Yes, the title is click bait. And yes, I am classifying Kendrick Lamar’s latest, certified-platinum (its only been three weeks, y’all!) album DAMN. as a sermon. Scratch that, not just a sermon, but a great sermon. For those who are new to this great blog, yes I am a Christian pastor. And for those who may be wondering, “Why is a pastor listening to Kendrick Lamar?”, you sir or ma’am, should too! My point of this blog is not to give a synopsis of the album to compel anyone to purchase it, but simply to acknowledge its greatness in pushing the culture forward. I’ve poured over this album non-stop for the last three weeks. I’ve listened to every song several times over, nearly read every lyric, and read as many articles and blogs on the album as I can without totally abandoning my daily work. I was ecstatic when Kung Fu Kenny interviewed with Zane Lowe to give us a little more insight into his sermon prep and study habits. And when the true K-Dot disciples revealed the revelation that DAMN. reveals an alternative narrative when played in reverse order, it was like fresh revelation of my favorite scripture!
Some of you at this point may think I’m going too far with my analogies, and maybe I am. However, as a young pastor whose prophetic task is to engage the culture, energize this current generation to action for social change, and as Walter Brueggemann suggests in his book Prophetic Imagination, provide an alternative reality against the ineffectiveness of the dominant reality held by many churches and pastors, it is necessary to utilize the most influential medium of this age: hip-hop. Now back to the program.
When I was a youth pastor in Dallas, my youth introduced me to Kendrick Lamar as the artist (See my thoughts on interaction here). As I continued to listen and follow Kendrick’s career, it became more obvious to me that K-Dot is more than just an artist. He is introspective, calculated, and meticulous about his craft. He is a learner, and seeks to build upon the work and legacy hip-hop prophets of a past generation to elevate his messages, especially the late great prophet Tupac Shakur. What appeals to me the most is his honest articulation his faith, moral responsibility, and the calling on his life to inspire others with his music. One of my favorite artists growing up was Joseph McVey, aka, Z-RO (I still rock out to Ro, by the way). Z-RO is a raunchy, gritty rapper from Houston, known for his melodic hooks and hard-core lyrics, but also his honesty of his faith in God. And it was this honesty that drew me to Z-RO as a young wayward adolescent. This is the same honesty that Pac had, who inspired both Z-RO and Kendrick. And Kendrick’s honesty is the reason why DAMN. is already a classic, and a sermon everyone should have in their music catalog.
I can hear the critics from the rafters, “Chill out, its not that good.” Yea, neither was your pastor’s last sermon but he/she is still preaching next week so lets keep it moving. Let’s be honest: DAMN. gives us a full expression of humanity: wrestling with depression, anxiety, FEAR., and LUST. and other feelings in pursuit to become HUMBLE., increase in LOYALTY., and to LOVE. deeper. In his 54 minute sermon (shorter than a great number of preachers’ sermons), Kendrick reveals his understanding of sovereignty (DUCKWORTH.), his need for spiritual guidance and counsel (FEAR.), and ethnic identity (DNA. & YAH.). But again, most appealing is his honesty.
Quite honestly, as pastors we struggle with teaching and preaching the full gammon of the human experience. The Bible shows the lives of people engaging God in the fullness of their humanity, expressing the good, the bad, and the ugly. The Bible is filled with stories of God dwelling in spaces of sacredness, as well as places the religious leaders would dare to set foot. Like those religious leaders, we often speak as if God cannot be in both the club and the church, the late night street corner and the early morning pew, or the barbershop and the prayer meeting. We tend to get hung up on modern language usage (yeah, Im talking about cussing), outward appearance (yea Im talking about sagging and short skirts), and other social conventions (yea, social media, too) that do not edify nor tear down without seeking the wisdom necessary to discover how our social conventions help us to engage a robust God who is far more capable of handling humanities frailties than we are. It seems that every time we (religious leaders) try to trap or contain God, God bursts out, triumphantly, with exaltation and warning on the lips ancient and modern prophets.
My generation, and this younger generation, are seeking an authentic faith that many do not find in our churches. Many go to church and out of routine, or an ingrained teaching that mere church attendance is sufficient for spiritual growth and God’s approval, but many will admit there is something lacking to propel them further in their spiritual development. A great number of youth and young adults turn to hip-hop for inspiration, guidance, and influence. And like archaeologist, we sift through the sacred and profane of hip-hop to find the gems God leaves for us, which for many come more frequently than the gems found in church services.
What are you saying young pastor? I said it in the title: DAMN. is a great sermon. I understand for many of my colleagues and contemporaries may disagree with me. My goal is to move the culture toward a more robust and passionate expression of their faith is by helping them to become honest with God and themselves about their life experiences. God can handle it, I promise. God is not offended by our language, God is not afraid of our feelings, not shocked at our secrets, and definitely not hurt by our honesty. Matter of fact, God welcomes it all. DAMN. preaches that. The narratives of redemption and destruction show us that regardless of the path we choose, God is there. Our faith dictates the path we will take: faith in God or faith in ourselves. There is both wrath and mercy, grace and punishment, success and failure, beginning and end. This is the honesty of DAMN. And this is why it is one of the best sermons I have heard, and will continue to listen to, for years to come. In the words of DJ Khaled, “Iconic. Classic.”