When I was traveling back from Sudan last year, I found myself seated next to a fellow minister. We discovered this fact by complete accident. We were both dressed as civilians, we weren’t wearing anything clerical. But after a few minutes of conversation we realized we were both pastors of fairly large churches. He was in DC and I was in Richmond. He was a Presbyterian and I was an Episcopalian. We started talking about our churches and because it was Saturday before too long the conversation turned to that Sunday’s worship. He told me he was the preacher for the day and what his service would look like. I told him I was way too jet lagged to be preaching, but I began to share with him my excitement about our service. “It’s a Jazz Eucharist,” I said. “We have this great group who plays fabulous jazz, and our music director has written our very own jazz service music. We sing, we swing to the jazz, we praise God and we celebrate the Eucharist.” I remember being excited as I explained the service to him. In fact, I was so absorbed in describing the service that I was taken aback when I looked over at him and saw an expression on his face that looked liked he had eaten a lemon and stepped in a pile of dog doo all at the same time. “What’s wrong,” I said, “doesn’t that sound fabulous?” “Actually,” he said, “I would think jazz music would be completely inappropriate when combined with the sanctity of the Lord’s Supper.” Huh?
Well, for me that was pretty much of a conversation killer. What was I gonna say? I knew this colleague just didn’t get it. I remember mumbling something about how the service was really very special and completely reverent and relevant. But what I really wanted to do was to bring him back to Richmond with me. I wanted to show him that what he imagined as inappropriate was actually fantastic. I wanted to show him that jazz is really a fabulous metaphor for just about anything Christian.
You see when I watch these guys play today or when I go to a jazz club and watch musicians jam together, as I listen to their art, for me there is a kind of envy. I envy the beauty they create with instrument and voice. I envy the way they can play together and at the same time express themselves individually. I envy the way they are open to receive each other’s gifts. I envy the way they all circle around a melody, a tune, and take it to places that are new and different, places they probably never even planned on going when they started playing that tune. I envy the way each of them uses their creativity to put their own stamp on a song and at the same time their respect for one another that leads to individual restraint and unselfishness.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s the way the church ought to be. We ought to be jamming the way they are. Sharing our gifts, making room for one another to join in on ministry, letting each take the lead, while the rest of us look after the rhythm. Staying true to the tune of Christ, but feeling free enough and creative enough to allow the Spirit to take us to places we never imagined we might go. I have no doubt that if Jesus were walking the around today he would either play jazz or he would certainly love jazz. I think jazz and jammin together is a Kingdom thing.
I remember the first time I ever heard John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things.” I was pretty young and I had only known that song by way of Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music. Now, I love the way she did the song in the movie – the kids all gathered together on the bed, the thunderstorm raging in the background, Julie with that amazing voice singing about raindrops on roses and soft woolen mittens. The Sound of Music was my mother’s favorite movie and every year when it came on television she made my brother and me watch it with her. Melissa does the same thing with our family. At least once a year we get out the DVD and watch the movie together.
But the first time I heard Coltrane do that tune I was stunned. That soprano sax of his, the way he shifted and shaped the melody. The way he stretched the song but remained true to it at the same time. McCoy Tyner on the piano and Elvin Jones with his wonderful tight rhythm on the drums. It was magic for me. I didn’t know it then, but Coltrane actually recorded his version several years before Julie Andrews made hers. Nevertheless, when I heard Coltrane I remember having this visceral reaction that music, indeed any song, is inexhaustible. There are always new ways to play, new gifts to give, new versions to create and share.
And that is what I think about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel of our Lord – what Jesus said and did, his teachings, his love, his life and death – his music if you will – these aren’t static things, things of the past. They aren’t dead monuments to a man who lived long ago. No, they are living and breathing songs just waiting for us to pick up and play in new ways. The good news of Jesus isn’t some proposition we learn, some formula we memorize, or worse some set of doctrines we are told to swallow. The good news of Jesus is a passion one has catch. Sure, we can study scripture, but that alone can be an empty act if we are not willing to jam with scripture – to play it out in our very lives, to play with it, to find joy in it. Have you ever seen the pure joy in the faces of musicians as they sit around and just play together? A couple of guys pick up their guitars, maybe there’s a bass, a banjo or a mandolin. Somebody starts to play and the others join in. You can see them light up. They are creating something, they are sharing something, they are making beauty, and they are doing it together. You can’t help but be infected by it in the very best way.
This is what we are supposed to be as the church. I want today’s service to be more than just a very special once a year liturgical experience. I want today to be metaphor for everything we do. I want us to jam together. The life-giving message of Jesus is the tune and we are the musicians. We have to invite each other to play. We have to allow each other a share of the lead while the rest of us protect the melody. You got a ministry you want to try, a book you want to invite others to talk about, a prayer you want to share, a mission you feel called to lead – go for it. Let’s make music together. The loving message of Jesus is inexhaustible just like any great song. And in every generation we are called to play it in our own way, with our own style, bringing our own gifts to it, and deriving great joy from the doing of it. It’s a jazz thing – it’s a Kingdom thing.
The great preacher James Forbes once wrote a poem entitled, “Release Your Song.”
There’s a song inside of me
I can hardly wait to see
What it is I have to say
Or the music I will play.
It’s been so long in coming
First the thought and then some humming,
But before I find my key
Something stifles it in me.
What keeps my song from being sung?
Past hurts, deep fears, a timid tongue?
What makes my song come so hard?
A self-made live-in prison guard?
Meanwhile the song still groans in me
I can’t be me ’till it is free
Debating, hesitating, getting ready to sing,
The song could die like a stillborn thing.
“Release your song,” said the Spirit to me.
“Be free! Be free! It’s Jubilee.
Cast out each fearsome song patrol.
Proclaim deliverance to your soul.”
The Spirit of life flowed through my blood.
I said “Yes” – something broke
It came like a flood.
Up from within, down from above,
A kingdom built on the power of love.
Thank God my song has been set free.
The rhythm and the words are right for me.
I’m finally ready to sing out strong.
My soul is saying, “This is my song!”
Come on; let’s make music together. Amen.