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New York City from the Staten Island Ferry

{Lent is winding down, but I have a few more panoramic photos to reflect on before the season is over. If you’ve come in late, you can backtrack to catch previous essays.}

Yesterday I wrote of a small town upstate, the town we now call home. Today, something–  some place — completely different. (Although it might be said that within New York city are thousands of small towns.)

The file attached to this image indicates that the picture was taken in 2009, with my first digital camera. I mention that because, unlike most small towns, the City is always changing, the skyline in flux, as cranes tower over Manhattan and new skyscrapers appear. Thus, while the icons are visible here, Lady Liberty and the Empire State Building, this view may have already been amended by new construction.

My history with NYC goes back to childhood. We lived upstate, but my Uncle Tom and Aunt Viv lived in Tenafly, NJ and when we made that rare visit south, Uncle Tom would stuff us into his huge station wagon and drive us across the George Washington Bridge into the City. Now, there were six kids in our family and ten in his and Viv’s, but this would have been before all were born. It was a big car, but not that big!

Tom worked in television at the time, so he knew people. He knew places. And he regaled us with stories, and drove around up and down town, through Times Square, and in total command. He spoke as if he knew Toots Shor personally. I have no doubt he did. Of course, we couldn’t see much from the windows of the wagon, so the next trips to NYC were more revealing.

Our church youth group “earned” trips to New York City (and Boston and D.C. in alternating years), getting points for good attendance in Sunday School, youth group, and worship services. So, we’d take a train to New York, stay at the Taft, and see the sights. For me, the highlight was always a movie at Radio City Music Hall. One year it was “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” with Doris Day. Another year, “The Brothers Karamazov.” Plus the Rockettes! We toured the United Nations, and ate at automats. Very cool, those trips.

(One other NYC visit came when our school journalism club went to a short conference at Columbia University. Again, we did the sight-seeing thing, but the sight many of us hoped to see was the very popular singer at the time Pat Boone. He was a student at Columbia and we did keep an eye out for him and his signature white buck shoes…to no avail.)

Oh, and there was the college era drive from western Pennsylvania to New York for the


My 1964 slide of the World’s Fair

opening weekend of the 1964 World’s Fair. Ostensibly the yearbook editor and I went to see the photo studio that wanted the senior photo contract, but there was the World’s Fair. Who would miss that?


Skip ahead to the present, and we can take a bus into the city in the morning and come back that night; or stay over for a show, as we have done a few times in the past few years. My cousin’s daughter Erin Davie has starred in “Side Show,” last year’s revival of “Sunday in the Park with George,” and earlier in “Grey Gardens” and the revival of “A Little Night Music.” We saw three of four, plus other shows as the budget allowed. The theater district is one of my favorite small towns within the city.

Recently our church again offered a bus trip, this time for us adults, and we enjoyed one of New York’s cultural festivals, the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy. Oh, my!

Every major city around the globe has its sights to see, its iconic views, its restaurants and museums, festivals and nightlife. But there is the underside of the urban environment. Homelessness, crime, corruption. Things not missing from small towns, no, but more pronounced, more reported perhaps, than in the suburbs or countryside that surround the city. In NYC, 63,000 people are homeless, including 23,000 children. It’s difficult to conceive that many people have nowhere to lay their heads. New York City is rightfully proud of having lowered its crime rate to far below the per capita rate of other large U.S. cities. But homelessness is a crime too.

In 1974, I recorded an hour-long radio program that centered on urban ministries, the ways churches in larger cities reached out to the “least of these,” our brothers and sisters, the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the disenfranchised. That radio program in the “Celebration Rock” series changed the course of my ministry. It was awarded a Gabriel Citation by UNDA-USA a national association of Catholic broadcasters. “Celebration Rock” was basically a music-themed local program on a Richmond AM station, but once the Catholics awarded the show, it drew some national attention, and the program went into limited syndication. (For more information than you will even need, see my other blog at

Among the songs I chose were Cashman and West’s “American City Suite,” Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” “Freddie’s Dead” by Curtis Mayfield, and “Saturday in the Park” by Chicago. I filled the hour with similar songs and several stories of downtown churches at work in their neighborhoods. That led to many other radio programs I produced in Richmond, highlighting urban issues and the people who were committed to address them in positive ways.

Look at that gleaming city in the photo at the top. Those massive buildings create dark shadows. And in the shadows are people in need. Hidden now in the skyline are the once-prominent tall steeples of the houses of worship of people of faith. Those churches, synagogues, and mosques may struggle for membership these days, but those that remain vital are the ones that embrace the poor who slip through the cracks of a city’s social services. Those who have slipped through the net are caught by those who were called to “fish for people,” for people to serve, to shepherd, ultimately to partner with.

I love that city. I look forward to every bus ride there and back. But I have to remember to honor the work of the people of faith who minister to the city’s needs and who sing with the characters in the movie “Godspell,” “We Can Build a Beautiful City.”



* [That’s the way they put it back then; today, I’d make it “a city of love.”]


Having Spent the Night in Our Backyard…

{After today, only 13 more panoramic photos to prompt an off-the-cuff, onto-the-page essay of some sort. Lent 2018}

We’re used to deer in the yard. In Ithaca, living by Cayuga Lake, deer wandered through our woods, eating from shrubs and flowers, looking longingly at the bird feeders. And here in Owego, it’s not uncommon to see a herd of six or eight grazing in the back yard. Yesterday in the snow we saw evidence that at least one deer had bedded down for the night in the foot-deep white stuff. The scene above shows three fawns who spent the night in much more pleasant weather, early last summer. Their moms were nearby in a neighbor’s yard, but these three enjoyed a sleepover under a big pine.

On seeing this photo in the local paper (I submit them now and then), a friend pointed out that even at this age, the young fawns instinctively sleep facing different directions, to guard against predators. The other thing we noted was their sizeable ears, able to detect the quiet advances of potential enemies.

When we see deer from the bedroom windows first thing in the morning, they are often quite a distance from the house. But if I click my wedding ring against the window glass, those ears perk up, the heads turn, and sometimes the deer move quickly away. Their hearing is acute to say the least.

Yes, it’s the ears in that photo that prompted my thoughts for this reflection. I’m wondering about the difference between hearing and listening. I’m not even going to the dictionary on this one. If my biologist son were here, I’d consult him though. No doubt, with those ears the deer hear. But are they always actively listening? I think of hearing as often, but not always, something passive, sounds always around us, heard, but not exactly tuned in. Like background music.

Joan and I still laugh about something that happened in a restaurant in Nova Scotia. We had been seated, glanced at the menu, and I just happened to hear the theme from the movie “Dr. Zhivago” (“Lara’s Theme”) playing from the speakers overhead. A few minutes later, I went to the restroom and the music was piped in there too, and…odd… it was still the same song. I returned to the table, and “Lara’s Theme” was still playing. I told Joan that the same song had been broadcast overhead since we had arrived. We stopped to listen. Then we heard an almost imperceptible skip, and the song repeated from somewhere near the beginning. We giggled at that. (We are easily amused.) When the skip occurred again, we laughed. And again. Lara persisted.

The meal arrived, and I asked the waitress if she were aware of what was going on. She said she never heard the music as she worked. We told her what we were laughing about, asked her to listen a moment, and <skip> there, it happened again! She said it was a CD, and now and then, the audio got “hung up.” She’d take care of it. She left, and took care of it. Different song now. We ate. And up came “Lara’s Theme” again. And sure enough, came the skip, and through the rest of the meal, Dr. Zhivago joined us at the table. I know; there was much more to Nova Scotia than that. But the memory still brings smiles.

The point: the server never heard the music. She paid no attention, and the constant audio throughout the restaurant never gave her pause, until we urged her to listen. Then she heard it. As I write this, Schumann’s “Symphony No. 1 in B Flat Major” is playing on the turntable. (Yes…a vinyl LP.) I can’t write if Billy Joel is singing or Carole King or Sinatra. Lyrics interrupt my own words, but instrumental music is easier to tune out. Sorry Schumann, but that’s the way it is. For me. Not for everyone. Many others can’t think, write, or do anything more than listen as music plays from the stereo woofers or MP3 ear buds. They listen for themes, and cannot escape the cantus firmus when it rolls around.

I know the music is there, projecting from the bookshelf speakers. I can hear it. But I’m not listening right now. Well, now I am, because I’ve drawn my own attention to it. In fact, I may have to turn it off soon. I can’t hear myself think.

Since no tree has fallen in the forest with no one around, I needn’t contemplate that issue. But here’s what I do think about. The sounds around us that we hear, but don’t listen to. The listening that we do, but then don’t really hear. Both hearing and listening involve more than auditory function, more than the equipment mounted on both sides of our heads. There is also the mental processing of what enters the ears, comprehension and understanding. And caring.

In the old sitcom, Frasier Crane’s opening line as he answered his radio talk show phone calls was, “I’m listening.” It was his job as a psychiatrist and as a radio host, so one would hope that he did indeed listen. Though it was broad comedy, the “I’m listening” line is an assurance that we would all appreciate in real life.

With smart phones and computer screens demanding our attention, has this happened to you? You’re speaking with somebody face-to-face and their eyes glance toward a screen. It means they may be listening, but not hearing you. Or, hearing you, but not listening? Either way, it says, “I don’t care.” Yes, I confess I’m one who has been enticed toward digital content when an actual person assumes, hopes, I’m paying full attention to her/him. It’s embarrassing to me, and hurtful to the other.

Listening…hearing…getting it. “I hear you,” we say. That means we get it. We understand. Message received.

A theological note here. In 2004, the United Church of Christ initiated a campaign called “Stillspeaking.” That’s the abbreviation for the longer phrase, “God is still speaking,” a way to remind adherents that God’s voice was not locked into the canon of Holy Scriptures, never to be heard anew. It was the UCC’s method of preaching inclusiveness, to be the church:


– Where God is all-loving and inclusive
– Where the Church of Jesus Christ welcomes and accepts everyone as they are
– Where your mind is nourished as much as your soul
– Where Jesus the healer meets Jesus the revolutionary
– Where together we grow a just and peaceful world.

As a Presbyterian I can buy into that with no trouble. Because if God is still speaking, and I believe with all my heart that God is, then the only way to hear is for me to listen. To actively listen. Pay attention to the Spirit. And stay tuned.

If God is clicking on a window, I’d better keep an ear out.


SONY DSC{This meditation is based on the mug seen here, and intended for the Saturday in Lent that proceeds Palm Sunday. Then begins Holy Week…and six final mugs.}

This mug in the Kellam kitchen cupboard is really Joan’s. It hasn’t seen a drip of coffee; Joan drinks tea. But I’ve chosen this mug for today because it reminds me of a Palm Sunday procession that fit the day, the neighborhood, and the churches there perfectly.

Joan was the Church Musician at the First English Lutheran Church on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. She was the choir director there, and played both pipe organs (one in the chapel, a larger one in the sanctuary) for worship services. I suppose that after all these years, it’s OK to write this publicly, that she broke the Lutheran stiffness of the choir within a few weeks and they brightened up considerably under her leadership. Joy found a welcome in their midst.

I had once worked at the Presbyterian church next door to the one Joan served. It too had an imposing structure and a substantial congregation, among whom were the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and even more daunting, some of my former seminary professors. Those two churches were part of an ecumenical alliance of congregations that shared a neighborhood near Stuart Circle. Around or near the Jeb Stuart monument were the Lutherans and Presbyterians already noted, but also Episcopalians and UCC-ers (United Church of Christ), with the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart a few blocks away.  Those churches still make up what is called the Stuart Circle Parish.

And, as far as I know, they continue to parade together on Palm Sunday. The model is an impressive show of commonality as members of the five churches gather at mid-morning on Palm Sunday near the Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church. Opening words of welcome and prayer begin the festivities, with everyone joining voices in singing the hymn of the day, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” The crowd then moves down Monument Avenue to where it becomes West Franklin Street, and then on a few blocks to the Cathedral.

The year I videotaped the parade for a cable TV program (1982?), there was a high school marching band providing the cadence, biodegradable helium balloons for kids of all ages (!), palms for everyone to wave, with various clergy in their traditional colorful vestments, and hundreds of participants crowding the broad boulevard. The street narrowed once we got to Franklin, and the townhouses lining the path had some onlookers peering out second story windows, some of those folk probably having no idea what was going on. I caught one on tape, adding it to the final edit, hinting at the suspicion that greeted Jesus on that first Palm Sunday in Jerusalem.

Another scene I got at the end of the route was a priest conferring with a police officer, an innocent conversation that, in the context of the video and its narrative, hinted at religious authorities conspiring with Roman soldiers on that day almost 2000 years before in Jerusalem. (Admittedly, it was a pretty subtle hint.)  In the photo above, note the band uniform: it wasn’t meant to be a Roman soldier, but it worked for the video. And speaking of Jerusalem, I needed some background music to fill out the story, so I chose a Don McLean tune entitled “Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem, Jerusalem all roads lead to you.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem your light is shining through.
And you will show, show the way, to all who see it shine,
That we can live, in peace, in Jerusalem this time.

I also used “Hosanna” from a then-current rock opera called “Truth of Truths,” as participants marched. It seemed a better choice than the similar tune from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” with its cynical take on the parade. “Ho-sanna, hey-sanna, sanna-sanna-ho.”

I still have a grainy third or fourth generation VHS version of that “film,” and even after thirty years it effectively chronicles the story, low tech as it seems today. What I love about that procession, and no doubt others like it throughout the world, is the unity of diverse denominations joining in commemoration and celebration of the joyful entry into Jerusalem amid shouts of “Hosanna!” In Richmond it was not only the ecumenical nature of the event in 1982 (when I shot the video), but the interracial diversity, with the Jefferson-Huguenot-Wythe Marching Band from what we called a “predominately African-American” high school leading the way.

Among the churches involved in that parade all those years ago, my guess is that the most integrated parish was the Cathedral, with the other Stuart Circle churches more than “predominately white.” (I’m glad to be corrected in the comment section at the end of the blog.) Important to note here, too, is that the Palm Sunday parade is not the only activity these congregations engage in together. There are social and outreach ministries that serve the larger neighborhood, among them a Meal Ministry that in 1996 was threatened with court action because of neighbors’ complaints about certain conduct that they claimed injurious to their community. The Parish claimed that to prevent them from feeding the hungry was a violation of the free exercise of religion. The Jesus who had entered Jerusalem on that fateful day would no doubt have stood in solidarity with the lines of hungry folk awaiting food, and then he would have moved behind the counter to serve them. Hosanna, indeed.

As this is being posted, another Palm Sunday will be celebrated tomorrow, April 9. Some churches will join with others in a public procession and witness to the shared strength of ecumenicity. Others will have their own smaller parades, perhaps just a half block around the building as my church will do. Still others will process less publicly, moving around their sanctuary waving palms and singing the hymn. These mostly modest pageants are all the theater that remains in many churches. Yet, there are others: living nativity scenes at Christmas, Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, and Easter Sunrise services. The more, the better, to put some drama, some life, into the people of the pews. The choreography of merely sitting and standing for an hour in church is flat and, I think the operative word is, boring. The “processional” may be a weak dance, but at least it has movement.

Processions in churches have many expressions: groom and bride process to the front of the sanctuary to say their vows; in some traditions, Bible, cross, banners, flame, and water for the baptismal font are carried forward as worship begins; choirs process during the opening hymn to take their place in the loft. To see bodies move during the service may remind us that the church itself must be on the move, processing from the sanctuary into the world, where eyes will watch for signs of courage and hope, where ears will listen for words of encouragement and songs of joy, where hands may join in feeding the hungry (no matter what ticked-off neighbors think), and where feet carry Jesus’ followers into alleys, highways, rural roads, and all the places love is in need of love today (as Stevie Wonder has sung).

Instead of palms, we may wave protest signs. Rather than releasing colorful balloons, we may let go of prejudice and fear of “the other.” And in place of the marching band’s cadence, we may well march to the beat of that different drummer, whose heart beats in time to Easter’s newest rhythm, Jesus. We have pledged to follow him in his processional footsteps.

On Palm Sunday, he comes amid celebrating cheers and songs.

But later in the week…

For those who are following along this Lenten season, it’s nice of you to keep up with the “mug shots.” Here is mug #26…I think. No one told me math was part of this.}

When the Presbyterians published a new hymnal supplement in 2003, it was called, as you can read on the promotional mug, “Sing the Faith.” The sub-title, also on the mug,SONY DSC fudged a little, claiming, “New Hymns for Presbyterians.” In reality, the collection was a bunch of new hymns for United Methodists first. It turns out that “Sing the Faith” was a “rebranding” of a Methodist supplement “The Faith We Sing.” The song list in the two books is almost identical, but the Presbyterian publicity that touted the new collection claimed that it “features more than 280 hymns, many of which have been written by and for Presbyterians…” I guess the Methodists really like all those Presby-hymns!

Quibbling over the origin of that book aside, the idea of “singing the faith” goes way back. The book of Psalms is an ancient collection of 150 songs held in common among Methodists, Presbyterians, Jews, and too many congregations to count through the generations since harp virtuoso King David wrote some of them. Lament and praise, complaint and wonder…those songs have been sung, chanted, prayed, read, memorized, paraphrased, and revised metrically for worship over the centuries. “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord…” “The Lord is my shepherd..” “I lift my eyes to the hills…” “O sing to the Lord a new song.”

Jesus quoted the Psalms from the cross. “My God, why have you forsaken me?” So not only do we sing our faith through the Psalms, but also our un-faith, at least, our doubts and fears and feelings of abandonment. Such honest prayer. Unguarded. “From the depths, I cry…”

I once served a church in northern Vermont, a congregation with Scottish Covenanter roots. The only music allowed in worship in its early history was the a capella singing or chanting of the Psalm book. No instrumental music. No “modern” (or contemporary for the times) hymns.  We got a taste of that when we visited a church in Scotland that still chanted Psalms in its Sabbath services. Fairly dreary as I recall. Seems as if a psalm of joy should have some uplifting beat or danceable rhythm. (I kept that thought to myself, lest we all be tossed to the cobbled Glasgow street.) The Vermont church had reformed its heritage many years ago and sang from the newer hymnals, though singing a psalm each week was still a tradition when I was there.

Sing the faith! Words are not enough. The head may “get” the meaning, but the heart must find the music for the meaning to be fully expressed. “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” Jim Croce sang, because “every time I tried to tell you, the words just came out wrong.” But music redeemed his verbal efforts, not covering up his awkward words, but adding an embellishment that communicated the emotion behind the nouns and verbs. Now, music may not save bad poetry or bad theology. Hymnals old and new hold evidence of that. Those books are full of (pardon the expression) God-awful lyrics and tunes that are syrupy or downright unsingable. But there are masterpieces too, and songs that feed the soul.

As Fred Pratt Green wrote, “When in our music God is glorified…it is as if the whole creation cried, Alleluia!” And, “May God give us faith to sing always…” And may God give us all excellent voices, like Pavaroti’s or Sills’. Well, that won’t happen, will it? So much for singing the faith, if one can’t really sing.

Some autobiographical notes here. I can’t recall ever hearing my mother sing. Dad, though, would walk into a room singing some ditty now and then, just fooling around. But he made fun of singing in church; thought it was silly. He said as much one day as we sat at the table together at Mom and Dad’s home, and in the presence of my wife, the church musician! The comment defined chagrin. When I reminded Dad of Joan’s musical vocation, he was a little embarrassed, though he didn’t retract his statement. (He also thought people looked silly blowing into horns.)

My first singing was done at my maternal grandmother’s piano. She was an elementary school teacher, and I know we sang songs together, maybe even before I went to kindergarten. Like every other child in school, I sang in the classroom and later, in junior and senior high choruses. Add church choir to the mix, too, but only after my voice had changed. In college, somehow I got up the courage to try out for the Vesper Choir. It wasn’t exactly a “select chorus,” since a tenth of the school’s population of 1200 sang in it. But it did expose me to some of the great anthems and religious masterworks of the ages, the Brahms “A German Requiem” among them.

Vesper Choir also exposed me to a voice major who sang in the Concert Choir as well as for Vespers. It was there in the Westminster College Conservatory of Music that we would look for each other before and after rehearsals. She had the voice of a talented soprano soloist, and I the voice of a trying bass chorus member. Or, was it more the trying voice of a bass? When I had left school for a semester just as Joan and I were getting serious about more than singing together in choir, I asked her to sing me some songs via tape, and I was thrilled to hear her sing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face,” with my reading into the lyrics her feelings for me. Ah, yes, I remember it well.

As Joan moved into professional church music, I continued to sing the faith in a more modest way, always trying to blend my voice well under the other basses in various choirs. Both of us found singing with the 500+ voices of the Adult Choir at the Montreat Music and Worship Conferences to be richly fulfilling, musically and spiritually. To hear the children’s and youth choirs add their repertoire to the week was a powerful reminder that the singing of faith had a future beyond yucky praise choruses and juvenile jingles. Not all sung faith has to be “classical,” of course, but music that is challenging and worth some work has a depth that moves us profoundly, and joyfully.

I have a gift for you, if you wonder if you have the right voice for singing the faith, or anything else for that matter. Click this link: to hear my old Richmond friend Steve Bassett sing some musical advice: “Sing Loud, and Leave the Listening to Somebody Else.”

A rather Cosmic Somebody.



DSC07317.jpg{Almost halfway through Lent, and another mug appears. Number 18.}

Once upon a long time ago, Bill Carter, Presbyterian pastor and pianist of the jazz persuasion, asked me to help produce a two-hour video about the lively intersection of church and jazz. There’s the title and the logo, right on the mug. (It’s still available through, not the mug…the video.)

As I type this I am anticipating a local jazz jam at which the Rev. Mr. Carter and some of the Presbybop organization will be playing. The word “jam” may have the connotation of a free-for-all. It’s not quite that. There is some structure involved; one might even call it “ritual.” Generally a player comes out of the audience with his or her instrument and some sheets of music for the other musicians to play from. There are actual notes written on those pages, and, while I’m not a musician myself, I assume that the whole band begins with those printed notes. Then after the melody is established, one instrumentalist begins to improvise. And then another. Twelve measures? Thirty-two? Maybe the pianist, followed by a sax player, and then the bassist. And after these featured soloists, the band plays again as one and finishes the tune together. Usually.

What makes this a jam and not a polished concert is that no one really knows what music will be suggested/offered/played that night. No one knows who will show up to play (beyond the few hired for the rhythm section). There is certainly no rehearsal. And the improvised riffs are a surprise to the accompanying band members, the audience, and probably to the soloists themselves. “I never know what’s coming out of that horn,” a player admitted to me once. Did I say admitted? It may not have been so much a confession as a boast!

Now, I know nothing about chordal leaps and neighbor tones, nor about interval inversions or … all I know is improvisation frees the musician from the page and she can swing, fly, dance, play until there’s a landing place or resolution; you can’t improvise forever. But the good news is, you can improvise. That said, jazz musicians usually have to be taught to improvise; there are some basic rules. Beyond the teaching/learning process, young jazz musicians then have to be not merely allowed to fly, but encouraged, urged, even forced out of their comfort zone, and right there in front of classmates, right there in front of the audience. I’ll bet it’s scary at first. But eventually, liberating. As is creativity itself.

Jazz belongs in church. For one reason, churches, like most well-established institutions, get used to routine, rituals that become worn, patterns that lead to boredom. Keeping things safe, keeping things in check…the way they’ve always been…is the main idea for many organizations that have been around for more than a while. So, engaging the creativity of improvisation can be freeing for bogged down churches. Risk something new!It’s scary, but eventually liberating. And enlivening.

Jazz belongs in church also because a jazz composition is never played exactly the same way. With every jazz group (trio, quintet, big band), and with every individual interpretation of the printed notes, and every improvised motive, the original song becomes a new song. The Psalmist said (sang!) “O sing to the Lord a new song.” If anyone can model new directions, fresh approaches, creative mission for old churches, it’s the jazz musician. Jesus said, “Look! I make all things new!” Jazz can be the soundtrack.

Jazz belongs in church because its compositions involve recurring themes and countless variations. In church, consider the theme of grace. Look for its variations. Love, forgiveness, hope, reconciliation…recurring themes throughout scripture. And as we adopt those themes in our lives, daily circumstances demand our improvisations. Life happens, you know. So, improvise a new take on grace. Or home. Or justice. It might be scary, but will lead to liberation.

Jazz belongs in church because both share a rhythm. For the church, its time signature is the liturgical year. Advent. Christmas. Epiphany. Lent. And…wait. Lent. It’s time for the blues. Let it play in the colors of gray skies and violet bruises, of silver spikes and scarlet blood. A minor chord…or no chord at all…one note, a piano’s pounding hammer.

Lent: the rhythm is at once funereal, and then an irregular beat, maybe an unsteady pulse. Sounds more like Holy Week. We are getting ahead of ourselves.

I improvise as I write these reflections. That’s fairly obvious if you have read the whole lot. The mug in the cupboard is the given. Its design or logo is the motif. Then, I improvise during Lent and hope for some resolution by the time the last word is typed.

Like now, man. Like now.




{Another mug for another day in Lent 2017. If you’ve landed here without knoDSC07382wing the rationale for this odd series of reflections, you are on your own.}

When I contributed a modest financial gift to the performance space created in an old firehouse, I got this mug as a thank you. The Schorr Family contributed a huge gift and got the place named after them. I’m happy with the mug.

I wind up at the Firehouse Stage a couple of times a month on average. There are jazz jams, comedy and magic shows, concerts, and plays, all in a fairly intimate space, with the audience at tables where wine and cheese, coffee and Cokes, and popcorn keep stomachs from growling during the shows.

Across the parking lot from the old firehouse is the hulking Goodwill Theatre building, a long-dark auditorium built in 1920 by a generous local shoe magnate George F. Johnson. His thousands of shoe workers enjoyed George F.’s parks, carousels, health services, even a golf course, as well as the massive Goodwill Theatre with its vaudeville acts and concerts. Through its years, the venue became a commercially-owned movie house renamed the Enjoy Theatre (1932), at first promising family-friendly films, but in its final days relying on X-rated movies to sell tickets. Closed now for decades, the building is slated for renewal, not the urban kind that tears down, but the artistic kind that restores or renovates for new purposes. Until that happens, the Firehouse Stage serves as a sign of both promise and commitment.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that these Lenten reflections on coffee mugs are lodged in my blog entitled “Peace, Grace, and Jazz.” As a fan of all three, I do write about jazz now and then, and rarely miss the jams that bring together local (and sometimes regional) jazz musicians. Most of these performers are professionals, some local instrumental music teachers in schools, others having toured with big bands or well-known jazz artists. A piano-bass-drums trio might play a ballad, and then be joined by a vocalist and sax player, and then just about every musician in the house might join in a spontaneous big band blast. I love it all. And I fantasize. I admit it. I think, what a kick it would be to sing with that band!

But I am not a singer. I’m not a musician. My only contribution to these jams is buying a $10 ticket, nursing a Coke, tapping my feet, and applauding the performers. It’s way too late in my life for regrets, but I do lament not sticking with those junior high trombone lessons. I didn’t try very hard to master the instrument back then. I have been plagued with a serious malady since childhood: a lack of self-discipline. Maybe it would have worked out better if I had some musical aptitude to begin with. Apparently it’s not genetic. My Dad was a drummer in high school, and my Mom played sax. Mom’s mother played piano. Me? Not one of my gifts.

I’ve sung in choirs, and had a rather decent, at least passable, bass voice. But it was best that I blend in and not stand out. Probably appropriate for an introvert anyway, right? Performance is just not my thing. At Firehouse jazz jams or anywhere else. I can wish it were otherwise, but as they say, “If wishes were horses…”

Still, as a pastor-preacher certainly I was a performer of sorts. I played a part, enacted a role, each Sunday there in the pulpit. “Preaching” is not natural, you know. The script we follow is, one would hope, a well-written sermon,* and in seminary we learned to “deliver” that message with some degree of drama, some flare, emotion, sensitivity to the text, and empathy with our listeners. Droning on as if we were reading the now-proverbial phonebook would be unfaithful to the call to effectively articulate the power of the Gospel. If this is Good News we preach, and we whole-heartedly believe it is, then the use of voice, gesture, facial expression, and even that dramatic “beat” (pause) contribute to the next step in the Sunday morning play: moving the congregation to become performers!

The strength of the church’s mission is in the performance of those who act out the love they proclaim with their lips, the compassion they hold in their hearts. There is no guarantee that anyone will applaud their actions, or otherwise reward them. But if we treat love as the verb it is, and if we act with grace, and if the music of our lives is set to the rhythm of God’s heart, certainly the performing of acts of peace and justice will make the world’s stage a better venue for our life together.

Many years ago, somewhere in a Pennsylvania city, I happened on a troupe of actors and musicians who were performing in a small park connected with a shopping mall. There they were, probably scheduled but unannounced, doing an extended skit about how time rules our lives. The production was obviously well-rehearsed, and designed for an open public space, where passersby might stop by and watch for awhile. Some folks stayed for the duration, while others, perhaps more ruled by time, took notice but hurried on. I was impressed by the singing voices and the acting chops of these thespians, as well as their willingness to engage their audience in conversation after the last applause had died down.

Perhaps these days we would call what that troupe did a “flash mob.” I prefer “street theater.” It may sound new, but it’s old hat for the Church. In the Middle Ages, this was known as vernacular drama. Villagers saw miracle plays, morality plays, and mystery plays. That Pennsylvania cast was part of a very long, though interrupted, tradition: teachable moments or inspiring stories acted out on whatever public stage is available. It grabs peoples’ attention. They then tell someone else about the experience, and the word spreads. Maybe it even becomes a “thing” going viral in the Internet. And what fun for a church’s youth group. Or, an intergenerational troupe. As long as they’re not introverts. Maybe they’d be the writers.

I’d better end this now. I have to brush up on the lyrics to “Bim Bam Baby,” in case they call me up to sing at the next Firehouse Stage Jazz Jam.

*I wrote that line recognizing that not every sermon is written out, word for word. I’m a better communicator when the Spirit moves me to write rather than leaving me to ad lib.

Many of the pictures I’ve chosen for this Lenten practice of mine, choosing photos from my collection and writing a few paragraphs inspired by the images, are comparatively recent. But this one goes back to my college days. Thus it is a print from fifty years ago.

Just before I took this photo of jazz pianist George Shearing, I had done my very first radio interview with him. Imagine that. My first ever interview was with Shearing. I carried a small cassette tape recorder into an intimate practice room in the school’s Conservatory of Music, and bungled my way through a conversation with the man who wrote “The Lullaby of Birdland.” No prep on my part. No idea how to proceed. So, the photo I took from backstage during the George Shearing Quartet concert turned out far better than the interview.

That said, Mr. Shearing was more than tolerant of my inept questioning during our time together. He projected grace, a generous spirit, and good humor, and I can still hear it in his voice over the hiss of the shearingfragile tape these five decades later.

Obviously, this image sings jazz to me. Piano, bass, drums, and vibes. When I started this blog many years ago, the title “Peace, Grace, and Jazz” came to me, almost something I could use as benedictory words. Peace…of course, as in “peace be with you.” Grace…as in that gift freely received and generously offered to others. And jazz? Just to be clever? No. Because I do wish you jazz.

Here’s what appeals to me about that genre of American music, now so internationally appreciated. Jazz is creative, rhythmic, and improvisational. I think a form of it was the first music I heard. At least, the first records played on the Kellam phonograph were 78 rpm big band era tunes from my parents’ WW2 days. That era was a couple of generations removed from the birth of the “jazz age,” and the musicians bowed to the public’s desire for danceable tunes and more tame lyrics, but some trumpets still wailed, basses got slammed, and drums kept syncopation alive, even if the “Blues in the Night” lyrics were not exactly  as achingly painful when sung by Dinah Shore.

Besides my own history, that is, growing up in the fading echoes of those jazz bands, I personally love the inventiveness of the music, especially when musicians leave the printed notes behind and let the spirit of jazz inform their improvisation, freely springing (or swinging) into wherever their souls want to fly.

I’m with those who remember that the roots of jazz are in the fields, where call and response and spirituals were the musical seeds of the blues. In thinking about the connection of jazz and church, I came across this un-attributed quotation from Stephen Longstreet’s The Real Jazz Old and New:

When the slave came to talk to God with a banjo he played what he heard by ear, or liked by ear. And when he got a piano he played it sinful or godlike. He played his music in clapboard churches, or for the purpose of the open-air evangelist, or he became the professor in a Storyville whorehouse, with ragtime or barrelhouse, in saloons or wherever music was wanted for a burial or a parade or a fish-fry.

Lament, Longstreet wrote, reached a high level of folk art. But I suppose, so did praise! I have written of “jazz vespers” in previous posts in this Peace, Grace, and Jazz journal, so I need not plagiarize myself here. And my friend Bill Carter and I produced a DVD called “Jazz Belongs in Church,” where our shared credo is expressed musically and theoretically. ( is where you can find that resource.) It’s enough to add here that even Lent lends itself to jazz expression (or does jazz lend itself to Lent?).

Lent is blues, minor key or not. The tenor sax sings the psalm, the piano plays repentance and forgiveness, the drums and sticks and brushes and cymbals join the bass in the pulse beat of wandering in wilderness and lingering in garden and hanging on crosses.

The vibes of Lent? Like bells calling us to church.

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