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 adherence 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 to admit wrongdoing.

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.

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