-by Deacon Joe Paparone
I first came across Mark Scandrette’s writings earlier this year. I finished his first book, “Soul Graffiti” on the plane to a conference he was speaking at, and it floored me. His presentations and our conversations at the conference surrounded the ideas first presented in “Soul Graffiti” and are now much more fully fleshed out in “Practicing the Way of Jesus.” This was all happening at a time when I was seriously questioning my existing ministry practices. I felt that I had become really good at talking about Jesus, the Gospel, the Kingdom, and Mission, and yet I wasn’t doing a great job of living in a way that reflected my knowledge. I felt like a bit of a fraud, really. Scandrette’s stuff hit me at just the right time.
I spent a few years dabbling in jazz music and education (saxophone, specifically). When you’re learning to play jazz, and trying to teach it to others, there are two things that you realize very quickly. First, the notes on the page don’t accurately represent the music. No matter how specifically someone tries to notate a jazz style, the rhythms, accents, and soul of the music simply don’t make it to paper. You will NEVER learn to swing by looking at printed sheet music.
Second, it sucks to try and play jazz by yourself. There are certainly some things that require long hours of solo practice, but the music doesn’t come alive until you’re with a few others. It doesn’t matter how smoking your improv is, if you’re by yourself, the novelty wears off quickly. The soul of jazz is in the interaction; the soloist hearing the piano player hit a certain chord alteration and playing off of it, the bass and drums responding to a soloist’s rhythms.
So you respond to these issues by doing two things: listening to a lot of jazz, and finding some friends to jam with. On the surface this seems simple, but if you’ve never listened to it before, jazz is a bit of an acquired taste. With some jazz, it takes a little while to figure out what the heck is going on. After some substantial immersion, though, you can start to pick out the elements, style, form, and tone. You learn to appreciate Coltrane’s sheets of sound and Miles’ sparse solos and see the absolute brilliance and beauty of both. You listen, then you begin to internalize the style, and then you go and experiment by trying to play it a little yourself. As I said earlier, it’s kind of lame just by yourself, so after a little solo experimentation you’d best find a few folks, who’ve also been experimenting, to play with.
The great thing about experimenting with others is, you don’t all need to be at the same place in your development. Everyone’s just at a different point of experimenting, and the real cool players recognize this. (If they don’t, find another group.) So when you’re trading four bars soloing with the drummer and you’re nervous and blow right over his part (as I did, many times) it’s ok. Everyone (especially you) learns a little and you all try again, the next chorus around.
What the hell does all this have to do with Mark Scandrette’s new book? “Practicing the Way of Jesus” is about experiments in discipleship, a spin on spiritual disciplines. Mark is addressing the problem that I was waking up to in my own life – in the Information age, many people are good at talking about Jesus and not following him very well. PTWOJ explores community practices and disciplines to help people move from that place of knowing to a place of doing. He uses the concept of a “Jesus Dojo”; a place where martial arts are practiced. I might substitute in a music studio or jazz club. You’d never learn karate just by watching other people do it, just as you’d never learn jazz just by listening. The watching and listening are important, but they have to move into action and experimentation, and if you do it alone, you might have some difficulties staying motivated, or accurately assessing what you’ve done.
In PTWOJ, Mark draws upon his experiences of leading groups of people in shared experiments of discipleship. He offers helpful understandings for others to initiate and lead their own experiments, and provides plenty of examples, stories, and starting points. The practices incorporate prayer, reflection, and contemplation (equivalent to listening to jazz) and action and experimentation (jamming with friends).
If you’re like me, you’re going to find this book incredibly helpful, a refreshing and unique way forward in your personal and communal journey with Jesus. If you’re not like me, you probably know someone (maybe lots of people) who are like me, and who struggle with putting the radical life and teachings of Jesus into practice every day. Get this for them, and help them begin to experiment in new ways.
Just as there’s nothing quite like hearing a jazz group that’s really in the pocket, there’s nothing quite like participating with a group of people who are stepping up in faith to walk in the way of Jesus, and seeing God’s shalom break out in the dry and dusty corners of life.
You can learn a little more and share some stories of experiments at www.jesusdojo.com