by Drew Hanson, Director of Family Ministry
I like jazz. Maybe it’s because it is the quintessential coffee shop music, and I love coffee shops. Maybe it’s because it seems difficult or sophisticated to my musically untrained ear. Maybe it’s because I really loved the movie Whiplash. But if I had to guess, I would say that I like jazz because of the importance of improvisation. Here’s my limited understanding of jazz improv: a musician composes music on the spot within certain musical parameters set by the rhythm instruments. It is the improvisation aspect that actually leads me to not only enjoy jazz, but to also use it as a way to worship.
If you’re like me, you can identify parts of your life that are improvised. Following Jesus involves improvisation. When Jesus sent out his disciples to do God’s work, the Gospel of Luke says this: “Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic’” (Luke 9:1-3). Jesus gave them parameters, a rhythm, for how to do their work: to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal. But for everything in between, I think Jesus wanted them to improvise. That’s part of the reason he told them to take nothing extra on the journey. They had to depend on their ability to improv.
How do you follow Jesus when you hit a fork in the road of your life? How do you follow Jesus when an important business deal lands on your desk? How do you follow Jesus when a loved one is sick? How do you follow Jesus when you get in an argument with your spouse? In those moments, we improv. The Bible does not act as an answer book for each of life’s situations. Rather, the Bible provides the parameters and rhythm in which we are called to live. For example, when we begin to live a life in which we consistently love God and love our neighbor as ourselves (see Matthew 22:37-39), we are able to improvise in a way that honors God. When we are away from God’s presence - when we go outside of the parameters and rhythms of God - it is difficult to improvise in a way that honors God.
In the song I shared with you, Blue Train by John Coltrane, the beginning and end have this compelling melody with a single saxophone and piano. Then it goes into this amazing journey with all sorts of instrumental solos and improvisation. But it is bookended with that compelling melody that sets the tone for the whole song. In our lives as Christians, I think that this can teach us of the importance of worship. Think of this song as a week. On Sunday, we gather as the Body of Christ, and this gives us a place to rest from the previous week, prepare for the upcoming week, and be in the presence of God with other Christians. This is the melody that sets the tone for the week. Worshiping God sets the tone for the week. The week itself is the amazing journey filled with improvisation within the tone set during worship. This is the middle of the song. Then Sunday comes around again, renewing us to continue improvising in our weeks.
This week, challenge yourself to improv in a way that honors God. Improv within the parameters of God’s love, grace, and mercy. Improv within the rhythm of his salvation. May God bless you and keep you in the parts of life where improvisation are needed, and may God carry you through to the next compelling melody of Sabbath and worship.