Tuesday, March 22, 2016

a context for a love supreme on good friday...

NOTE:  For those who would like to know more about our Good Friday experiment, please consider my post based upon my notes for the start of our Good Friday liturgy. I hope they give some context and useful background for what is a truly exciting and beautiful encounter as it unfolds.

Tonight we will be sharing our interpretation of both John Coltrane’s masterwork and the essence of this sacred day in the Christian tradition.  It is my contention that “A Love Supreme” and Good Friday are exquisitely nuanced meditations upon the blessings of the blues in our everyday lives.

For those who appreciate jazz, you know that the very essence of this art form is constructed upon the blues tradition:  experimenting, improvising, honoring as well as pushing the limits of the blues evokes simultaneously mourning and celebration.  Wynton Marsalis, director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, once observed that: Everything in jazz comes out of blues music: joy, pain and struggle for the blues is affirmation with absolute elegance. It's about a lovers and the human condition. So the pain and the struggle in the blues is that universal pain that comes from having your heart broken. That’s why most blues songs are not about social statements… but about that which is intimately personal.

Throughout “A Love Supreme” I hear the artist, John Coltrane – and our musicians – reverently beginning with a blues form and a blues soul, but never resting upon either in a static way.  For this is not a recital – a recreation of a 50 year old composition – but rather a living, breathing, melodic pilgrimage in prayer that invites you to rejoice in your inner journey even as you recognize your wounds.  Guided by the musicians, this is a time to listen carefully to whatever your journey is saying to you and follow wherever it may lead.

That is why we have set this encounter within the wisdom of Good Friday:  of all the holy days in the Christian liturgical calendar, this is the most paradoxical.  There is fear present as we consider the suffering of the Cross, but comfort as well: sorrow alongside celebration, darkness as well as illumination, despair, betrayal and bleak emptiness in addition to human solidarity and divine hope born from above.  Because when the Cross is embraced in its essence, it is not about punishment, penitence or even judgment as we normally imagine. No, the Cross rightly conceived points to the place where the holy intersects our humanity with a love that allows us to live freely as women and men of peace, hope and compassion.  The Cross tenderly announces to those with ears to hear and eyes to see that there is NO place exempt from God’s grace:  not addiction, not abuse, not war, exploitation or even death.  The mystical truth of creation that Coltrane tapped into is that the Holy mercifully meets us in our shame, abandonment and experiences of hell in order to set us free.

You know that Coltrane himself was once a heroin addict, yes?  The junk got him fired from the Miles Davis band back in the day and was about to devour his life. But dig this: after nearly 10 years of shooting smack and drinking to excess, ‘Trane had an inner spiritual awakening that empowered him to get clean.  An apocryphal story says that while playing his saxophone wildly and beyond all traditional sounds and scales, Coltrane was given a gift of love in sound that so nourished his core with beauty that he was liberated from his cravings. The story goes on to say that in response to this grace he gave the rest of his life to sharing beauty with the world in the hope that his music would inspire healing in other wounded souls. No longer a junkie, the artist himself said

In 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.

Coltrane never named his spirituality as Buddhist or Christian, Muslim, Jewish or earth-
centered; he just played and shared the sounds of a love that would not let him go.  We know from his biography that both of his grand-fathers were Baptist preachers – and that his heart was saturated in the old gospel hymns of the South – but ‘Trane’s message cut deeper than any denomination. One of the wisest spiritual teachers of the Western world, Richard Rohr, once wrote:

All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not. Only when you can get little enough and naked enough and poor enough will you find that the little place where you really are is ironically more than enough and all that you need. At that place, you will have nothing to prove to anybody and nothing to protect. That place is called freedom. It’s the freedom of the children of God and such people can connect with everybody… because they don’t feel the need to eliminate anybody . . .

Part of what we’re exploring with you tonight is precisely this freedom to love – the power to break down barriers – to trust that when we’re nourished by grace we can challenge tyrants and bullies, embrace those who have been excluded or wounded and feast together in hope rather than fear. Like Coltrane before us, this sacred meditation on discovering God’s love looks beyond what is obvious, beyond what is comfortable, beyond even what is even
comprehensible. Like Jesus on Good Friday it is about trusting that the holy not only saturates all reality – including our pain – but that grace is mystically present with us whether we’re paying attention or not.  Most of the time, we’re too frazzled to grasp this blessing. 

But even our busyness and exhaustion can become for us the still, small voice of the holy whispering:  be still, be free and rest for you are my beloved if we allow ourselves time for thought and prayer in silence.  So tonight with musical meditations mixed with the wisdom and ambiguity of poetry – with finely tuned vocal harmonies placed alongside silence – we hope to point to the concealed mystery of creation. Namely, that even in the blues there is a love that will not let us go.

Coltrane testifies to the efficacy of this love in the midst of the blues throughout “A Love Supreme” in ways that those who aren’t familiar with jazz may not realize.  For me, this sacred composition in four movement is an ode to the blues form but always one or two steps beyond what is obvious.

+  Acknowledgment suggests the wonder of discovering that we are God’s beloved:  it starts with a fanfare announcing that something important is about to happen in the key of E – the quintessential guitar blues key. Then it moves into a blues riff on the bass in F to remind us that this journey of faith is about finding the sacred within the secular, the extraordinary within the ordinary, a sense of hope and love even in a lament.  And please note two musical cues here:  1) The bass notes are a clever reworking of a time-tested Chicago blues riff made popular by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf (play:  I’m a Man); and 2) listen for the recurring theme that Coltrane opens this movement with that returns later over and over again, but now in every different key possible. He wants to show us through music us God’s love not only transcends every key and race and religion, but that it triumphs in all situations. And just so that we don’t fail to miss his message, the first movement closes with a simple chant.

Resolution, the second movement, reminds us that holy love is all about compassion. When our wounds have been touched, when our broken hearts have been honored, when the violence and fear of the world is challenged, healing does not take place through brute force but… through compassion.  All true mystics tell us that the sacred is a lover not a judge – and so does Coltrane.  And he does this by taking an aching melody and letting his players feel it and then improvise with it however their hearts feel inspired.  This shared freedom, you see, is all about listening carefully to one another, helping one another take the music to a new place in real time and celebrating the joy of being creative together.

Pursuance, movement three, is about dancing to that love that is greater than our imagination. Its form is pure blues but Coltrane sets it to such a wild be-bop beat that unless you saw the chord changes you wouldn’t know this was a blues: it feels too joyful.  I keep thinking that this is the tune that this is what it felt like when Coltrane got clean and discovered new meaning for his new life.  It is a total gas – much like Easter is to Good Friday.

And the closing movement, Psalm, is a saxophone explosion over a love
poem/prayer, Trane wrote this prayer to return thanks to the Lord; and we will actually say it and pray it out loud at the close of this liturgy.  And while it is a celebration of what it means to be in touch with a love supreme, it feels boldly open-ended – more like the start of a new pilgrimage than the close of a journey.

The other music we will share tonight, the vocal selections, have been chosen to give you a firm foundation in the beauty of the blues. They evoke an oasis in the pilgrimage of jazz and lift up the paradox of sacred tenderness in a world of pain.  The first comes from the early American composer, William Billings, born in Boston and raised in the Congregational tradition. It lifts up a traditional Good Friday theme that I’ve come to think of as Boston blues knowing that Billings was not only born physically challenged and blind in one eye but often addicted to various substances throughout his life. The second vocal offering comes from the incomparable American indy artist, Ann Heaton, who lived for years in Cambridge, MA. Her reworking of the Prayer of St. Francis is a love lament if ever one existed – and at the close our singers do what Coltrane did – see where the spirit leads them with their vocal improvisation. And we close with George Harrison’s stinging song of sorrow:  While My Guitar Gently Weeps. For me this is rock and roll blues saturated with sacred sorrow – and the electric guitar takes on the voice of the Lord crying over our brokenness and confusion.

Tonight’s poetry retells the Passion narrative of Jesus using secular stories rather than sacred Scripture.  It is our belief that all faiths are true so even while many of us have entered into the Christian realm, we want to make space for those who do not, too. That is one reason why we will take up an offering tonight to assist our sisters and brothers fleeing the violence and terror of Syria.  When you come forward to light a candle of hope, if you are able to share a gift it will all go to Syrian refugees who are now in Turkey or Jordan awaiting relocation. We are using the interfaith organization, Church World Service, to make certain that more than 95 cents of every dollar provides direct services. So, please share what you can in the spirit of a Love Supreme.

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