Interview with a Jazz Theologian

I took an opportunity to visit with Denver’s ‘Jazz Theologian.’  His blog is

and he has a book coming out in February of 2009.  What follows is our discussion.

Neo: What is your passion?

JT: Discovering and being the Body of Christ.

Neo: What is unique about the Body of Christ?

JT: We are the only people with the potential to honor but not allow distinctions of race, class and denomination to keep us from being ‘one’ as Jesus describes in John 17.

Neo: What does that look like?

JT: A jazz ensemble.  Distinct instruments, playing the same song with room for improv. Call and response; playing in concert with and for each other.

Neo: I see Obama calling for Americans to move away from our polarization to embrace  our unity, to look at what unites rather than divides us.  Is this a realistic goal?

JT: ‘E pluribus Unim,’ from the one, many.  This is the fundamental challenge of our country–how do we make the many one?  It seems to be an elusive goal.  I believe the church, however, can be the vehicle that brings it about.  The Spirit can bring it about.  Look at Pentecost…unity without uniformity.  Obama is echoing what many desire–what Dr. King desired–but Obama hasn’t necessarily pointed to the answer.

Neo: What is your opinion of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright?

JT: One’s response to Rev. Wright reflects your awareness of the prophet he is named after-Jeremiah.  If you have read Jeremiah from the Old Testament, then Rev. Wright is no big deal.  Rev. Wright got himself in trouble when he called America to be damned when, as Christians, we should be calling for mercy.  We must have room in our ensemble for people to improvise with solos we do not necessarily like.  Don’t forget what Billy Graham said, ‘If God does not judge America, then he will have to personally apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.’  That’s tough stuff.

Neo: The Immigration debate is often characterized by more heat than light.  How does the Body of Christ respond?

JT: The question of national security, borders and immigration are public policy issues that I do not have any easy answers to.  What I do know, is that whenever God allows mass movements of people, he seems to be up to something.  Whether it is the Israelites migrating from Egypt and then in the wilderness for 40 years, or the massive number of people who had to migrate in Herod’s time for a census.  It is clear that God is willing to move massive amounts of people, just to have one baby born in the right city!


We had our memorial for Daniel last Saturday. I have to say that, despite the great pain, it was the most profound worship experience I have ever had. It is ironic to say that about a memorial service for a young man who died way too soon.

We found that while we were digging in the cave of darkness and grief, that we were actually mining gold in God’s eternal country. Sometime during that service we went from earth to the eternal realm of glory.

I am not one to exaggerate. The Spirit of God really descended on 780 grievers on the eve of Pentecost 2008 at Christ Episcopal Church in Denver.

The cynic in me wonders where He was while we were praying desperately for Daniel to recover, but I have to say that I was moved to my core at His palpable presence among us last Saturday.

Christ is risen. I didn’t think I would feel that as powerfully amidst the reality of death.  I did not think my song would be ‘Alleluia’ looking at mourners.

Somehow, eternity was not that far away and I am still feeling its effects.

A Celebration we don’t want


This Saturday we say goodbye to one of our young parishioners, Daniel Burtness, who was killed as a result of a car accident last weekend. Dan was attending Whitworth and was in his first year. Dan–only 18, was a faithful, called, wonderful Christian young man. His call to ministry was obvious.

From my perspective, this is the most difficult situations I have ever been a part of. I have had  a hard time keeping my tears away and my emotions in check. I have been involved in funerals of young kids who died, but almost always, there was some kind of irresponsibility, or an alcohol related accident or mishap.

Not so in Dan’s case. It was just a good kid in a car accident.

The Sunday before he died, the entire church held hands and prayed for a miracle. That night, his Young Life leader and I also prayed for a miracle and, I admit, I felt a great sense of hope that God would pull of the impossible.

It was not to be. The Lord did not answer our prayers.

This was perhaps the most frustrated I have ever been with God. “Has [God’s] loving-kindness come to an end for ever? Has his promise failed for evermore? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he…withheld his compassion? And I said, ‘My grief is this: the right hand of the Most High has lost its power'” (Psalm 77:8-10).

The ‘whys’ can never be sufficiently answered. Even if we saw the script from the hand of God, there would be little consolation.

The only consolation I have was expressed by one of Dan’s classmates: ‘Dan is exactly where he wants to be, in the presence of Christ. ‘  Daniel was wired for God in a way that was unusual. He was the budding youth leader who was full of joy and was becoming quite the prankster. He was the gentle warrior, quiet, yet full of unusual depth.

His call has now become a call to the presence of the Lord.  While we mourn and grieve, he fulfills his desires and destiny, to walk directly in the Light of Christ.

And the Lord says, “Come, Daniel, you blessed of my Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world.”  Grant this, O merciful Father, through Jesus Christ, our Mediator and Redeemer.