Dr. James Luther Mays would never count me among his better students. I most certainly struggled with my Old Testament courses at Union Seminary in Richmond. In fact, except for “speech” class, I didn’t much excel at anything in my seminary studies. That’s a fact that can now be revealed since I’m retired and won’t have to look for work in the church again. Fooled a number of folk over the past forty years. I hope.

Still, Jim Mays is one teacher for whom I have special respect and affection. Thus this reflection on his significant contribution to my faith journey and ministry. At the time I sat in his classroom, I wouldn’t have thought that decades later I would remember him as someone special in my life. The professors at Union weren’t known for their personalities, or creative teaching. They were scholars in their fields, and if their fields weren’t particularly fertile areas of interest, their courses were simply academic stepping stones toward fulfillment of partial credit, as we used to write on our papers.

Old Testament wasn’t anywhere near my field. About the only course in Hebrew scriptures that I came close to enjoying was John Bright’s course in Jeremiah. And that was because when John Bright spoke the words of the prophet, he was Jeremiah! But those more general survey courses in OT? So broad, so much territory to cover…so many kings and so much history. So complex, with all those prophets, major and minor. And did I mention history? (Yes, I know I did.)

I flunked one OT course cold. Was it Mays’ course? Or, another of Bright’s? Maybe it was both. I guess I’ve made it clear that on the basis of my seminary experience of sitting at his feet, I wasn’t following Jim Mays very closely.

But once I left school, well, graduated in fact, the star of James Luther Mays rose high in my firmament. It started when we bumped into each other near the mail boxes in the main classroom and administration building. I was a couple of years into the ministry, and this might have taken place during the short time I was on seminary staff, directing the Audio-Visual Center there. We greeted one another briefly, and then Mays mentioned that he was really enjoying my jazz show, the one I was doing on the seminary’s Public Radio outlet.

“You listen to my jazz show?” I asked incredulously? OK, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic. But I was quite surprised. “Headset Jazz” ran every Saturday night for an hour and a half, and here was one of my former OT professors telling me that he was a regular listener. A fan. More than that, of course, he was telling me how much he delighted in jazz generally. I just never took him for a fan of anything more than naming the kings of Israel in order. That, of course, speaks to my parochialism, not his. 

Last summer, easily forty years after that chance meeting in the halls of Union Seminary, when my one-time radio co-host and I were talking about doing a reunion show on the present public radio station, Jim Mays’ name came up again. We were lamenting (a good OT word, if  ever there was one) the fact that we had no old recordings of the original show. A staff member at the radio station overheard us, and said there was a faithful supporter of the station who had mentioned that he had taped several shows off the air, and the jazz show was thought to be among his collection. That supporter was Jim Mays.

Far more significant however, infinitely so, is what Jim Mays has taught me after seminary. And it has nothing to do with jazz. Or, does it? I credit our Presbyterian Worship and Music Conferences at Montreat, NC, with awakening me to the powerful prayers of the Psalm book. Was it hearing Walter Brueggemann expound so dynamically on the Psalms one summer at Montreat? Maybe. But somewhere along the path, I began to read the Psalms in a new light,  with renewed understanding. And among the treasured resources that helped me grow in my love for those songs and prayers were books by James Luther Mays.

I bought the “Interpretation” Bible Commentary series, and Jim Mays had written the volume on the Psalms. I read his books Preaching and Teaching the Psalms and The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms. Later, I did add several books by Brueggemann and Patrick Miller. But it was Jim Mays whose love of the Psalm book spoke to me first. And it is his volumes to which I turn even today.

It has been a few years, but my religious radio programs and many, many sermons have found inspiration in those 150 Psalms. When I write new sermons today, and look to the Lectionary readings, I do not pass by the selected Psalm for the day. I mine it for its hermeneutical value, or otherwise thrust it into the Sunday morning liturgy.

Yes, the Psalms found their way into my rock radio show. As I ran the treadmill today at the gym, I listened to a recording of “Celebration Rock,” subtitled  “A Celebration of Prayer.” It was a program I produced one Lenten season long ago. I had forgotten (until it played through my earphones today) that it was really a celebration of the Psalms, both traditional and new  musical settings…an hour’s worth, for an audience that probably had no idea those ancient words still hold such contemporary meaning.

If I ever write a book, my first effort will be my collection of “story-sermons” based on the Psalms. I just need to write one or two more to make the little volume more complete. Imagine. Even if no one were to publish it, the very idea that I would focus on the Psalm book for my first and possibly only printed effort — well, I wouldn’t have guessed that while sitting in Mays’ OT survey classes back in the day.

One final thing about those prayers of praise and lament, of depending on God’s presence and crying out for God’s attention —  the Psalm book is a song book. When I was called to be pastor at the East Craftsbury (VT) Presbyterian Church, I learned that the Scottish Covenanter roots of that congregation had continued to influence the shape of its worship through two or three generations, to the present. That included the weekly singing (and sometimes chanting) of a Psalm. Thankfully, the Presbyterian Hymnal has a good selection of Psalm hymns, and every week we sang at least one.

Because I was enjoying being in that old tradition, and since I was finding the weekly Psalm “preachable,” I leaned on Jim Mays’ “Interpretation” commentary quite often, and could almost hear his voice as I read his words. One day, I did what I have done on too few occasions: I wrote to thank him for what he had taught me. And herewith is his gracious reply:

“Dear Jeff, Thanks for your note about the Psalm commentary and your ministry in Vermont. If the commentary is of use to ministers in ministry, I am amply rewarded. I meant to contribute to a revival of Psalmody in the Church. I am delighted to hear of a congregation with Covenanter traditions who sing metrical Psalms each Sunday. Marvelous! That makes a good context for preaching on the Psalms. You were good to write. Greetings to Joan. Grace and awareness of Providence, Jim.”

I keep that note in the pages of his commentary.

Oh, there is a jazz connection here after all. When I saw Jim Mays in Richmond in the spring of 2009, amid the crowd of a seminary alumni event, I slipped into his pocket a copy of “Psalms Without Words,” a collection of “marvelous” and inspired jazz tunes by my friend Bill Carter, and his Presbybop Jazz Quartet. Although I told him quickly of the project and that I was making a gift to him of that two-CD set, I suspect that when he got home later that afternoon, exhausted by countless greetings and expressions of continuing affection, he wondered where the music came from.  You and I know. It was  a gift of pure grace, even Providence, the Lord’s way of keeping alive the singing of new songs.