{Lent, forty days of meditative preparation for the Easter celebration…and these written reflections inspired (if one can say that) by mugs I see each day in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. Crazy, I know.}

Look… this mug is dated: 1989. I was hosting the “B-103 Jazz Brunch,” oDSC07385n Sunday mornings in Richmond, Virginia. Somehow this mug, promoting a jazz album by sax player Kirk Whalum found its way to me, along with the CD “The Promise.” The contemporary sound fit right into my format, so it got a lot of play, and Whalum, only into his third recording at that time, was becoming a well-known sideman and “smooth jazz” artist.  To be signed by Columbia was a big deal, of course, and to have a mug! Well.

Now, here I was a minister competing with myself, with one of me leading worship in a Richmond church and one of me on the radio at the same time, playing jazz. One Sunday, a parishioner who had just been listening to the Jazz Brunch in the car on the way to church asked me how I could be two places at once, I explained that in church I was on tape. Maybe one of the tunes I had played that morning was “The Promise.” It would have fit right in, theologically speaking. Because one of the primary influences on Kirk Whalum as he grew up in Memphis was “gospel.”

In the liner notes of that CD, Whalum wrote:

“The Promise”: If you will choose Me, I have already chosen you. Receive my love and I won’t reject you. It’s that simple. (see Ephesians 1:3-12 for more details)

Another cut on the album is entitled “I Receive Your Love.” In the context of the cited scripture text, the tune isn’t about a romantic relationship, but about accepting the unconditional love of God. And a third tune on the CD is called “Ma Foi c’est Ma Vie.” Translated, “My faith is my life.” While the Jazz Brunch wasn’t a religious show at all, Whalum’s music surely added a sacred element to the weekly proceedings.

All these years later, Whalum has played with the greats, recorded some classics (it’s his sax we hear on Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”), won Grammy Awards, and recorded four collections called “The Gospel According to Jazz,” featuring jazz interpretations of traditional and contemporary gospel tunes.

I titled this reflection “Promise,” based on the Whalum CD and the mug, but the word is full of meaning in the Christian faith. Whalum connected the word to that passage from Ephesians, but “promise” is a theme that has roots going back to the rainbow covenant that followed the Flood in the book of Genesis. Covenant (agreement), assurance, prediction…while the word “promise” isn’t specifically cited in the Hebrew Scriptures, the meaning is there. Offspring to Abraham and Sarah, a land to Israel, a world to God’s liking as seen by the Prophets…promises kept.

In the New Testament, there is assurance that the ancient promises are both fulfilled and being fulfilled, and the word promise is present both as noun and verb.

We all grew up hearing and making promises. “Promise me you won’t run into the street again!” “Promise that you won’t ever smoke,” a parent says to the child. “Promise me you’ll quit smoking!” the child says. Some of us said the Scout oath. Some made wedding vows. And some have made a loyalty oath or baptism promises. If someone swears, it is either promise or profanity, isn’t it? And breaking a solemn promise is profane.

Early in his career, someone must have told Kirk Whalum that he had great promise, meaning that his talents would lead, most certainly, to success as a musician and as a person. Each life has certain predictors, for better or worse. One promise we might make to our children, to our communities, to ourselves, is to encourage and empower the best use of talents and abilities in service to others. Lent would be a good time to reflect on how to live up to our promises to one another. Especially if we have accepted the love of God as described in Whalum’s tune “The Promise.”

One more note about that promotional mug, maybe irony, or just a smile. Here is a CD with some religious sensibility, some theological notes in the music aDSC07386nd the printed insert. But on the reverse side of the mug, is this: “Sax in the Morning.” OK. It’s the clever side that will appeal to the jazz deejays who have the mug on their desks for staff to joke about. It’ll grab attention, and maybe draw eyes to the other side that shows the album info.

Sax in the morning? On my Jazz Brunch? Perfect. But we all know that sax is great anytime! The promise is sure.