February 2009


I’ve been reflecting on my annual visits to the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, a Trappist monastery located on the Shenandoah River. Beginning in 1969, I made several week-long retreats there, almost always the single Protestant among the six or seven other retreatants welcomed to the guest house.

I’ve run across the letter from the guest master who first welcomed me there. The letter included the following summary of what one might expect during a retreat at Holy Cross:

Holy Cross Abbey Guest House offers an opportunity to share in the monastic life of prayer and reading in an atmosphere of silence and solitude. There are no formal retreats or conferences, although tapes are available. The individual schedule is left to the mature discretion of the serious guest seeking opportunity, in a recollected milieu, to discern more clearly God’s will in the decisions of life; more specifically, for the deepening  of the life of faith through prayer and meditation. Guests are invited to join the monks at the Divine Office and the Community High Mass at which retreatants may receive under both species and at which priests [that is, priests there on retreat] may concelebrate. You are, then, asked to keep in mind the purpose of retreat and respect the atmosphere of prayer and silence.

Ordinarily, one could stay over a weekend, or, as was my custom, for a Monday through Friday period. Because the demand was great, there were few exceptions made,  though I know a few men were allowed special exemptions from that policy. It seems strange to use the term “men,” since we live (thankfully) in a more inclusive age. But back then, the old tenet farmhouse that served as the guest house was a mile beyond the fence that held a sign announcing that women were not allowed into the cloistered area of the property.

The cost of the retreat? A donation to the monastery, as one was able to give. [Here seems a good place to note that because of the importance of Trappist hospitality and because the guest house was no longer an adequate space for the numbers of retreatants who desired visits, and because the Abbey wanted to open its resources occasionally to women as well as men, the Abbey constructed a new, much larger guest facility, outside the cloistered area. I was leading conferences and youth retreats during those years and contributed my small honoraria to the project. Once the building was finished, I never returned to spend the night there! I just feared that losing the ambiance of that original old guest house would deter my having a successful retreat. I would miss the single dining room table, the dish-washing rituals, and the intimacy of the living room, the tiny bedrooms, and the front porch.]

My first retreats there took place in mid-springtime…until I found that I had a serious allergy to some spring pollen that blew through the surrounding pasture lands. When I discovered that allergy symptoms were getting in the way of my prayer and meditation, I began making my retreats in mid-summer and had a more pleasant stay. Making time for the retreats always presented some difficulty. I was in radio ministry and had to “work ahead” to have enough programming to cover my week away. So I was usually exhausted by the time I arrived at Holy Cross. I would sleep a lot during my first couple of days there. Once caught up on sleep, I began to catch up on rebuilding my spiritual life. I spent many hours reading, praying, walking, and attending prayer services in the chapel.

I have three “souvenirs” of those retreats: photos, tape recordings of services, and a video interview with Father Stephen, the Guestmaster. The tapes of the monks chanting bring back very special memories. The monks sang psalms and hymns with one unison voice. Because they sang several times a day, and the same music was repeated day by day, their voices were indeed one voice, and I especially love the song of Mary they sang at Compline, just before retiring to their beds at sunset. For a long time, the music leaders, singing a capella, were Father Stephen and Father Andrew (who was as short and slight as Stephen was tall and sturdy!).

As the lone Protestant on retreat, I faced a theological dilemma when it came to daily Mass. While Catholics and Protestants both use the term “Holy Communion,” we differ greatly on the theological meaning of the sacrament. In my Presbyterian church, the Communion table is open to all baptized Christians. That is not the case at the Catholic altar. When our seminary class made its first visit to the Abbey, my memory is that the guest master advised us to come to the mass, but that asking to receive the bread and cup were to be according to our own consciences. When I made my personal retreats there, the new (and then long-time) guest master Father Stephen had comforting counsel: as a priest, he said, he would turn no one away if their hands were outstretched to receive the bread. “If you ask, you shall receive,” he told me with an assuring smile.

High Mass was on the schedule for 4:30 a.m. I was in bed. Low Mass was at 7:45 a.m. I usually didn’t make that one either. But by Friday, after we retreatants had built a little community of our own in that guest house, after our many meals together, deep conversations through the week, and shared experiences of worship and prayer — I wanted to be part of the family that gathered one last time that week for Mass. So I would go, wonder at the singing, be stirred by the readings, and finally stand in the line of retreatants and neighbors of the monastery who would ask for the sacrament. Hands open, I would receive the wafer, and would feel truly a part of the family of faith. (Truth be told, unless the presiding priest was Father Stephen, no one but my fellow guest house residents would know that I wasn’t Catholic. So, I asked, and I received.)

And then came the memo. On a subsequent retreat, I checked the chapel bulletin board to be sure the daily schedule was the same as I had remembered it from the previous year. There was a letter posted near the monastic schedule, on stationary that bore the mark of the Archdiocese of Washington (D.C.). The bishop was issuing a cautionary note, a prohibition really, barring non-Catholics from the sacrament of Communion. When I spoke to Father Stephen about it, we both knew that nothing had changed ecclesiastically or theologically; it was just that the Abbey had found itself within the bounds of a different diocese, and under a very conservative bishop. Father Stephen said he still wouldn’t turn away anyone who reached out for the bread, the body of Christ broken for everyone. His attitude wasn’t defiant, but deeply pastoral, and loving, and Christ-like.

So, when that week came to a close, I went again to the Friday morning Mass. But I sat in the back pew. And when the invitation came to come forward to receive the Body of Christ, I remained in my seat. One of the other guests nodded to me, as if to say, “Are you coming?” I shook my head. No. I had decided to see what it was like to feel excluded. And not merely to feel excluded, but to be excluded.  It hurt. I watched as the others received the sacrament and returned to their pews to pray. I watched as the presiding priest pronounced the blessing, and as the visitors left the chapel. Eventually, one by one, the monks and priests of the monastery left their private prayers in the chapel and went on to their chores, their reading, their silence.

And finally, I left the chapel, and walked the dirt road back to the guest house. I have rarely felt so alone. I did have tears; I remember that. I call them righteous tears. I had been wronged, separated out from the flock, kept from the table, by church law and personal conscience. I had wanted to know what it felt like. And now I knew what it was like when communion was broken.

And I would commit myself from that day forward to keep anyone from feeling, or being left out, excluded, forgotten, or judged to be outside the wideness of God’s mercy, the depth of God’s grace, the reach of Jesus’ love.

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At Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, my host for most of the week-long retreats I enjoyed there was Father Stephen.

He held forth at the guesthouse, a genial, gentle giant of a man. (I probably remember him as taller than he was, but he did have a sturdy build.) His jokes were corny, his zest for monastic life shone in his smiling eyes, and he loved his flower garden. The only time I saw him angry was the umpteenth time cows strayed from the pasture and trampled his flower beds. He sputtered with frustration. But most of the time, he was the grand interpreter of Trappist ways, father confessor of the house, server of the meals, and teller of tales.

I know he enjoyed having a Presbyterian in the house. Most of the others making their retreats were Roman Catholics, of course. Some clergy, some laity. On my first retreats at the Abbey, there was an elderly man named Andy whose job back in Philadelphia was delivering bundles of newspapers from the back of a truck. His retreats extended for several weeks at a time, and in return he helped Father Stephen with chores, something ordinarily not required of guests. Andy once asked me if I prayed the rosary. When I said that Presbyterians didn’t have rosaries, he sat down with me, beads in hand, and explained the prayers.

I also recall a priest on retreat asking me about my views on birth control. He had no qualms about telling me in a friendly way how wrong I was. There were often Catholic seminarians on retreat, and on separate occasions two of them, on discovering the Presbyterian minister in their midst, felt it necessary to justify to me (more probably to themselves) why celibacy was not a problem for them.  I also remember a young Hispanic college student named Marcos who told me of his call to priesthood, who loved discussing theology with me, and with whom I corresponded for a few months after the retreat. His stationery was hand-drawn artwork, his pencil portraying scenes of life in the American Southwest. (I think that Marcos was the one who always wanted to break the silence of retreat by retreating to my car radio to listen to music. I allowed him to do that one time, but the gesture seemed to violate my own monastic discipline — that of turning off the car radio as I exited the interstate onto the country roads of Clarke County toward the monastery farm.)

Father Stephen’s role was to create a sense of community among us, no matter our ages, our theologies, our varied backgrounds. While we were expected to maintain silence on our retreats, we were encouraged to speak during meals, and Father Stephen used that time to let his extroversion shine. He told us of Cistercian history, views of Vatican pronouncements, and humorous stories laced with painful puns. (He also loved telling of the summer Sunday evening when there was an unexpected knock at the guesthouse door. Standing there before the cloistered priest was a bikini-clad group of rain-drenched Girl Scouts whose canoe trip on the Shenandoah had been swamped by a dangerous storm. Seeking shelter, they had hiked up the river bank, through a farm field, and to the only house they could see through the rain. Father Stephen said he had no choice but to welcome the girls in, find them towels, and let them enjoy the warmth of the fire place. “After all,” he said with a broad grin, “hospitality is the Trappist’s middle name!”)

The table was the center of our guesthouse community. While the house did have a kitchen, the meals were prepared at the main monastery kitchen and transported down the mile long drive by Father Stephen. The Trappist diet was vegetarian, except for special feast days. But we guests had no such restrictions. In the first years I was there, we benefited greatly from the vocation of some of the monks: raising beef cattle. When that part of the farm business eventually turned unprofitable, the monks rented out the fields instead, and our guesthouse table included more chicken. While Father Stephen stabbed at his salad, he encouraged us guests to tell our stories and to comment on church and world. After the meals, everyone around the table would clear the dishes and choose the community task of washing dishes or drying them. (There was a dishwasher among the kitchen appliances, but Father Stephen knew there wasn’t much fellowship engendered by simply loading the thing up and pushing a button.)

We guests were not required to follow any particular schedule, except for dinner and supper times. Breakfast was on our own, and all the “offices” (services of prayer, chant, and readings) were optional. In all the years I retreated there, I was moved to attend “Vigils” only once. It was at 3:30 a.m. Once was enough. Lauds was at 7:15 a.m., and low Mass at 7:45. I usually was up by then. For the most part, I did attend all the other daily offices, and spent a lot of time sitting quietly in the chapel practicing what the Trappists call intuitive prayer. I also sat on a stone wall along the chapel walk and read. And, using headphones, I sat in the guesthouse yard and listened to tapes of Thomas Merton. And I walked. I walked miles, through meadows and down country roads. If Thursday came and I couldn’t think what day it was, I knew I was having a successful retreat.

My soul was restored. Visit after visit.

But then came the memo. It was on the chapel bulletin board. And it brought hurtful news.

[That account is next.]

Holy Cross Abbey is a Trappist Monastery in Berryville, Virginia, along the banks of the Shenandoah River. It was there, over many years, that I found retreat, spiritual renewal, and respect for monastic disciplines of prayer, hospitality, and grace.

My first visit there was a “class trip,” arranged for our seminary class in Church Mission by Professor Ken Goodpasture. We were studying the ecumenical movement, and our field trip took us literally to the fields of a 1200 acre farm run by the Holy Cross monks. We were to stay only for a weekend. Father Paschal was the guestmaster, the official welcomer at the old tenet farmhouse that served as the guest residence for visitors. The main monastery buildings, housing the chapel, library, offices, and dormitory for the cloistered abbey monks and priests, were part of the Cool Spring Farm where a battle of the Civil War took place.

[While I write in the past tense about my visits there, the monastery is still there, and the property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.]

I remember going to that first Holy Cross Abbey retreat burdened with some suspicion. It wasn’t that I thought these “Cistercians of the Strict Observance” were theologically suspect. But the year was 1969. The Sixties. The age of social activism. And I, and at least some of my classmates, considered cloistered monks to be unfaithful to the call to be “in the world, but not of the world.” They weren’t in the world at all, but escaping from it, and hiding under their cloaks from the issues of peace and justice that inspired us Protestants to change the world! But I changed my mind that weekend. I repented. And I made annual visits to Holy Cross Abbey’s guest house for some fifteen years after that.

For one thing, I was wrong about the Trappists. They weren’t escaping anything. They were engaging the world through their prayers. Of all the “content” that came to us that weekend — the centuries-old monastic schedule, the conversations with the abbot, and the discussions that centered on ecumenical relations between Roman Catholics and Protestants — one comment made by the guestmaster has remained with me for 4o years. He spoke of the life of prayer that is the vocation of the monks. And he reminded us that if prayer has any efficacy at all, isn’t it a good thing that some people, Trappist monks, for example, are praying always…to make up for those of us who pray so little.

Yes, I thought; that is a good thing. Not that one’s prayer life is segregated from the rest of one’s Christian journey. It can be argued that a guitar player prays through her strumming, and that a wood worker can pray with every scrub of the sandpaper, and that a baker might pray by kneading dough. Indeed, that’s part of the prayer life of the Trappists at Holy Cross. When I first visited there, thirty or so monks and priests worked the farm  and raised beef cattle, while also running a bakery that produced Monastery Bread and fruitcakes, sold throughout the Washington, D.C. area. While many of their prayers were sung and spoken during the “offices” in the modest chapel, most of their prayer occurred even as they worked. Interior prayer, they called it. Prayers of the heart, not the vocal cords.

When we took the tour of the monastery bakery, we were surprised to see how automated the process was (even back then). A baker-monk explained, “We don’t want the chemistry and machinery of baking bread to take our thoughts from God. The more the process takes care of itself (via automation), the more we can continue to pray through the day.”  The same was true of the farmer-monk on his tractor: as he plowed or mowed he prayed. As the later guestmaster Father Stephen worked his flower garden, he prayed.

As Lent begins, I wonder if I can recover the sense of awe I found at the monastery that first weekend, a wonder at the ease of silent, meditative prayer that is not limited to pews and prayer books and the preacher’s prompts. I nurtured that inner prayer life a few weeks after that initial visit by spending a whole week in retreat at Holy Cross just after my ordination to ministry. And I kept that annual discipline for many years to come.

In my next entry, I’ll write more about the peace I experienced in that holy setting, and one episode of “unpeace” that taught me a lesson for life.

When I began this blog, I gave myself permission to wander footloose through the playground of immunity. No restraints, no bondage to a common theme…just finding some peace on the swings, some jazz played on the carousel, and the grace of just sitting in the grass for awhile.

Where I live there are six “merry-go-rounds,” all built by the  Alan Herschell Companies between 1920 and 1934. All are within, say, 12 miles of each other, each anchoring a neighborhood park. All are listed on “historic registers” and all continue to operate. Two still have their original Wurlitzer Band Organs to accompany whirling riders. The parks and carousels were gifts to the shoe workers who populated the local communities from the 1920’s into the 1960’s. When George F. Johnson’s shoe manufacturing plants closed down, the local municipalities took over the parks, but one policy remained intact. And that is the “grace” thing in this story.

Johnson wanted no one left out of the fun. Or, off the merry-go-rounds. So admission to the rides was free. And to this day, there is no charge to ride the carousels…except a piece of litter. (If the park grounds were pristine and no litter was around, no one is denied a ride!) Not many things are free these days. And I’m sure those machines require upkeep. The attendants are paid. I worry about what the declining economy may mean for that decades-old policy. But so far, Johnson’s directive stands:  every child of every age who wants to ride can.

Grace. Made possible by someone’s hard work and generosity.

Now when I think about grace I also remember something that happened in a nursing home a few years ago. All those little kids who played so carefree in backyards and parks and school yards grew up, and grew very old, and grew very vulnerable. And some of them found themselves in a community of nursing home residents. I was in their midst every Thursday afternoon to lead a short worship service. Now and then that occasion became a memorial service for a resident who had recently died.

I learned early on in my ministry that the most familiar psalms, creeds, and prayers can disappear from memory when one stands before any group of worshippers. No matter how deep one’s experience, it’s best to have everything in writing, even the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, and the Apostles’ Creed. When I was on Presbytery staff many years ago, I was guest-preacher in many a pulpit,
and I found evidence that even the most seasoned preacher relied on printed copies of Christendom’s most familiar and well-loved words. Crib sheets were glued into pulpit hymnals and taped to lecterns, lest the mind wandered as the words rolled off the tongue.

So, I keep the words before me at all times when leading worship. Except for that  memorial service at the local nursing home. It came time to lead the 23rd Psalm. I wisely had my Bible ready. I introduced the beloved psalm and invited the roomful of mourners to join me in reciting it in unison.  As they looked at me trustingly, I opened my Bible to the 123rd Psalm. Ooops. I was a hundred psalms off! Now what? Flustered, I did have the presence of mind to begin with the right words. “The Lord is my shepherd…” But would this addled preacher remember any more than that?

In the front row of chairs sat Laura, a lovely woman in her 80’s whose Alzheimer’s Disease keeps her from remembering that her mother will not be picking her up after school today. With my five word cue, Laura said quietly, “I shall not want.” And I said more loudly for the others to hear, “I shall not want.” Laura said, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…” And I repeated it for all to hear. Line by line, Laura deepest memory cued me, and I simply followed her lead through the rest of the Psalm. Amazing grace!

I love and live for those moments when grace saves us, reminds us, and moves us. It is both free and liberating. For children of all ages.

I cannot read music very well. And therefore I certainly wouldn’t be able to write music. I admire those who do either.

But imagine…
If I could write something, it would be a cantata, something about the centrality of the word in the Reformed faith.

I

The cantata opens with all sixty-six performers introducing the central theme. For sixteen measures you would hear a musical theme that sets the spiritual foundation of the composition, a theme that found me by the grace of God, a theme both simple and majestic, unpretentious, yet gloriously uplifting. My imagination cannot take credit for it, yet I heard it in my spirit. It came not from any memory; it was not borrowed from somewhere, but it may have belonged to the ages.

I consider the theme to be God’s gift, and even without text, the music itself brings to mind images of creation, rebellion, and redemption. You only sense the theme the first time you encounter it. You hear it again, and perceive it more clearly. And you hear it a third time and it is as much as planted within you, even before the chorus begins to sing of God’s steadfast love, a lyric set to the main theme, cantus firmus. The harmonies are rich and stirring. Psalm-like, the words tell story through prayer–or pray through story–and as the first movement then comes to an end, the listener will barely distinguish a solo voice singing just beyond the chorus, the same words, the same musical theme, a fragile line between individual and community.

II

The second movement introduces variations on the main theme, beginning with a mid-eastern setting, a hint of an Israeli folk dance, timbrel and strings and pipes, rhythm and joy. But the strings give way to voices, the pipes grow quiet, the timbrel’s rhythm fades and a cappella male voices chant a Gregorian variation on the theme, with a note of profound mystery, as voices are joined by the natural echo of the surrounding space.

Within this movement comes another variation on the theme, as women’s voices join the chorus with a sound reminiscent of a German chorale. Polyphonic variations intrude with welcome reminders of French and other European styles. An Alpine horn (made in Geneva) sounds from the center of the hall, and this movement ends with the startling sound of bagpipes, from an outside hallway. With all these variations, or in spite of them, the main theme is still in mind, still anchoring the piece at its very center.

III

When the bagpipes have wheezed their last, we are not surprised to hear the third movement begin with a variety of folk instruments plainly stating the cantus firmus in their own musical language. What is surprising is that these folk variations are coming from little ensembles scattered throughout the hall. A Korean folk tune back there. South African voices over there. Mexican trumpets and Brazilian guitars. An Irish flute. An American banjo. Each ensemble plays quickly through the theme, and the movement ends with the only notes borrowed from another composition, “In Christ, There Is No East or West.”

IV

The fourth movement begins with a bow toward the African-American spiritual. A contralto voice is lifted in praise, breaks, and bends the main theme toward the blues. Now comes the biggest risk: the orchestra begins to sound like a big band and the central theme is syncopated, a joyous celebration of good news that would move hands to clappin’ and feet to tappin’. This movement is dangerous because the ensemble has the composer’s permission to re-interpret the theme through free-flowing improvisation. Take these notes and go with them! Let the influence of the seamier side of Kansas City, the dives of Chicago, the smoky clubs of New Orleans move this grace-filled gift of song into the gritty lives of people who know they are sinners and pretend to be no better, but lean with desperation on the hope of the gospel . The risk is the main theme will be lost as saxophone wails its lament, and trumpet cries its complaint and drums rage toward liberation.

If the improvisation breaks the central theme into riffs too cacophonous to be called music, all may be lost: the performance ends in discordant anarchy. But if the musicians have embraced the thematic heart of the cantata, their free (but Spirit-led) reflections may enrich the whole work and keep it always reforming, always a new thing altogether.

V

Finally, all voices and all instruments return to the familiar original theme. Sixteen measures in unison, one voice honoring one God. The work concludes with a hymn which invites, indeed demands, that the listeners join their hearts and voices in a melody that will follow them into the streets and neighborhoods that lead home to Kingdom Come. In music, as in life, the inexpressible Word is central to our common pilgrimage from Creation to Eternity.

+ + +

(I suppose it might be interesting to include in the score a footnote at the bottom of the last page suggesting the powerful symbol of the conductor laying aside her baton, picking up a towel and basin, and washing the feet of the musicians. But that might distract from the central theme, rather than interpret it.)

One cannot appreciate or enjoy a musical masterpiece by pulling individual notes out of the score, no matter how well or how loudly those scattered notes are played or sung. To understand the scriptures, we must value the whole sweep of the story of Christ and his saving message of grace and love and peace. That is our common bond. Our unity. Our vocation. Our fulfillment.

So, now, go write your own cantata. But begin by listening for the Spirit’s music in your heart. And center your life on the good news of Jesus Christ. Let it be your only rule of faith and practice, practice, practice.

There was a touch of grace in the first Jazz Vespers service I planned and led back in Richmond, Virginia. Touch of grace: that translates into a movement of the Spirit. And that’s why jazz, by definition (almost), is such Spirit-oriented music. The jazz musician knows what those notes mean on the page…but is free to ignore them and go where the heart leads. In the church, the leading of the heart is most purely attributed to the Spirit’s leading.

My position description at the Bon Air Presbyterian Church was Associate Pastor for Liturgy and Congregational Care. When it came to liturgy, I did care. I took the role of planning and leading worship as a very serious privilege. It was a labor of love, that responsibility to shape the form and substance of how a service of worship would proceed from prelude to postlude. I especially enjoyed finding ways that music, prayers, and movement fit the theme of the readings. (Since the “senior pastor” chose the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for the basis of his sermon, I took my cue from his choices as I shaped the words I would use in leading worship. On the Sundays that I was to preach, the senior pastor graciously took my lead.)

When our monthly Sunday night worship services started, I harbored the idea that I would one evening schedule a jazz service. Each month, an evening service would provide some “creative” alternative to the more “traditional” services offered every Sunday morning. One month we’d do a quiet Evening Prayer service from the denomination’s Book of Common Worship. Another month the focus would be on youth, healing, or aging. Then I sprung the idea of bringing in a couple of local jazz musicians to help lead the music. This would have come as no surprise to our church members at Bon Air. I was a part-time jazz disk jockey.

In the early 1970’s I created what was to become a long-running  jazz show on the public radio station. For awhile, in those early years of FM stereo, it was the only jazz program on the air in Richmond. When I finally retired from volunteering as producer/host of “Headset Jazz,” I was actually paid money, good money, to produce and host Richmond’s first Sunday morning “Jazz Brunch” on a popular adult contemporary rock station. Those gigs opened the door to hosting jazz festivals and concerts, and getting to know many of the region’s top jazz musicians.

One of them was David Esleck, a jazz pianist who played several local venues at the time. I knew David was married to a church educator-to-be, a student of mine named Beth. So I drew the conclusion that playing for a worship service wouldn’t be a huge stretch for him. I invited him to play for a vespers service and he seemed intrigued by the idea. I had decided on a theme for the service: night time. Vespers = evening after all. Plus jazz finds its biggest audiences after dark, and there is a plethora of jazz tunes that reflect the images of night and darkness. David and I explored several musical possibilities, and I shaped the liturgy around some scripture passages that told of what Louis Armstrong’s hit song called “the dark sacred night.” (“What a Wonderful World”)

I thought of the Gospel account of Nicodemus using the cover of darkness to visit Jesus at night. I thought of psalms that used phrases like “At night the Lord’s song is with me” (Ps. 42); “You will not fear the terror of the night” (91:5), and “Weeping may endure for the night…” (30:5).  I shaped the liturgy from those and similar passages. And, while my own words and the structure of the service were carefully planned, I asked David to add some jazz keyboard improvisation to my reading of Psalm 63. I would read it and he would interpret it on the piano.

David asked if he could bring another musician or two that night. My only caveat was that we didn’t have an unlimited budget for this. Not a problem he promised.

As the planning progressed, I knew that congregational singing  would be expected at that service. But how to find something “jazzy” to sing? Dr. Paul Walaskay, the Dean of the Faculty at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, just happened to be a talented jazz pianist himself, and he had written a jazz-influenced hymn that fit the service perfectly. We added a couple more hymns that could be sung with some light jazz accompaniment and we were ready for that Sunday night to come.

A few minutes before the service, David arrived with bassist Jocko MacNelly. (Jocko’s big brother was the late Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jeff MacNelly. But among Jocko’s fans, the bass guitar swung with more authority than the pen.) I was thrilled to have another musician on board. We quickly went over the order of the service and all was well until I mentioned Psalm 63 and David’s improvised piano meditation. “What psalm?” David asked. I thought he was kidding, but that little detail had slipped from his mind. I told him what I had hoped we might do, and gave him permission to pass on it.

“No, we can do it. You just read a few verses and pause, and I’ll play. Then you read a few more, and we’ll take it from there and see how it goes. No problem.”

When it came time for that passage in the service, I began the first verses of Psalm 63: “O God, you are my God; I seek you. My soul thirsts for you.” I read through verse 3 or 4, and paused and David played. I felt what we old deejays called a “post” coming, and I started reading again. Pause. Play. Read. Improvise. Words. Notes. “My soul praises you…when I meditate on you in the watches of the night…” Jazz.

A touch of grace. The unplanned moments of the liturgy freed the Spirit to move the praise along, with a joy-filled rhythm, an improvised response to the God who finds us and slakes our deepest thirsts.

The religion writer for the Richmond newspaper, Ed Briggs, was there that night. A jazz aficionado himself, he was quite taken by the treatment of that Psalm. I remember well Ed’s enthusiastic comments at the end of the service. “Wow. You guys must have worked for hours to get that right!” I told him what had happened, and he was delighted. “But Kellam, how did you know when to come in? How did you know when David was about to hand it off to you?”

David Esleck paid me a great compliment as he answered Ed’s question. “Hey, Jeff’s been around jazz a long time. He thinks like a jazz musician!”

Good thing, too, since I’ve never really thunk like a theologian! And I’m certainly not a musician of any ilk.

I left Richmond for Vermont shortly after that Jazz Vespers service. I think I read that the Bon Air Presbyterian Church recently hosted a jazz trio called Crosswinds for a Sunday night concert. Whether they’ve worshipped through jazz in the fifteen years in between, I’m not sure. I have. (And I’ll write  more about that in the future.)

In the meantime, peace, grace, and jazz to you.

[Disclaimer: the following was written in 2003 for a column entitled “Peril in the Pulpit” in a publication now defunct. (Not totally my fault.) Maybe this is copyrighted material. Maybe not. ]

Her name was Grace, though she carried herself with all the hard veneer of a decorated Marine officer. She was a church musician: organist, choir director, bell conductor, and Orff-master (who was so enthusiastic about those Orff percussion instruments that she personally bought them for the church). She had very definite ideas about church music, and spoke up with authority when the clergy staff made wrong-headed suggestions about music’s place in worship.
During a wedding rehearsal, the pastor suggested that while the bride and groom moved from the main sanctuary level to the upper chancel area, Grace could provide some “moving music” on the organ. “Like what, exactly?” she inquired, knowing precisely what the pastor was about to say.

“Oh, nothing in particular; just play a little something as we walk.”

“I’ve got a better idea,” Grace replied. “Why don’t you just mumble a little something as you walk.”

Grace played in a church that had movable seating. On the Sunday of the Annual Congregational Meeting, Grace had prepared a rousing postlude that she thought would provide a good transition from the worship benediction to the coffee hour while the sanctuary was transformed into a dining hall. But after the benediction, with her well-rehearsed postlude barely begun, the ushers were already stacking chairs and setting up tables with such commotion that Grace abruptly stopped playing, jumped from the organ bench, and stomped out of the room. I believe it was the following Sunday that the church began a long tradition of remaining seated until the last notes, the very last notes, of the postlude had gone to heaven.

Church musicians. Can we speak freely here, with tongue in cheek? Aren’t they a pain in the apse? I mean, we preachers might choose a text on Tuesday, study and pray and write all week, and deliver an original work of sermon art on time every Sunday. All the musician does is play what someone else has already written, and often it’s something already performed many times in the past. We are the ones who have to accomplish our work in a week’s time, but they are the ones who insist on months of planning. Good grief; we’ve barely gotten into Lent, and the musician is already fretting about what we have planned (um, nothing yet) for Pentecost Sunday!

When the service goes a little long, doesn’t it make sense to omit a hymn verse or two? And then the musician points out that dropping the last verse of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” seems to leave the devil in charge, or that singing only verses 1 and 3 of a hymn about the Trinity seems to leave someone out. Picky, huh? Speaking of “A Mighty Fortress…” What’s wrong with this picture: the organist has chosen Johann Walther’s arrangement as the uplifting postlude for a funeral, but the family is asking if there’s any way to weave a few bars of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” into it? Seems a nice tribute to the departed. Grace stomps away again.

Now, an important disclaimer. I have been married to a talented church musician for over 41 years. Joan and I are deeply in love. But we have never worked in the same church. I’ll bet you’re not surprised.

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