Creative Team Building and Leadership Resources - In our Elements

Improvising Faith

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Galatians 3:23-25; 4:1-9) transports me to one of my favorite NPR radio programs, Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, the longest-running jazz program on radio. A couple of week’s ago they replayed a show from 2007 with the late Dr. Billy Taylor, the great performer and jazz educator. It reminded me of my jazz studies with Tim Haden decades ago, when Tim would often cite Billy Taylor in motivating us to do our “woodshedding” practice and our theory studies, and with equal zeal he would motivate us to forget everything we had learned once we entered into the space of improv. The trick was to discover a “second naivete,” a simplicity on the far side of complexity. Billy Taylor said that jazz was the music of freedom, and he knew that the freedom of improvisation could only be fully discovered after one had a good understanding and appreciation of the principles and the principals of the music, and after gaining that understanding, to be able to forget it all. The principles involved music theory – the rules, chord changes, scales, harmonic and melodic structures, etc. The principals involved music history – the giants who had gone before and created the various styles of jazz. You had to know both to be a good player, but you also had to be free from both to be a good player. You couldn’t be a slave to the notes or to noteworthy artists. You had to be free.

I think the Apostle Paul would have appreciated the dynamic of rules and freedom found in the jazz world of Billy Taylor and Tim Haden. In his letter to the Galatians he speaks of the law as a schoolteacher, playing a role in leading us to freedom in Christ. But he strongly cautions against being possessed by the law, and uses the painfully peculiar institution of slavery as a symbol of legalism. The spiritual slave-catcher in Galatians is personified by principles of the world. Paul says these principles are weak and miserable masters, but we are liable to be in bondage to their notes until we hear and respond to Jesus’ emancipation proclamation. Unfortunately, Christianity often falls prey to the old master and succumbs to the shackles of strict legalism in the name of Jesus, forgetting the freedom He died to give us. Instead of appreciating the law’s role of school teacher, leading us to freedom, we become captive to the notes, to the scales, to the structures, and we fail learn how to improvise the grace notes of a liberated life in Christ.

A good while back NPR replayed the first program of Piano Jazz from 1979. Dr. Billy Taylor was Marian McPartland’s first guest, and I got to hear him play one of my favorite compositions of his, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. (I highly recommend Nina Simone’s definitive cover if you don’t know this song). It is a poignant reminder that even someone like Billy Taylor knew that full freedom was more of a longing than a reality. Today I imagine all those in any way enslaved to the notes and structures of legalistic constraints singing the lyrics: I wish I knew how it would feel to be free. I wish I could break all the chains holdin’ me. I wish I could say all the things that I should say. Say ‘em loud, say ‘em clear, for the whole wide world to hear. I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart. Remove all the bars that keep us apart. I wish you could know what it means to be me. Then you’d see, and agree that every one should be free.


*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “Possession.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.


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