Monday, August 5, 2013

A spirituality of jazz part two: call and response...

NOTE:  My schedule is a little off given other realities this week so here are my worship notes for Sunday, August 11, 2013.

About two weeks ago, the new Pope – Francis I (or Poppa Francesco as I they say in Italy) – returned to Latin America for the World Youth Day rally in Brazil.  Millions of people turned out to see and hear Francesco as he spoke from his heart by the seaside about loving God with a deep and tender compassion.  While he was in native country of Argentina, Francesco took time to speak to some of his bishops and priests about how he wanted them to serve the Lord in this generation – and his words are instructive as I share with you part two of what I am calling a spirituality of jazz – because he said that we need to speak like real people rather than those set apart by an institution.

+  All too often church leaders become self-centered and forget that the church is to be the birthing place of faith NOT the inspector or judge of ordinary people. In Francesco’s words that means we must learn a new language that moves beyond "outdated manners and forms which, even on a cultural level, are no longer meaningful."

+  He also observed that a new/old style of leadership is required in this age noting that church leaders are to be among the people in three ways: "In front of them, pointing the way; among them, keeping them together and preventing them from being scattered; and behind them, ensuring that no one is left behind, but also, and primarily, so that the flock itself can sniff out new paths."

New language that is culturally meaningful – new styles of leadership that nourish, protect and innovate God’s people in the real world – and new paths that the flock sniffs out together.  And while I don’t believe the Pope had a spirituality of jazz in mind when he was making his com-ments, it is clear to me that his insights resonate with the practices of a jazz spirituality – and let me be explicit about why I believe this is so important.

+  First, spirituality is NOT a set of ideas – so I’m not taking about abstractions or theories – rather I am exploring how it is we practice our faith.  How we make the words flesh – how our love of God is incarnated in real time and space – what do we do every day to intentionally become more like Jesus?

+  Do you grasp this distinction – that spirituality is about concrete practices and spiritual disciplines – like prayer, service, fasting, silence, worship rather than doctrinal ideas?  Is that clear?

+  Second, as best as I’ve been able to come up with – and I am looking to the wisdom and research of a few contemporary Christian intellectuals who are also jazz musicians – there are three key practices to a jazz spirituality:  syncopation, call and response, and improvisation.

Last week I tried to make clear how syncopation works in both jazz music and Christian living and some people got it – and others were left confused. So let me try to clearly restate my case about the spiritual practice of syncopation before moving on to this week’s conversation about call and response, ok?

One way of describing syncopation is playing the offbeat:  finding and emphasizing something in the rhythm of the song that is always real but mostly just below the surface.  Jazz theologian Robert Gelinas likes to say that as a spiritual master Jesus was always looking below the surface of things.  He didn’t just take the obvious for the whole truth.  Rather he pushed to uncover the deeper truths that are always present, but not always realized or understood.  In a word, Jesus accentuated the offbeat.  So in jazz and spirituality, the practice of syncopation does two things:

+  First, syncopation invites to go below the surface – beyond the obvious – to search and listen for the offbeat.  Personally that means going beyond ourselves – we’re not the center of the universe or the essence of the song – we’re part of a greater whole.  So the offbeat invites us into unselfish territory – new place and sounds – rather than following the beat of what is popular or normal.

+  Second, if we get really good at syncopation, then we’re likely to start hearing and owning those places in our own lives and souls that are also offbeat and hidden.  Sometimes we’re afraid of them – sometimes we’re ashamed of them – and often we don’t want anybody else – including God – to know that we’ve got some offbeat parts to us so we hide them. 

A spirituality of jazz using the practice of syncopation asks us to bring our personal offbeats to the surface - and to the Lord - so that even in our weakness, shame or fear God’s strength can work in and through us.  And the more we practice asking God for grace when we are wounded and afraid, the more like Jesus we’ll become when it really matters.  That’s why I asked you to practice clapping or snapping on the offbeat in Paul Simon’s song:  not only does that song speak of the scripture, but it gives us a clear way to practice and feel syncopation

+  Does that recapitulation and summary help?  Do you have any questions about what I mean when I talk about the practice of syncopation in both jazz and our spiritual lives?

+  Here’s one more musical example – a song from the African American tradition – that involves both syncopation as well as another practice I want to share with you – call and response.  Let’s sing together – and have Between the Banks offer the response – the song:  “Over My Head.”

Did you feel how awkward that pause at the end was?  How if you weren’t paying attention, it was easy to rush through that extended rest?  But what a difference that offbeat makes, right? 

Now the second practice in a spirituality of jazz is something called call and
response.  Because jazz has its roots in New Orleans – a place saturated in the experience of the African American slave church – it is not surprising that a lot of songs take up the structure, rhythm and ebb and flow of a slave preaching event.  Here’s the context:  on the Sabbath a lay preacher would share a reading from the Scriptures by memory and then offer his or her insights while the gathered congregation encouraged greater truth and passion by offering shouts of joy or sorrow, words of encouragement or correction and sometimes even songs. 

Well, the same thing happens in a lot of jazz music where the piano plays a tune and then the trumpet responds to the call.  Or the vocalist sings a riff and the band plays back a response and this call and response goes on and on and, ok?  Do you know what I’m talking about?

Ask Carlton for a musical example

Now here’s the thing:  this call and response rhythm and structure in jazz is not only grounded in the African American church tradition – even in the most secular jazz – it is also the fundamental biblical reality for all creation: I mean the whole of the Bible is all about God’s call – and our response.  Think about some of the key stories in scripture:

+  In the beginning, God calls – and NOTHING responds – chaos responds – the cosmos responds and creativity and beauty and life come to birth.

+  When Israel was in Egypt’s land oppressed by slavery and bondage, God calls – and Moses responds shouting:  Let my people go.  When the people of the Word strayed in fear and sin, God called – and the prophet Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Amos and Micah and all the rest responded with acts of truth and healing that redeemed God’s people.

+  God called and Mary the mother of our Lord responded – and gave birth to the holy.  God called and the disciples followed Jesus.  God called and Paul was struck blind until he was able to respond with new insight and a life of love not hate.

In today’s key passage from the book of Hebrews, the story of the faith tells us over and over again that first God calls and then we are invited to respond.  A spirituality of jazz practices both syncopation AND honoring the call and response rhythm of a holy life. 

Specifically, for our purposes today, that means:  a) LISTENING for God’s call; and b) WAITING to respond in a way that is uniquely your own.  Let me say that again and break it down:  to give shape and form to practicing the wisdom of call and response means:  LISTENING – WAITING – AND SHARING YOUR UNIQUE AND CREATIVE RESPONSE TO THE LORD.

+  Jazz musicians are clear that the KEY discipline to playing well and creatively begins with LISTENING.  Not speaking first – not rushing to fill the silence – not insisting on our way before the call is even offered; but listening.  So what do you do in a given week to help yourself become a better listener?  That's part of a jazz spirituality.

+  Now a good listener knows how to wait – and a good jazz player does, too – not only to give the call room to mature, but to discern what should come next.  Have you ever been in a conversation where the other person can’t wait to jump in and all over your thoughts or concerns?  There’ is nothing sacred about all those opinions and voices and words:  holy listening needs a whole lot of silence and waiting before a good response can bubble up.  Same is true with jazz.

And when enough listening – and some authentically sacrificial waiting and discerning – has taken place, then God wants to hear from you. God wants and needs you to share your own unique gift to the song of life.  Because, you see, you have something special to offer the world even if you don’t yet even know what it is.
In today’s text we're told  that Abel had a gift to share in response to God’s call – and so did Enoch and Noah and Abraham and Sarah – and they all listened and waited and then responded in faith sharing their unique song with creation.  And what was true in scripture was true in jazz: Coltrane listened and waited and at the right time shared his unique song on the saxophone – Miles and Louis Armstrong did much the same on the trumpet – Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald did it with their voices – Mingus and Chambers did it on the bass – Monk and Tatum and Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson did it on the piano – and on and on it goes – including Maaia the Man on the 88s and all the rest of us here today.

So let me ask you to listen – and wait – now as we share something you are almost NEVER likely to hear in a church because it is so out there.  Applying the call and response practice of a jazz-shaped faith, however, see if you can’t listen for a new insight – a new voice from some deep place – speaking a new/old truth about this moment in time in a way that sounds real rather than institutional.  And then let me ask you to wait – and keep waiting over the next week at the very least – for a deep response.  Don’t give in to the obvious – the quick – the opinionated or banal.  Practice a jazz spirituality and just listen and wait…

To look at a baby you've gotta be brave
In the black of his eye is your own grave
And something darker you wanna touch

It must be love 'cause it hurts so much

Love, love, love, love

I've been to Egypt, I've been to Rome
I was a young man when I left my home

Looking for something I couldn't find
Now I'm back where I started, it was here all the time

Time, time, time, time

Out of the darkness into the light
I had it wrong, you made it right
I had it right, you made it wrong
Same old story, same old song
Same old

Song, song, song, song

Some call me Allah, some call me Tao
Some call me Buddha, some call me now
Some call me Jesus, some call me God
Some say I'm real, some say I'm not
1) Il Papa
3) Late Music - ibid
4) Sing My Guitar - ibid

1 comment:

Peter said...

I never really knew what syncopation was until I heard Steeleye Span's The Weaver and the Factory Maid.

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