I’ve always loved jazz. I’m sure it started with my obsession with the Art Deco era and Big Band music. But the swing music of the Big Band Era was still pretty strict, from a jazz point of view. The arrangements were complicated, so everyone pretty much stuck to the music on the page, with an improvised solo thrown in here and there.
Improvisation is the heart of jazz.
Improvisation is what happens when a musician stops looking at the music on the page and starts playing with her or his heart. It’s when, if you are a spiritual person, you let go of your ego and open your mind to the endless creativity of God. When the flow is on, it’s a supremely worshipful and transcendent experience.
Improv is what makes us curious and creative, whether we’re playing jazz or inventing something to protect us from being eaten by wild animals. Improv reminds us we are One with God in profoundly meaningful and creative ways. Improv isn’t easy. This underlying jazz concept is difficult because it requires us to get off the written page. It requires a certain amount of trust in Universal Creative Consciousness.
We have to get off the written page.
Jazz takes a pioneering spirit and a willingness to accept that what you’re doing is honest, truthful and legitimate, even when everyone else is telling you to keep playing the notes that are on the page. Playing jazz requires a leap of faith—that your fingers or voice or breath will be guided by something beyond human logic. It’s a divine experience.
Now, to many people, jazz often sounds “wrong,” because jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock take liberties with the sorts of notes we’re used to hearing. They push us to listen more deeply; to join them in this divine dance.
Unfortunately, for all our human creativity, many of us often get stuck. We’re afraid to improvise. We’re afraid to stray from the notes on the page. We’re afraid to play a “wrong” chord or make a mistake. We’re afraid of failure.
But we shouldn’t be afraid because jazz is also a collaborative effort. It only works—and works well, when we’re jamming with other people. Even when we think we’ve made a mistake, there’s someone there to play a few new notes to make it “right.” It’s what Miles Davis said: “There are no mistakes, only opportunities.”
That’s what church is for. It’s not to listen to dogma or to be told what to think. For me, church is about playing spiritual music with everyone in the congregation—exchanging ideas like riffs in a jazz tune; exploring new melodies, new ways to think about things, new ways to serve. Church is about being new expressions of God’s love in the world. Church is about jazz.
Now, let’s jazz up a little scripture, too.
Genesis 3:1-10 (CEB)
The snake was the most intelligent of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say that you shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?” The woman said to the snake, “We may eat the fruit of the garden’s trees but not the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. God said, ‘Don’t eat from it, and don’t touch it, or you will die.”
The snake said to the woman, “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The woman saw that the tree was beautiful with delicious food and that the tree would provide wisdom, so she took some of its fruit and ate it, and also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then they both saw clearly and knew that they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together and made garments for themselves.
During that day’s cool evening breeze, they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God in the middle of the garden’s trees. The Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” The man replied, “I heard your sound in the garden; I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself.”
To me, this passage of scripture implies that we are not only riffing on spiritual ideas with each other, we are also jamming with God. Whether we’re in the garden or not, we are walking hand in hand with God.
We might not think of the Adam and Eve story this way because we all learn the story of “The Fall” as children. Even if we’re not religious, we probably know this story. So we know what happens after the section of scripture above. When God finds Adam and Eve hiding in the garden, God kicks them out.
Like many of you, I was always taught that Adam and Eve made this horrible mistake (committed a sin to use the old language) and were kicked out of the garden as punishment. This idea eventually became the standard Christian dogma: We are all sinners paying for Adam and Eve’s original mistake. They failed God’s test. They ate from the one tree God said not to touch, and fell from God’s grace, being kicked out of the garden, and now, as a consequence, we are all mortal sinners.
This interpretation means that being human is a mistake. This glorious life, which God has previously pronounced good, is all a horrible mistake! Reading Adam and Eve’s journey from the garden as a mistake creates an innate sense of worthlessness in us (and incidentally, creates an institution—the church—that offers the only cure for humankind’s shared disease).
But, because scripture is like a jazz tune, there are many, many other ways to think about what this story means. In fact, the original Jewish people who wrote these stories intended for them to be interpreted in many different ways. It was a practice Jesus participated in called midrash. The Bible we have in our hands today is perhaps the ultimate jazz composition—written by many people, rewritten by many more, edited, redacted, vamped and improvised upon—it’s a true work of human collaboration, and for that reason alone it’s worth our attention.
But, in this country at least, it’s also become somewhat taboo to play anything other than the notes written on the page—the literal notes. So when we look at the Adam and Eve story, we’re told it’s about original sin and humanity’s fall from God’s grace. Period. End of song.
Well, like his rabbinical counterparts, Jesus dares us to get off the written page. He took scripture and riffed on it all the time, and he teaches us how to do the same thing. Jesus said, “You have heard it said, but I say…” Jesus invites us into this same sort of relationship with scripture. Jesus was a jazzer!
So, you have heard it said Adam and Eve made a huge mistake, and consequently, all humans are paying the price for that one mistake. But I ask, did Adam and Eve make a mistake, or did they make the most of a God-given opportunity?
Just think about this for a moment: Perhaps the entire garden story is a metaphor about the beauty of being human, not how worthless we are. Perhaps eating from the tree affords God—by incarnating as human beings, the opportunity to become fully human—to live a life full of wonder and surprise, joy and heartbreak, of quenching our curiosity, of considering what it means to be good or evil, of constantly and tirelessly seeking wisdom. Because without wisdom, without knowledge of good and evil, without life and even without death, then tell me: exactly what is it that makes us human?
Eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil isn’t a mistake. It’s an opportunity. An opportunity to experience being fully human. This human life might not be as carefree was life in the garden. But it’s still a gift. And as beings who are made from the very molecules of God, it’s an opportunity for God to experience the gift of being human.
How can that possibly be a mistake?
Meditation: Help me recognize the incredible worth of all human beings, as I begin to understand this life as a precious gift, not a mistake.