How Jesus Played Jazz
...he followed the winds of the spirit...
by Dr. Bruce Epperly
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)
Jesus is like Jazz and Jazz can be like Jesus. Our lives as Jesus’ companions can be like Jazz, too. Jesus was constantly improvising: every encounter was novel and creative. Jesus had a vision – he dreamed of a world in which everyone belonged, and bodies, minds, and spirits were healthy. Jesus didn’t have an agenda, a set pattern for peoples’ lives; he had a dream and energy to propel possibilities forward. He embodied his dream relationally, one encounter at a time. There were no “cookie cutters” of faith, spirituality or fidelity. No two encounters, healings, or admonitions were alike.
Like the wind breathing through your lungs or a saxophone, Jesus’ faith was wide open, inviting us to be on the road, gazing toward a vision, and making it up as we went along. Each person, like each note, was unique and deserved unique care. God had a personal relationship with each of us, and that relationship – embodied in Jesus’ healing and teaching hospitality – was dynamic, evolving, and enlivening.
Jesus’ vision guided his improvisational ministry. Like a jazz musician, he had a vision but no agenda. He saw the notes rising from the far horizon, and God’s own dream of what was best for humankind – but he made it up as he went along, the only way you can with living organisms. Like clouds on the Sea of Galilee or a Cape Cod beach, the horizon itself was shifting, changing shape as we changed; and always luring us forward, and never quite resolved.
Jesus was like the wind: inspired by the Holy Spirit, breath-like, sometimes calm, other times, lively and unpredictable, downright stormy. You couldn’t pin him down: like Jazz, he took disparate elements – prayer and action, solitude and social involvement, oppressed and oppressor, wrong side and right side, unclean and too clean, prophetic and pastoral, good news and bad news, blues and celebration, and brought them together.
Jesus’ melodies, his improvisational and novel vision involved an evolving group of fellow spiritual musicians, each bringing her or his own unique gifts and melodies. Jesus showed his musical companions how to be part of something greater: he gave them a vision bigger than their individual gifts or egos, and showed them how to play their tunes with energy and grace. They found their greatest gifts, expressing themselves in partnership with others. He didn’t require sameness or repetition; the old time religion was fine in its time, it might even have been radical once upon a time; but old forms of faith needed new vision or they would stifle the Spirit, and the new needed the old as the pattern from which re-creation emerges.
Even dissonance, off-key notes, and mistakes could be part of Jesus’ wonderful symphony of sounds. Long ago, Jesus asked his companions, “What’s the melody of your life? What’s the song you’re meant to sing? What gives your heart joy and lets you fly?” He asks us those same questions today, and when we answer our hearts sing and our melodies join a deeper, even divine melody of grace. God doesn’t need imitation; God wants innovation, even if it means imperfection.
Jesus treasured the masters of the past, but he knew we pay homage to tradition best by playing our own music; the musical soundscapes of our lives today. You can’t put new wine in old wineskins; the old containers can’t contain the new, though older vintages were good in their time. The new wine bursts open old wineskins; the Spirit breaks through treasured orthodoxies, once lively yet now on spiritual life support.
Jesus’ melodies are unfinished and unresolved. They were then and they are now! Yes, there were healings and radical hospitality; cells and souls were transformed; but Jesus left the future in the hands of others. Jesus left the evolution of his mission to us as creators of his faith for today and tomorrow. Play your tune, do greater things: move ahead in the spirit, following horizons that constantly recede into the distance.
The Jazz of the Spirit is like Jesus. As J.J. Johnson avers, “Jazz is restless. It never stays put and it never will.” To define Spirit, whether in Jesus or Jazz, is to deaden it. As Duke Ellington noted about Jazz: it can’t be defined, “it’s all music.” Spirit is on the move: worship is an adventure of the spirit that takes a village to come alive.
Following in the path of Jesus is lively, syncopated, sometimes dissonant, open, spirit-centered, building on the past and rejoicing in far-off futures, guided by a Love Supreme that vibrates in cells and souls, bringing forth the many, always evolving, merging and emerging, melodies of creation.