Spirituality and jazz: part three

NOTE:  I have been thinking/reflecting on a spirituality of jazz for the last few days in anticipation of my vacation in Montreal.  These notes, therefore, are for when I return - I want to have something fun to share after 2 weeks of music and rest - but I also want to crystalize my thinking about the importance of going deeper into the jazz realm as congregation next year. 

In part one I played with the parable of the mustard seed and the song "Take the A Train" suggesting that both are about God's plan to a new way of living:  the goal is to swing just where we are rather than wait for the apocalypse or persue a path of perfection.  Nourishing a small and gentle spirit - in the garden or in Harlem - is not about lowering our standars, but discovering the sacred withing the ordinary.  In part two my goal was to use the counter cultural wisdom of Psalm 37 - wait upon the Lord and do not fret - as an invitation to the art of listening as practiced in a live jazz band.  Dizzy Gillespie's song, "Birk's Works," offers the church a style of waiting, responding to the surprises of life and finding encouragement for self-discovery and freedom, too. 

And now, in part three, I will discuss what it means to try and give shape and form to God's grace in worship:  I believe that both the song "Killing Me Softly" and the story of the woman who annoints Christ's feet with precious oil invite congregations and musicians alike into an encounter with the radical extravagnace of the Lord's love and healing forgiveness.  Like the Sabbath itself, there is nothing utilitarian about grace yet it nourishes us from the inside out so that we, too might be free to live in service to the world.

Part Three
In Jeremie Begbie's brilliant study, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, he describes the importance music played in the life and prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  You may know Bonhoeffer as the courageous German pacifist who joined the plot to assassinate Hitler during WW II.  After exploring every other type of resistance to the organized evil of the Nazi regime, the young pastor was led by God to turn his life upside down in order to give shape and form to his faith in Jesus Christ.  Love of God and love of neighbor demanded an embodied faith - a living, contextual expression from the Body of Christ - and Bonhoeffer was martyred for his convictions shortly before the war ended.
While in prison, he wrote a number of letters and reflections that were published posthumously.  Throughout these prison reflections are a variety of references about how Bach's Mass in B Minor inspired his soul and changed his life. Bonhoeffer noted, too, that Bach's Art of Fugue - a "musical tapestry of fierce intricacy" - had become his paradigm for understanding his life as an activist for it, although incomplete like his own life ,suggested the hand of God in its creation.

The important thing today is that we should be able to discern from the fragments of our own life how the whole was arranged and planned.  There are some fragments that are only worth throwing into the dustbin. (But thee are others) whose importance lasts for centuries, because their completion can only be a matter for God, and so they are fragments that must be fragments much like the Art of Fugue. (p. 159)

This story strikes me as vital for our generation for it shows the crucial role music played in the spiritual life of this iconic leader for social justice.  Music was an integral part of Bonhoeffer's formation as a person of fatih. It was neither the incidental aesthetic escapism of Kierkegaard's critique, nor the prophetic complaint (so often taken out of context) once articulated by the prophets of Israel.  For Bonhoeffer was not a timid and pious disciple of quietism, but a man well-grounded in God's grace. Over and again, he showed his world what it meant to incarnate radical Christianl hospitality in his generation - and his witness was baptized in music.

Bonhoeffer insisted, you see, that music could help the community of faith mature into a "church for others" and become a "religionless Christianity." Unlike those enslaved to a one-dimensional worldview, Bonhoeffer trusted the mysterious inner wisdom of music: it not only showed God's hand in the fragments of our lives, but also expressed "the sheer gratuitousness" of God's grace in creation.  Music and art create a sphere of freedom that "achieve no particular end or goal" - they are not utilitarian or practical - but rather are shared with humanity by the Lord "because of the joy of doing them. Music (offers) a type of radically free living - and is somethng the church badly needs to recover." (p. 159)

This gratuitious exhuberance is not unlike the action of the woman from the streets who spontaneously poured costly oil on the feet of Christ Jesus in gratitude and joy for grace. Think about here witness:
+ She defied tradition by entering the men only party without an invitation.
+ She set conventional wisdom on its head by "wasting" precious oil that could have been used to feed the poor.

+ She offended the religious sensibilities of the day with her sensuous excess. 

And she received scorn and riddicule from everyone except, of course, the Lord.  "She has done something beautiful for the Lord..."

You always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.

Doing something beautiful for the Lord will always have detractors, yes?  Some will say it is a waste, others will call it excessive and still others seem to be afraid of simply letting their hearts be touched by the sheer joy of God's grace.  They want to stay in control, in their heads, in their abstract ideologies or who knows what? 

So let's be clear: creating beauty in worship does not diminish our call to care for the poor or advocate for justice and compassion.  A sad fact of life is that we will always have suffering and injustice before and within us and God's people will always be called to live in service for the world.  That isn't the issue - at least in my mind - no what interests me is how are we nourished to be in service to the world? 

+ How are we fed with the bread of life so that in season and out, when it is natural and when it demands discipline, we stand and deliver?

+ What is necessary within my heart to strengthen me beyond my weakness and impel me towards the Cross?

Grace:  beautiful, life-changing, heart-breaking grace.  And in worship that means grace expressed and experienced - given a shape and form that invites you into its blessing in the most tender way possible.  To my mind, this means music as realized by Bonhoeffer where grace becomes soul food within and encouragement for the journey into the world beyond worship.  Now there are thousands of beautiful examples music as soul food as well as encouragement, but one grabs me where I live called:  "Killing Me Softly."

+ Just the title alone evokes the woman on the floor pouring oil on Christ's feet and caressing them with her hair.

+ Or scenes of Bonhoeffer sitting in solitary confinement in a Nazi prison feeding his heart on just the memory of Bach's gratuitious joy.

The original song spoke of listening to a jazz blues piano player in an out of the way bar in California who was "killing me softly with his blues."  Later, it was changed to song when Roberta Flack covered it and made it her own.  Listen to it carefully now...

Now I'm not going to ask you to talk about your encounter with that song  because what happens in music is inward and really impossible to discuss.  Besides, to dscuss it would offend the very gratutituous nature of its grace.  On every level, you see, that song - and every other work of art - is a free gift that cannot be translated or explained, just shared and celebrated in joy. 

And that's why Bonhoeffer wanted more beauty and music in the church:  we know what to do with useful things - we're very practical people - who like to fix everything.  We're not so good, however, with grace that we can't control and doesn't really fix any thing that we can see.  That really does kill us softly... and that's the blessed promise.

A young theologian, Andy Crouch, put it like this:

Our is the age of the economist and the evolutionary biologist, each of whom have gotten very busy explaining why everything we thought was particularly human is actually just useful.  Religion, in this perspective, turns out to economically and evolutionarily useful. Charity and generosity - useful.  Sex - useful, merely useful... even art and literature, they say, that is just useful, too.  (But here's the thing) Once you have lost the idea that the world is a gift from God - a gift saturated in grace - where everything is just useful...

What do you do with people who are not useful? People who cannot be substituted for one another, who are stubbornly and particularly themselves, in bodies capable of immense beauty and immense brokenness, capable of the most graceful play and the most terrible pain.  Who will value them in those bodies?

Jazz can help, beloved, it can help us live and see and play in ways that are NOT useful.  Jazz is all about the sheer exuberance and joy of freedom, the bounty of God's grace as a gift and the uniqueness of each and everyone one of us.  And dig this:  jazz gifts this blessing shape and form.

God's grace extends unbounded to all that He has created and sustains. (Too often) we fail to see the effects of this grace in our midst because we don't look for them or have not developed eyes to see them. Jazz, however, as a form of prayer can make this grace more abundantly evident... (because) prayer like all art can be both an individual and a collective experience of grace. (Art as Prayer, p. 1)

That's what Louis Armstrong was preaching with his trumpet and voice in his day - and what Miles and Lady Day did in their own, too.  It is at the heart of Dizzy’s songs and in the soul of Duke Ellington.  It’s what Wynton Marsalis is teaching right now at Lincoln Center and Ezperanza Spalding is shaking up all around the world.  Why we even experienced it in the Jazz Ambassadors last summer in Turkey.

I’m talking about the sheer gratuitousness of God's grace - the exuberance of joy and living radically free – man, it is just like the sister with the oil at the feet of Jesus Christ.  But it has a shape and form – not just an abstract notion – but a way of encountering and experiencing it as pure grace. 

And no matter who you are or what you do or look like or where you are on life’s journey: this gift is available for you, too. And that, beloved, is the good news in any language.


Black Pete said…
I love the paradox of music, especially jazz: freedom emerges from discipline and discipline emerges from freedom.
RJ said…
It is so incredible and blessed, yes? I just keep going deeper.

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