Posted on

The Power of Improvisation

Parkway UCC 27 copyLast week was a tough week in our country. On Tuesday Alton Sterling, a black man, was shot by a white police officer in Baton Rouge. On Wednesday in St. Paul, Philando Castille was also shot and killed. The next day, five police officers in Dallas were killed by an enraged (deranged?) sniper. Only a month ago 49 people were skilled in a gay club in Orlando. Add to that the recent terrorist attacks in Turkey, Bangladesh and Iraq and it’s easy to be overcome with grief, despair and anger. What are we, God’s children, doing to each other?

Yesterday I led worship and preached at First Congregational Church, Webster Groves while the pastor is on vacation. I had sent my worship information to the church administrator the prior week—before any of the events of this past week took place. So, just as other pastors around the country found themselves forced to alter their preaching plans and face the events of this past week to try to make sense of these terrible events, I too found myself needing to address the issues of racism, hatred, violence and a national mood of shock, confusion and despair.

In the Divine synchronicity of the Spirit, the lectionary gospel text for yesterday was Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Even before the horrific events of this past week, the text seemed appropriate for our time. So, in creating the liturgy, I wanted to challenge worshippers to look at the parable in a new way. And that’s where the improvisational power of jazz comes in. In my last blog entry I shared thoughts about the art of improvisation—the calling of the Muse that inspires the artist. But improvisation also has power. Jazz was birthed from the shackles of slavery and grew as an oppressed people traveled the perilous road of emancipation. For more than a century, jazz has been a prophetic cultural voice expressing both the deep anguish and joyful delight of the human spirit. It was an important musical voice during the Civil Rights era and continues to be a prophetic voice in the struggle today for human rights and justice advocacy. At the heart of jazz is storytelling—stories of truth—stories that can sometimes be heard more clearly through music than mere words alone.

Yesterday’s worship leadership was primarily a duet—me and my sax. I retold the parable using more contemporary language punctuated by improvisational reflection that centered the story in a brief musical theme and then meandered through the storytelling, highlighting the anguish of the man beset by robbers, his diminishing heartbeat, the stroll of avoidance by priest and Levite, the healing blues of the Good Samaritan, concluding with Keith Jarrett’s “Prayer.” This segued into my sermon.

A word about my preaching. I decided quite some time ago that I had “preached” my last sermon. Since then I have told stories exclusively, perhaps with a brief intro and thoughtful conclusion, but I never consider myself a preacher. Rather a storyteller offering parables. The challenge is to find the right story for the moment, tell it as if I’m improvising on my horn, and let it stand by itself. The story I told yesterday was an encounter with a hunchbacked beggar on a train station platform in India and how three teenage musicians (Muslim, atheist and Jewish/Buddhist) demonstrated what it means to be a Good Samaritan—to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Divine synchronicity was my blessing yesterday. I did not have to radically alter the content of worship to fit the events of the world. The power of improvisation, story, plus other jazz elements in our worship, spoke to the need for love rather than fear, compassion instead of hatred.

Charlie Parker once said, “I am a devout musician.” It’s all in the spirit we bring to the music . . . and the Spirit we discover in the music.