Jazz Theology

The story of Jesus fasting and praying in the wilderness, and then being tempted by the Devil, is read every year just before Lent because Lent has traditionally followed the course of Jesus’ ministry up through the crucifixion. For Matthew, Jesus’ baptism and subsequent time in the wilderness heralded the beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ time in the wilderness invites each of us to reflect on the many times in life we’ve ended up in the wilderness. The wilderness can take many forms. It may look like loss, grief, illness, divorce, depression, addiction, death, or anything that makes you feel lost, alone, afraid, empty, sad, shameful, uncomfortable or out of control.

Given that Mardi Gras lands tomorrow, it seems that a little bit of jazz theology might just help us understand how to get through those wilderness experiences a little bit. Robert Gelinas, known for his writings on jazz theology, encourages us to think about what jazz has to teach us about God. He says,

Jazz theology is what happens when we express the basic elements of jazz in our relationship with God—syncopation, improvisation, and call and response. These allow us to find our own voice within Scripture;jazz experience life in concert with other practicing Christians; truly have time as servant leaders instead of time having us; and sing the blues so as not to waste any pain.

(For the full video version, click here.)

I’d like to focus on three things he talks about in his various writings: improvisation, the ensemble, and singing the blues.


In life we have nice stretches of time when everything seems pretty good, and then suddenly (maybe in a split second) everything changes – an accident, a diagnosis, a job loss, a death – and we find ourselves in a completely foreign landscape. We’ve never been here before, we’re not quite sure how to handle the situation, and so we improvise.

Now, I read somewhere that there is a difference between classical music and jazz music. Classical music is formal music that is performed as written, and is able to be reproduced. The skill of the classical musician is measured by their ability to imitate the original. Jazz music, on the other hand, is dynamic and unable to be reproduced. The skill of the musician is measured by their ability to improvise.

A jazz song has a basic form that the entire ensemble starts out playing, and then the leader calls out to one of the members, “Take a lead!” And off they go. Suddenly they are alone in the spotlight winging it… improvising. To improvise well, I believe, means being highly aware of the moment, deeply absorbed in the music, present to the melody and harmonies, the dynamics, and so forth, so when the call comes that it is your turn, you are grounded in the soul of the music.

So much of life is truly improvisation. If we follow the metaphor, the best improvising comes when we are present to the song of our lives and listen for where the flow is taking us. It’s partially having confidence in our own abilities to get through, and partially listening to intuition – to the Divine melody playing within us.


In order for a musician to improvise a great lead, they need a great jazz ensemble backing them up. The ensemble holds the beat and the chord progression and never leave you. Sometimes in church when we play as a group one of us messes up. I hate to admit it, but we probably make more mistakes than anyone is aware of. Yet, because we are so present to each other, we’re watching each other for cues, we are able to follow and continue to support each other, even when one person makes a mistake. Last week I skipped an entire line at the end of From a Distance, and the whole band just came right along, not letting me fall and make a complete fool of myself.

So, a strong support system is key for those times in the wilderness when we have to improvise. They move with you to the music of your life, they watch you for cues as to how you’re doing, they listen to you, hold you up when you might fall and you can trust them to always be there for you.

This is what our family and good friends do for us. But it works best if we have a support system that we’ve been open and honest with, so they know to keep an eye on us and how to best support our solo lead in the wilderness.


Now, from what I understand, blues music was around before jazz and can be considered a part of jazz (though not the other way around). Regardless, Gelinas says something that completely resonated with me, “sing the blues so as not to waste any pain.”

This reminded me of a conversation we had on our women’s retreat a few weeks ago about unnecessary suffering. Carl Jung said that so much unnecessary suffering comes into the world because people will not accept the “legitimate suffering” that comes from being human.

To flesh this out a bit, we talked about things like burying grief, not crying or not working through it (in other words not accepting the legitimate suffering of grief… not singing the blues when you should), and then realizing many, many years later that you’ve paid for that in other ways. Perhaps by burying your feelings in other ways, or in relationships that you wouldn’t let yourself commit to because you couldn’t let go, maybe that deeply buried grief got triggered at inappropriate times or in inappropriate ways. If only you’d let yourself deal with it at the time, it would have saved much suffering over the years.

If we sing the blues so as not to waste any pain, we live it, we feel it, we process it and then we release it when we are ready.

Here is all is in a nutshell: remember God is with you in the wilderness, flowing through your improve, upholding you through your friends and family (your ensemble), and helping you heal as you sing the blues.

Love & Light!


A Plains Silence

(This is the third, and final, in a sermon series about modern-day mystics.)

Whether she defines herself as such or not, to me Kathleen Norris is a modern-day mystic. She is well-known for her spiritual writings, much of which germinated in the silence of the Great Plains of North and South Dakota. Her language to describe these experiences is decidedly mystical. She speaks of personal experiences of the Divine, of the interconnectedness of all things, she is not promoting a particular theology or doctrine, but supersedes those with a deeper inner spirituality.

(For the full video version, click here.)

In her book Dakota, Kathleen Norris shares how living in the Great Plains impacted her life, her way of looking at the world, and her spirituality. I’ve distilled what I’ve read into three important lessons: silence, space and simplicity.


To even experience silence, true silence, is difficult these days – to get away from every manufactured or human sound. We can close our windows and doors, yet still hear the furnace kick in and the muffled street sounds. We can take a walk in the woods, yet still hear the traffic or planes overhead. Plus, we live in a culture that abhors silence. Many people seem to always need some noise, even if it is just the television or music on in the background. They won’t even leave their pets in silence! We have a rough time stopping, stilling ourselves, listening to the silence, waiting, seeking the face of God, and just being… it seems like doing nothing, but in essence we are doing something very important. We are finding our center. That quiet still place of calm within our souls needs to be cultivated, and it is much harder to do when we don’t have quiet in our outside world.

Norris grew up in Hawaii, went to college in Vermont, and then spent six years in New York City. From there she moved to her grandmother’s home in Lemmon, South Dakota (a town of about 1,200 people on the border of North and South Dakota and just outside of Standing Rock Indian Reservation). Can you imagine? New York City to rural South Dakota? I doubt many people could handle the switch!

Have you ever been to the Great Plains? Driven across North or South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas or Oklahoma? The Great Plains are actually even bigger than that, spanning the area west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies. There is nothing for miles and miles and miles, but sweeping grassland. Yet, Norris learned to appreciate the “Plains silence” and the gifts it had to offer. She talks about the power the silence has to re-form you, to reconnect you to the cycles of the earth, and to teach you to wait and to hope, as the farmers wait and hope for rain. As she acclimated to her surroundings, she found that instead of lamenting the loss of urban life and stimulation, she sought more ways to quiet her life. She even stopped watching television and became an oblate, or associate member, of a monastery.

The amazing thing about cultivating that quiet calm place with in is that once that silence is absorbed into the depths of one’s soul, you carry it with you. Norris shared,

 [T]he Plains have changed me. I was a New Yorker for nearly six years and still love to visit my friends in the city. But now I am conscious of carrying a Plains silence within me into cities, and of carrying my city experiences back to the Plains so that they may be absorbed again back into silence, the fruitful silence that produces poems and essays.

Have you had the experience of walking into a chaotic situation, or crowded place, and yet it felt separate from you, as if it swirled around you, but it couldn’t disturb the groundedness and centeredness at your core. Silence is what cultivates this. It is sacred and healing.


By space I mean physical separateness. Being removed from the distractions of daily life oddly enough seems to give us the ability to see more clearly, more lovingly. Norris found that the isolation and solitude of the Plains paradoxically made her feel more connected to others in a positive way. Perhaps it is the ability to see the forest instead of getting hung up on the trees.

Space grants us perspective.

In her return visits to New York City, Norris said she was able to watch the diverse people around her from a place of amazement and joy. She found herself recognizing that each person is “a treasure-bearer, carrying our souls like a great blessing through the world.” Having space in her life gifted Norris with the awareness that there are “no strangers” and that “the gate of heaven is everywhere.”   In other words, we are all connected and access to the Divine is everywhere.


Norris shares some of her experiences as the artist-in-residence for the North Dakota Arts Council, aKathleen Norris job that took her throughout the entire state to teach poetry. Many times she found herself in very small rural schools, in towns with no motels (where she’d stay with a family), or if there was a motel, it was often on its last legs, with a rusty shower stall, a paper bath mat and a pay phone in the parking lot. The more civilized motels, she said, had that red and black flocked velvet wallpaper making her feel like she stumbled into a New Orleans bordello.

But over time, she was able to change her perspective and began to see the gifts of these grim surroundings and flourish there. These rooms “became as monks’ cells for her, full of the gifts of silence and solitude where she could knit, write and do serious reading.”

Living more simply, she insisted, is not about denigrating the body, but “a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person. It is a radical way of knowing exactly who, what and where you are, in defiance of those powerful forces in society – alcohol, drugs, television, shopping malls, motels – that aim to make us forget.”

Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t deprived enough. It’s when we don’t have something, or someone, that we learn to have gratitude for them and for the smaller things in life. We also learn how much we really don’t need. Every time I go camping I realize how much I can live without and wonder why I really need so much stuff! At night I’m grateful for a warm meal over the fire, for the stars in the sky, and a dry tent and sleeping bag. They are things I don’t even think about at home.

Norris tells a story about a monk who went to visit one of the desert fathers, Abba Moses, and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

Silence, space and simplicity… these are the spiritual lessons of the Great Plains. For those of us who seek the face of God, it is important to find time to cultivate those things – even in small amounts – wherever we are. For it is in letting the silence soak into us that our souls become calmer and more peaceful; it is in finding space to be that we accept and treasure others more; and it is in living more simply that we live more in gratitude, lose some of our need for material things, and replace it with what is truly important: a deeper relationship with the Divine.



Living a Balance

(This is the second in a three part sermon series on modern day mystics.)

Allow me to use the familiar Bible story of Mary and Martha to reflect on some of the writings of Evelyn Underhill. You’ll remember that this infamous story involves a visit of Jesus and his followers to the home of Mary and Martha where they are offered hospitality, something to eat and most likely a place to stay. However, as Martha is diligently caring for her guests needs, Mary simply seats herself at Jesus’ feet to absorb his teachings. Martha gets frustrated with her sister and implores Jesus to “Tell her to help me!” To which Jesus calmly replies, “Martha, Martha! You’re anxious and upset about so many things, but only a few things are necessary – really only one. Mary has chosen the better part, and she won’t be deprived of it.”

(For the full video of this message, click here.) 

This scripture has been used – primarily – to extol the virtues of Mary’s dedication to Jesus. And, as we’re talking about mystics and contemplatives, too often they have become synonymous with withdrawing from the world and normal everyday life to pursue a constant, quiet, communion with the Divine. While Underhill, in what I have read, spends a great deal of time helping the reader to find the path to Oneness with the Divine, this isn’t the end of the line.

As spiritual beings we can experience unity with God, but as physical beings we Evelyn Underhill 1are also constrained to, as she calls it, our this-world life. Being all spiritual and close with God is not a pass from living in this world. In fact, she says, it actually signs us up for more responsibility.  The mystical life “is not a life of comfortable piety, or the enjoyment of the delicious sensations of the armchair mystic.”  There are terms to this new awareness, and these terms tell us that we don’t get to just slide through life doing less than our best. Nor are we relieved from making difficult choices, now we have even more difficult choices to make. The spiritual life “demands… immensely generous compassion, forbearance, forgiveness, gentleness, radiant purity, self-forgetting zeal.”

It seems to me that Underhill is calling us to a balance between Mary and Martha, between all-encompassing study, prayer and worship and a life of service. Each must feed the other.

Certainly, for Underhill, the contemplative (or Mary) part of one’s spiritual life is exceedingly important. In fact, her instructions for a deeper awareness and Oneness with the Absolute echo some of the same language that we heard from Thomas Merton last week.

One of the first things we must do, she says, is change our attention, which will enable us to see a truer universe. We must learn to experience life at a sensory level, beyond the labels we assign to things – “to escape the terrible museum-like world of daily life, where everything is classified and labeled” (Practical Mystic p. 17). When we see something or someone, we see it primarily with our minds as we jump immediately to the name (label) we’ve given it that will include our pre-judgments, analysis and critiques. This is not reality, this is an illusion we’ve created for ourselves to live in.

The mystic lives a life in which the emphasis lies on sensation rather than on thought. It is a “state of pure receptivity, of perfect correspondence with the essence of things.” It is moving beyond apprehension of thought to pure truth.

This difference in living is like the story she tells of “No-Eyes” and “Eyes”:

The old story of Eyes and No-Eyes is really the story of the mystical and unmystical types. “No-Eyes” has fixed his attention on the fact that he is obliged to take a walk. For him the chief factor of existence is his own movement along the road; a movement which he intends to accomplish as efficiently and comfortably as he can. He asks not to know what may be on either side of the hedges. He ignores the caress of the wind until it threatens to remove his hat. He trudges along, steadily, diligently; avoiding the muddy pools, but oblivious of the light which they reflect. “Eyes” takes the walk too: and for him it is a perpetual revelation of beauty and wonder. The sunlight inebriates him, the winds delight him, the very effort of the journey is a joy. Magic presences throng the roadside, or cry salutations to him from the hidden fields. The rich world through which he moves lies in the fore-ground of his consciousness; and it gives up new secrets to him at every step. “No-Eyes,” when told of his adventures, usually refuses to believe that both have gone by the same road. He fancies that his companion has been floating about in the air, or beset by agreeable hallucinations. We shall never persuade him to the contrary unless we persuade him to look for himself. (A Practical Mysticism, A Little Book for Normal People, p.11)

Underhill calls us to train our faculties and our consciousness to feel and experience. This she calls ordinary contemplation.

What keeps us from experiencing the world with our senses? The mystics seem to unanimously agree. We are. She answers: “Thought, convention, self-interest. We throw a mist of thought between ourselves and the external world: and through this we discern, as in a glass darkly, that which we have arranged to see. We see it in the way in which our neighbors see it; sometimes through a pink veil, sometimes through a grey. Religion, indigestion, priggishness, or discontent may drape the panes. The prismatic colors of a fashionable school of art may stain them.  Inevitably, too, we see the narrow world our windows show us, not “in itself,” but in relation to our own needs, moods, and preferences…”

Once again, we are told that union with God can only be a union of love, a “self-mergence in the universal life, a giving oneself up to, a dying into or melting into the Whole.” Unity is not something to acquire, claim or hold, but to become.

So, if we can do these things… experience with the senses and recognize the illusion that we’ve created to be our world, we have begun to open ourselves to a point where Ultimate Reality can enter in.

The practice of meditation is also essential for Underhill’s path to unity with God. She explains that this helps us to recollect who we really are. Though she knows this is not easy and admits that the first 15 minutes of meditation is like “a time of warfare which will simply convince us of how unruly our attention and will are, and how far we are from the mastery of our own souls. But sticking with it will bring us to a place where we know the real us which is distinct from the world in which we live.”

Through these practices of ordinary contemplation and meditation, slowly but surely we will experience changes. We will be moved to get rid of old habits, old ideas, old prejudices, and have less of a need for material things. Plus, she says, one’s demeanor will change. There will be a quiet certitude and trust in the Eternal Love.

And this brings us full circle to Mary and Martha. Diligently practicing and exploring our spiritual sides, meditating, letting go of judgment and ego… all of these things take time and energy. It would be great if we could sit at the feet of the Master and work on these things all day, but the reality is that we live in this world. There is dinner to make, work to do, kids to attend to, oppression to fight, the poor to care for, and the sick to visit. We can’t just sit there basking in the glow we’ve discovered. We must continue to take the growth that we experience and merge it with our “this-world” life.

In Underhill’s opinion, our goal is not to create for ourselves the comfy mystical armchair where we can sit in cozy communion with the Fire of Love (I love all the ways she describes God, by the way). No, there must be a balance between work, prayer, self-discipline and social service… a balance between contact with the “present living world of time, and due renunciation of it.”

Both Mary and Martha’s positions have value and worth, but the practical mystic seeks balance.

Contemplation is not an end in itself. It is real only when it impels you to action. By our very existence then, in unity with the Eternal Essence, we bring to each moment the love, compassion, light, beauty, intensity, justice and hope of God.

Love & Light!


Realm of Contemplation

Perhaps you have heard of some of the more famous Christian mystics from the Middle Ages, many of whom have now been sainted by the Catholic Church… Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Clare of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckart, Hildegard of Bingen? We rarely consider, or hear about, more recent and equally influential mystics in our midst, but I assure you that they have and do exist.

I’ve chosen just three to delve into –  Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill and Kathleen Norris – but there are many others.

Meister Eckart said, “Theologians may quarrel, but mystics of the world speak the same language.” This is how we know the mystics. They speak the same language… they tell us that God is unconditional, universal, unbounded, untethered Love, they speak of metaphors, poetry, symbols and mystery, they lean heavily on experience rather than rules and dogma, and they proclaim our Oneness with the Divine and the connectedness of all things.  When I think of influential modern-day mystics I think of John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, John O’Donohue, Joyce Rupp, Sue Monk Kidd, Joan Chittester, Matthew Fox… and many others. They may not have claimed or been given the description of mystic, but they speak the language. I think we speak the language here at Sacred Journeys.


As a brief overview of Merton’s life, he was born in France in 1915, mertonwas educated at Cambridge and Columbia Universities where a number of Christian writers had a profound influence upon him. He converted to Catholicism and was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1938. Shortly thereafter he became a Trappist monk at Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky. He became a prolific spiritual writer and speaker. At the age of 50, he became the monastery’s first hermit and sadly died young, at 53, of electrocution. Still, Merton was a best-selling international author, mystic, monk and priest, and had considerable influence on the evolution of Christian spirituality in the 20th century.

It seems as difficult to explain or describe the practice of contemplation as it is to describe the Divine. Merton describes it this way:

“Contemplation is the highest expression of [one’s] intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason and beyond simple faith.” (New Seeds of Contemplation)

Contemplation is full awareness – complete knowing – of the reality of the abundant Source. It supersedes scripture, liturgy, words, music, art and any other ways our limited intellect and vocabulary has to understand God. Contemplation goes beyond.

In fact, it goes so far beyond this world and our egos that, Merton says, all other things must “die” – all other experiences must be momentarily lost – before they can be known from a higher viewpoint or a deeper level.

Perhaps we could consider looking at it like this… it is like walking a path up a mountain and you pass beautiful trees, waterfalls, rivers, lakes. You spend some time sitting and enjoying the view, but then realize you must let them go to continue your hike. Moving further up the path, you lose sight of those things, they are temporarily lost to you (metaphorically died to you) as you continue your journey. Then you emerge at a point so much higher that you can see everywhere you’ve been, including all the vistas you enjoyed before, but from a new perspective, with new awareness of how they are all connected.

And, yet, this metaphor falls somewhat short. Merton tells us that contemplation is about more than a new view or a new clarity about God where we can now hold God within a new box. Contemplation is being carried away by God, beyond boundaries and rules, into God’s freedom, mystery and creative love. Perhaps we need to be swept off the mountain path by a great wind that carries us far beyond anything we have ever known, to experience a freedom we never knew existed as gravity held us firmly rooted to the ground.

What keeps us from being fully awake, fully active, fully aware?  What keeps us from living a life of contemplation? What keeps us from experiencing spiritual wonder and spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life?  What keeps us from knowing our Oneness with the Source?

Merton says the obstacle that hinders our oneness is our self – “the tenacious need to maintain our separate, external, egotistic will. But this is merely our outward and “false” self which keeps us alienated from the reality of God. Then the false self becomes our god and we do everything for the sake of this self.”

The dying, therefore, that must occur is attachment to this false self. Detachment in order to achieve union with God is not about detaching from things, but from ourselves.

This is one of my favorite Thomas Merton quotes:

When we have escaped the “prison of our own false self” and enter by love into union with the “Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our souls” we will know true joy.

Love. We enter into union with God by love. And we can’t just love God without learning to love others. 1 John says, “Those who claim to be in the light but hate their neighbors are still living in the dark. But those who love their neighbors are living in the light and need not be afraid of stumbling.” One of the paradoxes of the mystical life, Merton claims, is that “one cannot enter into the deepest center of oneself and pass through that center into God unless one is able to pass entirely out of oneself and empty themselves and give themselves to other people in the purity of a selfless love… In God there can be no selfishness.

Merton is sensible enough to ponder whether there might be even twenty people in the whole world who love perfectly, who have entered into union with the Divine perfectly through this love, who are constantly aware of the reality of the Source. In the end, he admits “I don’t believe that there are twenty such [people] alive in the world. But there must be one or two. They are the ones who are holding everything together and keeping the universe from falling apart.”

Clearly he acknowledges to live in the realm of contemplation at all times is nearly impossible. But if what we strive for is union with the Divine, then we need to stay on the path and keep moving forward, keep practicing awareness of the Divine, recognizing a realm beyond ourselves.

A complete knowing and Oneness with God is achieved when we “die” to ourselves and the things of this world, when we recognize that our ego is merely our false self, and that clinging to and desiring the things of this world are not of God.  Letting go feels scary, if not impossible, but grants a freedom that we occasionally get glimpses of. It is a freedom that manifests in a love of all things and all people.

Love & Light!