Two weeks ago I attended an event that looked very colorful in my datebook. I have been a die-hard fan of the iconic “indie” Christian singer Jason Upton for approximately five years, but because Jason does not keep the rigorous touring schedule of a regular recording artist, I was not able to see him in concert until recently. I could hardly believe my eyes three months ago when up on Jason’s website popped the announcement that he would be performing in London just two weeks after I planned to move to the United Kingdom. I quickly joined the email list and reserved myself a ticket.
But “Jason Upton concert” was not the thing that sparkled up my calendar. It was, rather, an invitation I received from the church hosting him issued to all Christian worship leaders. Would I also like to come to a “prophetic workshop” directed by Jason on the same day? Why yes, please!
I arrived at the venue early on the afternoon of October 14, anxious for a good seat and also, I admit, a little nervous about what kind of hocus-pocus might be slated in as the content for a “prophetic workshop.” During my third year as a student at Walla Walla College I had witnessed an unusual (and at the time, disconcerting) “movement of the Spirit” in the lives of a few of my closest friends. They became Charismatics. How it happened remains a mystery to me (well, almost), but as time has passed I’ve gotten used to their talk about anointing, prophecy and all the jargon associated with that particular expression of Christian faith. I’ve been convinced of the authenticity of my friends’ experience for a long time now, even though it looks different from mine. I am certain that they have encountered the living God no less and no more than I have.
That said, there have been not a few times when I’ve felt uncomfortable in the presence of their friends. I’ve felt guilty for thinking that their church’s worship felt forced or “put on.” I’ve cringed at overly dramatic prayers, winced at public displays of ecstatic piety.
Jason Upton is a charismatic too. I suppose I’ve known that for a long time, but I didn’t really have to confront it till I saw him in person at his “prophecy workshop.” The event opened with another one of those awkward prayers echoed round the church in heavenly tongues. I scratched my leg and stared at my feet. I prayed silently: “Please God, don’t let Jason be like the people who creep me out. Let him be like my friends.” I feared that a really charismatic Jason Upton would turn me off of his music which has become such an important part of my spiritual journey over the last few years.
And so my ears were wide open when Jason himself finally got up to speak. We Adventists also hold “prophetic workshops,” though we call them “evangelistic campaigns” or “crusades” and we normally restrict prophecy’s dominion to the book of Revelation, Daniel 2 and the writings of Ellen White. We have been trained to see prophecy primarily as a source of future-telling. A product of my Adventism, I wondered if Jason would attempt to “perform” prophecy too—meaning I wondered if he would begin making predictions about any of the guests at his workshop.
He didn’t. But Jason did turn out to be as sincere and unpretentious in person as he comes across in his music. He talked very simply about the spiritual life and the emotive meaning behind his lyrics. “Religion gets routine,” he said, “and routine resists wonder. The sunrise happens everyday. The Bible is read each week in church and then we say, ‘Where’s God?’” To witness the miracle of dawn, a person must get up early and stare into the darkness until he or she sees the light, he said. And so as “prophetic people” we learn a mature kind of waiting—one that is not fantastic and self-gratifying, but patient and open to the extraordinary nature of subtle gifts like scripture and morning.
“Pray what you mean, not what you don’t,” Jason also said, echoing the famous line by John Chapman, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” Jason described an experience of personal dryness that once prompted him to attempt to “praise [his] way out of doubt until [he] became full of joy.” Frustrated and unfruitful at his keyboard bench he finally began singing other words: “I’m tired of telling You You have me when I know You really don’t. I’m tired of telling You I’ll follow, when I know I really won’t.” Immediately, he said, he sensed God’s immense pleasure in his honesty.
“God’s immense pleasure.” We often lament traditional Protestantism’s seeming suspicion of human emotion. But what about God’s? What are God’s emotions? It was in sitting with this question that I caught my first hint of what was supposed to be “prophetic” about Jason’s workshop. “To be a prophetic people is not to be a psychic people,” he said, “but to be a people intertwined with the feelings of God’s heart.”
Writing it now, that sentence shakes me with its possibilities. Isn’t such kindredness what gave courage and authority to the biblical prophets? One thinks immediately of Amos crying for justice among the poor, of Moses leading an enslaved people to freedom, of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and countless others yearning for the hearts of men and women estranged from the God who loves human beings. Excepting Jonah, these prophets mirrored the emotions of God. And Jonah initially failed at his mission precisely because he did not share God’s compassion for the Ninevites.
There is value in knowing the future if God chooses to reveal it, for God only gives good gifts. But at Jason Upton’s “prophetic workshop,” I received a different kind of vision and a new understanding of what “prophecy” means.
And I also left with a deeper respect for the charismatic experience. I arrived late to Jason’s actual concert in the evening because of a scheduling conflict with one of my classes. The doorkeepers were already too drunk with the Spirit to check my ticket when I arrived, so I simply wandered in and up to the front, stepping over prostrated bodies while looking for an open space to sit.
As I listened to Jason and observed the worshiping crowd, it slowly dawned on me that the style of expression exhibited in the church emerged quite naturally from Jason’s style of music. The worship of the people would only be different if Jason’s music was different (and I definitely didn’t want Jason’s music to change!) At that realization an even more important fact became apparent to my mind: I loved Jason’s music for the same reason that the face-down worshippers at my sides loved Jason’s music: Jason Upton is a prophetic singer, and the same Object of his songs burns in our hearts whether we bow before Heaven on the inside and the outside (like them) or on the inside only (like me). We are all bowing. We would not be listening to a prophet if we were not lovers of God’s own heart.
Listening to Jason Upton
Are you looking for a unique new addition to your musical library? If so, I highly recommend Jason Upton. Many of his songs flow in and out of each other and should be listened to together. On his Beautiful People album, for example, the song “You Decide What’s Beautiful” (at eight minutes and twenty-six seconds), moves naturally into “I Will Never Leave You Children (eight minutes and twenty-five seconds). Off the same album I also recommend “Into the Sky” and “Lullaby for a Petrified Sacred Society.” Other favorites of mine include “Will of God (from his Dying Star album), “Wait Upon the Wind” (Jacob’s Dream), and “Intro/Emma” (Trusting the Angels).
Jason’s most iconic progression is included on Remember, which is the album he is perhaps best known for. The song “When You Were a Child” is the heart of God speaking to his grown-up followers saying, “I remember you as you once were, as you really are inside.” From there he builds through a set of poignant spontaneous songs (meaning, he wrote the songs on the spot while in concert): “First Language,” “Lullaby,” and “Fly.” I find it difficult to listen to this triad without being deeply moved, though as a spiritually private person, I find it difficult to enter Jason’s music fully if another person is in the room. If you are brave enough to buy some of Jason’s music (and I hope you are—it’s available on itunes or through his website www.jasonupton.com), wait to hit play until you are alone and finished with the day’s labors. Turn the volume up and tune into the prophetic, the heart of our God.
Rachel Davies is the spirituality and interviews editor for Spectrum Magazine. She is currently working on an MA in Christian Spirituality at Heythrop College (The University of London).
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2740