Blue Like Jazz
Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality Donald Miller's fresh and original voice may change the way Christians view their "status quo" faith and build a bridge to seekers who believe that organised religion doesn't meet their spiritual needs. ...
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Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality
Donald Miller's fresh and original voice may change the way Christians view their "status quo" faith and build a bridge to seekers who believe that organised religion doesn't meet their spiritual needs.
"I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn't resolve. . . I used to not like God because God didn't resolve. But that was before any of this happened." In Donald Miller's early years, he was vaguely familiar with a distant God. But when he came to know Jesus Christ, he pursued the Christian life with great zeal. Within a few years he had a successful ministry that ultimately left him feeling empty, burned out, and, once again, far away from God. In this intimate, soul-searching account, Miller describes his remarkable journey back to a culturally relevant, infinitely loving God.
Miller's fresh and original voice may change the way Christians view the status quo of faith and build a bridge to seekers who believe that organized religion doesn't meet their needs.
Donald Miller grew up in Houston, TX. Leaving home at the age of 21, he traveled across the country until he ran out of money in Portland, OR, where he lives today.
In 2002, after having audited classes at Reed College, Don wrote Blue Like Jazz, which would slowly become a NY Times bestseller. In 2004 Don released Searching For God Knows What, a book about how the Gospel of Jesus explains the human personality. In 2005 he released Through Painted Deserts, the story of his and a friend's road trip across the country. Recently he has released A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life
A sought-after speaker, Don has delivered lectures to a wide range of audiences, including the Women of Faith Conference, the Veritas Forum at Harvard University, and the Veritas Forum at Cal Poly. In 2008 Don was asked to deliver the closing prayer on Monday night at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, CO.
Coming Out of the Closet
When I was in Sunday school as a kid, my teacher put a big poster on the wall that was shaped in a circle like a target. She had us write names of people we knew who weren't Christians on little pieces of paper, and she pinned the names to the outer circle of the target. She said our goal, by the end of the year, was to move those names from the outer ring of the circle, which represented their distance from knowing Jesus, to the inner ring, which represented them having come into a relationship with Jesus. I thought the strategy was beautiful because it gave us a goal, a visual.
I didn't know any people who weren't Christians, but I was a child with a fertile imagination so I made up some names; Thad Thatcher was one and William Wonka was another. My teacher didn't believe me which I took as an insult, but nonetheless, the class was excited the very next week when both Thad and William had become Christians in a dramatic conversion experience that included the dismantling of a large satanic cult and underground drug ring. There was also levitation involved.
Even though they didn't exist, Thad and William were the only people to become Christians all year. Nobody else I knew became a Christian for a very long time, mostly because I didn't tell anybody about Jesus except when I was drunk at a party, and that was only because so many of my reservations were down, and even then nobody understood me because I was either crying or slurring my words.
o o o
When I moved downtown to attend Imago-Dei, the church Rick started, he was pretty serious about loving people regardless of whether they considered Jesus the Son of God or not, and Rick wanted to love them because they were either hungry, thirsty, or lonely. The human struggle bothered Rick, as if something was broken in the world and we were supposed to hold our palms against the wound. He didn't really see evangelism, or whatever you want to call it, as a target on a wall in which the goal is to get people to agree with us about the meaning of life. He saw evangelism as reaching a felt need. I thought this was beautiful and frightening. I thought it was beautiful because I had this same need; I mean, I really knew I needed Jesus like I need water or food, and yet it was frightening because Christianity is so stupid to so much of our culture, and I absolutely hate bothering people about this stuff.
So much of me believes strongly in letting everybody live their own lives, and when I share my faith, I feel like a network marketing guy trying to build my down line.
Some of my friends who aren't Christians think that Christians are insistent and demanding and intruding, but that isn't the case. Those folks are the squeaky wheel. Most Christians have enormous respect for the space and freedom of others; it is only that they have found a joy in Jesus they want to share. There is the tension.
In a recent radio interview I was sternly asked by the host, who did not consider himself a Christian, to defend Christianity. I told him that I couldn't do it, and moreover, that I didn't want to defend the term. He asked me if I was a Christian, and I told him yes. "Then why don't you want to defend Christianity?" he asked, confused. I told him I no longer knew what the term meant. Of the hundreds of thousands of people listening to his show that day, some of them had terrible experiences with Christianity; they may have been yelled at by a teacher in a Christian school, abused by a minister, or browbeaten by a Christian parent. To them, the term Christianity meant something that no Christian I know would defend. By fortifying the term, I am only making them more and more angry. I won't do it. Stop ten people on the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word Christianity, and they will give you ten different answers. How can I defend a term that means ten different things to ten different people? I told the radio show host that I would rather talk about Jesus and how I came to believe that Jesus exists and that he likes me. The host looked back at me with tears in his eyes. When we were done, he asked me if we could go get lunch together. He told me how much he didn't like Christianity but how he had always wanted to believe Jesus was the Son of God.
o o o
For me, the beginning of sharing my faith with people began by throwing out Christianity and embracing Christian spirituality, a nonpolitical mysterious system that can be experienced but not explained. Christianity, unlike Christian spirituality, was not a term that excited me. And I could not in good conscious tell a friend about a faith that didn't excite me. I couldn't share something I wasn't experiencing. And I wasn't experiencing Christianity. It didn't do anything for me at all. It felt like math, like a system of rights and wrongs and political beliefs, but it wasn't mysterious; it wasn't God reaching out of heaven to do wonderful things in my life. And if I would have shared Christianity with somebody, it would have felt mostly like I was trying to get somebody to agree with me rather than meet God. I could no longer share anything about Christianity, but I loved talking about Jesus and the spirituality that goes along with a relationship with Him.
Tony the Beat Poet says the church is like a wounded animal these days. He says we used to have power and influence, but now we don't, and so many of our leaders are upset about this and acting like spoiled children, mad because they can't have their way.
They disguise their actions to look as though they are standing on principle, but it isn't that, Tony says, it's bitterness. They want to take their ball and go home because they have to sit the bench. Tony and I agreed that what God wants us to do is sit the bench in humility and turn the other cheek like Gandhi, like Jesus. We decided that the correct place to share our faith was from a place of humility and love, not from a desire for power.
o o o
Each year at Reed they have a festival called Ren Fayre. They shut down the campus so students can party. Security keeps the authorities away, and everybody gets pretty drunk and high, and some people get naked. Friday night is mostly about getting drunk, and Saturday night is about getting high. The school brings in White Bird, a medical unit that specializes in treating bad drug trips. The students create special lounges with black lights and television screens to enhance kids' mushroom trips.
Some of the Christian students in our little group decided this was a pretty good place to come out of the closet, letting everybody know there were a few Christians on campus. Tony the Beat Poet and I were sitting around in my room one afternoon talking about what to do, how to explain who we were to a group of students who, in the past, had expressed hostility toward Christians. Like our friends, we felt like Ren Fayre was the time to do this. I said we should build a confession booth in the middle of campus and paint a sign on it that said "Confess your sins." I said this because I knew a lot of people would be sinning, and Christian spirituality begins by confessing our sins and repenting. I also said it as a joke. But Tony thought it was brilliant. He sat there on my couch with his mind in the clouds, and he was scaring the crap out of me because, for a second, then for a minute, I actually believed he wanted to do it.
"Tony," I said very gently.
"What?" he said, with a blank stare at the opposite wall.
"We are not going to do this," I told him. He moved his gaze down the wall and directly into my eyes. A smile came across his face.
"Oh, we are, Don. We certainly are. We are going to build a confession booth!"
We met in Commons-Penny, Nadine, Mitch, Iven, Tony, and I. Tony said I had an idea. They looked at me. I told them that Tony was lying and I didn't have an idea at all. They looked at Tony. Tony gave me a dirty look and told me to tell them the idea. I told them I had a stupid idea that we couldn't do without getting attacked. They leaned in. I told them that we should build a confession booth in the middle of campus and paint a sign on it that said "Confess your sins." Penny put her hands over her mouth. Nadine smiled. Iven laughed. Mitch started drawing the designs for the booth on a napkin. Tony nodded his head. I wet my pants.
"They may very well burn it down," Nadine said.
"I will build a trapdoor," Mitch said with his finger in the air.
"I like it, Don." Iven patted me on the back.
"I don't want anything to do with it," Penny said.
"Neither do I," I told her.
"Okay, you guys." Tony gathered everybody's attention. "Here's the catch." He leaned in a little and collected his thoughts. "We are not actually going to accept confessions." We all looked at him in confusion. He continued, "We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them."
All of us sat there in silence because it was obvious that something beautiful and true had hit the table with a thud. We all thought it was a great idea, and we could see it in each other's eyes. It would feel so good to apologize, to apologize for the Crusades, for Columbus and the genocide he committed in the Bahamas in the name of God, apologize for the missionaries who landed in Mexico and came up through the West slaughtering Indians in the name of Christ. I wanted so desperately to say that none of this was Jesus, and I wanted so desperately to apologize for the many ways I had misrepresented the Lord. I could feel that I had betrayed the Lord by judging, by not being willing to love the people He had loved and only giving lip service to issues of human rights.
For so much of my life I had been defending Christianity because I thought to admit that we had done any wrong was to discredit the religious system as a whole, but it isn't a religious system, it is people following Christ; and the important thing to do, the right thing to do, was to apologize for getting in the way of Jesus.
Later I had a conversation with a very arrogant Reed professor in the parking lot in which he asked me what brought me to Reed. I told him I was auditing a class but was really there to interact with the few Christians who studied at Reed. The professor asked me if I was a Christian evangelist. I told him I didn't think I was, that I wouldn't consider myself an evangelist. He went on to compare my work to that of Captain Cook, who had attempted to bring Western values to indigenous people of Hawaii. He looked me in the eye and said the tribes had killed Cook.
He did not wish me a greater fate at Reed.
All the way home on my motorcycle I fumed and imagined beating the professor into a pulp right there in the parking lot. I could see his sly smile, his intellectual pride. Sure, Christians had done terrible things to humanity, but I hadn't. I had never killed anybody at all. And those people weren't following Jesus when they committed those crimes against humanity. They were government people, and government always uses God to manipulate the masses into following them.
Both Clinton and Bush claim to be followers of Jesus. Anybody who wants to get their way says that Jesus supports their view. But that isn't Jesus' fault. Tony had come to campus a few days earlier, a bit sad in the face. He had seen a bumper sticker on one of the cars in the parking lot that read "Too bad we can't feed Christians to the lions anymore."
I prayed about getting in the confession booth. I wondered whether I could apologize and mean it. I wondered whether I could humble myself to a culture that, to some degree, had wronged us. But I could see in Penny's face, in Iven's eyes, that this was what they wanted; they wanted to love these people, their friends, and it didn't matter to them what it cost. They didn't care how much they had been hurt, and they certainly had more scars than either Tony or I, and so we bought the wood and stored it in my garage, and Friday night we went to the Thesis parade and watched everybody get drunk and beat drums and dance in the spray of beer. Tony and I dressed like monks and smoked pipes and walked among the anarchy, becoming soaked in all the alcohol spewing from within the crowds. People would come up to us and ask what we were doing, and we told them that the next day we would be on campus to take confessions. They looked at us in amazement, sometimes asking us whether we were serious. We told them to come and see us, that we were going to build a confession booth.
The next morning, while everybody was sleeping off their hangovers, Mitch, Tony, and I started building the thing. Mitch had the plans drawn out. The booth was huge, much bigger than I expected, almost like a shed complete with a slanted roof and two small sections inside, one for the monk and the other for the confessor. We built a half-high wall between the two rooms and installed a curtain so the confessor could easily get in and out. On our side we installed a door with a latch so nobody could come in and drag us away. Nadine painted "Confession Booth" in large letters on the outside of the booth.
As the campus started to gather energy, people walking along the sidewalk would ask what we were doing. They stood there looking at the booth in wonder. "What are we supposed to do?" they would ask. "Confess your sins," we told them. "To who?" they would say. "To God," we would tell them. "There is no God," they would explain. Some of them told us this was the boldest thing they had ever seen. All of them were kind, which surprised us.
I stood there outside the booth as a large blue mob started running across campus, all of them, more than a hundred people, naked and painted with blue paint. They ran by the booth screaming and waving. I waved back. Naked people look funny when they are for-real naked, outside-a-magazine naked.
Saturday evening at Ren Fayre is alive and fun. The sun goes down over campus, and shortly after dark they shoot fireworks over the tennis courts. Students lay themselves out on a hill and laugh and point in bleary-eyed fascination. The highlight of the evening is a glow opera that packs the amphitheater with students and friends. The opera is designed to enhance mushroom trips. The actors wear all black and carry colorful puppets and cutouts that come alive in the black light. Everybody ooohs and aaahs.
The party goes till nearly dawn, so though it was late we started working the booth. We lit tiki torches and mounted them in the ground just outside the booth. Tony and Iven were saying that I should go first, which I didn't want to do, but I played bold and got in the booth. I sat on a bucket and watched the ceiling and the smoke from my pipe gather in the dark corners like ghosts. I could hear the rave happening in the student center across campus. I was picturing all the cool dancers, the girls in white shirts moving through the black light, the guys with the turntables in the loft, the big screen with the swirling images and all that energy coming out of the speakers, pounding through everybody's bodies, getting everybody up and down, up and down. Nobody is going to confess anything, I thought. Who wants to stop dancing to confess their sins? And I realized that this was a bad idea, that none of this was God's idea. Nobody was going to get angry, but nobody was going to care very much either.
There is nothing relevant about Christian spirituality, I kept thinking. God, if He is even there, has no voice in this place. Everybody wants to have a conversation about truth, but there isn't any truth anymore. The only truth is what is cool, what is on television, what protest is going on on what block, and it doesn't matter the issue; it only matters who is going to be there and will there be a party later and can any of us feel like we are relevant while we are at the party. And in the middle of it we are like Mormons on bikes. I sat there wondering whether any of this was true, whether Christian spirituality was even true at all. You never question the truth of something until you have to explain it to a skeptic. I didn't feel like explaining it very much. I didn't feel like being in the booth or wearing that stupid monk outfit. I wanted to go to the rave. Everybody in there was cool, and we were just religious.
I was going to tell Tony that I didn't want to do it when he opened the curtain and said we had our first customer.
"What's up, man?" Duder sat himself on the chair with a smile on his face. He told me my pipe smelled good.
"Thanks," I said. I asked him his name, and he said his name was Jake. I shook his hand because I didn't know what to do, really.
"So, what is this? I'm supposed to tell you all of the juicy gossip I did at Ren Fayre, right?" Jake said.
"Okay, then what? What's the game?" He asked.
"Not really a game. More of a confession thing."
"You want me to confess my sins, right?"
"No, that's not what we're doing, really."
"What's the deal, man? What's with the monk outfit?"
"Well, we are, well, a group of Christians here on campus, you know."
"I see. Strange place for Christians, but I am listening."
"Thanks," I told him. He was being very patient and gracious. "Anyway, there is this group of us, just a few of us who were thinking about the way Christians have sort of wronged people over time. You know, the Crusades, all that stuff . . ."
"Well, I doubt you personally were involved in any of that, man."
"No, I wasn't," I told him. "But the thing is, we are followers of Jesus. We believe that He is God and all, and He represented certain ideas that we have sort of not done a good job at representing. He has asked us to represent Him well, but it can be very hard."
"I see," Jake said.
"So there is this group of us on campus who wanted to confess to you."
"You are confessing to me!" Jake said with a laugh.
"Yeah. We are confessing to you. I mean, I am confessing to you."
"You're serious." His laugh turned to something of a straight face.
I told him I was. He looked at me and told me I didn't have to. I told him I did, and I felt very strongly in that moment that I was supposed to tell Jake that I was sorry about everything.
"What are you confessing?" he asked.
I shook my head and looked at the ground. "Everything," I told him.
"Explain," he said.
"There's a lot. I will keep it short," I started. "Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened. Jesus did not mix His spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. It got in the way of the central message of Christ. I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know Him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across. There's a lot more, you know."
"It's all right, man," Jake said, very tenderly. His eyes were starting to water.
"Well," I said, clearing my throat, "I am sorry for all of that."
"I forgive you," Jake said. And he meant it.
"Thanks," I told him.
He sat there and looked at the floor, then into the fire of a candle. "It's really cool what you guys are doing," he said. "A lot of people need to hear this."
"Have we hurt a lot of people?" I asked him.
"You haven't hurt me. I just think it isn't very popular to be a Christian, you know. Especially at a place like this. I don't think too many people have been hurt. Most people just have a strong reaction to what they see on television. All these well-dressed preachers supporting the Republicans."
"That's not the whole picture," I said. "That's just television. I have friends who are giving their lives to feed the poor and defend the defenseless. They are doing it for Christ."
"You really believe in Jesus, don't you?" he asked me.
"Yes, I think I do. Most often I do. I have doubts at times, but mostly I believe in Him. It's like there is something in me that causes me to believe, and I can't explain it."
"You said earlier that there was a central message of Christ. I don't really want to become a Christian, you know, but what is that message?"
"The message is that man sinned against God and God gave the world over to man, and that if somebody wanted to be rescued out of that, if somebody for instance finds it all very empty, that Christ will rescue them if they want; that if they ask forgiveness for being a part of that rebellion then God will forgive them."
"What is the deal with the cross?" Jake asked.
"God says the wages of sin is death," I told him. "And Jesus died so that none of us would have to. If we have faith in that then we are Christians."
"That is why people wear crosses?" he asked.
"I guess. I think it is sort of fashionable. Some people believe that if they have a cross around their neck or tattooed on them or something, it has some sort of mystical power."
"Do you believe that?" Jake asked.
"No," I answered. I told him that I thought mystical power came through faith in Jesus.
"What do you believe about God?" I asked him.
"I don't know. I guess I didn't believe for a long time, you know. The science of it is so sketchy. I guess I believe in God though. I believe somebody is responsible for all of this, this world we live in. It is all very confusing."
"Jake, if you want to know God, you can. I am just saying if you ever want to call on Jesus, He will be there."
"Thanks, man. I believe that you mean that." His eyes were watering again. "This is cool what you guys are doing," he repeated. "I am going to tell my friends about this."
"I don't know whether to thank you for that or not," I laughed. "I have to sit here and confess all my crap."
He looked at me very seriously. "It's worth it," he said. He shook my hand, and when he left the booth there was somebody else ready to get in. It went like that for a couple of hours. I talked to about thirty people, and Tony took confessions on a picnic table outside the booth. Many people wanted to hug when we were done. All of the people who visited the booth were grateful and gracious. I was being changed through the process. I went in with doubts and came out believing so strongly in Jesus I was ready to die and be with Him. I think that night was the beginning of change for a lot of us.
Iven started taking a group to a local homeless shelter to feed the poor, and he often had to turn students away because the van wouldn't hold more than twenty or so. We held an event called Poverty Day where we asked students to live on less than three dollars a day to practice solidarity with the poor. More than one hundred students participated. Penny spoke in Vollum Lounge on the topic of poverty in India, and more than seventy-five students came. Before any of this, our biggest event had about ten people. We hosted an evening where we asked students to come and voice their hostility against Christians. We answered questions about what we believed and explained our love for people, for the hurting, and we apologized again for our own wrongs against humanity and asked for forgiveness from the Reed community. We enjoyed the new friendships we received, and at one time had four different Bible studies on campus specifically for people who did not consider themselves Christians. We watched a lot of students take a second look at Christ. But mostly, we as Christians felt right with the people around us. Mostly we felt forgiven and grateful.
Sometime around two or three in the morning, the night we took confessions, I was walking off the campus with my monk robe under my arm, and when I got to the large oak trees on the outskirts of the font lawn, I turned and looked at the campus. It all looked so smart and old, and I could see the lights coming out of the Student Center, and I could hear the music thumping. There were kids making out on the lawn and chasing each other down the sidewalks. There was laughing and dancing and throwing up.
I felt very strongly that Jesus was relevant in this place. I felt very strongly that if He was not relevant here then He was not relevant anywhere. I felt very peaceful in that place and very sober. I felt very connected to God because I had confessed so much to so many people and had gotten so much off my chest and I had been forgiven by the people I had wronged with my indifference and judgmentalism. I was going to sit there for a little while, but it was cold and the grass was damp. I went home and fell asleep on the couch and the next morning made coffee and sat on the porch at Graceland and wondered whether the things that happened the night before had actually happened. I was out of the closet now. A Christian. So many years before I had made amends to God, but now I had made amends to the world. I was somebody who was willing to share my faith. It felt kind of cool, kind of different. It was very relieving.