Saturday, September 3, 2011

As Mountains Break into Song

Isaiah 49:8-13
Jazz Communion
September 4, 2011

Here are words from an ancient poem, from the prophet Isaiah:

Thus says the LORD: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.” They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene. Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

This past Friday night, I took a carload of teenagers to hear Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. If you think our jazz is adventurous, you should hear the Flecktones. They are unbelievable, perhaps one of the greatest groups who improvise and make living music. It’s like jazz and bluegrass and rock and folk, all bubbling in the same sauce.
The bass player plays multiple chords up and down his instrument with surreal velocity. The drummer comes dressed like a pirate and creates weird percussive sounds from an electronic devices of his own making. Howard Levy is now part of the group, a fleet-fingered pianist who is also a virtuoso on five different harmonicas. Then there’s the leader, Dr. Bela Fleck. He was named after Bela Bartok, and like Bartok, he creates folk melodies with angular rhythms and odd harmonies, crossing all kinds of musical boundaries. Bela Fleck does that on the banjo.
I think it was the fourth or fifth time that I’ve heard the band. It’s interesting to look around a packed auditorium to see the effect that a 2 ½ hour concert has on the people present. It was a mixed house, young and old, a few in business suits and ties, others in tie-dyed t-shirts. The music cut across all boundaries. As they began to play, some tunes lasting seventeen or eighteen minutes, the hall became more and more animated. The air was energized.
It wasn’t what everybody wanted. At halftime, about ten people in the row in front of us trickled out and did not return. They looked exhausted. Perhaps they preferred their music slower, and they had already heard an evening’s worth of notes. But for the vast majority of us who endured the marathon, we were enriched, empowered, by music.
Now, that’s the kind of experience that I hope a jazz worship service can provide for you. Not merely a curiosity or even a special event, but a moment that makes our lives a little bit better. We can revisit an old hymn, but bring to it the highest level of creativity that the band can muster. Sure, the way the music first came to us is fine as it is. But perhaps, this time, we can bring it alive in some fresh way. Jazz people are like kids with a chemistry set, cooking up a bubbling stew of harmony and melody in a cauldron of rhythm. We can do something to make this worship service special. That’s our hope, at least.
It’s the kind of hope that animates the prophet Isaiah. In his ancient poem, he dreams of life-brought-alive. Prisoners in dark corners are carried into the light. Those held captive by the ways of the world are released into freedom. God comes in some unexpected way. Life is opened up somehow. It’s something of a homecoming. These people who were prisoners are brought together and fed to satisfaction. Their thirst is quenched. Their travel is protected. And everybody is caught up in a song.
This is Isaiah’s dream. Life is brought to life. Nobody expected it, and it happened.
Last Friday night, I looked around the auditorium at Binghamton University. At that moment, the rhythm was contagious and every foot tapped as one. Everybody there arrived with some kind of burden, but in the rush of that syncopated symphony, those burdens were laid down. To the right, the estranged husband was suddenly smiling. Over there, the woman whose hair was singed by chemotherapy was shaking her shoulders. Next to me were two Abington Heights saxophonists, their eyes dazzled, their mouths agape, overwhelmed by a fountain of jazzy notes that they did not think possible.
The effect of music, that kind of music, this kind of music, is the closest experience that I have had to the power of the Holy Spirit. No one can see the notes, but the wind is what changes you. And you feel alive, totally alive. God is wherever people are totally alive.
I have a friend named Janna. She’s a United Methodist preacher, and a graduate of the school of sacred music at Yale University. She was researching the music of Duke Ellington, particularly the religious music that he wrote and performed in the last ten years of his life. Janna set up an interview with Loren Schoenberg, noted saxophonist and music critic. He also has a reputation for being outspoken. As she mentioned Ellington’s sacred music, she mentioned the name of God.
Schoenberg responded, “God? Well, I don’t know about God. But I believe in Louis Armstrong.”
Then he said, “All I can say is that Louis Armstrong’s music offers me the most immediate and fulfilling spiritual nourishment that I have ever found. There is something in the sound of his trumpet, something in the sound of his voice, that reflects an optimism in the essence of life. It is tragic, it is comic, and it swings despite all the odds. It helps you to put your own problems in perspective.”[1]
Surely this is the power to which Isaiah testifies. It’s the power that I saw unleashed on Friday night by the Flecktones. And it’s the power that I have discovered in the making of jazz for the church.
I remember the first time we did this. Our saintly organist could not find a substitute for Labor Day weekend. Maud Thomas had non-refundable tickets to a national Welsh hymn festival in Kansas City. She looked at me and said, “Would you play the hymns?” No problem, I replied. It’s a holiday weekend and nobody’s going to be here. Then she said, “Are you going to jazz them up?” Truthfully, that had never occurred to me. But that was part of Maud’s persona. If you had some ability, she would not let you hide it under a basket. Would I jazz it up? Oh, why not? Last hurrah of the summer, a quiet Sunday on the schedule, no big deal – and then all of you showed up! How many of you were at that first service twenty years ago? And you’re still here. Who knew?
Who knew that, within a few weeks of doing this for the first time, I would encounter again my college music professor, Al Hamme? Who knew he would introduce me to a stable of amazing musicians who have become like my brothers? Who knew it would lead to the formation of a band, a long list of concerts, and a stack of recordings that nobody buys but everybody enjoys? Who knew we would receive a grant to create jazz hymnal, that Dave Brubeck would become a good friend, or that drummer Marko Marcinko would show up to play here every Christmas Eve?
It continues to be an amazing journey. I may be the only Presbyterian minister who takes vacation time to go on tour with a jazz band. Who knew this band would travel all the way to Corvallis, Oregon to play for six people? Or that we would play the main stage at the Chautauqua Institution to four thousand? Or that Warren Cooper would blow out the speakers at a church in Richmond, Virginia – and afterwards the people of the congregation would come up to thank us? We have a lot of stories, many of them still in the making. Of all the many things that give me joy, I never enjoy life more as when people like these musicians make creative music for people like you – and the whole swinging mess is offered up to God.
We call it a joyful noise. That’s what all of us are created to create – a joyful noise. The jazz here is merely one expression of God’s great symphony. We can believe in God, and we can believe in Louis Armstrong, because we are alive. Thoroughly, completely, energetically alive. And God is wherever people are totally alive.
Tony Campolo is a great preacher from Philadelphia, one of the most alive people that a lot of us have ever known. He tells about going to speak every year at the Creation Festival, something of a Christian Woodstock with pure air. The Creation Festival convenes each summer in central Pennsylvania. Tony preached on the last night of the festival, a Saturday, and then was scheduled to preach the very next morning at a nearby Lutheran church.
It was a safe bet that the people at the festival didn’t go to that church, or that the people in that church would never dream of going to the festival. He even thought about preaching the same sermon. What never occurred to him is that the word spread at the festival that he was preaching the next day right down the road. The normal crowd of two hundred or so people swelled to about twelve hundred. They were crammed into every nook of that church, and due to the limited showering facilities at the festival, they were noticed by the regulars.
The Lutheran pastor apologized to Tony. “I don’t know where these people came from,” he said. Tony didn’t tell him. He especially didn’t tell him that most were of a charismatic bent, many from Assembly of God churches.
The service began. The organist played quietly. The pastor came out in his robes. The candles were lit with a hush. Then the pastor said, in a droning voice, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Let us come into his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.”
A young man in the balcony raised his arms and shouted at the top of his lungs, “All right!” And all the young people present began to clap and cheer.
The minister was amazed, Tony said. He was stunned. The last thing in the world he expected when he called upon the congregation to make a joyful noise to the Lord was that anybody would.[2]
But that’s what we do. That’s what we are expected to do. With whatever joyful noise we can muster, we announce to the world that we do not belong to the powers of destruction and death. We belong to the God of life, to the God who gives new life.
God is wherever people are completely alive.
You can tell it by the music they make.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

[1] Thanks to Janna Steed for the story.
[2] Tony Campolo, Stories That Feed Your Soul (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2010) 66-67

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