The Christian Faith: Traditioned Innovation or, Learning To Play Jazz

I should probably change the title of this site to “Tuesday Musings” instead of Mondays 🙂

Glad to see you’ve been stopping by!  Today I am picking up where I left off two weeks ago, talking about what Greg Jones has called “Traditioned Innovation.”  If you’re interested in learning more, I encourage you to explore Duke Divinity’s Faith and Leadership articles.  Jones ,along with New Testament Scholar Kavin Rowe, explains the concept well, and they include examples of where Traditioned Innovation is taking place.  But, for today, I want to share a bit about my experiences with this biblical way of thinking that has radically reframed how I live and lead in ministry.

It was Dr. Willie Jennings who really introduced me to jazz.  I had heard jazz before, but it wasn’t the sort of music I particularly enjoyed.  It wasn’t until he played John Coltrane’s famous rendition of My Favorite Things that my interest was peaked. 

Image result for coltrane my favorite thingsGrowing up, my sister loved The Sound of Music, especially the part when Julie Andrews soothes thefrightened children by singing about brown paper packages tied up with string.  I always loved the images that song evoked for me.  Perhaps that is part of the reason why Coltrane’s version resonated with me.  Perhaps, also, it was the ways Jennings compared folk like Coltrane, Ella and Louis, Dizzy and Miles, Duke and Monk to how Christians are called to a particular kind of innovation – one that has first been steeped in and grows out of a particular tradition.

Let me try to explain musically first, then theologically before wrapping up today’s post.

When learning a new instrument, you must first master the basics.  I had to learn to play the piano with one hand before learning to play with two.  I had to learning “Middle C” position before I could learn “G.”  I had to learn notes and scales and rhythm (a lesson I still haven’t grasped.  I’m the guy who can’t sing and clap at the same time!).  I had to learn the fundamentals first: just like an author having to learn the rules of writing, a basketball player how to dribble, a machinist how not to get hurt.  I had to learn the rules before I earned the right to break them. 

That’s how it is with the great Jazz players.  Jazz breaks all the rules, but not before learning (and loving) the tradition from which they break.  I have a friend who is a professional jazz musician.  He spent four years in college studying music of all types, and then a couple more years focusing solely on jazz when earning his master’s degree.  He had to learn not just how to play a song, but about the person who wrote it.  Before he was allowed to critique them, he had to first understand from where they were coming.  In seminary, we called this practice a “charitable reading” as we wrestled with ancient texts and contemporary authors.  Before we could say what we agreed or disagreed with, we first had to be able to articulate the author’s points.  We had to earn the right to disagree.  We had to understand the tradition before we could innovate out of it.  We had to learn to dribble before we could shoot, how to play Row, Row, Row Your Boat before we could play Fur Elise.

That’s one of the reasons why I dislike so many “modern” or “progressive” approaches to appropriating the Christian faith – too many have never taken the time to learn the basics, to first charitably understand the traditions from which they desire to break.  Innovation for innovation’s sake, perhaps.  A 7th grade jazz band compared with the Chicago Symphony.  One just sounds…messy, while the other moves your soul and sets your feet a-tapping.    Tradition, at its best, helps provide the structure necessary for life to thrive, and a particular life at that.  Lest we, like Church Father Irenaeus warns against, rearrange the picture of a king, piece together an image of a fox, and tell the world the fox is king.

On the other hand, in the words of Jaroslav Pelikan, far too many traditionalists have given Tradition a bad name: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead,” he writes. “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.  And, I suppose, it is traditionalism that gives Tradition such a bad name.”  To put it a different way, some people are so concerned about guarding the sanctity of original that they miss out on all the ways new renditions are bringing joy to a whole new audience.  And, at its worst, traditionalism does not take with equal seriousness the One on the throne who declares, “Behold, I am making all things new.”  Mired in the muck of dead faith of the living – traditionalism.

So, what are we to do?

My hope is to have a conversation with you about what are the foundational traditions of the Christian faith.  What defines the river banks across the sea of Christian thought?  What would you say is “Middle C” for someone just starting to learn what it means to be a Christian?

I want to spend the next week or two exploring those basic tenets, before identifying ways Traditions might give birth to new Innovations.  Once “good enough is good enough,” I will attempt to share a tool that I have found to be incredibly helpful for appropriating Traditioned Innovation into the life of a local church.

Hope to connect with you again next Monday [or Tuesday ;)], and, until then, take a listen to some Coltrane.  My Favorite Things or A Love Supreme are great places to start!






A Letter of Resignation.

Don’t worry, I’m not resigning…at least, not from my vocation.  If I did, however, I would not be alone in doing so.  According to an article released six years ago by the Barna Research Group, 3-in-5 Millennials who grew up in the Church have dropped out at some point.  I imagine that number is higher now, especially as I anecdotally look at friends and colleagues who have “dropped out.”  And they’ve done so and continue to do so not without good reason.

One article that’s made the rounds on my social media feeds lately was this one written by a pastor-turned-blogger/podcaster who wrote one of those “open letter[s] to the church from a millennial.”  Usually I dismiss these sorts of letters mainly out of personal objection – I’m a Millennial.  She and other authors who claim the monolithic “we” do not get to speak for me.  But if I push past my own offense and dismissive arrogance, I see that she makes a lot of really good points – ones that resonate with me, and with those I love who have given up on the local church.  She laments and rightly critiques the hypocrisy of churches (particularly their leaders…something Jesus Himself did with uncomfortable regularity).  She laments and rightly critiques the inconsistencies, inequalities, and inability to engage difficult conversations in charitable (read loving) and honest (read truthful) ways.  Implicitly, I hear her lamenting and rightly critiquing the institutional church’s inability (refusal?) to change its own problematic culture.  Ronald Allan Pablo captures this sentiment well in his article, Sometimes the ones who resign are the ones who care the most for the organization:

Sometimes the ones who resign are the ones who care the most for the organization…those who see the big picture, understand the problems and the possible solutions, but because of their inability to push for the execution of those solutions, are tormented by thoughts of missed opportunities, unrealized potential, wasted resources, and simply what could have been.

For worse and for better, institutions have inertia.  For worse, institutions can get caught riding in the ruts of their traditions.  For better, they can innovate from within them.

Christian Intellectual Jaroslav Pelikan makes an important distinction between traditionalism and tradition. “Tradition,” he writes, “is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”  Too often my own tradition, the United Methodist Church and its local churches, clergy, and laypersons, has gotten stuck in traditionalism, sometimes mistaking old ways as something ‘new’ or ‘innovative’.  The clearest evidence of this, to me, is the fruit – or lack thereof – that has been harvested the past 60 years.  From that vantage point, today’s missing millennials and impending schism passed off as a “protocol for grace and reconciliation” is a damning judgment against old ways that clearly are not as good as we have mistakenly chosen to assert.

So, today I announce my resignation: from the old ways that I mistakenly confused for the Way of Jesus.

I announce my resignation: from the cynicism and apathy that tempt me to walk away from it all.

Today, I announce my resignation: from resigning.  

I won’t give up.  I won’t give in.  I won’t quit.  But that also means I won’t keep doing the same old, same old either.

The next several weeks, I will be exploring new ways derived from the Old Ways as I seek to appropriate what Greg Jones has called Traditioned Innovation.  As my denomination heads into a year that will change it for the rest of my years, it seems as good a time as ever to recall the heart of our Story: Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  It’s a good time to look truthfully and with great scrutiny at lessons I need to unlearn going forward.  It’s a good time to put some old ways to death so that new ones might be given life.

Death.  Resurrection.  All things new.  From a Wesleyan-Methodist ideology.

Should be fun(?).  See you next week.  Hopefully on Monday 🙂






A Poopy Post, Or, May Yesterday’s $#!^ Become the Manure For Your Tomorrow.

Our backyard is disgusting right now.  It’s been a warmer-than-usual winter and, instead of snow, we’ve had rain.  The result has been a very muddy yard.  Oh, and also it’s where our dog goes to the bathroom and I haven’t cleaned up after him in…let’s just say it’s been far too long.  Honestly, at this point, we’re just hoping he goes enough places that instead of a few patchy green spots this spring, the whole yard will be a lush landscape of beautifully green grass! 🙂

This has me thinking of a one of the most unusually blessings every given to me.  I was with a cohort of young, Christian leaders in Houston, TX when one of our instructors said: may yesterday’s $#!^ become manure for your tomorrow.  Now there’s an image.  So too was Jeremy Troxler’s cleverly titled sermon, Manure Happens.

Indeed it does.

These days, I am (perhaps too) regularly thinking about manure-y things – and I’m speaking metaphorically here, not just about all the dirty diapers my wife (mostly my wife) and I change every day.  I’m thinking more about the $#!^ that is happening in the world.  There’s our $#!^-ty political climate and the $#!^-ty ways we treat one another and entrench ourselves with those who think and believe like we do.  There’s our changing global climate and the $#!^-ty ways world ‘leaders’ talk down to a teenage girl who’s trying to right generations’ worth of wrongs.  And then, on a more personal level, is the impending divorce within my United Methodist denomination that is $#!^-ty in so many painful ways.

May yesterday’s $#!^ become the manure for your tomorrow, I hear Marlon saying.

It’s crazy to me that poop can simultaneously be both ‘waste’ and also the catalyst for abundant life to emerge.  A difference, it seems, is whether it is put to use, thrown away, or flushed down a toilet.  I wonder how that might apply to the poopy parts of our world today?  Of my world?  Of yours?  Or, how that might also apply to the poopy parts of your past, of mine?

Poop happens, but it doesn’t stick around forever.  It gets flushed away, thrown in the trash, or disappears into the ground in places unknown until spring comes.  Or it can be intentionally and purposefully put to use for a more flourishing tomorrow.

$#!^ happens all the time.  The question is: what are you going to do with it?

May today’s $#!^ become the manure for a better tomorrow.  Thanks be to the God of the Cross who turns Dark Yesterdays into Bright Tomorrows, and who carves out Tunnels of Hope through Mountains of Despair.  Amen.



Two Unrelenting Questions.

Two questions have haunted me the past eight years, refusing to let me go.  Nagging me and spurring me on.  The first was asked to me by a beloved mentor as I lamented the poverty and drugs and violence that were occurring in my neighborhood:

  • Jared, what is the Church going to do about that?

And she didn’t just ask it to me once.  She kept on asking me, over and over and over.  Summer after summer.  Season after season.  About this problem and many others.  “Jared, what is the Church of Jesus Christ going to do about that?”

She asked it to me when I told her about the young girl who lived in the trailer park up the street from me who was afraid to step outside her home when her family was gone due to the sexual predators that lived around her.  She asked it to me when I grieved the teenage boy who stabbed another in the parking lot a few blocks away.  She asked it to me when I told her about the food insecurity that plagued our county and the food desert that existed on the south side of my community.  She asked it to me after our fence was broken into as a result of gang-initiation activities.  And she kept on asking me after I had been sent to a new community.  What is the church going to do about the mental health crisis among students and adults in your community?  What is the church going to do as the epicenter of the “corridor of innovation” coined by the mayor and his team?  What is the church going to do in a community that doesn’t know what to do with its affluence?  What is the Church going to do about the human trafficking epidemic affecting Indianapolis and its surrounding communities?

Over and over and over and over: Jared, what is the Church going to do about that?

What an annoying question.

The second occurred ’round a breakfast table with a couple friends and colleagues.  They are big dreamers, ambitious for Christ, entrepreneurial in spirit, refreshingly opportunistic.  But then one posed a question to the rest of us:

  • How are you stewarding your age?

That was a new one for me.  And it’s an annoying one too.

Questions like these force me out of chairs of self-pitying passivity and place within my hands the work of personal agency.  Work that was once assumed for others to do, was now being placed into my spheres of influence.  Questions that made following Jesus a whole lot bigger.  And a whole lot more intriguing.

Questions like these won’t let me go because they invite the whole and best parts of myself into them.  They invite me to dream far bigger and they expand the possibilities of my imagination.  They are questions that demand the very best of my heart, soul, mind, and strengths.

They are so dang annoying, because they are so dang compelling.