“I May Not Have Jazz Hands, But I’m Working on Jazz Leadership”

“The real power of jazz is that a group  of people can come together and create improvised art and negotiate their agendas … and that negotiation is the art.” (Wynton Marsalis)

I’ve written before on how leadership (at least collaborative leadership) is like being in a band; today I’d like to zero in on that a bit.

Jazz is considered by many to be the quintessential art form. It is the height and essence of creativity: a group of people that are collectively yet coherently improvising and expressing themselves.

I think—and I’m not the only one—that this is essence of great, creative groups. Relatedly, leadership in a jazz/collaborative sense is not dictating what people play; it’s creating an environment where everyone is simultaneously creating while listening to everyone else in the group. But just because the music contains heavy elements of improvisation, it doesn’t mean that there’s not a leader. Typically, someone is in charge:

  • who chooses the song: “this is the basic structure of what we’ll play”
  • who chooses the key: “this is the basic musical playing field and rules”
  • who chooses the tempo: “this is the speed at which we will move”
  • who determines when it’s not working: “someone is overplaying or not contributing.” 

In other words, a jazz-influenced leader allows everyone to play masterfully and creatively, but still maintains an eye towards the piece being produced for the audience. They also guard the creative process and the group, making sure that all members are negotiating the rules of jazz (such as they are) in a healthy compelling way.

So some quick questions:

If you are a member of a group:

  • have you mastered your “instrument”—the voice that you alone bring to the ensemble?
  • are you contributing? where do you need to push the group in new directions?
  • are you over playing? where might you need to pull back and listen more?

If you are the leader of a group:

  • have you set the ground rules? do you know what “song” you are trying to play?
  • are you allowing the members to play creatively and compellingly?
  • do you need to challenge any members to play more? play less?

Miles… you do the rest….

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When Good News Is Really Good Pt 1 (or “It’s Okay With God if You Don’t Join the Choir”)

Mark’s Gospel

I confess: I’m passionate about the Bible. Maybe it’s too reflective of my status as a (decidedly not young) grad student, but I am determined to see it taught well, and “used” accurately.

I was talking to a friend the other day, and we were talking about how there can be a difference between the historical meaning and significance of Scripture and the individual/devotional meaning and significance.

I land decidedly on the historical/contextual side: Jesus meant what he said, not what we in the 21st century wish he would have said.

I’d like to suggest this: the overwhelming agenda of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) is to prove that God’s story was coming to an epic resolution and fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Everything that we read in the gospels flows into and out of that. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to separate Jesus sayings (and actions) from this agenda. 

For the next few weeks, I’d like to spend some time pushing back on some (what I believe) are misreadings of the gospels, and try to recover some of the (sometimes even more explosive) things that Jesus actually may have been saying.

Let’s start with a story out of Matthew. Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a man (generally understood to be God) who goes on a long journey. He entrusts  different sums of money to his servants, and when he returns he asks what they did with the amounts. Two of the three double his money, while one buries it.

The two that gained money get praise from the master, but the one who buried it (safely) gets some harsh words: “‘You wicked and lazy servant… To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away. Now throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Just in case you were wondering, historically, the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” is just as bad as it sounds.

… and cue awkward silence.

Is God really that way?

Divorced form the agenda of the gospels, this can be (and has been) taught as a story about stewardship and giftedness.

Again, is God really that way? 

If you don’t play in the church band, are you going to be thrown into outer darkness?

If you don’t risk investment (in people or things or whatever), is what you have going to be taken from you?

Gnash teeth much?

Ugh.

But once you understand the agenda of Jesus—and the gospel writers—things begin to fall into place a bit more…

  • if the sums of money represent God’s mission and message in the world…
  • if the servants—including Israel—are people with whom God has entrusted His mission…
  • if (by extension) the “wicked and lazy servant” is the religious establishment in Israel…

then we begin to see what Jesus (and Matthew) might be saying here:

  • God has entrusted his mission to people, specifically Israel
  • Israel believes that God has left on a long journey—His presence has not returned to the Temple
  • God has come back to find (a) that unexpected people have valued His mission/message, and (b) Israel (or rather their leaders) have buried His message
  • God is taking His message away from Israel and entrusting it—through Jesus and his ministry—to others (the Gentiles; that’s us)

Is God still stern? Yes, because His mission is at stake. When you read the parable this way, this is why Jesus uses such strong language.

Good news is really good: God isn’t concerned so much with how much risk you take in life, or whether or not you serve in the nursery (though you should!); He’s concerned with how faithful His church is to His message and agenda in the world.

-e

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Give It, Plus Coming Up…

Hey everyone…

Not really a post today, so much as a “Thank You” and an encouragement for you all to do the same.

  • Thanks for all the encouragement and contributions you all are making here; it’s encouraging to me, and I hope we can continue to learn and explore together…
  • Take a couple minutes (at least) this week and consider gratitude, and where you can be thankful; I know I’ll be doing that this week with family and some friends…

In the next few weeks, I’m going to be starting a new series, called something like “When Good News is Really Good”. I want to take a look at the Four Gospels, and consider some of the interactions and teachings of Jesus in a way that (hopefully) will be new and enlightening for us all.

Until then… have a great Thanksgiving.

under the mercy

eric

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Resting, Hearing

This Sunday, we announced to my church that I’m going to be taking some time away.

No, I’m not in trouble.

For probably 4 years now, I’ve been trying to discern what God may be calling to for the next season of my ministry and life. I’ve been in ministry for 15 years, and almost of all of it exclusively focused around music on Sunday. Recently, however I’ve started to wonder if my role may be evolving a bit to more purposefully include teaching and leadership. After a few conversations with my pastor, we decided that I should take a few months (!) and go into “listening” mode to try and more clearly hear what God is saying and how He may specifically be leading me and my family.

This is called a “Sabbatical”, and is directly related to “Sabbath.” The Sabbath—and also Sabbaticals—was established by God in Genesis 1, and then reaffirmed a few times in the bible, especially in Exodus. We’re told in Genesis 2v1-3, “So the creation of the heavens and earth and everything in them was completed. On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation.”

You know what strikes me about this passage?

God wasn’t really “done.” 

Surely God knew that even though he’d brought the universe into being, creation—and the act of creating—wasn’t “done.” Creation is alive, growing, changing. Adam and Eve exist after all, now, and who knows what manner of variables they’ll bring into the picture! (Note see Genesis 3.)

Surely God wasn’t saying, “Whew, that’s done; guess I’ll just sit back and watch it all take shape now.”

I believe that God really knew that actually after you’ve created something—say, the Universe—the real work begins… Conflict, love, hate, war, sacrifice, salvation. All of these things begin to enter the picture after you’ve created something.

It strikes me that even though God is aware that creation is anything but “done”, he is choosing to rest. 

Your work is rarely (if ever) going to be “done” enough for Sabbath to make complete sense.

You will have to choose.

You will have to say, “For today, this is done. I am resting now.” 

Do All The Work in Your Head

I was watching the finale of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, where they were in Brooklyn, NY.

Anthony ended up at Brooklyn Fare, which looked like one of the most unique restaurant experiences I’ve seen in a long time.

Mostly, because there are only 18 seats.

At one point, Anthony Bourdain looks at his friend Eric Ripert and says, “All the hard work for this took place in the chef’s head.”

Amazing food; 18 seats.

They know how many portions to produce, and when to serve them. Some of the biggest variables in the restaurant business, handled immediately.

In the chef’s head.

Way ahead of time.

Sometimes, when you want to do something amazing, the best way to start is in your head. 

  • What variables can you control?
  • What waste can you eliminate?

If you know ahead of time precisely how you will shape the experience, you can get about the substance of what you want to create: in Brooklyn Fare’s case it’s the food, but it can be anything…

  • the book
  • the worship gathering
  • the melody
  • the life

Control what you can control, so you’re free to delight people.

Jesus’ Family Problems

I wrote this for my church’s e-news. Thought I’d include it here. 

During our Tuesday staff meeting, Mark and I were talking about Jesus’ family, and how he experienced not only the blessing of having a father, mother, and siblings, but how he also may have experienced the “blessing” of family loss and sorrow. He encouraged me to write out my thoughts.

You see, Jesus did in fact have an earthly father; his name was Joseph. However, scripture records something interesting about Joseph, namely that he disappears

Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus by Guido Reni, c 1635 via Wikipedia

relatively early in the story of Jesus’ life. In fact, the last mention of Joseph in the gospels comes in Luke chapter 2, when Jesus is about 12 years old. After that, there’s no mention of Joseph at all in Jesus’ adult ministry. Tradition has held that Joseph died, leaving his wife and children alone.Even understanding that “adulthood” began a lot earlier than it does for us today, that’s pretty huge.

Jesus grew up without an earthy father.

Jesus also had a family, and Mark’s gospel actually lists Jesus’ brothers and sisters (in a way): James, Joseph, Judas, Simon, and sisters (plural, though they remained nameless). Including Jesus, that makes at least seven children.

All without a father to provide and care for them.

What’s more, we are also told in Scripture that those brothers and sisters didn’t think too much of their preaching brother. Mark notes that his family thought he was “out of his mind” (3:21), and John indicates that even at the cross, Jesus had to hand his mother over to the care of the apostle John (John 19:25-27), implying that his brothers and sisters were nowhere to be found.

They wanted no part of Jesus’ life, much less his death. 

(In their defense, Jesus’ brothers eventually came around to recognized him as Messiah; his brother James was the leader of the Jerusalem church and eventually wrote the book of James).

So, though Jesus knew a loving mother, and had an earthly father, as well as brothers and sisters, he also knew…

… the lack of a father

… the possible poverty and marginalization that a widowed family of seven children endures

… rejection and abandonment from his brothers and sisters

What I’m trying to say—and what part of the “Good News” is—is that not only does Jesus come to us in the midst of our family wholeness, he comes to us in our family brokenness. 

He knows it.

Personally.

He knows our sorrows, as well as our joys.

“God-With-Us”—Emmanual—indeed.

I am NOT a “Book Guy”

Contrary to popular perception, I’m not a book guy.

Honestly.

<glancing nervously>

No, really I’m not…

… I don’t have a problem.

Okay, let me defend myself. I’m not a book guy; I’m an idea guy.

I’d actually like to think that I’m a growth guy.

I’m hungry for growth—maybe desperately hungry—and to my mind there are two ways to grow.

The first way is organic and incremental. “Slow and steady wins the race.” You get up and do the same things repeatedly, in order to feed yourself and feel yourself (though actually you don’t always perceive it) steadily growing and changing.

(I am lousy at this.)

Don’t get me wrong: I try. I have disciplines in my life, and I do my best to establish healthy rhythms and practices of grace and growth. But it is a consistent struggle.

The second way to grow is punctuated, evolutionary. It can occur when something—an idea or thought—enters a system that forces that system to change.

  • a thought
  • a concept
  • a belief
  • an action

Sometimes, we can look for experiences to introduce variables: concerts, art galleries & installations, conferences, etc.

But sometimes funds and time prohibit these experiences. In this case, we can turn to shorter-term, less demanding “variables”, like movies (documentaries, please), television shows…

… and books.

Books are not the point. Growth is.

If I recommend—or give—a book to you, I don’t want you to read it. 

I want you to grow.

What about you? How do you introduce new “variables” into the system of your life? When is the last time you allowed yourself to experience something new in order to grow?