Spirituality Is Jazz!

The last weekend of July each year in the “Quad Cities” (Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa; Moline and Rock Island, Illinois) is Bix Weekend! This celebration consists of the Bix 7, a seven mile road race up and down a hilly route near the Mississippi River, and a Jazz Festival in honor of Bix Beiderbecke, the American jazz cornetist, pianist, and composer who was born in Davenport and died (of alcoholism) at the tender age of 29 in 1931.

There’s a lot of great jazz to listen to in various venues around the cities from night clubs to concert halls to the wonderful band shell in Le Claire Park on the river. A number of local churches, including Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, incorporate jazz music into their worship services on that Sunday. This year was no exception with music provided by the Edgar Crockett Jazz Ensemble.

As I listened to their jazz selections as introit, offertory and postlude (in addition to lively renditions of the hymns like “Just A Closer Walk with Thee” and “Down By the Riverside”) I thought once again how Christian spirituality can be compared to jazz. Most jazz musicians I know were classically trained before they ever launched into the improvisational world of jazz.

Because they have practiced with and mastered their instruments, understand music theory, chord changes and rhythm, they can improvise with polyrhythms, syncopation and swing notes and yet always end up “on the same page” bringing their selections to an integrated conclusion with everyone ending up in the right place at the right time.

Today, many people (and not only young people) claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” In other words, they believe in God, perhaps even angels, eternal life, and prayer but are not persuaded that the so-called “institutional church” is necessary and do not feel the need to be part of a worshiping community even though they may, or may not, engage in the classical spiritual disciples of daily prayer and Bible study and weekly Eucharist/worship.

I know lots of these folks. And I understand their frustrations with the church, their distrust of the impossibly-patriarchal and “outdated” Bible and creeds, and their boredom with what passes for worship in most of our churches today. My concern is that trying to be spiritual but not religious is sort of like trying to play jazz music without ever having learned the instrument in the first place or expecting to perform well without rehearsing with the band or practicing those damnable daily scales and chords.

Most Christian mystics (and mystics of other traditions would follow this pattern) remain grounded in the basics of Bible and Liturgy even while following the Spirit’s promptings to greater heights (or depths, depending on your metaphor) in prayer and meditation, theological sophistication and critical analysis of their faith.

“Religion” binds us together and grounds us in the ¬†experience of those who have gone before us. “Spirituality” is the endless journey into God which often shapes us differently as individuals.

“Religion” may be seen as the deep root system of a tree. “Spirituality” may be seen as the rich and fruitful branches which can bend and sway in the wind precisely because they are grounded at the roots.

“Religion” is classical music. “Spirituality” is jazz!

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