I was slightly suspicious that the church service I went to yesterday was going to be more “concert” than worship. My friend the Rev. Bill Carter invited me to his church for what is billed as the “annual jazz communion service.” It happens every year on Labor Day weekend. Now, I like jazz, as you may have surmised, and Holy Communion is a meal I’d welcome every Sunday if local Presbyterians would go to the trouble of offering it every week.

But I wondered how this jazz communion thing would play out (no pun intended). The theme of the service this year was “Kind of Blue,” reflections on the classic album by trumpeter Miles Davis. Bill Carter wanted to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the recording of “Kind of Blue,” and he would do that by having his Presbybop Sextet play tunes from the album throughout the worship service.

I value Reformed worship, and that would be my priority for any Sunday morning. As much as I would enjoy hearing “All Blues” and “So What” played live by Bill’s talented jazz men, I didn’t want to find that the theme of the service would compromise my desire to worship God “in spirit and truth.” I trusted Bill, though, admiring his theology as well as his musicianship, and drove the hour and twenty minutes to his church.

I got there just after the prelude: “So What.” I heard the last measures as I hurried into the sanctuary. The place was packed. An usher pointed me to what was evidently the last empty seat, a folding chair placed at the end of a pew along a side aisle. Labor Day weekend…and the church is Christmas Eve/Easter Morn full.

Bill’s welcome to the faithful included a warning: there just might be some smiling and even dancing during parts of the service, so beware of the puddles—signs of Presbyterians melting! Bill and the other five musicians played from the “stage” while prayers, readings, and sermon came from the pulpit as usual. The baptism font had been moved off to the side (but was still visible as a reminder of our identity in Christ), and the Communion table was in its place on the floor between the band and the congregation, a clear symbol of all of us gathered ’round for the meal we would eventually share.

This Sabbath Day experience was to be no “concert.” The bulletin (printed guide to worship) showed the usual elements of the Presbyterians’ “Service for the Lord’s Day.” There were the standard three hymns, prayers (including the one often first to be omitted in special services, the Confession) scripture readings, sermon, and even the “time with the children.” There in its usual place, following the reading and preaching of the Word was the outline for the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

And where did Miles Davis fit in? Right where Bach, Fanny Crosby, and spirituals go… throughout the whole service. The Prelude was “So What.” After the confession ritual came “Freddie Freeloader,” just where it belonged theologically! Between Bible readings the sextet played “Blue in Green.” During the offering, “All Blues.” And the music during Communion was the longer Davis piece “Flamenco Sketches.” (Lest anyone quibble about the use of this so-called “secular” music in the service, just ask a church musician whether every organ prelude, interlude, or postlude is a “sacred” piece. The word “Voluntary” so often used as a title is one clue that the composition has a secular origin.)

The hymns were accompanied (and swung) by the Presbybop Sextet, with the church’s choral director helping the congregation sing and swing the lyrics, with some jazz improvisation offered between some verses. Even that Prayer of Confession had a jazz motif, with congregational responses led by a bluesy cantor.

Bill’s message for the children was based on the way the late pianist Bill Evans (who had played in the “Kind of Blue” session in 1959) had described jazz, likening it to a form of Japanese art where the brush (or crayon in this case) draws a picture without being lifted from the paper. When the pen is lifted…that’s all there is. The drawing is finished. The key to that art and to jazz, according to Evans, is spontaneity. The children drew their pictures and offered them to God, giving thanks for gifts of creativity and “heart.”

The sermon that Bill preached was entitled “All Blues — Blues for All,” based on part of the Passion story recorded in Mark 15:25-39. I won’t do Bill Carter the injustice of trying to summarize his sermon here. I will testify that it was remarkable fusion of text and heart, stories of defining moments in the lives of Miles Davis, Jesus, and that nameless centurion who, at the foot of the cross, proclaimed, “Surely this was the Son of God.”

And then the Sacrament of Holy Communion. I suppose the main thing I can offer here is that as the bread and cup are shared among friends and strangers, there is indeed a sweet communion, a unity, oneness, with one another and with the Christ whose presence we affirm in that mysterious meal. As a visitor, I knew almost no one in the sanctuary when I rushed to my seat. But a brother in Christ passed me the bread, and then the wine (OK, it was juice), and somewhere in the intersection of jazz and Jesus, we became family around a table. Yes, sweet communion.

And you see where all this leads? We need never suffer the blues alone again. The blues will come. But we will not be alone. As we had sung in the opening hymn, “Let us break bread together…” We did and we are. So when things get kind of blue, they’ll know we’re Christians by our love (to a bossa nova beat!).

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