What's going on? More thoughts on liturgy and jazz...

In yesterday's NY Times, a columnist quoted the always incisive Frank Zappa re: the paradox of rock and roll journalism: Rock journalists are people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read. Is it any wonder that the Mothers of Invention grabbed my heart and soul at a tender age? On so many levels, that band embraced a host of competing truths simultaneously that refused to be squeezed into the mold of social conformity. They were rock and rollers par excellence and also brilliantly accomplished jazz and classical artists. They spoke hard words of social critique but offered them up with humor. They evoked the counter culture of the 60s without succumbing to either drug abuse or romantic sentimentalism. They blended order with chaos and beauty within cacophony. (Just LISTEN to this cat play!)
And, at least to my mind, Zappa and the Mothers celebrated what I have come to call the community of God: a way of being in the world that creates a safe place for everyone, honors the unique gifts of every person and invites people to share themselves fully in joy and responsibility. From Zappa - as well as Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen and my time in Christian worship - I came to the awareness that words matter. 

I also learned that while the way we use words matters, it is simultaneously true that our words are always incomplete - more simulacrum and poem than hard, cold fact. That is why the deepest soul truths are better expressed in music and poetry rather than doctrine and catechism. Not that dogma and commentary are wrong. I have learned a great deal from them both - especially when I remember that they are statements that must always remain unfinished by nature.  As St. Paul says, "Now we see as through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face."

So, in my ongoing reflection on how public worship can express both action and contemplation - the inward journey of reflection with the outward act of embodied participation within the context of jazz worship - I have a few hunches. And when I return from vacation in Montreal, I want to explore and experiment with them in collaboration with my Director of Music. Here's what I am thinking:
Currently each liturgy is divided into four parts:  gather, reflect, engage and bless. Keeping these categories as touchstones, what would it look and feel like if our gathering work in worship (noting that liturgy means the work of the people) involved more physical and musical participation and movement? Could the WHOLE people of God become part of a sung procession merging young and old together? People might enter into the quiet of the Sanctuary - listening and taking time to become grounded - and then physically move and sing in a shared procession that marked a deepening of community in service to the Lord? We might need to move our "time for children" to this opening sequence, too so that the children joined me in the Chancel at the start of worship before moving into Sunday school

And if such a change might shape the "gathering" portion of worship, could our "engaging" time become a combination of silence, song and shared prayers? This might wed our awkward yearning for inward journey with various outward expressions of sung and spoken prayer so that both contemplation and action were embraced and honored. The conclusion of our engagement could easily become "the passing of Christ's peace" and our South African sung response. This would mean flipping parts of the current liturgy's order, but such a change could help us express the both/and of our jazz spirituality.

Next would be our reflection - spoken and sung articulations of the readings for the day as well as a time for dialogical reflection (teaching and questions) - followed by a brief silence and then reactions from the congregation. The beauty of shaping our reflections in this way is that it becomes a form of theological jazz in worship.  First the tradition is shared and then it is explored with respect through improvisation; there is active participation and time to sit with the morning's insights, too.

Lastly there could be our time for "blessing" - sometimes prayers and offerings and others times Holy Communion in community. At the close of either we could build in another time for quiet reflection in anticipation of returning to our work in the world. In fact, this inward act could become a helpful way for the folk to concretize how they are going to be different after our celebration of God's loving grace is finished.

Parker Palmer has observed that all too often our work in the world is shaped by our roles in ways that divorce us from the wisdom of our souls. Perhaps the time has come for us to explore how Sunday mornings can not only call this divorce into question, but offer soul satisfying alternatives. Again the apostle Paul offers wise counsel saying:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Could it be that a more serious exploration of jazz liturgy might offer our folk a way to practice disengaging from conformity?  Stay tuned after we return from Montreal...


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