A letter to my kids: Learn from our mistakes.

Mideast Syrian Refugees Rethinking Aid

FILE – In this Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015 file photo, a Syrian refugee child sleeps in his father’s arms while waiting at a resting point to board a bus, after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen, File)

E and H,

The world is on fire.

People are afraid because men, overcome by anger and hatred and fueled by a false ideology, have killed thousands in cities over the sea. Fear and grief does something to the human heart- it divides us and turns us on each other. Where once we saw a person who dressed differently, or who spoke with an accent, we now see monsters in people who love, hurt, fear and laugh in the very same ways you and I do.

One day, in school, you’ll learn about the events of 2015. It was an explosive year.

You’ll learn about the massacre in Paris, the bombing in Beirut, the riots in Ferguson, police brutality against minorities, the Supreme court decision about equal marriage, and ultimately, you’ll stand with some distance and see how the Church responded to it all. I’m afraid you won’t like what you read.

You’ll read about how the lifeless bodies of kids, not much older than you are now, which washed up on nameless shores and read about how our leaders called for the return of the innocent millions back to a country which has already slaughtered millions of their people. This while the biggest issue we face is the removal of Santa from a red coffee cup.

You’ll read about how our country divided among racial and socio-economic lines. Our churches more willing to side with the powerful at the expense of the oppressed. How we shamed those who dare speak out that an unjust system should be reformed.

You’ll see fear and brokenness which saturated our responses.

You’ll see the fear in our words and in our legislation.

You’ll see the division in our attempts for control.

You’ll see how we refused to affirm the Imago Dei, the image of God, in others because we listened to a pundit rather than a poor immigrant born in a manger.

If I’m honest, most days I worry we’ve elevated Herod over the impoverished baby from Bethlehem. 

I write you this letter not to shame myself or others, instead I write these words because I desperately want you to learn from our failure. I hope our actions reveal the deadly consequences of choosing partisan politics and fearfulness over the optimism of grace and the hope of an emerging, Christ-centered Kingdom.

In many ways, the problems of today will be the problems of tomorrow. While the names, dates and events will be different, the tendency to walk the path of fear will be the same. After all, we know people will always peddle fear; societies trade fear like currency.

Fear sells magazines and fear gets clicks, but fear will never change the world for the better. Fear can only consume us. Eating away the good in us, and blinding us to the humanity in others.

So, my children, please learn from us.

Know that life doesn’t need to be lived in fear.

Know every life is deeply valuable. All life. Not just life in a womb. Not just in America. The life of a dead Syrian child weighs every bit as much as a living America child.

Know there is something deeply holy about defending from harm someone you dislike or disagree with.

Know that the simple act of hospitality can change the world. Never underestimate the power of a warm bowl of soup, or a warm bed, to heal divisions among enemies.

Ultimately, I wish we had been better. I wish we had modeled the Kingdom of God better. However, as a pastor, I know God is always at work. His spirit is always moving. And I know he’ll mold and shape us. I know we’ll grow. I know these wounds will heal.

So, my kids, hear my heart, learn from us, and live in radical hope. Live in Kingdom optimism. Live in  love. Live out forgiveness. Offer grace. Bring about peace. Fight for reconciliation.

It may cost your life, but that’s a life worth losing.

I love you, and am proud of who you are becoming.

Your dad.

The hypocrisy in the pro-life platform. (And why there’s hope for the church)

This has been a year unlike any I’ve ever witnessed. As we approach the Thanksgiving (and Christmas!!) season, I find myself reflecting on the past 12 months.

It’s been a busy year.

Our country has watched as police violence committed against minorities has become a daily (important and politically divisive) discussion.

McGill Vigil for Ferguson, by Gerry Lauzon. Creative Commons.

McGill Vigil for Ferguson, by Gerry Lauzon. Creative Commons.

We’ve watched as the Supreme Court recognized equal marriage for everyone, heterosexual and same-sex alike. We then watched as a county clerk defied that ruling.

“The People Petition The United States Supreme Court, “Equal Justice Under Law”, Rally For Gay Marriage, Washington, DC” by Gerald L. Campbell. Creative Commons.

We watched millions flee a war-torn Syria, and watched as countries wrestled with what it means to be a good neighbor. We also watched some coldly close their borders to those in need.

“Syrian family crossing into Lebanon fleeing the fighting inside the country. It is estimated that 200,000 have fled Syria.” by Abayomi Azikiwe. Creative Commons

We watched in horror as multiple mass shootings were committed against our children.

mass shooting

I think if we were honest, it would feel like our world is struggling with the value of a human life.

Our world is falling apart around us. 

In the midst of all this heartbreak and chaos we find ourselves, as Christians, deeply divided as to what we believe must be done.

More-so, we struggle to agree on what it means to be pro-life in the middle of this newly forming international landscape. The world is changing, and it scares us. This isn’t the world we grew up in. This isn’t the country we knew.

We are desperate to get back to the way things were. To achieve this, we’re told to resist.

In our resistance we become culture warriors. Fighting for “life.” Turning our gospel into a sword.

Prompted by our particular church leader or political personality, we create and carry signs, marching in front of our local Planned Parenthood. We write letters to our congress representative asking our government to rescind funding.

Often, though, in the midst of this culture war, I find myself wondering…is this all that it means to be pro-life?

I mean, our politicians tell us it is. Many of our christian leaders tell us it is.

However, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re taking the easy way out.

I can’t shake the feeling we’re speaking less for the gospel and more for a political party.

When our politics become the primary method of informing our faith, our claims of “pro-life” become a political platform rather than a Christ-imitating life dedicated to Christ-imitating love and service of others.

A politically defined faith will protest an abortion clinic all while ignoring the suffering of “the least of these” who happen to have a different skin color or speak a different language.

A politically defined faith will see life in an American womb as more valuable than life in an Afghani hospital or the life of a 13-year-old minority who is a casualty of a broken justice system.

What it means to be pro-life 

Is abortion an issue of life? Absolutely. Should we fight for the lives of the unborn? Without question.

However, if we’re going to claim the mantle pro-life, it must extent outside the platform of the Republican and Democrat parties. Life doesn’t cease to matter after birth.

To be pro-life is weighty and it’s inconvenient.

If we’re going to claim to be pro-life, then we must fight and speak for our African-American brothers and sisters who are being crushed under the weight of a racially unjust system.

If we’re going to claim to be pro-life, we must fight for the rights of the immigrants (legal and illegal) among us.

If we’re going to claim to be pro-life, then we must refuse to see our LGBTQ friends, family members and neighbors as “the other”, and instead commit ourselves to listening to them and defend them against the careless and hurtful words of those in our churches…even if we disagree with them theologically.

If we’re going to claim to be pro-life, we must advocate for those on food stamps and medicare, striving to empathize with their struggle, and refusing to dismiss them simply as “leeches on the system.”

If we’re going to claim to be pro-life, we must fight for those who struggle with depression and suicidal tendencies, recognizing the ways in which our churches have pushed hurting people away.

If we’re going to claim to be pro-life, then we must speak for the lives lost in the American bombing of the “Doctors without Borders” hospital in Afghanistan.

If we’re going to claim to be pro-life, then we must elevate others above ourselves; seeking the good of those who look, talk and believe differently than we do.

Being pro-life, in the Kingdom of God sense is counterintuitive, and certainly not politically savvy, but it matters.

And should the Church commit to it, this beautiful, counter-cultural way will change our world, one life at a time.

On Guns, Bernie Sanders and how we choose to speak of “the other”

Bernie Sanders: ‘Environmentalists Deserve a Debate’, by Katie Valentine

Bernie Sanders: ‘Environmentalists Deserve a Debate’, by Katie Valentine

It’s election season. This means our social media feeds are filling up with the politically slanted opinions of friends, family and that one person at work we can’t actually remember meeting.

One recent example of this came from a social media connection who is a Christian, scholar, professor, and very open Republican (in the immortal words of philosopher/scholar Seinfeld, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”). This individual recently posted about Bernie Sanders, saying:

This is a short and helpful take on Bernie Sanders’s fiery denunciations of “income inequality.” If this issue has you confused, I commend it.”

He then linked to this Washington Post article titled, “What Bernie Sanders doesn’t understand about economic equality.”

What bothered me most wasn’t the authors dissenting view of Democratic Socialism. What troubled me wasn’t the author’s critique of Sanders’ political and economic platform. These are important and valid political conversations to have during an election season.

Instead, what troubled me was the way the author ended his post. The author wrote:

Sanders focuses less on empathy for the poor than on stoking the discontent of those who are comfortable but envious. They will ultimately be discomfited by the fact that envy is the only one of the seven deadly sins that does not give the sinner even momentary pleasure. Fortunately, for most Americans, believing in equality simply means believing that everyone is at least as good as everyone else.

What began as a fair disagreement of economic values, this essay found its conclusion buried in a disappointing accusation of Sanders as a dishonest socialist-bogeyman. The author moved away from educated policy and settled with baseless accusations of Sanders as a troublemaker interested primarily in manufacturing greed and economic discontent amongst a population which is otherwise happy.

Now, it needs to be said that I’m no Bernie apologist. I’m neither Republican nor Democrat, and generally speaking, both parties leave me feeling extremely uneasy (read: nauseous). However, in reading this article, and watching it be “shared” across my Facebook feed, I found myself frustrated by a trend that I’m seeing more and more among Christians; namely a willingness to speak flippantly and unfairly of a political “other.”

The Other

As Christians, we’ve grown far too willing to accept the false narrative of “the other.”

We’ve become far too willing to reduce real people into political talking points.

We’ve grown far too comfortable with fear creeping into the ways we talk about those we disagree with.

They will know us by our…?

As Christians living in an election year, the most important thing we will do will not be to place a pro-life candidate in office, nor will it be electing an anti-gun policy maker in congress. Rather, it will be a public demonstration of our faith inspired love of other during our nation’s long, ugly political journey which lay before us.


Not the familiar culturally-accepted partisan love. Rather, we’re talking about a contrary-to-logic and opposite-to-our-cultural-experiences sort of love. A love demonstrated through the ways in which we love “the politically unloveable.”

This is an upside-down love which refuses to see others as the enemy. It refuses to speak unfairly of those we disagree with. It rejects the siren song of political fear mongering that surrounds us each day.

Where our politicians see just another “fundie” or “liberal,” Christians see those who are created in the image of God.

We don’t follow Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton or Ben Carson. We follow a God who chose to become human and die a humiliating and excruciating death in our place, instead of bring judgement upon those who “had it coming to ’em.”

Simply stated: In a world of partisan love, we are called to emulate Christ, not our preferred pundits.

As Christians entering into the political season, we’d be wise to heed Paul’s famous words in 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

I believe, more than anything, it will be our love of others, not a ballot box, which will most clearly bring about the kingdom of God in our culture. It will be our Kingdom hope, not partisan fear which will transform the brokenness we see all around us. It will be our ability to listen instead of shouting over, that will break down philosophical barriers.

It will be honesty the size of a mustard seed that will divinely move a culture of fear and deception the size of Mt. Everest.

As Christians, may we choose a more loving, more honest way.

Rather than demanding our political beliefs be heard, may we demonstrate intellectual fairness and academic responsible dialogue with those we disagree with.

May we listen before we speak.

May we reject political fear-mongering.

May we live in hope instead of fear.

My we love in the face of hate.

May we see our brothers and sisters in the faces of our “enemy.”

Ultimately, may we strive to be like our Father in Heaven, even if our efforts wind up being “poor politics.”

Kings and Presidents: An interview with Tim and Shawna Gaines

One of the great parts of being a pastor in a denomination is the chance to meet and grow alongside fellow clergy who are passionate about the Kingdom of God. While I’ve known the Gaines via social media far longer than I’ve known them “in real life,” Tim and Shawna’s calling and passion for the Kingdom has always been evident in everything they’ve done. It’s this same calling which lead them to write a book many might have steered clear of.

Generously, the Gaines have taken a few moments to talk with me today about their book, Kings and Presidents: Politics and the Kingdom of God. I encourage you to go buy their book.

I promise, you will not be disappointed. 


First off, well done on this book. It’s a great step toward a healthy and Christ-centered conversation about politics and the church. I always love to hear the story behind the inspiration for a book. For you two, where was the idea for this book born?

The original idea wasn’t about a book at all. Back in 2012 we had the idea to preach a sermon series at our church. We had been studying 2 Kings and kept seeing themes that challenged politics as usual. You could say it was born out of our pastoral concern to cast a distinctly Christian vision of politics for our congregation.  We sensed that a “Christian” approach to politics in the minds of our people mainly meant choosing one party over another (we had both Democrats and Republicans in our church).  We wanted to suggest that the Christian tradition isn’t subsumed under one party platform or another, but contains resources to offer a totally different way of thinking about politics. The series so resonated with our congregation and several people suggested we turn it into a book, and here we are!

As you studied 2 Kings together, and as you wrote these sermons/book, what proved itself to be the biggest personal challenge to the way you have always thought?

Probably the chapter on Elisha’s stew and the “death in the pot.”  We had the privilege of sitting under the teaching of a dear friend and mentor, Pastor Steve Rodeheaver, who lectured on this story. He has a gently painful way of letting scripture speak truth to power.  The idea that our job isn’t to dig out all the elements we consider “bad apples” or even to sift out all the worldliness but rather we engage with the hope of the coming kingdom of God.  Ultimately it is God bringing the Kingdom that will and does change the very substance of this world. That’s hard for pastor types like us.  We always have our spidy-senses out for fowl temperaments, hard hearts and good ole’ fashion heresy.  While we need to be aware of what’s going on in our churches, it’s not our job to purify the pot.  We simply proclaim the Kingdom, and that takes a lot of patience!

You talked a bit in your book about how much of this material came out of, and in response to, a church dealing with what it means to be faithful during an American election year (A struggle for many churches). What was the church body’s response to this series? How have others outside your local congregation responded? 

The church was really receptive overall.  Once it was clear that we weren’t waving red OR blue flags, it cut a lot of the tension. They understood that we weren’t trying to convince them to vote for one candidate or another, but rather calling them to see political life very differently.  We often assume that Christian faith should fit inside of our politics, and what we were trying to do is suggest that political life really must fit inside a life of discipleship that follows a very different pattern.  There were still tears and cheers on election day, and both responses are appropriate, but we definitely heard a change in tone in the way they talked about politicians, victories and defeats.  And tone tells you something about “where your treasure lies.”  So far those outside our congregation who have engaged this book seem to be eager for different language to talk about politics in such a polarized season.  And I hope to that end we have been helpful.

You make an important distinction between the “World of Kings” and the “World of the Kingdom.” How have you seen the church often find itself entangled in the “World of Kings” rather than as agents of the “World of the Kingdom?”

The most troubling example of this doesn’t have to do with elections and politicians.  For us our biggest concern is when the church adopts the same political sensibilities as the World of Kings.  Leaders look to dominate and rule rather to serve and submit.  Individual churches build their own kingdoms, insistent on constantly quantifying victories rather than seeing themselves as part of God’s larger Kingdom within a community and throughout the world.  Christians ugly attitudes about political elections are really just symptomatic of a larger problem: they are living in the World of Kings and claiming to speak for the Kingdom.

In your chapter dealing with the story of Namaan (2 Kings 4:8-37), you explored “decorated irrelevance,” a phrase originally coined by Brueggemann. Decorated irrelevance is this idea of someone dressing or puffing ourselves up in hopes that order to display a power that is utterly worthless. In what ways has the church sought power through kings, and resigned themselves to a life of decorated irrelevance?

Ouch, this one is so much easier to talk about in terms of politicians we will never meet.  But you are so right, the church is often guilty of decorated irrelevance.  Truly anytime the church is putting power on display it is decorated irrelevance.  The only reason to display power is to intimidate and control and these are not the ways of the Kingdom and, therefore, they have already been exposed as worthless in the light of the cross.  There is a difference in celebrating service and even Christlike leadership and displaying power.  Faithful congregations (districts, conferences, and assemblies) must test the spirit of their pomp and productions.  Faithful leaders must test the spirit of their use of authority.

You spoke a bit about contract theory, or this idea that people are unable to function as a society without contract that binds us together. You also talked about how, when this is fleshed out, it can lead to deep seeded mistrust and anger towards “the other.” Talk a bit about how the church might find it’s way away from contractual relationships and more towards covenantal relationships.

I think a lot of it comes down to taking our own story seriously and coming to terms with the fact that Christian discipleship is a very unique and strange way of life.  When we take that strange way seriously, we will likely see that following Jesus doesn’t mean we support this candidate or that candidate, but we primarily follow after Jesus and his utterly different approach to life.  I mean, discipleship to Jesus just doesn’t ‘fit’ in our modern political system.  It doesn’t ‘work’ in the sense that it doesn’t play by the rules of oppositional politics played out through power dynamics.  And that means that everything is different for disciples, including the way that we engage with others.  Because contracts are all about maintaining a certain kind of power over against “the other,” it will mean that we are always, in some sense, opposed to the other.  The way of discipleship, however, is about reconciliation.  Jesus’ own Sermon on the Mount is pretty clear about the call upon the lives of disciples to be reconciled to one another.  Contracts will always keep us at a bit of a distance from one another, but reconciliation will ultimately be fulfilled in fellowship.

In your final chapter, you talk about how the World of the Kingdom uses people who are unexpected, or seen as less-than. In what way does the Church struggle to see the calling of God on the lives of the unexpected? Who might a modern-day “Leper” be for those in the church?

The poor, the alien, the widow and the orphan.  I know I’m stealing from a Biblical script here, which might not sound “modern” but I think we still haven’t gotten it.  Churches and ecclesial power centers are moving away from cities and away from the poor while more and people are moving into the cities.  The way politicians talk about children of God who lack documentation as though they are less than human is certainly translating into a type of paralysis in the local church when it comes to serving this community.  Meanwhile, churches pour their resources into serving the normative family unit – mom, dad, 2.5 kids – while more and more young adults are intentionally living single, more marriages are ending in divorce, and the LGBT community is at a lost as to how to engage the church for those that even have the desire.  If we can heed the commands of scripture – poor, alien, widow, orphan – perhaps we won’t spend many more generations bemoaning our inability to connect with the generation that follows.

Do you guys have any new projects on the horizon? Anything you can tease your readers with?

Shawna has two video-based Bible studies coming out called Breathe: Created and Breathe: Wilderness.  We each have a chapter in a sequel to Dan Boone’s A Charitable Discourse, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that will develop.  We also contributed to a volume about the call of God that Mark Maddix and Stephen Riley are putting together titled God Still Calls.

Finally, and on a slightly lighter note, what is the best book you’ve read over the past year? How did it impact you?

Tim has been doing a lot of re-reading these days as selecting books for classes.  I think the biggest impact on me is a collection of lectures by Karl Barth that go under the title Evangelical Theology.  In it, he reminds us how humble we must be as we go about the task of theology, and how we cannot get away from the strange, particular way of Jesus.  A few others that have been impacting me recently are: The Future of the Word: An Eschatology of Reading by Tiffany Kriner, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ by Sarah Coakley and How (Not) to  be Secular by James K.A. Smith.  Shawna loved Daniel Bell’s Economy of Desire, which has a lot to add to this political discussion. But really she is waiting with baited breathe for the new Cathrynne Valente novel to hit the shelf.


Tim and Shawna Gaines used their time as co-pastors of Bakersfield First Church of the Nazarene to seek distinctly Christian approaches to pressing contemporary issues, and to apply those responses to faithful and creative ways in the local church setting. Tim now serves as assistant professor of religion at Trevecca Nazarene University. Shawna is a frequent speaker, author, and blogger. Her work can be accessed at shawnasongergaines.com

Syrian toddlers and Curious George birthday parties: a father’s prayer.

syrian boy
A few weeks ago I celebrated the 4th birthday of my little girl, Ella. It was a Curious George themed party.

As we celebrated that day, I couldn’t help but reflect on her life.

I remembered when she was born. I remembered changing her first diaper, being completely lost and deeply aware of my own inadequacies as a father. I remember her first toothless smile, and I remember holding her, tears in my eyes, as she cried for hours from un-diagnosable pain. Pain we couldn’t take away. I remember the first time she said “da” and the first time she walked.

I love the ways she smiles at me when I come home from work. I love how she asks me to cuddle “for one more minute” at bed time (Ok, ok, I love it most of the time).

In both the good times and bad, I can’t imagine life without her.

Many parents are forced to do just that.

Today I came across the story of a little Syrian boy who drowned during his attempt to flee his war-ravaged home, and who’s little body washed up on the shores of Greece. In reading this, my heart fell-apart.

My heart broke because the only reason this story isn’t about my daughter is because, by chance, I was born, and subsequently my daughter was born, in privilege and peace.

My family’s safety and luxury is not deserved any more than that boy deserved pain and death.

Yet, I have it, my daughter has it, while this sweet little boy (and 11 million others) didn’t.

This feels all the worse because, on our side of the globe, our politicians and church leaders seem more concerned with getting rid of illegal immigrants, exporting Muslims, denying marriage licenses, and protecting gun rights than they are in speaking for the poor and marginalized (though, I must stress that this is not a universal statement- there are many who dedicate their lives to this work).

Our churches seem more concerned with shaming Target for removing gender specific signage, than we are in calling out Wal-Mart for their numerous and various human rights violations (domestically and internationally).

We’re more concerned with protecting our God-given-rights to own guns than we are in calling people to peace, forgiveness and radical reconciliation.

We claim protecting the sanctity of marriage is the most pressing issue of our day, while today, there are more slaves (an estimated 29.8 million) than ever before, and more than 3 billion people live on less than $2.50 a day.

The hypocrisy is startling.

As a pastor, I get countless letters inviting me to attend conferences dealing with the emerging, church-apathetic, generations. Conferences wrestling what it looks like to woo a generation back into the church.

As I scroll through social media today, though, I am left wondering if these generations are fleeing our churches, not because of our theology (as so many leaders are quick to claim), but because they see the deep-rooted hypocrisy in our compassion.

How quick we are to love those who look, talk and act like us, while allowing the rest to wash up on countless, nameless shores (this statement directed squarely at myself).

And so today, all I can do is to offer this prayer:

Father, forgive us- forgive me- for making the Gospel ethnocentric.

Forgive us for making the gospel political.

Forgive us for choosing vengeance over forgiveness.

Forgive us for giving into fear.

Forgive us for ignoring the cries of the oppressed in order that we might dine with the privileged.

Father, help us to listen better, to act more courageously, to speak prophetically, and love unconditionally.

Help us to be brave, because our children need us.

What Miles Davis taught me about the simplicity of holiness

Recently on Facebook, I made this statement:

As a pastor, I’m far more interested in teaching Christ-like love, humble repentance and grace-filled forgiveness than I am sinless perfection. It’s not even close.

After posting, and out of the subsequent conversation came a wonderful challenge from a leader in my denomination; explain the difference between sinless perfection and Christlike love, grace and forgiveness, and explain why it matters.
This post is my attempt at responding to this leader’s challenge. While I’ll attempt to work out this difference (to an extent), I think it should also be noted I have a bigger goal in mind; an attempt at rediscovering the simplicity of the Kingdom life. I’ll explain more in a minute, but first, let’s take a step back in time.
During a recording session (later released as ''58 Miles'), American jazz musicians John Coltrane (1926 - 1967), Cannonball Adderley (1928 - 1975), Miles Davis (1926 - 1991), and Bill Evans (1929 - 1980) perform in the studio, New York, New York, May 26, 1958. (Photo by Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images)

During a recording session (later released as ”58 Miles’), American jazz musicians John Coltrane (1926 – 1967), Cannonball Adderley (1928 – 1975), Miles Davis (1926 – 1991), and Bill Evans (1929 – 1980) perform in the studio, New York, New York, May 26, 1958. (Photo by Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images)

On March 2 and April 22, 1959, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers gathered in the iconic 30th Street Studio, a converted Greek Orthodox Church in New York. It was here this quintet created a masterpiece which has subsequently become known as the greatest Jazz album of all time; Kind of Blue.

Beginning with “So What” and moving to the elegant conclusion, “Flamenco Sketches,” Davis and his legendary band participated in a musical revolution. They created art through simplicity.

A little context.

Jazz, from its very inception, has always been an art form focused mainly on the beauty which emerges out of improvisation.

Order within chaos.

Jazz, at its core, is about taking chances, risking failure, and in the process, creating something beautiful which will last throughout generations.

The famous jazz pianist and composer, Dave Brubeck described Jazz like this:

Jazz stands for freedom. It’s supposed to be the voice of freedom: Get out there and improvise, and take chances, and don’t be a perfectionist- leave that to the classical musicians.

This begs the question, though; What happens, when you get some of the most talented men and women together, pushing each other musically, and collaboratively challenging the way things have always been done?

Things got increasingly complicated. 

Growing frustrated with this ever increasingly complex art form, Miles Davis found he had begun to grow discontent with what Jazz was becoming.

In an interview with The Jazz Review in 1958, Davis went on record saying,

“The music [Jazz] has gotten thick. Guys give me tunes and they’re full of chords. I can’t play them…I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords, and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variation. There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.”

In this interview, Davis is lamenting this increasingly busy form of Jazz, and is wondering aloud if the future of Jazz might just be rooted in a deliberate rediscovering of the simple.

Out of this frustration, Davis gathered around him a world-class band, in hopes that, together they might explore and discover a more simple way. Over the course of those two Spring days, these five musicians discovered something beautifully simple, yet incredibly important.

They discovered “Modal Jazz.

Where other, more complex forms of Jazz would pack multiple chords into a single measure, the modal form would choose a single chord, would sit in it for a while, exploring that single chord and the various expression of it, for 4 to 16 measures.

In their pursuit of simplicity, Davis, Coltrane, Evans, Adderly and Cobb created what many believe to be musical perfection.

The increasing complexity of holiness.

If we think back to the Gospel accounts, we’re are left with a simple truth: the message of Jesus wasn’t that complex.

Jesus required people to love God first, and in the same way, love others.

Later on, before he ascended into heaven, Jesus’ last directive to his disciples wasn’t a treatise on how we are to behave and what rules we are to follow, rather He simply told the disciples to go and do what he did.

To preach the good news.

To baptize those who accepted this good news.

And in everything, to do it confidently, knowing Christ will walk alongside them.

This is pretty simple, yet incredibly beautiful stuff. And like jazz, it included a lot of room for improvisation. Improvisation we see throughout the rest of the New Testament (particularly the book of Acts).

However, somewhere along the line, this beautiful improvisation became more and more complex. The practicing of our faith became “thick.”

We had theological councils.

We had theologians.

We had libraries filled with detailed systematic theology.

We had reformations.

We had denominationalism.

Now, while none of these are inherently bad, and much of what came out of them was incredibly good, it’s also not surprising that, somewhere along the line, we found we had taken a simple and elegant Gospel and turned it into a millstone to hang around our necks.

The Nazarenes and a sinless perfectionism

Starting back in the early 1900’s, the Nazarene church was simply born out of a desire to love and serve the down and out. They preached holiness, a calling-out-of-ness, and preached a grace filled with optimism. You don’t have to be tomorrow, what you are today. This message was particularly powerful for the context- alcoholics, drug addicts, and those on the fringe of society.

Some called this message holiness. We called it sanctification.

Eventually, we described it as sinless perfection.

Many preached and insisted on, after an initial moment of salvation, the necessity of God doing another work of grace, curing us of sin, and empowering us to live a life free from willful transgressions against any known laws of God.

While this sinless perfection theology was explored and taught with a heart of love, it had unintended, long-term consequences.

Instead of a church willing to wrestle with the difficult issues in the spiritual life, instead of a church community willing to apologize for their faults, and instead of a church community who was able to openly wrestle with faith and doubt together, our tribe’s journey into holiness became a masquerade ball.

A gathering filled with beautiful costumes covering a broken people forced into a life of anonymity.

A people fabricating a mask to show the world.

The beauty of the struggle was lost in our fight to attain resolution.

Holy like I’m Holy

Often, in this conversation about Holiness, we hear people claiming Matthew 5:48. It is in this passage, Jesus commands his disciples to “be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

A weighty command, indeed.

Like most passages, when we remove it from the greater context, we lose the true meaning of what is being conveyed. Context always matters.

If we take this command to be perfect and place it back into its intended context, we read:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

When placed within its intended love-centered context, we find this isn’t a command to be perfect in ones adherance to every known law of God, rather it’s a command for the community of believers to treat others as God would treat them.

To love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.

To speak honestly and reject grandiose promises you never intend to keep. To mean what you say and say what you mean.

To view people as humans, and not objects to be consumed and discarded.

In other words, Jesus is calling us to see each other, friends and enemies alike, as our Father sees us; as His children whom he desperately loves.

Jazz reminds me that holiness is about the struggle.

Holy, Christ-centered living is difficult. The ability to reconcile with our enemies, to love those who curse you, to reject the belief that people are objects to be taken advantage of, takes a God-sized dose of grace and power.

Without the love of God going before us, without his first reconciling us to our Father, and demonstrating that love in our hearts, it would be all but impossible for us to do anything other than to hate our enemies, and seek the first chance at exploiting one another.

Yet, we are called to be more.

We’re called to be like our Father, but it’s this “becoming like our Father” which is a tedious journey. It’s filled with ups, downs and moments in the sunshine and in the fog.

It involves humility as we ask for forgiveness and admit our wrongs.

It takes releasing the neck of “the other” as we forgive the wrongs (even be they egregious) others have committed against us.

And we know, somewhere along the line, as we participate in this beautifully simple, yet incredibly challenging kingdom life, we will slowly take on the character and competency of Christ.

It’s in the complexity and the struggle where we find ourselves growing in love for God, in love for others, and ultimately in our desire to become more like our Father in Heaven.

In this struggle we are becoming holy.

I remember my first time hearing “Kind of Blue.”

It was around midnight, my kids were in bed, and my wife was asleep next to me on the couch. I had, over the past few years, grown into a love of Jazz, but in this discovery of Jazz, I had never listened to Blue (a crime of the unforgivable kind). It all changed there and then. In the quiet darkness I listened to the melodic voices of musical giants. The simple perfection washing over me.

When the final notes of Flamenco Sketches ended, I immediately started the album over and listened again.

I have never been moved by an album like I was moved by “Kind of Blue.”

At the time, I didn’t know about modal jazz, I didn’t even know who was playing along-side Davis.

I just knew it resonated deeply within me in a way no other album had.

I now believe I so deeply resonated with Blue because it wasn’t about the resolution. The ending wasn’t the point. The point of “Kind of Blue” is about discovering the wonder of wandering from note to note in an un-hurried and methodical way.

It was about doing something new, and doing it together, and in this collaborative creating, it was realizing simplicity has indeed changed the world.

And in this I offer my prayer:

May I live a life dedicated to the struggle to love like Christ, live out humble repentance and offer grace-filled forgiveness.

And may I look forward to the day when the resolution has finally come. But until that day comes, may I find a deep wonder in the wandering.

“Searching For Sunday:” An Interview with Rachel Held Evans.

This past April, Rachel Held Evans released Searching for Sunday to much deserved acclaim. It’s a book dealing with the difficult questions of faith and doubt, and processes them through the lens and anchor of the sacraments. Ever gracious and generous, Rachel offered her time to an unknown writer like myself, and I encourage you, in agreement or disagreement, to let this be something that challenges you towards unity as believers.



Rachel, thanks for taking the time to talk with me!

To kick this interview off, I would love to hear how this book came to be. Being that this includes so many intimate parts of your spiritual journey, what was the inspiration for you to write this?

Thanks for having me, Michael!

This book, and my inspiration for it, really came from conversations with my readers. I just knew from my blog, and conversations with people at conferences, that the big question on their minds was, “what do we do about church?” So many of us have doubts and questions, and even maybe questions about our pastors and church leaders. It’s a big issue. Should I go to church? Is it even relevant in my life anymore?

Searching for Sunday is my attempt to tap into the questions so many people are asking. Honestly, I somewhat went into this book dragging my feet, especially because I was trying to answer so many of these questions myself. However, when it occurred to me to write it around the seven sacraments, this really helped me give my thoughts, and this book, form.

Honestly, I didn’t know if I could talk about what the church meant to me without talking about what baptism or confession meant to me. These sacraments became the anchor for this book.

Of the seven sacraments mentioned in Searching for Sunday, which has been most significant in your own life?

To add some context, from the beginning, I chose those seven sacraments more for a literary purpose than a theological statement. As many know, they are the seven sacraments recognized by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and I’m neither. In thinking about this, I felt like, as you examine those seven sacraments, you see the presence of them in every day church life, regardless of your recognition of them as a sacrament. From sharing meals together, to baptism through immersion or sprinkling water on their head, or from gathering around someone who is sick and anointing them, they are an important part of what it means to be the Community of Believers.

As far as which one made the greatest impact on me, I would have to say it was the centrality of the Eucharist (communion) in worship. This has become a very important sacrament for keeping me in the church. It’s the one I miss when I don’t show up on a Sunday. Gathering at the table, kneeling down, receiving something I didn’t earn is an important practice to make Christ real to me.

What was one sacrament you learned most about during your journey through the sacraments?

If there was one I learned most from, or one which was less familiar to me, it would definitely be anointing of the sick. I think I always assumed it was this superstitious thing that some people did to “cure” people. However, in researching it, I discovered that the act of anointing of the sick is less about “healing” someone as much as it is about the process of healing. It’s about anointing someone’s suffering as a holy struggle. This sacred act, recognizes that suffering, anoints that suffering, and says this suffering is a big deal and we are here for you. That’s beautiful, and for me, this discovery was really, very significant.

In Searching for Sunday, you write quite a bit about your views on the church and its treatment of those in the LGBTQ community. For you, what was your catalyst moment when you began to understand your worldview, in regards to same-sex marriage, was shifting?

My parents always instilled in me a tenderness of heart for anyone who found themselves left out. It was such a great thing they modeled for us- this loving and inclusive posture. So even in college, I was seeing people who grew up just like me, in the same Christian environment, to loving and devoted parents, who were being ostracized and marginalized because of their sexuality.

This caused in me a questioning that maybe this wasn’t something people chose and could change. Or, at the least, sexuality was more fluid than I once thought, and so as I continued on into young adulthood, I just had this nagging feeling that maybe we hadn’t got it right, and maybe people were really suffering because of it.

I think we have to look at the degree to which a particular system in the church is hurting people. It’s not enough to say, “huh, maybe we’ve got this wrong, maybe not, but we’ll just wait and see.” If it’s really causing this much damage, I felt like I had to explore it further.

It was out of this I was connected with Justin Lee at the Gay Christian Network, and Matthew Vines, and a few others who, through my reading their stories, began to find my mind begin to shift.

This is something that’s a very loaded and complicated question in many denominations. Nazarenes included. There are those in these denominations who are really unsure how to proceed. They feel as though they’re being torn between what the Bible says, and what  their experiences have been. This being the case, what wisdom might you offer to people who are currently living in this tension or fear?

I think because I know and love so many people who hold this belief, I would want them to know that I’m sorry folks on the affirming side can be so dismissive in judging their motives. It bothers me when someone says, “anyone who is against same-sex marriage is a hateful bigot.” I get a little bit prickly when this is said, because you’re talking about my dad. Most of the people in my life believe this way. It also bugs me when people think I’m caving to a social whim.

Ultimately, I think we could all do with a little less questioning of motives. About those on the conservative side of the topic, I’m sorry people have jumped to conclusions about their hearts. Everyone is different and they hold their beliefs because of different reasons.

I would also encourage them, though, that if they’re going to error, then error on the side of grace. Especially when it comes to something like baptism and communion. When it comes to who you allow at the table, who you baptize, just remember that you’re a sinner and that nobody comes to the table because they’re worthy. We come because we’re hungry. We all long for a relationship with Jesus. I feel strongly that nobody should stand in the door and keep anyone outside of the kingdom. Jesus spoke strong words against those who tried to dictate who were in and who were not.

So seeing as none of us deserve to be at the table, I would encourage you to remember we’re all sinners saved by grace.

In Searching for Sunday, you spend time talking a lot about healing vs curing. It sometimes feels to me that, when the church discusses the really difficult issues (racism, discrimination, LGBTQ equality, etc), we’re more concerned with curing them, than in doing the really hard work of healing the deep wounds caused by the church. Would you find this to be true? 

For me, the church participating in the sacraments became this beautiful picture of people who were wounded coming together to heal. It’s not about curing, it’s not about a simple fix. It involves them coming to terms with the wounds they’ve received, and finding healing together. There is a sense, when it comes to Christians and sexuality, that anything other than heterosexuality must be “cured.” That if we’re anywhere along that spectrum, then we need to be fixed. But people don’t need to be fixed. Really, we’re all just looking for healing. This then becomes more about people coming to terms with their sexuality rather than fixing it.

There is so much healing that needs to happen, no matter if you’re talking about LGBTQ issues, racial reconciliation, or any other division we’re currently working through. It’s not going to happen quickly. There is no quick fix. It’s messy, complicated, and painful, but we all need each other in the midst of it all.

Sometimes the same church that wounds is the very church that will heal.

For me, the pièce de résistance of your book is the section on communion. To me, it’s a beautiful reminder that, as often as we focus on what separates us/divides us, we are still unified by the table. How do you see the Eucharist being the catalyst of the church moving forward?

I’ve found the Eucharist to be such a unifying sacrament. It’s such a unifying experience. It’s where we all come together, with differing theological views, and in spite of these differences, we can come and receive the bread and the wine, reflecting on Jesus, and in this, it all comes together into this powerful, hard to explain, but beautiful way.

The Eucharist is the great equalizer.

It’s like when I get really mad at other writers and thinkers, I often have to pause and ask myself, “Rachel, how would you approach this person after you’ve been to the table? How would that change things?” And the thing is, it would change things.

I would love to see more ecumenical unity. Not just to share in communion formally, but to also share in meals together. There’s something powerful about the act of sharing in a meal with someone new that brings us all together.

One of the things I believe matters most about your book, is that it touches on a very real feeling that many, many clergy have. They silently struggle with questions, doubts, and fears, and there may or may not be a place for that in their current situation. For those within a denomination who are struggling to make their voice heard, what advice might you give to them?

Simply put, you’re not alone.

I think the hardest part of doubt and questioning is that you feel like you’re the only one. It’s a very isolating feeling. I remember worshiping in the church I grew up in, surrounded by those who knew me and loved me best, and yet it was the loneliest hour of the week for me, even though I knew this wasn’t true.

There are so many experiencing the same thing, asking the same questions, and I have been encouraged to discover over the years that those questions and doubters are closer to home than I thought.

So, for those with questions, and to those that struggle, be brave and filled with grace in the midst of your questions, and I think you’ll find that in the midst of the asking, you’ll find you’re not alone.

About Rachel:
rachelRachel Held Evans is a New York Times best-selling author whose books include Faith Unraveled (2010), A Year of Biblical Womanhood (2012), and Searching for Sunday (2015). Hailing from Dayton, Tennessee—home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925— she writes about faith, doubt and life in the Bible Belt.