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Is Life's Music The Redemptive Power Of God ?





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Is Life's Music The Redemptive Power Of God ? 

One of the most pleasurable musical experiences I've ever had was three hours spent in a piano bar one Sunday afternoon some years ago on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, eavesdropping on an impromptu session of Dixieland jazz. Friends of mine from the local Presbyterian church had come together to make music - for the sheer exuberant joy of it. There was Jack on banjo, Abbe the vocalist, Eric on trombone, Bob on trumpet, Pete on double bass, and others whose names I've forgotten. I sat in that piano bar enthralled, marvelling at the musical artistry of these so-called amateurs. I love music - and though I am a classics man myself - in that piano bar I gained an enriching insight into the medium of jazz. I came to appreciate and respect the flair and panache of the jazz musician - for example, the creative genius that lies behind the art of improvising, the willingness to go out on a limb and, musically, live at risk. 

There can be no denying that music, classics, jazz or pop, meets a deep elemental need in the human soul. Music has this astonishing power to stir the whole gamut of the human emotions - Highland Cathedral sends patriotic shivers rippling up and down my spine. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, for me Samuel Barber's intensely moving Adagio for strings evokes the huge passion, pain and suffering of the world. When this piece was played as a musical backcloth to television images of the Ethiopian famine in the late 1980s, tears flowed uncontrollably down my cheeks. 

Music, then, has this power to move, to stir, to thrill, to comfort, to inspire. Music has also the power to open doors into the world of the spirit, the power to put us in touch with God Himself. At its best jazz has this power. Moreover, the best jazz musicians always remain humble folk because they know they are vessels of something much larger than they are. They know it is about the movement of the muse, the Spirit, being touched with the Fire Divine, that lifts their music-making into the stratosphere. 

Come to think of it - human life is rather like a musical score. In a very real sense music-making is our God-given destiny. The theme of this God-given music is love. In our music-making, in our daily living we are invited to weave together innumerable variations on this original theme of love - kindness is but one variation, loyalty is another - so is self-sacrifice, so is compassion, so is forgiveness. 

In our music-making we shall find ourselves playing in both the major and the minor key. When life is joyful, sweet, satisfying and fulfilling, that is life being played in the major key. When life is disfigured by pain, tragedy, sickness and disappointment, that is life being played in the minor key. To put it another way - human life is a curious mixture of 'the blues' and 'swing'. The blues acknowledge the woundedness, the pain and sorrow of human life, whereas swing is a manifestation of the celebratory joys of human life.  

Nowhere do the blues and swing come together more sublimely than at a New Orleans jazz funeral. Picture the scene. A jazz band leads a slow, plodding procession to the cemetery. People slow-march to a sombre rendition of 'Just a Closer Walk with Thee'. On the way to the graveyard the prevailing sentiment is 'the pain and loss of life'. Coming back from the cemetery the gift of resurrection life somehow takes possession of the band. A trumpet blows as if signalling angels on the far reaches of the cosmos - a deliberate, defiant, rhythmic drumbeat commences - and the mourners, now turned merrymakers, dance, prance, strut down the street to the most joyous music imaginable. As the Bible says, 'Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.' 

Now here's a mind-blowing thought. Such is the flair and inventiveness of the grace of God that it can even transpose a minor key into a major key, the blues into swing, negative experiences of life into positive. Let two illustrations from the world of jazz suffice.  

Once Wynton Marsalis, the trumpeter, was playing the ballad 'I don't stand a Ghost of a Chance with you'. He had his audience in the palm of his hand - but just as he approached the most dramatic point of his conclusion, someone's mobile phone went off. The interruption triggered considerable unrest in the audience. Marsalis paused motionless, his eyebrows arched, then he replayed the silly mobile phone melody note for note. Then he began improvising variations on the tune. The audience slowly came back to him. After a few minutes he throttled down to a ballad tempo and ended up exactly where he had left off. The ovation was tremendous. Duke Ellington once said that a problem is a chance for you to do your best.  

My other illustration - Jimmy Scott, the singer, had a unique high voice which was the result of Kallmann's syndrome. This condition prevented him from experiencing the natural physiological changes of adolescence. Yet he took his affliction and transposed it into a gift. In his own words: 'I may have been teased and tortured as a young man, but I grew to see my affliction as a divine gift. When I sang, I soared. I could soar higher than all the hurts aimed at my heart.' 

What I am saying, then, is this - there is a music in human life that echoes the great, redemptive power of God - the power to transpose the minor key into the major key, the negative into the positive, the blues into swing - the power to bring joy out of sorrow, healing out of brokenness, glory out of suffering, life out of death. 

Rev Tom Cuthell, August 2007

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