Saturday, June 30, 2012

Incarnational jazz...

One of the ways my experience and insight into a "spirituality of music" differs from much of the historic writing on this subject is that I believe that music is NOT an abstraction but rather an encounter with incarnation.  That is to say, unlike Kandinsky or even the earliest Phythagorians - who emphasized the relationship between music and timeless truths - my experience with music is how it is grounded in the spirit becoming flesh:  music happens in real bodies, in real instruments and in real time.  Jeremy Begbie has been essential in articulating this fact for Christian people of faith for the past decade. He writes:

To insist that Christians are to be spiritual is indeed quite proper, but to be spiritual is not to renouce the body per se... It is rather to be Holy Spirit inspired, an inspiration that emcompasses the body - indeed, liberates the body - and as such grants a foretaste of what it will be like to have a spiritual body beyond death... This outlook has perhaps never been better expressed than by a composer, that virtuoso of the visceral, Igor Stravinksy."The very act of putting my work on paper, of, as we say, kneading the dough, is for me insperarable from the pleasure of creation... The word artist which, as it is most generally understood today, bestows on its bearer the highest intellectual prestige, the privilege of being accepted as a pure mind - this pretentious term is in my view entirely incompatible with the role of the homo faber. (p. 217, Resounding Truth)

One of the many reasons I resonate with jazz is the way it helps me incarnate both the blessing of God's grace and the challenges of living in a broken and wounded world. Since arriving in Montreal I have been using the Book of Common Prayer's "Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families" for Morning Prayer.  It begins with Psalm 51:

Open my lips, O Lord,
And my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Create in my a clean heart, O God,
And renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
And take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Give to me the joy of your saving help again
And sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.

My lips sing - my mouth moves - my heart feels, my body senses just as my mind thinks and reflects and my spirit is united with God's in rejoicing and confession.  It is all incarnational, not abstract.  In an hour we head off to hear some more incarnational music that will include the blues, songs from Brazil and even a little bit of the bizarre. It will be physical and spiritual both at the same time:  thanks be to God!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Il ne veut pas dire une chose si elle n'est pas obtenu ce swing...

Translation:  it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing...

... and ain't that the truth! Man did we hear some swinging music today!  A cracker-jack high school swing band was playing the main stage when we finally wandered into Jazz Fest today.  OMG!  Tight, well-rehearsed, confident and full of fun.  Then this young lady got up to not only bring down the house with her take on Nina Simone, but then to jam like a pro on a Cuban-Afro jazz trumpet improvisation  with the larger band, too. Trop cool.

These kids were smokin - had to be an audition gig for them - because they totaly shut the place down with their musicality.  (After today when we get back to the US we have to bring a little Nina Simone into our jazz ensemble!)
It was Di's 50th birthday today so it was also a mellow time:  Chinese tea room, walking by the St. Lawrence river in Vieux Montreal and a lovely dinner on an outdoor terrace overlooking the festival. We wrapped up the day with the Bad Boyz Boogie band, however, who did some pretty hot Stevie Ray Vaughn covers aloong with some Texas blues. 

Without a doubt, we are in full tilt chill mode a nos vacances à Montréal... and who knows what tomorrow will bring?  NOTE: all day long I've been constructing a sabbatical study plan in my head... but that is for another day (like maybe tomorrow.) 

Today it was just too kewel for school to be a part of the celebration.  And one of the treats for me are the street artists who show up on stilts and various costumes:  dig these two who stole my imagination. Dianne goes for the sweet children dancing with their familes, but I'm crazy for the wild ones! 

Bill Frisell does John Lennon...

Brilliant - freakin-brilliant - is how I reacted to jazz guitarist's Bill Frisell's new tour featuring the instrumental melodies of John Lennon.  As one reviewer wrote:  we're so used to hearing these songs with the lyrics - and Paul McCartney's harmonies - that it is easy to forget the beautiful and complex lines of melody and challenging rhythms of these songs.  Thankfully, Frisell cracked each tune open and played each different part so that what was one old became new.

He was a master at deconstruction, starting with the melody (or harmony) from the bridge and literally playing with it until the band was ready for resolution on the chorus. And then, it hit you: "O now his improvisation makes sense... that was part of "Across the Universe" I realized during the first song.  He performed a similar alchemy on "Beautiful Boy" and "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." These songs would begin with Frisell's haunting guitar and travel into territory that was vaguely familar.  Then they would leave their musical forest for a moment, break into the light of the clearing and play the song as we remember it.  And then, when the house at Montreal's Club Soda was of one mind and soul, each band member was given a shot of experimentation before bringing everything home one more time.

I found myself weeping tears of joy and awe as "Across the Universe" dawned on me - it was haunting and bitter sweet - and at the same time prayerful.  Two other highlights were the extended jam born of "Come Together" - in which the diverse crowd DID exactly that - and the encore - a reverently psychedlic take on my favorite Lennon song "Strawberry Fields Forever."  It was a meditation on melody, silence and community and the whole house went deeper together because of Frisell's devotion.

I wanted to see Bill Frisell for two reasons:  I have been moved by the way he deconstructs old songs and rebuilds them - it is a particular genius that can do this and keep the audience engaged and he does it with grace and humility - and  I was blown away by his presence in the jazz documentary, Icons Amongs Us, where he said something like:  The thing about jazz is that it invites everyone to be together where we can try new things on in community in a way where nobody gets hurt.  In the moment, everyone is safe.

I love that: we can try new things on together in a way where nobody gets hurt.   That certainly speaks to my sense of musical creativity and community building.  It was a little bit of heaven hearing Frisell last night.

We wandered through the crowds afterwards and hung around for Rufus Wainwright to open the festival.  But after Frisell's brilliance, everything else was mere commentary.  Today is Dianne's 50th birthday so... we're off to the Botanical Gardens before tonight's jazz.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Thursday in Montreal...

We hit the road for our annual voyage d'été à Montréal on Tuesday:  first stop Rutland, Vt.  This small town south of Middlebury (with two small colleges) has always looked sweet to us so we did an easy over night at a local apple orchard motel and then prowled around downtown.  One of the encouraging realities in these small Vermont towns is their commitment to growing and sharing a locovare diet - and Table 29 did so with warmth and grace.  We spent the evening talking and reading and getting into the winding down groove.  In the morning it was off to a local yarn vendor who also shared a commitment to stocking as much local wool products as available.

We left in the rain - a gentle mist mostly - that continued on and off for two days.  On the back rounds of Vermont it was surprisingly soothing to travel surrounded by this rain as it shrouded the mountains in a mist.  Dianne had downloaded some podcasts about the music scene in Montreal - "Midnight Poutine" (a reference to a local french fry and cheese curd delicacy we have yet to experience) - so we dialed back even more and settled into a slower pace.   In Middlebury we stopped for tea when lo and behold right across the street was a... BOOKSTORE.  About an hour later we were set to go.

It was smooth sailing across the border at St. Alban's and by 4 pm we were sitting outside our Montreal flat.  It is one block from the incredible Marche Jean Talon - a lovely outdoor farmer's market that is open every day except Christmas - and situated in what was once the Little Italy of Montreal.  Today, like many older ethnic neighborhoods, new immigrants are a part of the flow, too including folk from Latin America and the Middle East.  After a brief "sommeiller" it off to explore the new "hood" and find a place for dinner.

And did we strike gold with the exquisite Syrian/Armenian ALEP Resturant - what a feast - with some truly friendly and helpful wait staff. I am a stone, cold addict when it comes to Arabic mezzas and this place did them in a way that would make any sultan proud.  And what made the whole scene so much fun is that our waiter, Matthew, spent time talking with us about how each dish was prepared and asking how we might want to combine spices and flavors. It was a truly participatory exploration.  

As expected, I had a total brain fart when trying to reply in French - things got better as the night matured - but that was fun for everyone, too.  This is a place we will  go back to when Jesse comes to town next week. (Check it out @

Today is already slow - some time later for crepes in Marche Jean Talon - and then two evening shows at the Jazz Festival:  a 6 pm gig with guitarist Bill Frissell who will be doing his take on a variety of John Lennon tunes, and, the opening public concert with Rufus Wainwright.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The sweet soul of North Beach in action...

So my brother, Phil, one of the true blessings of my life, did a reading in North Beach earlier this week:  he is always ALL himself in his poetry with a sweet and subtle taste of Ferrlinghetti, Ginsberg and Whitman in the stew - and maybe just a bit of Tom Waits going on, too?  What does it taste like to you?

I wish I could've been at that gig: a gallery in North Beach - the Emerald Tablet - the HOME of the Beats, baby!  And even though it has become more gentrified and pretty - what hasn't (have you seen Times Square of late?) - and he and Jules now live on the edge of the Castro in the Mission  - the groove of the streets still pulsates in his veins.  And, damn, but I think I hear a litte something of the Saloon and Johnny Nitro, too?

He is a freaking amazing man ~ looks like Moses in the wilderness to me - and he'll be near to my heart as we wander through the jazz in Montreal.  He turned me on to Tom Waits and whenever the old bard strikes up the band I can't help myself:  I see my brother.

Monday, June 25, 2012

There's a board for every bottom...

As I was hustling about with errands today, getting ready for our time away, I kept thinking about three things that happened during worship:

~ First, my little buddy Ethan, who enter middle school next year, sat in on ALL the guitar hymns with our band.  We played 7 selections - plus 2 presentation songs (Collective Soul's "Shine" and Pearl Jam's "Just Breathe") and Ethan played them all.  We just moved him to where he could see my hands and he comped liked a pro.  What a treasure to be in relationship with a young guy who wants to share his best with his friends and church.

~ Second, during the passing of the peace, another little dude, Colin, greeted me and then said, "You know, I can play the Kyrie?"  And I'd forgotten that he'd learned it on piano so I told him, "Ok, man, after my announcements you can do it - and he DID - all the blues notes and jazz timing was spot on!

~ And third, our band itself was so connected and committed yesterday.  This is a stunning group of musicians who always bring 110% to worship, but Sunday felt special - it felt like we were all grooving together at a deep, deep level beyond words - and it was soul food for me.

Then tonight, Andy and Sue stopped by to give us a "bon voyage" birthday treat - it is our 50/60 birthday this coming weekend - and the blessing and affection we all share was palpable.  So as I was watching the closing episode of Ken Burns' documentary, "Jazz," I heard this quote about Louis Armstrong that made me weep:  "He was a man on a mission of spreading joy to the world - it was his gift from God - and I can't think of a better calling in life than to spread joy to people." 

Marsalis went on to say something like: My great, grandma used to say, "There's a board for every bottom!" That means, in life there is going to be pain that is going to hurt you deep. That's just how life is - and there's a board made to exactly fit your bottom - and thing about Louis Armstrong was that he knew that - but he was there to smile with you afterwards and say, "That's ok, son, it's gonna be alright."

Man that is how I think of ministry - spreading and sharing joy - and after 30 years of doing it THAT is how I hope to be remembered.  I don't really care if people like my sermons. It doesn't ultimately matter whether they think of me as a person of justice or sound teaching or all the rest. No, seeing the enthusiasm and hope in the eyes of our young people - and experiencing the sweet music my mates created in song and prayer - that's what this gig is all about.

And while the Lord knows I'm not nearly as good at it as "Pops" - he was beatific - that's what I aspire towards: spreading joy.  On this night before some down time in the great North, I am grateful that I was able to experience some of the fruit of that joy on Sunday.  And now... road trip!

Oh and this, too (re: vacations)...

In addition to the rest and reconnecting that take place on my vacations, there often seems to be a mini-sabbatical theme to these trips, too.  Currently I'm working my way through Jeremy Begbie's most excellent:  Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music.  We first encountered Begbie at an IAM conference in NYC (International Arts Movement under the guidance of visual artist Mako Fujimura) and were blown away. He is an accomplished classical pianist and theologian who has worked extensively in the UK on ways of helping congregations reclaim their commitment to beauty and justice through the arts.

So one summer I read my way through his works in addition to devouring the guide to doing theology with the arts  in local congregations written by his UK proteges, Hilary Brand and Adrienne Chaplin:  Art and Soul:  Signposts for Christians in the Arts.  This, of course, led   to another summer vacation/sabbatical given over to studying contemporary visual art in the context of Christian theology and included the works of Tillich and Barth along with the new wave of Evangelical writers that includes Mako, William Dryness, Lauren Winner, Barbara Nicolosi, Andy Crouch, Nicholas Wolterstorff and David O. Taylor.  I was equally intrigued by Patrick Sherry's, Spirit and Beauty, as well as Richard Viladeseau's, Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty, and Art and the historical surveys in Wilson Yates' Arts, Theology and the Church.

For the past two years my focus has been centered on both jazz and contemporary Islam as we were engaged in a peace-making tour that culminated in Istanbul, Turkey.  And now, after letting the post-Turkey year sink in, I seem to be  looking for a way to better understand and embrace what might be loosely called an emerging spirituality of jazz. (I've posted a few thoughts on this theme already both to focus my thinking as well as get my sermon ready for the first week I'm home after our vacation.) Already I've discovered that there is way too much fuzzy thinking and sentimentality on this theme taking place all over the Internet than seems helpful.

And while I sometimes slip into my own sentimental rambling on music a la Schleirmacher - his commitment to searching out the link between music and religious feeling intrigues me even when I confess that this quest is a slippery slope - I think the insights of Barth and Bonhoeffer are more useful.  Barth, for example, in his essay on Mozart suggests that music like faith is a gift from God - totally undeserved - and beyond our control:  all we can do is respond to the gift with joy and share it reverently with the world.  Bonhoeffer, as you might expect, pushed the edge with his observation that music is an expression of grace - a way to give it shape and form - that simultaneously evokes joy and teaches discipleship born of freedom.

Well, you can see where this is headed and more reflection necessary.  And that's another part of this vacation:  we'll be mostly wandering around the Montreal Jazz Festival and listening to the sounds of grace being shared all over the place.  We'll take in some sweet sounds in Ottawa, too as one of our favorite indie bands, Lake Street Jump, is part of their local festival.

The out-going Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, once asked:  "What is the world that art takes for granted? It is one in which perception is always incomplete..." I think this speaks profoundly to jazz so I am looking forward to walking around a bit with this question and seeing how the sounds, prayers, people, study and surprises in the music inform my thinking. An old hymn puts it like this:

For the joy of ear and eye,
For the heart and mind's delight,
For the mystic harmony,
Linking sense to sound and sight:
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

And now... it is time to get the oil changed: Que l'Esprit jouer du jazz!\

Sunday, June 24, 2012

What vacation means to me...

Many people who know me professionally are incredulous when I tell them that I come out as an "introvert" on the Myers-Briggs personality indicator. I know, I know - I put out a LOT of energy in public and am pretty good making connections in a crowd.  But it is also totally exhausting. The distinctions between an extrovert and an introvert have been summarized like this:

The preferences for extraversion and introversion are often called attitudes. Briggs and Myers recognized that each of the cognitive functions can operate in the external world of behavior, action, people, and things (extraverted attitude) or the internal world of ideas and reflection (introverted attitude). The MBTI assessment sorts for an overall preference for one or the other.

People who prefer extraversion draw energy from action: they tend to act, then reflect, then act further. If they are inactive, their motivation tends to decline. To rebuild their energy, extraverts need breaks from time spent in reflection. Conversely, those who prefer introversion expend energy through action: they prefer to reflect, then act, then reflect again. To rebuild their energy, introverts need quiet time alone, away from activity.

The extravert's flow is directed outward toward people and objects, and the introvert's is directed inward toward concepts and ideas. Contrasting characteristics between extraverts and introverts include the following:
  • Extraverts are action oriented, while introverts are thought oriented.
  • Extraverts seek breadth of knowledge and influence, while introverts seek depth of knowledge and influence.
  • Extraverts often prefer more frequent interaction, while introverts prefer more substantial interaction.
  • Extraverts recharge and get their energy from spending time with people, while introverts recharge and get their energy from spending time alone
After 30 years of ministry - and lots of inner work - I have learned to balance my introverted attitude and make it work for me (mostly.)  I plan my days so that there is balance between public and private time and I rarely push the limits of my ability to interact deeply.  As I've noted before, I also plan "retreat" times every 6-8 weeks as part of my commitment to self-care - times away with Dianne - that are quiet and very, very private.

And that's why we plan our vacations away from our ordinary lives:  believe me, when two introverts spend a great deal of their time being public... let's just say it is a matter of heart and soul for us to have profound down time.  Don't get me wrong, we DO things while we're away - this year it is the Montreal Jazz Festival (and an exploration of Ottawa) - but we do it on our time table without having to check in with anyone else.  It is living in a rhythm that heals and renews. (Later this summer we'll take another extended break far away from the madding crowd, too.)

For some reason I've become smitten by Montreal:  I love the architecture, I am hopelessly entranced by the language (and the bi-lingual experience), I find the "groove" refreshing and being outside the USA feeds my wander-lust like nothing else.  We have gone to this sweet place every year since returning to New England - and I feel like I am just beginning to get a sense of it - and can't wait to get on the road later this week.  Mostly, we'll walk the streets, sip red wine or tea in cafes, take in a ton of free jazz and rest.  We'll find  to feast from time to time, visit lots of churches and book stores and have the chance to share some of it all when daughter Jesse joins us at week's end. 

Please understand - we both cherish our church and our community and families and friends - we both give thanks to God to be with such loving and generous people.  It is a blessing we celebrate everyday.  And we know that sometimes others just don't get it, too. That goes with the territory. But here's the real thing: Dianne is my most favorite person - she "gets" me and I her - so being quiet together is like being fully alive in the best way possible.  Laissez les vacances commencent!

Always keep a diamond in your mind...

So many sweet things happened at church this morning...

+ One of our young guys came up to me during the "passing of the peace" and said, "Can I play the Kyrie?"  (It was a Sunday when our music man was away and I was leading the band, so I said, "Sure, we'll do it right after my announcements.")  So he sat down at the grand piano, waited for his moment and then said, "But I need the sheet music, man!"  And then he nailed it - all the blues notes, too.

+ Another young buddy joined us on ALL the guitar hymns - he just watched my hands and followed along like a pro - even when we did "Shine" and "Just Breathe."  It was a total gas to have him playing along like there's always been a spot for him in the band.

+ And after worship we spent some time talking with young families about ways to go deeper in our Sunday School ministry.  They were serious, funny, creative and committed. It did my heart good to test out new directions with these dear folks - and after Montreal we'll take it deeper, too. 

As we were leaving our young families conversation, one of the dads asked me if I had ever heard Tom Waits song, "Diamond in the Mind?"  I hadn't so he quoted me a verse that was perfect:

Oh Zerelda Samuel said she almost never prayed
Said she lost her right arm, blown off in a Pinkerton raid
Then they lashed her to a windmill with old 3-fingered Dave
Now she's 102 drinking mint juleps in the shade

Always keep a diamond in your mind...

It was a good way to head into vacation - now I'll go join a church family for some conversation and ribs and REALLY be ready to kick back!  Thanks be to God. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The count-down has REALLY begun...

Ok, I'm toast and the count-down for vacation has begun... but along the way I paused to check in on my friend, Black Pete's, blog. (check it out here:  And as is often the case, I was moved - not just by what he shared (that is good) - but also by the quotes along side his writing.  These three particularly resonate with me:

+ “What I've come to learn is that the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion, everyday acts of compassion. In South Africa they have a phrase called ubuntu. Ubuntu comes out of a philosophy that says, the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me.” writer/poet Chris Abani

+ "We have to fight the dangerous streams in culture, the consumerism and narcissism and me-ism that erode the borders of our moral culture. We can’t put shallow celebrity before core decency. We have to have a deeper faith in the human spirit. As they say, he who has the heart to help has the right to complain."  Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, who ignored his security team's advice, and rushed into a burning building to save a child

+ "Dance first. Think later. It's the natural order."  Samuel Beckett

We watched the lovely French film, Summer Hours, tonight after Di got home from a tough day at work.  And over the closing credits came an odd little song:  "That is probably a new/retro band," says I "but they sure sound like the Incredible String Band."  And, sure as shooting it WAS the Incredible String Band doing "Little Cloud."  Damn, but we're ready...

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.

Friday, June 22, 2012

spirituality and jazz: part two...

"Churches could learn much from reflecting on a jazz band," writes Willie James Jennings in the Duke Divinity School magazine of Fall 2011.  "Here are a group of people who work very hard at listening, yet give up nothing of themselves in the process, but in fact only gain a true sense of themselves in the common task of making music, producing sound that makes a central statement that exists only through the constitutive performances of each musician."

If starting small and learning to swing with the little blessings God has given you is the first insight for today, the second has to do with how jazz can help us hear scripture and better listen to one another for ministry. There are a lot of words in our churches - sermons, prayers, bulletins as well as chatter before, during and after worship - but how much careful listening takes place?

play the first chorus of "Birk's Works"

Like Psalm 37 this tune is instructive - albeit mostly ignored - for it tells us to :  Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way over those who carry out evil devices.

We are all in such a rush to get things done: to make a difference, to respond to this or that injustice or problem or even simply a perceived problem.  We rarely wait - and listen - or discern.  So the question begs asking: does all of our rushing and fretting deepen our intimacy with God or advance Christ's compassion? My experience - personally and professionally - is that the more we fret and fuss the more we become frantic, cranky and self-righteous.

Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way,
and he will exalt you to inherit the land;
you will look on the destruction of the wicked.

Jesus told his students much the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount when he reminded them:  do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,* or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

I have been convinced that the jazz masters can help us with learn how to listen - and I mean careful listening - listening and waiting with others in community so that what we can create something that has verve and meaning. In jazz as in faith many times we would be better served by recalling the ironic words posted outside a church office that said:  Don't just hurry up and do something: wait.  Be still.  Listen.

Because listening in jazz is so instructive. Brother Marsalis puts it like this:  When you are playing, the music and the way you are playing,

... reveals the authentic you. If you're impatient, it will show in your playing; you just won't wait. If you're slow, if you don't think quickly, everybody will hear it. If you're shy and it's hard for you to project your personality, you may have great ideas but they won't come out or you might overplay to compensate. If you're self-centered, you can't play with other people - they have to back you up or else lay out.  Of course, you can survive like that, but it's not fun to play with you.

Can you dig that?  Do you grasp the spiritual wisdom going down?  Not only can you learn about what's happening inside of you by listening during the song, you also show the world whether you're a drag or a groove to be with, too.

I think of Dizzie Birks Gillespie when it comes to listening: he is not only the master of rhythm, but the genius of surprise.  Along with Thelonius Monk and Charlie "Bird" Parker - two other essential jazz masters with the gift of incredible listening - Diz is known as one of the founders of bebop or modern jazz. 

He started playing piano at four years old and went on to make music with all of the great elders of American jazz from Cab Calloway and Earl Hines to Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane and Yuseff Lateef. In the 1950s he toured the world for the State Department showing how the true music of America - jazz - is all about freedom and creativity in pursuit of beauty.  And he was relentless in blending the sounds of the world into the fun of jazz.

Now here's the thing:  Diz was committed to listening.  He loved the sounds of surprise and expected his players to be ready to go at a moment's notice.  And that meant waiting and paying attention for the call to stand and deliver.  One critic put it like this:

The whole essence of a Gillespie solo was cliff-hanging suspense: the phrases and the angle of the approach were perpetually varied, breakneck runs were followed by pauses, by huge interval leaps, by long, immensely high notes, by slurs and smears and bluesy phrases; he always took listeners by surprise, always shocking them with a new thought. His lightning reflexes and superb ear meant his instrumental execution matched his thoughts in its power and speed. And he was concerned at all times with swing — even taking the most daring liberties with pulse or beat, his phrases never failed to swing.

And this is the paradox of spiritual and jazz waiting:  you can't be anxious - you just have to be ready - no fretting allowed on the bandstand or your prayer room.  There's no point.  How did the Wailin' Jennys put it?  Fretting and worrying is like praying for something you don't want to happen?

Man I still remember how tied up in knots I was the first time I played Dizzy's "Night in Tunisia."  There are bass runs all over the place, it starts with this funky chromatic riff and then shifts into swing time before jumping back to a few other challenging variations. (Play a quick selection of "Night in Tunisia.")  But all the worrying about the song didn't help me play it - or even know when to shift from the rift to the swing - no, only practice and listening did that.  No fretting allowed:  practice and wait - listen carefully - and the groove will happen.

Here's what I mean:  we're going to play a Dizzy Gillespie tune called "Birk's Works" - and we're going to give it all the time it needs by letting each player listen and respond as he or she feels called, ok?  Watch what happens - listen for the changes and what each person brings to the table - and then we'll see what it says to you.

+ For the musicians:  what was going on during that tune for you?  What were you thinking and experiencing?

+ For the congregation:  what did you make of all of that?

One jazz theologian has written than when the musicians are playing live, "They need to stand close to one another to hear what is really going on.  This is a choice that those in the Church might consider: we don't simply need each other, we need to be close to each other in order to truly hear the words we should be saying to the world and, equally important, to hear more clearly the voice of the world and what it is saying to us in the pain, the suffering and the longing."

Wait upon the Lord - do not fret - listen:  "Listen to a point of view that's not quite your own," the jazz masters say. "Listen with the same level of interest as when you speak; roll with the punches of the song; give at least as much as you take.  And then you'll be swinging and at deeper peace than before."

This is the second insight for today...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

From small things: spirituality and jazz part one...

The other night at band practice I told my mates that "for the first Sunday back from being on vacation I want us to do something really creative and fun."  Not that we don't bring a whole lotta creativity to the mix most Sundays, but after two weeks away in Canada wandering through both a jazz and then a blues festival...?  Besides, as this new year of programming takes shape and form at church, the time has come to really pump up the volume (metaphorically speaking, of course.)  So here is part one of an unfolding reflection.

There are three biblical stories I am going to play with in relationship to three jazz tunes:  the mustard seed of Luke 13, Psalm 37 and the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus in Mark 14. To start let's see what happened when we pair the 1940 Ellington Streyhorn masterpiece, "Take the A Train," with the parable of the mustard seed in the gospel of Luke 13: 18-21: it seems to me that if you sit with this for a while and explore it as it ripens, it has the possibility of taking us to some surprising places.

Jesus said:  How can I picture God's kingdom for you? What kind of story can I use? It's like a pine nut that a man plants in his front yard. It grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches, and eagles build nests in it.

Now if you've ever taken the A Train in real life, it carries you from Brooklyn straight into Harlem - then the center of African-American creativity and jazz in America - especially the Sugar Hill neighborhood where members of the Harlem Renaissance like Ellington, Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall lived.  It was a place of profound creativity that often went undetected given the racial polarization of the United States.  But for those "in the know" it embodied "the sweet life" of hope, imagination, safety and freedom.  For me, "Take the A Train" sounds a lot like the Lord's parable of the mustard seed.

You see, Jesus was challenging the racial and religious stereotypes of his day by telling folk that the "kingdom of God is like a mustard seed" (or in Peterson's reworking a "pine nut.") His people were living under Roman occupation - they were dominated and broken - and searching for hope.  And since the days of King Solomon and his empire the cultural images Israel used for itself often reflected a certain grandiosity:  we are like the great cedar trees of Lebanon.

The Cedars of Lebanon were comparable to the huge redwood trees of California. They grew straight up for two or three hundred feet. Every kind of bird could enjoy their shade. And this image was deeply embedded in the cultural conditioning of the Jewish people of the age.  The kingdom of God as a nation would be the greatest of all nations just as the great cedar of Lebanon was the greatest of all trees. (Thomas Keating,The Kingdom of God, is Like... p. 37)

What Jesus was saying about the mustard seed, however, challenges this image both culturally and spiritually:  look around you - look at your real condition - and you'll see that God's kingdom is NOT like the great cedars of Lebanon.  Maybe God's kingdom is more like a mustard seed.  In other words, the time had come to give up an outdated, unhelpful and untrue cultural myth:  we are not like the cedars of Lebanon nor is America the most productive nation on the face of the earth nor are straight white people the model of the Lord's most favored souls.  

To paraphrase Emily Dickinson: Jesus was saying it slant and telling his people that the time had come for all of us to take the A train.

+ Do you know the old Curtis Mayfied gospel song:  People Get Ready?  People get ready, there's a train a'comin, picking up passengers from coast to coast. All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin' - you don't need no ticket you just thank the lord.

+ Biw let's play with this - do a little theological jazz improvisation on the mustard seed and A train groove - because there are some fascinating insights to tease out if you are open to them.

The mustard seed was the smallest and most insignificant of all the seeds you could plant.  What's more, it was more like a weed than a real tree.  So because they grew so fast and spread out to take over the rest of the garden, mustard seeds were considered ritually unclean in the religious tradition of Christ's day.  They couldn't be mixed in with other plants.  It was actually illegal. And I believe that Jesus used this unclean image to shake his people up - and they would have taken notice when he told them that the kingdom of God is not like a big and beautiful cedar tree but more like an illegal shrub that spreads like wildfire from a mustard seed - because what was true then is true today and always.  Are you with me? 

He grabbed the attention of his audience... because they knew that this little, unclean shrub would never amount to much. It only grows to be about four feet high and is rather sparse.  So at best all you could say about the mustard seed is that if somebody actually broke the religious rules and planted it in their garden, it would become a shrub where a few birds might nest in its "very modest branches.  And that's all... because this parable is about subverting all the grandiose ideas we often have about God's kingdom."  (Keating, p. 38)

God's kingdom is not in the future.  It is not for when we are perfect.  It is not for when we get ourselves together.  No, God's kingdom is for right now - in the sometimes drity and always gritty moments of our real lives - often when we're least likely to pay attention.

+ You see, this parable is about subverting what we think about ourselves and where we are likely to discover the blessings of the Lord.

+ On the A Train? In jazz?  In swing from the imagination of two black men from Harlem, one of whom was gay?  Give me a break!

In Pittsfield - in our scrubby gardens - in the middle of lives that are not always clean or perfect.?  But "Jesus' parable implies that if we open to learning how to accept the God of everyday life, we can find God in everyday life. We don't have to wait for an apocalyptic deliverance. We do not have to wait for a grandiose liberation. The kingdom of God is available right now." Just... take the A train, man.

This parable is about truth telling.  Brother Wynton Marsalis, jazz trumpeter and director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, put it like this about jazz:  "Jazz music seems to be engineered to expose the hypocrisy and absurdity of racism in our country."

Jazz is not race music.  All kinds of people play it and listen to it and love it. They always have. But you can't teach the history of jazz without talking in depth about segregation, white bands and black bands, racism, sex, media and the American way.

Jazz deconstructs those destructive and grandiose myths and invites you to experience a deeper and more creative truth. For when you look at where jazz came from - and what jazz did with its roots - you see that the pain and shame, the fear and the terror can be transformed into something beautiful - something sweet - sugar hill just off the A train.
It is as if Jesus were a jazz vocalist singing about the kingdom of God that often starts with the blues - something small that others throw away because it doesn't look like a cedar from Lebanon - and becomes something sweet and life changing. 

I'm telling you, if you're willing to take the A train... maybe you can swing in the midst of your troubles.

And if you can swing in the hard times, then you don't need to look for perfection.  You don't have to worry about looking like the cedars of Lebanon or the cream of the crop:  you can revel in being a scrubby little mustard tree.  Because that little tree brings a little bit of shade to your part of the world - a little bit of refreshment and comfort to where you live - and that is all God is asking.

"To what shall I liken the kingdom of God?" Jesus asked:  The kingdom is manifested in ordinary daily life" (Keating,p. 41) and the small things we do to advance hope and kindness where we live.  If you are willing to meet the holy there - in the gritty little mustard seed - the you "can enjoy the kingdom where ever you live without having to wait for an apocalypse or someone perfect to deliver us from our difficulties." 

This is the first insight the jazz masters can bring to living into the grace and blessing of our Lord...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Murdering creativity...

Forty-four years ago, Harvey Cox wrote, "As the true heirs of our Puritan forebears, we are taught to turn our backs on the world of fantasy - along with such accompaniments as mirth, intemperance and unseemly speculation - and to labor diligently in the world of fact.  That very Puritan man, Sigmund Freud, sternly warned us to respect the 'reality principle' and not to be tricked by illusion, future or otherwise.  So we have obeyed..." (Feast of Fools, p. 70)

Or we did for a while... but today, even in the land of the Puritans almost nobody goes to church anymore.  "Oh, that's boring and irrelevant" many say.  Others are clear that it isn't even on their radar for options.  A few suggest that they "might" go to worship if it had any thing to do with grace and joy.  But even young families who want to nourish the moral and ethical values of the Christian faith often find it easier to stay at home on Sunday mornings or let the kids play soccer or basketball.  They might feel a little guilty but... oh well.

Some of this, it seems to me, is the consequence of our "sibling society" where many adults don't want to act like parents because the desires of their children for "more" has become the rule of the day.  Others have truly had their hearts broken by a variety of clergy and institutional abuse that has destroyed trust in one way or another.  A few don't know where to go with their questions and doubts any more because there is a renewed drive to "follow the leader.  What's more, most churches seem to be more interested in security and conformity than wrestling with the truth. 

But many - maybe most - aren't interested in the counter cultural way of Jesus because for so long it has murdered creativity.

I know that is strong language, but it rings true to me.  Starting in the 1950s and bursting upon the middle class in the 1960s, we have been hell-bent on reclaiming creativity as well as imagination and fantasy in our lives.  Look at the movies and books we buy, think about the video gaming industry and the possibilities of the Internet. Our souls have been aching for ways to nourish the creative spirit within for nearly 50 years - and  we have jumped into this quest with verve and zeal - but nobody but the marketing departments have paid any real attention.

Most churches are terrified of creativity - and over the years what has been passed off as soul food born of the imagination is limp, inept and so saturated with pastel images that our imaginations feel strangled to death.  Hell, I stayed away for as long as I could, too.  Who wouldn't? 

But here's the thing:  adolescent rebellion gets old and our replacement of the ancient rituals that have historically nourished the soul and imagination have now become pathological. That was one of the great insights of C.G. Jung:  whenever life-giving and creative rituals lose touch with the sacred, they are replaced by pathological alternatives.  We don't fast any more, we diet - and burden our children with eating disorders, too.  We don't celebrate the awesome, sometimes dangerous mystery of the sacred any more, we play video games or hunt out pornography or cut ourselves to know we're alive.  It doesn't satisfy but it distracts long enough with a buzz so we go for it.

I can't help but believe that this hunger for creativity is where we really need to put our energy as a church.  The quest to feed our imagination - and I mean in bold, demanding and vibrant ways - is ever more on my mind as I get ready for a vacation break. Like Grace Slick sang 48 years ago, let's REALLY feed our heads - but not with bullshit - but real communion with the sacred.

playing for our lives: a concert to combat local homelessness June 15 @ 7 pm

In an interview with Krista Tippett a few years ago, the late Jean Vanier gave contemporary people of compassion his antidote for despair:...