I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn't resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.
After that I liked jazz music.
Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.
I used to not like God because God didn't resolve…”
-Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz
Sommer, my friend's daughter is wicked-smart. She was taking an online placement test in fourth grade for homeschooling curriculum, but her mom stopped her in the math portion when she realized the kid was teaching herself algebra while she tested. She plays classical piano, and while she's not a prodigy, she's good and she practices hard.
A couple of years ago, Sommer approached me and asked if she could join the worship team at our church. Our worship leader will take anyone, so I said yes. But. We don't have sheet music. Pianists have to be able to play by guitar chords, even if that means setting the keyboard to "strings" and just droning the notes.
Sommer had a problem—her piano teacher told her that if she started playing by guitar chords, with so little structure, she could no longer attend that music school. Personally, I thought it was a ridiculous ultimatum, but there was nothing I could do about it. My friend and I explained to Sommer that it was up to her. What did she want more?
She's still in classes.
JT, my kid, graduated 8th grade last night. We had a time of it with his 9th grade schedule. At first he wanted to drop band. Because of things, he only gets to choose one elective. Dev wanted him to stay in band; I wanted him to be able to choose. His trumpet tutor wanted him to stay in band because he can reach notes most high schoolers only dream of. His band director (who's married to his tutor) wanted him to stay in because he's first chair in the middle school band and she thinks if he sticks with it he'll easily get scholarships to college.
Eventually, JT agreed with them. Partially because the band is going to Disneyland this year. But there's no doubting he's very musically gifted. He plays by ear. He rarely looks at the sheet music (which both impresses and frustrates his tutor). When JT practices, he'll stop during a difficult run and sing the part to remind himself how it goes. And he's a better singer than trumpet player.
Sommer has the technical skill. She's studied and practiced for a long time. JT's only taken trumpet for three years, and he's thinking about switching to oboe. He feels the music and goes along for the ride.
They so remind me of the churched child.
Taking your kids to church is so important. It's an opportunity to teach them the basics of God and Jesus in a way that will allow them to interpret the world through God's point of view. But we forget that we are using adult words to teach child minds, and a lot gets lost in translation. What did we learn? Jesus loves you but is only pleased if you can sit still for an hour without bothering the adults around you. Jesus died on the cross and if you memorize these verses you get pizza or maybe a toy. God created the world but you need to be quiet now. The Holy Spirit is always with you and you're doing it wrong.
This isn't every kid's experience, and it's not every church's children's ministry. But I don't think it's uncommon for the Sunday morning/Wednesday night crowd. Learning about God becomes akin to classical music instruction. Very precise. Very specific. And if something doesn't sound right, it's because you messed up.
Then, if she's lucky, the kid goes on a really challenging missions trip or to an emotional church camp. God gets a little bigger and looser. You realize He doesn't care if you stay with the group and sing canned songs or if you escape to the lake to pray. His creative power becomes more real as you get lost in the stars. You hear His love in your heart and learn to play along. You even learn to harmonize a bit, and revel in the idea that you have something of value to add.
But then you go home. And even if you can still hear the melody in your head, the other voices and noises drown out your part.
So I think Donald Miller's right. What we need to know about God is written on the page, but the page is the jumping off point for our lives. JT loves Duke Ellington's music. Someday, I hope he'll have the confidence to improvise like the jazz greats—to live the music instead of just hearing it. Sommer, too, will be amazing if she can take the technical know-how she's perfecting and use it to express who she is in God's eyes.
How much better it will be if they can internalize the Sunday School stories and use them to see, appreciate, and trust our unresolved God. If they realize they are the stars Millers speaks of:
There is something beautiful about a billion stars held steady by a God who knows what He is doing. (They hang there, the stars, like notes on a page of music, free-form verse, silent mysteries swirling in the blue like jazz.)
-Miller, Blue Like Jazz
Kersley Fitzgerald is a former Air Force officer, former Air Force wife, and current editor of Got Questions’ blog site, Blogos.org. She and her husband adopted JT from Thailand when he was 18 months old. He has spent the ensuing years teaching her more about God than any theology course could.