Because the hand of the Lord my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me. Ezra 7:28b (NIV)
I caught a trailer for the movie Birth of the Cool the other day. Musicians talked of the recording session of one of the most iconic albums of all time: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. The musicians were surprised when Miles had no score for them. He simply had “sketches” handwritten.
“We’re just going to play,” Miles told his band.
What happened in that studio, what flowed through those musicians as they “just played” changed the history of music.
I’m not fluent in the language of music, but I believe there is a parallel when it comes to other things in life. I have experienced “it” a couple of times on stage, and it is almost impossible to describe. The scene I’m playing becomes a separate reality. At that moment there is no audience. The present slips away. There is a sense of otherworldliness to it. I slip into another dimension. When it’s over, it feels like waking from a dream.
There is a similar experience I’ve had writing. Time stopped. The words flowed. They were not my words. They were flowing through me. The words were leaves falling from the “tree of tales,” as Tolkien described it. I just happen to be the conduit. I sat down at the keyboard to write. Suddenly I was on the lawn with two men sitting there in their lawn chairs. I was eavesdropping on their conversation; transcribing what they were saying. I have no idea how long I typed. I just wrote what I was hearing. When it was over I had thirty-five pages of dialogue.
I’ve never been much of an athlete, but I have heard those who are speak of “being in the zone.” Time changes. The ball slows down. You see things before they happen. Everything just flows.
In today’s chapter, Ezra mentions three times a similar flow in his life circumstances:
The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him.
…he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him.
Because the hand of the Lord my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.
Favor. Zone. Flow. There is something mystical and mysterious to it, but I’ve experienced it. It is the Hand. It is favor. It is tangible grace. Things just happen and I am doing nothing to create it, cause it, or make it happen. I’m just the conduit.
In the quiet this morning I find myself reminded that we are made in the image of the Creator. When we ask, seek, and knock at the door of our birthright, we occasionally find the gracious, favorable flow.
I was recently challenged by a friend to embark on this exercise. They’d been working on it as part of an identity statement they were developing for a class. Quite simply, you pick three people who are “heroes” or individuals you greatly admire. It can be almost anyone, but should be someone famous and someone you don’t know personally. For those who happen to be followers of Jesus, it was requested that He be excluded from this particular exercise.
I figured this lends itself to a good blogging challenge. There were a handful of finalists but I finally narrowed it down to three. As it happens, I have had photos of these three gentlemen taped on the front of my old, worn, paperback Bible for many years. [see featured image of this post]
Those who have followed my blog for any length of time may not be surprised to see Miles Davis’ name on my list. I reference the famous jazz trumpeter on a fairly regular basis and I even posted a review of his biography a number of years ago. Nevertheless, it seems a bit incongruent for this Iowa white boy with little musical ability and strong spiritual priorities to find the heroic in a gifted, conflicted black musician whose demons and appetites led to tragic places. It may not seem an obvious choice.
My exposure to Miles began with a Christmas gift. In fourth grade I began taking drum lessons at Woodlawn elementary school. That year my brothers gave me a couple of record albums to inspire my budding, percussive aspirations. One album was Buddy Rich. The other was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. For those who are not familiar with jazz, it is perhaps the best known jazz album of all time, and for good reason. It sparked a love affair with jazz.
In high school I continued to love jazz music. While my friends at Hoover High School were listening to Def Leppard, The Police, and Journey I was home listening to a wide selection of jazz from Weather Report to Grover Washington Jr. to Chuck Mangione. But, while many of my jazz favorites were flirtations and brief love affairs, I began to realize that Kind of Blue somehow became the true love that always hearkened me back. There was something about Miles that sunk deep in my soul.
Through my post-college years and into my 30s I lost my way creatively in many ways. When I lost my way creatively I unknowingly wandered from the person God created me to be. Unfulfilled, confused, and life-less, the disconnect led me to chase after passions into dark places. By grace, I found the artist’s way back. I began to reclaim my birthright as a child of the Creator.
It was during that journey that I hearkened back, once again, to my true love – Kind of Blue. It was then that he began to emerge as an artistic hero. I began to listen to more of Miles’ music. We were now on a journey together. Miles Ahead and Birth of the Cool were added to the list and I began to hear his own artistry evolving through the chronology of recordings. I loved the way he both honored the genius of a classic like Porgy and Bess while layering it with his own artistry. Sketches of Spain made all sorts of artistic connections for me to Picasso and Hemingway and I began to appreciate Miles’ own artistic journeys and explorations. He seemed to fill the well of his soul and music with input from such a broad, rich diversity of sources. I got that. I identified with that. It stoked my creativity and inspired me. Miles Davis, through his music, became a pied piper, a mentor, and a muse for my own creative journey.
As I learned more about Miles the man, I was fascinated. Like many artistic geniuses, he seems to have been a complex person. I don’t think he was particularly easy to be around. Unlike Winston Churchill, I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed his company over dinner. Yet, even in his frailties, struggles, and failures I found myself identifying with that basic struggle those of us with artistic temperament have to create something beautiful amidst the ugliness of your own humanity .
Miles was a man of intense passions that he struggled to control. He faced and fought his own personal demons. Temporary victories gave way to repeated defeat. His soul carried scars. He hurt those he loved most. I get that, too.
Perhaps the greatest reason that Miles has become a creative hero to me is the fearless way he opened himself creatively to everything. I have twice posted on his theme “there are no wrong notes.” He was fearless in attempting new things, pushing the envelope, absorbing what others were doing and then weaving it into his own work. He wasn’t afraid to re-invent himself, push into places no one expected him to go, and where few seemed to understand. He was willing to try, to dare, and to explore new horizons. And, as he got older it seems that he never stopped. I hope that I might reflect even a small fraction of that spirit of creation.
When teaching my course on creativity I have discovered an almost universal truth: My students all have an intense desire to create and express themselves through their chosen art medium(s) but they almost all don’t do it. As we journey through the course we attempt to excavate the reasons for their artistic timidity, and without fail I discover that most are plagued fear.
Fear of doing it wrong
Fear of not being good enough
Fear of failing at it
Fear of what’s deep inside of me, fear it might come out
Fear of looking silly
Fear of what my parents would say
Fear of what my friends might think
Fear that it will be bad
Throughout the course, as I talk about expressing yourself creatively or artistically, I incessantly quote jazz great Miles Davis:
“There are no wrong notes.”
I was reminded of this yesterday in a Wall Street Journal interview I read with another jazz great, Herbie Hancock, who recently gave a lecture about the wisdom of Miles Davis at Harvard:
Mr. Hancock recounted, for example, one extraordinary moment in Stockholm in 1967, during a performance by the [Miles Davis] quintet. “This night was magical,” he remembered. “We were communicating almost telepathically, playing ‘So What'”—one of the group’s signature pieces. “Wayne [Shorter] had taken his solo. Miles was playing and building and building, and then I played the wrong chord. It was so, so wrong. In an instant, time stood still and I felt totally shattered. Miles took a breath. And then he played this phrase that made my chord right. It didn’t seem possible. I still don’t know how he did it. But Miles hadn’t heard it as a wrong chord—he took it as an unexpected chord. He didn’t judge what I played. To use a Buddhist turn of phrase, he turned poison into medicine.”
Wendy and I talked about this story over breakfast and she reminded me that Davis was simply applying to music a concept that she and I know well from the stage. It’s the concept of “Yes And.” Like a song, a stage performance is usually meticulously orchestrated. Lines and movement are carefully prescribed to deliver the intended effect to the audience. Sometimes, however, something happens on stage which you didn’t expect:
An actor moves to a different place on stage than was rehearsed
An actor completely blanks and can’t remember his or her lines
In the moment of performance when you stand on that stage with the audience watching you can’t stop the performance to shout “No, but wait! That’s wrong. Let’s go back and try it again.” When the unexpected happens, actors are taught to say “Yes, and I’ll go along with it. I will respond to what just happened so as to make it work into the scene. The concept of “Yes And” is particularly critical for actors who learn improvisational theatre in which there is no script or blocking to follow. You must say “Yes And” to whatever the other person on stage is doing and respond.
When Herbie Hancock played the “wrong” chord Miles Davis said “Yes, and I’m going to change the notes I’m playing to envelope that chord and redeem it. I’m going to make it right. There are no wrong notes.”
I have learned that the concept of “Yes And” goes much deeper than jazz and stage. God, the master artist and Creator, has exemplified “Yes And” in my entire life journey. When I have totally screwed up time and time again God has responded with “Yes, and I’m going to let you learn the hard lessons that come from your choices.” When I have wandered from the path into dark places God has responded with “Yes, and I’m going to ultimately use your experiences to teach you wisdom.” When I make foolish choices God has responded “Yes, and you will find maturity in the dissonance your decisions create.”
“Yes And” applies to the art of daily life. When the fourteen year old says, out of the blue, “I want to go to Thailand next summer” I don’t say “No!” I say, “Yes, and I’m going to help you figure out if you’re really supposed to go.” When friends, spouses, children, or co-workers do the unexpected, there is wisdom in learning to say “Yes, and I’m going to give up my misguided notion that I can somehow control you, make you do my will, or know God’s prescribed path for your life.”
Please don’t read what I’m not writing. Obviously, parents have responsibility to teach our young children well and to protect them with appropriate rules and boundaries. Relationships, like the flow of music or the blocking of a scene, require a give and take between those involved. I have found, however, that when it comes to relationships we are often tempted to eat of the forbidden fruit. We are deceived into thinking that we are the god of our children, our spouses, our friends, and our co-workers.
“No, but I AM the only one who knows what’s best for her.”
“No, but I AM the one who will choose the path for him.”
“No, but I AM the one who has judged correctly.”
“No, but I AM to be obeyed.”
“No, but I AM right.”
I love Herbie Hancock’s story and the wisdom of Miles Davis. When we are raised and enmeshed in the rigidity of a black and white “No But” world we quickly learn to stuff the creative impulses that Creator God knit into our souls when He sculpted us in His own image. We learn to fear the “No, but” which we have been taught will inevitably follow when we play “wrong” notes, paint the “wrong” way, draw outside the lines, or miss an entrance.
When I was younger I thought that the sad result of the Garden of Eden was that we all choose to do “wrong” and “bad” things. The further I get in the journey, the more I’ve come to realize that the true tragedy of The Fall is not the bad things that we do, but our failure to fully realize all that is good and pure and powerful and possible as children of the Creator who said “Yes and let us make man and woman in our image, in our likeness.”
Shout to the Lord, all the earth; break out in praise and sing for joy! Sing your praise to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and melodious song, with trumpets and the sound of the ram’s horn. Make a joyful symphony before the Lord, the King! Psalm 98:4-6 (NLT)
I’ve experienced a lot of different styles of worship throughout my journey. I grew up as kid growing up in a liturgical Methodist church. I dressed up in choir robes and entered the sanctuary in a long processional with the pastor and the adult choir. I sang choral music accompanied by a pipe organ or piano. The evangelical church I went to after that had slick, professional, popular sounding music. My Quaker friends were a quiet group, allowing plenty of silence to “center” ourselves. Whenever I get to attend a Catholic mass I’m totally blown away by the metaphorical depth and meaning of the ritual. The Presbyterians I worshiped with reminded me of my childhood experiences in a good way. I’ve attended worship services with my Pentecostal friends that, in comparison, felt like a three ring circus.
When reading the psalms you can never completely divorce yourself from the fact that this is a volume of lyrics meant for ancient worship. Along the journey I’m constantly running into people caught up in what is “right” or “wrong” about the way this group or that group expresses themselves in worship. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I’m reminded this morning of a quote by the great jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis: “There are no wrong notes.”
My many and varied experiences have taught me that there’s benefit to the smorgasbord of worship styles you’ll encounter across the panacea of churches and groups. You may prefer this or that from the options laid out for you, but taking a bite from something you’ve never had before just might surprise you in a good way.
As I read the above lyric this morning I thought of all of my experiences in churches where “worship” was synonymous with words like: quiet, silent, and respectful. Dude, if you’re following the prescription for worship laid out in Psalm 98 it is NOT going to be quiet and peaceful. Shouting, trumpets and a ram’s horn?