Friday, March 4

Spiritual Jazz: Improvisation


There are many things that are attractive about jazz music as a metaphor of the Christian life. Both are built on discipline, commitment, community, and structure. And both should also be marked by a freedom that gives life and adds beauty and blessing to the world. There is a freedom that comes from a life lived in step with the Spirit. There is freedom to improvise and follow the call and leading of the God. I would encourage you to go back to posts from September 24, October 1, November 12, and February 4 to see where we have been.


My last post in this series talked about the place of syncopation in the Christian life. Syncopation is a shifting of the accent, usually by stressing the typically unaccented beats. It’s emphasizing the things that aren’t usually emphasized. Jesus’ life and teachings are great models of spiritual syncopation. He accented things that neither the secular nor religious cultures of his day emphasized.


Another characteristic of jazz that has great implications for the Christian life is improvisation. Here is what Robert Gelinas says about jazz improvisation:


“When jazz musicians take the stage, they are there, in part, to take the risk of composing in the moment – improvisation.


The word ‘improvisation’ derives from the Latin ‘im’ and ‘provisus’, meaning ‘not provided’ or ‘not foreseen’. Improvisation is the willingness to live within the bounds of the past and yet to search for the future at the same time. Improvisation is the desire to make something new out of something old. It is the craving to respect tradition while at the same time leaving one’s own mark. Improvisation is having a plan and yet not being incarcerated by the plan….


It is about being so familiar with one’s instrument of choice, the song, and the essentials that we can trust ourselves to search for the unseen – for what the moment is presenting. When we incorporate improvisation into our faith, freedom follows (for jazz is all about freedom!). Not freedom for freedom’s sake. Rather, freedom within and freedom that results from the good and right standards of our God. Improvisation will keep us from just copying others spiritually and set us free to play a little.”   Robert Gelinas, Finding the Groove, p. 33-34


Improvisation is not possible without the discipline to learn one’s craft and to stay within the “rules” of music, harmony, etc. Improvisation takes those rules and that discipline and then sets them free to explore new territories and to express one’s individuality. One of my favorite examples of jazz improvisation is John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” played at the Newport Jazz Festival. Though I’m not much of a fan of the original song from The Sound of Music, Coltrane’s version is over seventeen minutes of exploration and individuality. He and his band take the melody, the theme, and follow it into new and wonderful places – always coming back to the foundation of the song.


Scripture is full of examples of spiritual improvisation. Jesus’ life is full of it. He was always open to the will of his Father and the leading of the Holy Spirit. You can see this in the “on the way” incidents in his life – those times when he was “on his way” and followed the Spirit to improvise into something unplanned. The Apostle Paul improvised in Acts 16 when he abandoned his plans to go to Asia and Bithynia and went to Macedonia on the Spirit’s leading.


What keeps us from practicing spiritual improvisation? Some of the more common reasons are:


A failure to listen f0r God or to look for the leading of the Spirit in our lives. Sometimes we don’t slow down enough listen for God. Some aren’t close enough to God to recognize his voice when he speaks through this Word or his Spirit or others. We often live as practical atheists, without much though given to God or what he might be saying as we go about our lives.


Fear can keep us from spiritual improvisation because, by definition, improvisation takes us out of the familiar and into new territories. Some of us prefer the safety of structure, of routine. Improvisation challenges routine. Improvisation takes risks. And many prefer the safety of routine over the excitement of walking on the edge with God.


Busy-ness is a mark that many in our society use to gauge our importance. In reality, it is the curse of our age. We live so rushed and harried that there is no margin for improvisation. If we divert from our planned agenda, we feel guilty. Though Jesus accomplished much during this ministry and launched a movement that changed history, he was never rushed or harried. He always had time to follow the leading of his Father and improvise in ways that brought his Father glory.


For many, our lives are all about ourselves, though we would never say it that way. But we have plans, agendas, and goals for ourselves, our families, our churches, our businesses – for everything in our life. And, if we were painfully honest, we find anything that disrupts those plans to be very aggravating – even if it is God! We have our lives in order, going the direction we want them. Improvisation would just get in the way.


Is your life marked by spiritual improvisation, by the freedom to follow the Holy Spirit to new and exciting places that are on God’s agenda? If so, please share an example where you followed the Spirit!


If this is not true of you, do you want that kind of life? What is getting in your way?

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