Q&A with Pastor Shem Uzele
By Amanda Ashworth
Pastor Shem Uzele was born in the Sudan, to missionary parents who were originally from the Congo. At the age of two, his family moved to Kenya, where he lived for 30 years until moving to the United States with his American bride, Christine. They currently reside in Wilmington, DE, and have three beautiful children: Anna, Sara, and Moses. Shem has served as a pastor at ccdelco since its inception and loves to lead worship.
I should’ve realized my efficient plan would be rightly sabotaged, having known Pastor Shem Uzele for more than 20 years. So what was my plan? It was to conduct a succinct interview with him that would last about 15 minutes since I had prepped us both beforehand with a list of questions regarding the spiritual discipline of worship. I imagined the answers would come easily to him, as his life and career have centered around this discipline for more than 40 years. I had even built time into my day to write this article and submit it to him for review. Never in my life have I been more happy to be proven wrong.
During the interview, we ended up throwing away my questions, engaging in introspective dialogue about the definition of worship, and sharing intimate stories about our lifelong struggles to really worship God the way our finite minds understand it. After an hour, I felt like I had enough content to chew on for an entire year, and the problem was how to pack it all into one, brief article.
But once again, I was missing the point. If there is one word to describe Pastor Shem, it would be the word “selah.” This word is used 74 times in the Hebrew Bible, mainly in the Psalms, and is a liturgico-musical mark or instruction on the reading of the text that means something like
“stop and listen.” The Amplified Bible translates “selah” a little differently, meaning to “pause, and think of that.” And I think that is the point of this Q&A. To pause. To think. To question. To take the time to ask God and then wait for understanding. To let everything go and simply enter into worship.
In fact, that’s where we began, with the simple question:
Q: What is worship?
Worship is essentially an offering. The word “worship” is derived from an Old English word “woerthship.” When we worship God, we are proclaiming (or giving Him back) His worth. True worship is the way a person conducts his daily life in his thoughts, words, and actions. For me, it used to be a Sunday morning exercise, but that’s really a time when worshippers gather. Singing is a small part of the expression of worship. In fact, Sunday should be a crescendo of what has been happening all week long, not just in song but in testimonies, fellowship, or any other spiritual expression. It should be the day that we celebrate God and one another and all that He has done.
Q: Can you get worship wrong?
Yes. Everyone has the choice about who to worship. Lucifer, a perfect being, made the choice to worship himself. He convinced a third of the angels to overthrow God’s rule. This story shows us that if you get worship wrong, it’s because you want to be worshiped. You want to be in control of your life.
I think about this pitfall every time I’m on stage. I ask myself, “Is it me and my talents on display or is it Him?” When I get worship right, it’s when I felt like I was kissing the Son. When I play an instrument or sing, I imagine how beautiful He is. That’s why we named the time we consecrate to God on Friday nights Adoration. It’s a time to come and adore the God we serve and love.
Q: How do you function as a worship leader when you make mistakes?
For me, God’s ringtone is grace and mercy. Whatever I’ve done, as long as I confess it and give it to Him, I’m relieved of the burden of it. I have to own my junk though and then give it over to God so that His Spirit can sustain me.
This act in and of itself is humbling. Like the song lyrics in “Lord, I Need You” by Matt Maher, “How I need you, Oh, I need you, every hour I need you,” when we confess that we need God we are ascribing worth to Him. We can’t worship God throughout the day unless we feel a dependency on Him. Worship depends on how much you value God and desire Him. A lot of us know that we are forgiven, but how many of us are overwhelmed that we are forgiven like the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair? He who is forgiven much loves much and vice versa (Luke 7:47).
Q: How did you get to know God as a loving Father? What about those of us with daddy issues?
When you become a Christian, you experience a spiritual birth to a spiritual Father. This is your heritage according to Romans 15:6, even if you’ve had a terrible earthly father. Psalm 68 states that God is “a father to the fatherless.” Our reality is not based on an orphan’s circumstances but on the nature of God Himself. God promises to be a Father to those that simply believe: “Yet to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
It takes us time, however, to believe we have immediate access to such a loving Dad. Like the story of the prodigal son in Luke, we have a Father that eagerly awaits our pursuit of Him—a good Father who would not give us a stone if we asked for bread, who works all things for our good, and who has great plans for us. When we sit at God’s feet, however, do we experience Him this accurately?
In my humanness, I desperately wanted this head knowledge of my heavenly Father to culminate in a genuine feeling toward Him as well, so I began to ask the Lord how I could feel His presence daily. He impressed me with this truth: “If you give me five minutes, I’ll give you five minutes. If you give me an hour, I’ll give you an hour.” After hearing these words, I began to understand that the more undivided attention I gave Him, the more I would “taste and see that He is good.” The affections, like in any relationship, came when I invested more quality time with the One my heart loves.
Q: How does worship affect how you see people?
When Jesus says love your neighbor as yourself, it’s already assumed that you love yourself, but do you love your neighbor? Our problem is self love. The truth is: if I didn’t worship God, I don’t even know how I’d begin to love others.
I love the portion of Scripture that starts with Genesis 17:1. Abraham at 99 years old is visited by God who asks Abraham to walk before Him—to just place himself in His presence. That’s worship. God always sees us, as the Psalms suggests, “Where can I go from your Spirit?” But there is a conscious step we need to place ourselves before God. We can do that before a meeting, before school starts, in the middle of a debate, whenever.
Positioning ourselves before God curbs any temptations—to impress, get angry, lust, etc. You see God watching you, and you see how He sees the other person you are encountering, a person that should be honored because they are made in His image, and you know your only reasonable choice is to love.
When I bike home, a lot of times I’m just praying, “God, I’m going home now. Help me be fully there and walk before You there.” Now, when I get home, there may be contention or whatever, but I know that He’s watching. I know that He is in control and working all things for good.
It’s much easier for me to understand these truths now, but I used to live by the law—and that was impossible for me. The law says don’t do this or that, and you can’t ever get it right. But now I can see my sin against God and another person and say, “OK, I see it. This is what You want to purge. I hate for You to take it because there is a part of me that enjoys it, but I know that what you give is worth more.” It’s like the lyrics from “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” by Edward Mote: “I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean in Jesus’ name.” And you know what? He takes it every time.
Q: How do you worship in trials?
I have songs that I have in my head. “Great is Thy Faithfulness” is one. It’s my anthem. I sing it when I’m happy, sad, confused, or quite frankly when I feel like I’m going to die. I sang it at my wedding. It really helps center me.
In fact, I went through a time when I couldn’t read anything and felt so sick I couldn’t even pray. It was a stomach bug that I’d caught in Egypt. Now, I’ve had malaria about five times, but this was worse. I developed an excruciating headache, and my heart was racing.
The scariest part was that I couldn’t sleep. I was a mess. Somehow God got me home, but I was still sick. I couldn’t breathe. I was afraid something was going to snap. In my mind, I started to think about my three children and my wife. I remember being a young boy and fearing losing my father, and now I’m fearing for my son and daughters because they must be like I was in so many ways. And then I thought, “You are faithful no matter what happens.” It was in that moment that I discovered I could still sing. I could whisper a song. So I whispered that song, and a peace came over me. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to sleep, but by the third verse I was dosing off.
Interestingly enough, there’s a way that trials like that make life simple in your relationship with God. You’re not about any impressions. When I was sick, I felt like I had nothing but God and that He was everything. Worship is like that experience. To truly be able to worship, you have to put in humility. The flesh resists it completely though because you are giving away something that costs you.
The South African writer Andrew Murray once said, “The Holy Spirit is likened unto water, and water always flows into the lowest places.” The lowest places are always the most satisfied with water, and it’s the same with the human heart. When we let go, we become that carved cup. We get rid of the material and can then be a receptacle. In fact, that’s what Jesus did. The Holy Spirit was given to Christ without measure (to us He has been measured). He went so low, but we only go so far. To the degree that you empty yourself, you will be filled.
The scriptures even paint the reversal of this truth. The greatest sin of the Israelites was that they abandoned the fountain of living water and carved for themselves cisterns that couldn’t hold water. And that’s what we still opt for at times—just enough for a quick fix. Worship, however, is getting into the stream and drinking deeply. When we enter into worship, we find God as a guest and a host. A guest because we offer Him everything, but a host because he serves us and fills our emptiness to overflowing.
Q: How do you empty yourself?
Personally, my own fears keep me from emptying myself. I’m afraid that I’m going to lose something I really treasure. Now I don’t care about cars or houses, but I care about people or how I appear to people. I don’t want to look like a fool. My fears are based on the fear of man, and it’s always a snare. I know that, and still I resist giving it up.
Thankfully, I think God in His mercy and generosity does more of the work to empty myself than I ever could. When I started playing worship music, I was in the background on stage, but people moved on and I was told that I needed to lead up front. I didn’t want to. I went home and told God that although I could play music, I didn’t know how to worship. I asked Him if He could teach me. A week later, I’m tying my shoe laces while a worship song is playing on a cassette tape, and I just start weeping. It was the first time that I ever broke down like that. I didn’t know what was happening, but I felt like He was teaching me something. It was sweet brokenness and simplicity.
After that experience, I started to lead worship. At times, I would stop singing on stage because I’d be so overwhelmed by God’s presence but didn’t want to cry in public (in Kenya, it is culturally taboo for men to do so, and it would’ve reflected poorly on me). So I would just stand there. I think God was trying to strip me of impressions during this time. It was very pure and authentic.
Q: How would that play out today?
Mondays are my days now to get wrecked like this still. For two Mondays now, I’ve sat and contemplated and sang songs. My prayer now is for God to just love me. I’m putting myself in a place where I can feel His love because I know that I need it. It’s a day for me to sit back, on my Sabbath, and rest in His presence and enter in—just enter into worship.