“Mockingbird Turns 10” Interviews: Aaron Zimmerman

This is the seventh installment in a series of interviews with myself and various writers […]

This is the seventh installment in a series of interviews with myself and various writers and members of the Mockingbird community. These posts will explore some aspects of each individual’s personal story and some aspects of Mockingbird’s larger story and ministry as we celebrate its 10th Anniversary. Additional interviews in this series can be found here.

Charlotte Donlon: How did you find out about Mockingbird?

Aaron Zimmerman: Well, it was started around 2007 as a tiny blog by some friends of mine. I knew all of them from seminary and they asked me to be a writer for the website.

CD: How has the Mockingbird community impacted you over the years?

AZ: I had bought into the message of grace before Mockingbird was started, so it didn’t “convert” me. But what Mockingbird has done has been to consistently remind me of the grace of God. And more than anything else, Mockingbird has given me a sense of community. It has made me feel less alone. I’m a pastor, and in ministry it can be tough to see so many people in pain and difficult circumstances. It’s tempting to go back to the law and to get really frustrated with myself and other people for not being better than they are. Mockingbird is a bit of a “voice crying in the wilderness” to always remind me that this—people’s flaws and failure—is normal. People are terrible and I’m terrible. I’m not alone in my frustration with others and in my frustration with myself. None of us have gotten our acts together 100%. None of us are as productive or competent as we think we should be or as we appear to be. Mockingbird is a great reminder that no-one has graduated from their humanity. We’re all going through the same stuff. Life is hard for everyone, and God is present in that.

CD: What are some of your favorite Mockingbird moments?

AZ: I loved the dinners at our annual NY conference in the early years. Everyone could fit in the chapel at St. George’s Church. I can picture the candles, the food, these animated conversations. Looking around that room with everyone eating together felt like a grace-infused, Holy Spirt-drenched feast. I was surrounded by good friends and strangers and we all shared a common bond in the gospel. These days, the larger conferences still have this same atmosphere—just in more rooms with more people!

Some of the writing really makes me laugh. And I love that about Mockingbird. It’s great to feel understood and to laugh at ourselves.

CD: Tell me a bit about your faith journey. How did God first draw you to Himself and how is He drawing you to Himself now?

AZ: I grew up in a family that didn’t go to church very much. During high school I got more involved in church and got connected to Young Life. Those people had a real, vibrant faith and I really enjoyed being with them. I heard the message of the gospel and saw them live it out. And I went all-in. It was a great time. But along the way, I somehow turned to a kind of Christianity that was very law-heavy. I was white-knuckling my way through living a Christian life. I was not a very happy Christian and was not fun to be around. I was judgmental which really impacted my relationships. That lasted a good decade. In seminary, through the teaching of Paul Zahl, I heard this message of 100% grace—even for uptight Christians like me. It seemed too good to be true, and I resisted it at first. Finally, more out of desperation, I decided to do a thought experiment. I told myself I would act like it was true for a week. I would act like the atonement was real and that God was happy with me even if I wasn’t perfect. That week was a joy, and full of freedom and peace I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I never looked back. That message of grace continues to carry me today.

CD: What high culture, low culture, and in-between culture have you consumed in the past few weeks?

AZ: My wife, Andrea, and I just finished The Sinner. Another exploration of the dark places inside us. We are huge fans of Black-ish and This Is Us. I’m reading the Harry Potter series for the first time. I’m on book six and am thoroughly engrossed. It’s fun to talk about it with my kids who all read it before me. In music, I’ve just discovered Spencer Ludwig. It’s funk and R&B and indie with a strong horn section. Also getting into Ra Ra Riot. You have to hear their cover of Steve Winwood’s “Valerie.” Also, if you haven’t watched the video of Kesha’s “Praying,” do it now.

One of the great things Mockingbird does is explore how good art intersects with the human condition. There are always examples in movies, TV, and music of good people doing really bad things. This idea that we’re all teetering on the edge. Some secret in our lives could come out that would be devastating. There’s a lot of art that captures this perfectly. We love these shows and movies and books about the hidden dark side of every human being. And Mockingbird seems to be one of the few voices talking about this. In the sea of Christian teaching that says people can get better, Mockingbird looks behind the curtain to see how messy and bad things really are and calls Christians to connect their faith and sermons and books to that reality.

CD: What’s inspiring you right now?

AZ: I’m always inspired by whatever music I’m listening to. I’m inspired by the outpouring of support and goodness I’ve seen in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. I’m sure it’s happening in Florida, too. I just don’t have a front-row seat for it in Florida. The church I lead has been down to Houston four times so far to help out and it’s remarkable to see everyone come together. I also get inspiration from life—from the stuff I see around me. The good and the bad. As a pastor, I see a lot of human drama.

CD: I’ve been thinking a lot about the Sermon on the Mount lately and how Christians on different ends of the law and grace continuum interpret it. You’re a pastor so I’ll ask you. How do we interpret it in light of God’s grace?

AZ: There’s so much I could say about this. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5-7 challenges every ideology and every group. Because of sin and depravity, we’re all hypocritical and judgmental, and that’s part of what he’s trying to say in that speech. He names our inner anger and lusts. He names how we like to pat ourselves on the back for our own piety. Jesus calls everyone out. So Jesus is the great leveler of everyone. We’re all human and are held hostage by the human condition. The thing that people forget about the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus says, “Be as perfect like God is perfect.” So it obviously cannot be an ethic to follow. There’s more going on. And I think it’s to hold up a mirror to us so we see how much we need God’s grace.

CD: What is your hope for Mockingbird?

AZ:  I would love it if Mockingbird could be one of the forces that change the way Christianity is perceived. I saw Fran Leibowitz, who’s an atheist I think, say in an interview that Christianity is about forgiveness. Most people (including Christians) don’t believe this but she’s right. J.J. Reddick, an NBA player, was on a podcast this summer and he talked about growing up in the church. And he said he never heard the message of grace until his twenties. And this is what Mockingbird is trying to say. If more people thought Christianity was about forgiveness instead of judgment, hypocrisy, fear, and shame, I would be grateful for that.

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2 responses to ““Mockingbird Turns 10” Interviews: Aaron Zimmerman”

  1. Richard R. Cruse says:

    Thanks Aaron.

  2. Alison White says:

    AZ – I too am reading Harry Potter for the first time, am on book 6, and am “thoroughly engrossed” as well. Don’t know where I’ve been all this time. Surprisingly stellar writing!

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