Last night I went to a Jazz Vespers event created by Gillian Grannum. Jazz Vespers are a mix of jazz music, prayer, and performance. These services can range from jazz concerts in a church to more formal and traditional Christian liturgies that feature jazz music. Like the reading of “For Coloured Girls…” this event was a surprisingly healing for me.
To provide some necessary backstory…
Most people don’t know that I was once a jazz musician. I played guitar, alto and baritone sax in jazz bands in high school and appeared set in my Freshman year to be the lead alto for all the bands at Beyer High for the next three years. Outwardly it appeared years of private lessons, hours of practice and my love for jazz were paying off. However, my musical ability was inherently tied up with the chaos of my dysfunctional family. Music was one way I used to perform to earn affirmation from my family and attempt to drown out my self-hatred. However, no matter how well I performed it was never enough. I have written more about this in my post “Command Performance.”
As I tried to reject the dysfunction of my family as a young man I threw out the baby with the bathwater. At the height of my ability I surprisingly quit all of my instruments, musical lessons and left the very reputable music program of my high school. I still remember the late Michael Dufour, my band director at the time, making a last minute appeal for me to stay in band. He was completely shocked and disappointed at my decision to leave. I should have listened to him. Oddly enough, I could not really stay away from jazz and was still nominally involved in our jazz bands on baritone sax.
Fast forward to 2010 and this past year and a half has been a full fledged non-stop descent into my struggle with faith and theodicy and first real attempts to deal with what went on in my home. This has led to two seasons of depression and a very real contemplation of suicide. More to the point, for months I have had absolutely no desire to go to Church, read my Bible, pray, listen to sermons, or do any other basic Christian activities. I came to call this season “The Great Disconnect” because I felt so disconnected from God and other people.
This has led me to a place of asking a lot of questions: Why do we worship? Do we worship to make ourselves feel God is worthy of praise, even in our darkest moments, or do we worship because we already know that God is worthy of praise, even in our darkest moments? What does it mean to be the Body of Christ? Do I have to attend a building on Sunday to be part of the Body of Christ? Have I turned a lot of these Christian practices into works?
In the midst of all these questions still bouncing around in my head I went to Jazz Vespers last night thinking I was going to listen to some Jazz and support some of my friends who had planned the event and were performing.
For those of you who were not there it was an amazing experience. Gillian explained the origins of Jazz vespers and how the event was structured. The liturgy of the service was based on verses from Isaiah. Unlike many victorious themes, verses and sermon series I’ve heard these verses affirmed that there will be dark times in our life where we don’t feel the love of God (you know…like the one I’ve gone through) but ultimately it affirms that God will come back and not abandon us. The first several songs reflected this sorrow, culminating in a jazz improve piece called “Groans” that incorporated the audience. Like a prayer service, everyone brought what they had to the table in a previously unplanned manner. For those of you who are not musical, improv itself takes talent and ability. For this piece to be pulled off in the way that it was, this took incredible talent and creativity on the part of all the musicians involved.
Around the “low” point of the service Gillian provided what was the closest thing to a sermon that the night contained. She talked about how sometimes our walk with God is in a nice 4:4 time signature; it is easy and knowable. While normally we invite Jesus to walk with us in this comfortable pace of life, sometimes Jesus invites us to walk along with Him. In these times, we feel out of sync, and tripped up as things do not go according to our plan. During these times Jesus writes the meters of our life 7:8, not 4:4. (You know, like the last several months or so…) However, Gillian reminded us, Jesus will always bring us back to that nice 4:4 rhythm when we need to, just as long as we need, before moving forward again.
After the low point of the service the next set of songs affirmed the love of God, and we ended with an improv piece that allowed for many in the audience to go forward sing. I was surprised at how many people actually got up to join in one at a time and even toyed with the idea myself.
By the end of the night I realized this was the closest thing I had come to a worship service in months. I thought I was going to listen to Jazz and I ended up going to Church. Who knew. Maybe this is as close as I can get to a traditional church service, and even if that’s the case that is okay.
Another important insight hit me later. As I thought about the night I went through the faces in the performers and the audience. The room was filled with acquaintances, families members, professors, students, people from different races and backgrounds and dear friends. The room was filled with people I liked and people who liked me. I was reminded of how many who had walked with me in a very real way through the last several months, offered a kind word at a hard time, or were just influential in my life. Carol, Carenda and Gary entered into my mess and were with me in dark times. Candace I know is coming by the sound of her laughter. Luke is a great depth hidden under British humor. Andrea pushes lyrical expression on campus and in her life. Gillian (and all the other wonderful musicians) remind me of the power of music, and inspire me to create. Cameron’s workout’s destroy my body but refill my soul. I could go on but you get the point.
By the end of the night I realized that I am in deep community here at Fuller. Far from being in “The Great Disconnect” I am actually deeply connected to Body of Christ, though this does not look like I thought it was. Even in the midst of my exit from “church” I cannot escape the love of God’s community. Who knew.
This all coincides with the last several days, which have been an incredible and almost inexplicable return to joy for me. God has brought me back to that 4:4 time signature. All of my issues are not gone and I do not know how long this season will last but I am just going with it, which is a new thing for me.
As a result of my upbringing I have a strong tendency to make plans and attempt to control my environment. I obey the rules, stay inside the box, and try to manage every detail. Heaven forbid I make a mistake. I always want to know what’s coming (so I can plan for what could go wrong) and what’s around me (so I can see any danger’s coming). While foresight is admirable I take this way too far and worry about what might happen so much that it kills my present. This even impacted me on an artistic level. I painted a water color painting completely inside the lines and while I could practice and perform a piece that was written for me, improv was always very difficult. Heaven forbid I hit a wrong note.
I think I am learning to let go. I am learning that mistakes are part of life, even big ones. Do I really think that I am going to bat 100% with all of my decisions in life? I am learning to live in the moment. I am learning to improv with my life. And it’s fun.
P.S. I just wanted to say thank you to everyone, especially at Fuller, who has been there for me or impacted me in some way. I honestly do not know if I would have made it through this last year and a half without you. I hope there are more years, “wide awake in our dreams!”