holy and the profane, he invited us to dance on the border and encourage trade between the two warring nations.

We listened to Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson's Come Sunday, which I can't hear without tearing up. We raised our hands in praise when we played Coltrane's divine utterance A Love Supreme in which he says with perfect articulation through his saxophone, "It all has to do with it..." We praised, we wept, we paused, we danced and we shouted with artist after artist.

As a preaching class, the lessons on improvisation while preaching, blues preaching, harmony, call and response and the myriad of applicable metaphors are still notions that I draw from when I am given the honor of entering the pulpit. Jones wrote them up in his wonderful book by the same title The Jazz of Preaching. But there was a deeper lesson that I walked away with: The border between the sacred and the secular is not as firm as it may seem.

I was convicted and challenged to not only experience and worship God while in formal church services, but to be open to witness God's majesty, to hear God's word, to feel God's love in holy places outside of the sanctuary. My eyes were opened to the song of nature as all of creation sings of God's creative glory be it stalwart testifying mountains, the awe reflecting oceans of the world, beautiful flowers opening up with fragility yet adoration, or animals living in daily trust. I felt that the words found in the majestic work from Orthodox Christianity, The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, were true. "God is everywhere present and in all things."

I think that this is something that I had known yet had not been able to articulate for a long time. And it became most true for me in the expanding nature of what was "sacred" in the music that I was listening to and worshiping through.

There have long been musicians who moved gracefully between the sacred sphere and the secular. To many Christians this is nothing new (whether they support it or not is up for debate). Individuals like Sister Rosetta Tharpe or later Aretha Franklin blurred the sacred/secular line by moving easily between Gospel music and popular music. More recently, artists like Mary Mary and Kirk Franklin or rock groups like Creed and Evanescence (the latter two certainly more solidly accepted on popular radio) have blurred these lines having their music shelved in both Christian and popular music sections.

When pitching this article to a friend, he replied with "Cool, I love it but so what? Why is this important for the church?" It was a good question. Theological pontification about God being in all things might make for good seminary discourse but what relevance does this have for congregations, their leadership and their parishioners?

It matters because far too many congregations are stifling a worshipful imagination that could richly bless their congregants. It matters because many believers are missing an opportunity for new spiritual depths, new ways to Praise God, and new places to observe God's glory.

Let me momentarily step down from my soapbox and make a confession, which I do with some trepidation.

When it comes to my personal devotion, my private moments of worship, and my quiet moments of communion - along with silence, nature, and prayer, music plays an important role. I find myself worshiping with and through the music of a broad range of musicians including contemporary Gospel artists like Yolanda Adams, Hezekiah Walker and Take 6; contemporary Christian worship leader Chris Tomlin, The Schola Cantorum of St. Peter's on the Loop, and Gospel Rap group The Cross Movement, and others. Indeed the most frequently played station on my Pandora Radio is the Benedictine Chant station.

Yet (and here is the confession) while I am deeply moved, inspired, and drawn to worship through the above artists, it is in fact through many "secular" artists and their work that I most powerfully experience the presence of God. As an example, consider the following song by the well-known R&B artist Sade. It is entitled "Kiss of Life." It is certainly a love song, but I wonder if you may also experience it as a song of worship.

Sade's music has played this role for me many times. During my mid-twenties when I found myself vocationally lost and confused as to what I was going to do with my professional life, it was her music that God used to get me through some long nights. It was through her lyrics that God spoke to and comforted me during this low point.

"You think I'd leave your side baby? You know me better than that.
You think I'd leave you down when you down on your knees? I wouldn't do that...
Ohhh when your cold I'll be there, by your side..."

And I sang right back to God sitting on the floor with hands raised

"You are the Lover's Rock. The rock that I cling to.
You're the one. The one I swim to in a storm - like Lover's rock."

The music of artistic geniuses like Maxwell and Alicia Keys was a constant during my life when I was learning how to receive love and give love back to God. I have never doubted that much of their music was and is "anointed."

Or even more recently, during a particularly busy period with preaching and speaking engagements, courses to be taught and the daily demand of campus chaplaincy driving me to points of near exhaustion ...when it was easy to forget the reason for the long hours, the late nights writing, the busy schedule, God spoke through the wisdom of Janelle Monae reminding me that "This is a cold war, you better know what you fighting for."

Be it times when I didn't think I'd make it and I praised God with the words of Pearl Jam singing "Oh I'm still alive..." Or being reminded that God loves me even at my worst through the rich lyrics of rappers like Kanye West (Jesus Walks) and Young Jeezy (Soul Survivor), or through DMX and Pac's rich reflections on God's love and understanding of even "thugs", I've found that God has used music to lift me up just as God has used the hope of a sunset, the majesty of a mountain or the zeal of the ocean to touch me and speak into my life.

And yet this music - this "non-church" music has been more than just a vehicle through which God has spoken into my life, but the music of these artists has played a crucial role in my journey of falling in love with God.

To me, this is the point. This is why this matters. This is why I dare share this very private "heretical" part of my personal spirituality here in this piece. To me, our purpose, the point of life, the great call on all of our lives - is loving God, receiving the love of God and then loving those around us in response to God's love. The life of faith is a love story. And in my life, the lyrics of many love songs have helped me to grow in love with God.

Standing on the bus stop in high school, I would belt out the lyrics of songs by Boys2Men and Jodeci to the invisible Object of my Love. In college walking to class, while practicing my part in the love songs that my a capella group and I would sing, I wasn't just practicing, I was singing New Edition and Michael Jackson songs to my first true Love. During seminary, after class I would sing the love songs of Maxwell and Amel Larrieux looking up into the beautiful New England Sky.

When I discovered the Song of Solomon in the Bible it changed everything for me. God was not only Divine parent, but now also the great Love of my life.

Over our years together, I have enjoyed singing to and writing the occasional poem for my wife and partner. It is one of the ways that I show her affection and communicate my love to her. Writing and singing to God is simply another way to show love back to the Great Lover of our souls.

I hesitate to suggest it, but I imagine in just a few years, we will see more "non-church songs" sung by choirs and worship teams. The last few decades already saw the advent of services like Jazz vespers and an increase in liturgical dance. I could write another several paragraphs on dance as a transcendent form of worship and adoration. Watch an Alvin Ailey performance or the choreography of artists like Luam Keflezgy and you'll understand.

In our Jazz of Preaching class years ago, Professor Jones taught us that at the end of each of his performances, the great Duke Ellington would close by saying to the audience, "Remember, we love ya madly!"

In class we pondered if that was also how God loves us. With a mad love that doesn't make any sense. Perhaps our response should also be a mad love. A love that takes worshipful risks.