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Jazz, Ministry, and the Need to Improvise

President’s Blog
April 30, 2014

"Drums and Friends" by Debra Hurd

Tonight, we will enjoy a worship service with jazz pianist Bob Ravenscroft and his “Music Serving the Word Ministries” group, joined by our own VP of Student Affairs, Dr. Cynthia Wilson.  The Leadership Team hosted the group for lunch earlier in the week and it was a most remarkable time together.  As we introduced ourselves to Bob’s group, one by one describing our work at the seminary and why we are excited to be at Garrett-Evangelical, various words emerged: sacred ground; mystery, tradition and renewal, mystical, servant, generational stewardship.  And then the jazz group introduced themselves and more words and phrases emerged: improvisation, jazz, music serving the living word, music as language.  And, then . . . I believe we all felt it – the power of a connection among us and an excitement and synergy that had us all on the edge of our seats as we began to make connections between this musical ministry and our own work at the seminary.  Dare I suggest the Holy Spirit was blowing through the room?

We talked of improvisation and the movement of the Holy Spirit in worship.  We talked of the feelings of risk in following the Spirit and the courage that it requires for some of us.  We spoke of black sacred music, it’s improvisational nature and it’s contribution to jazz.  We spoke of Bishop Sally Dyck’s call for our graduates to be able to improvise, i.e., to know enough of the basics of theological education that they are able to work with what is given in their various ministry settings.  In another recent situation, someone said to me, “That’s all it is once you graduate – improvisation.”

I thought of my earlier studies of William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience and his passing remark about how music and mysticism are somehow related.  I recognize the connection James describes as I think about how music and mysticism are both heavily involved in the affective, emotional realm of our experience – that ineffable dimension of our living that only music and the mysteries of the mystical seem able to capture.  I was reminded of how Paul speaks of the Spirit interceding for us when we have no words: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” Romans 8:26. And then I remembered in high school watching a lecture (one of six, The Norton Lectures) that Leonard Bernstein gave at Harvard, later published as “The Unanswered Question (1976).  In it, he suggested that God did not speak the words, “Let there be light.” Rather, God sang them - most likely to the rhythm and notes of the opening measures of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – dah, dah, dah dah – “Let there be light.”  It is a powerful image that Bernstein suggested.

So, what is the significance of all these connections?  I am not sure.  As a more introverted type, I am comfortable with and greatly appreciative of traditional forms of United Methodist worship and Catholic contemplative modes - but not exclusively.  Whatever the moving of the Spirit in our seminary may mean for our worship life together, I am confident that much of the worship in the broader Christian church both in the United States and around the world is compelling not only in its direct engagement of the worshiper’s relationship to God, but also because it invites more active participation of the worshipers and it incorporates these jazz, improvisational forms utilizing elements of many different kinds of global music – incorporating music, art, and dance that seek freer expression in response to the Holy Spirit, beyond the words.  What might it look like to think of preparing worship and music leaders who theologically understand the traditions, who are trained in basic musical skills, and who also have learned further improvisational skills to bring to their own ministries of “serving the Living Word?”

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