I have been reading a very helpful book by fellow blogger Robert Gelinas entitled Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz Shaped Faith. Gelinas uses Jazz as a metaphor for understanding the Christian faith. I want to riff on the book over the next few posts.
One of the fundamental concepts of Jazz is the swing. Duke Ellington wrote “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” It is the swing that makes Jazz, Jazz. What is “swing?” Well it is simply emphasizing the off-beat. Instead of emphasizing the First and Third beats, emphasize the second and fourth. It is not that you are adding what is not there, you are pulling out that which is often not brought out.
And more than pulling out, there is a celebration of that which is normally not emphasized. This is because Jazz celebrates the swing. It makes the swing a fundamental part of the music.
Gelinas invites us to syncopate the scriptures. How do we do this? We look for those things that are in the text, but are not always emphasized. And then we celebrate that perspective. Instead of always preaching about the brother or the prodigal, why not preach about the father? What was the father thinking? What does the father tell us about spiritual things? Or maybe we preach about the other servants who are at the feast. What can they contribute to our understanding of God?
Instead of preaching about the woman who grabbed at Jesus and touched “the hem of his garment.” Why not look at the others who were there with Jesus. Did they miss out on healing? Was healing even possible for them? Was it a lack of faith that stood in between them and healing? How was that walk home after seeing the awesome healing of someone else and still not receiving their own healing? And so it goes, syncopate on the scriptures. Stop skimming the surface and dig deep in that which has not been emphasized, but is still there. Then we will open the door to deeper understandings of our selves and our God.
Continuing on the themes from Robert Gelinas’ book Finding the Groove, we will discuss improvisation and preaching. What is improvisation? I remember when I first heard a jazz standard and thinking, that doesn’t sound like the song. What I didn’t realize then was that I needed to listen closer to hear the original. I needed to allow the performer to interpret the song for this context and time in which we found ourselves.
Improvisation is to take the original text and to interpret it in a way that is true to the original as well as true to the current context. To do this, you have to really know your instrument as well as your song and your context. All of these things will allow the performer to play the song for the hearers.
As preachers we do this every time we preach. We take the “old-old Gospel Story” and interpret it for the hearers that are sitting in our congregations. It requires doing more than simply quoting the text. We can’t just quote the text and sit down, no, we must interpret the text. We must show the different shades of meaning that have relevance to the context that we find ourselves. We must “sing” the gospel with our people.
As with the jazz performer, we must really know the gospel story before we can “sing” the gospel story. In addition, we must understand the context that we are preaching to. Simply put, we don’t sing the exact same song everywhere, we change the way we sing to help the message get to the people.
So what does it mean to improvise the text? I am sure we have all heard the preacher talk about God being our shepherd. That is all well and good, but what is a modern day version of the shepherd? Is the Lord like a football coach that leads to victory and protects our resources? Maybe it doesn’t fit, but you get the point. Maybe God is like our military leader who goes into combat with us.
What is the author trying to convey? Can you use modern day examples to convey the same thing? Go ahead and try…the attempt will be you improvising. Go ahead and improvise, play, and sing the scriptures.
Robert Gelinas completes his look at the fundamentals principles of Jazz as it relates to Christian Theology by looking at Call and Response. When one listens to Jazz music, one will hear different instruments communicating and “calling” out to each other. The other instruments that were called to will then respond. The nice thing about this phenomenon is that the outcome is a different entity than if call and response was not present.
In preaching, the preacher is not alone. The people respond to various cues from the preacher. Some of these are overt like when the preacher asks “Is there anybody in here…” At other times the cues are less overt like when a preacher appeals to an old hymn or a cliche’ from the church and leaves room for the people to respond. As the people respond, the preacher changes and alters the direction of the sermon. Thus, the people help to construct the sermon.
Let me also say that the call and response is not only with the people. Listen to preacher who will say something like “help me Holy Ghost.” Also when the preacher leaves space for God to work. In the end, God as well as the people are allowed to alter the sermon as it is preached. Yes, call and response is a very important component of the African American sermon, and any preacher must allow the people and God to alter the presentation so that the people may understand and be transformed by the sermon.
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