Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (John 7:1-24) transports me to Bristol, Tennessee, circa 1927, when the musical universe experienced the “Big Bang” of country twang through the first commercial recordings of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. I remember learning guitar off of some homemade hand me down cassettes of these sessions, and even though the songs were basically 3 chords in a familiar 16 bar pattern, they drove me crazy. It was the timing. I learned later that I wasn’t the only one to have difficulty with Jimmie’s rhythm (or lack of rhythm) guitar playing. The session players had to learn to adapt to his idiosyncratic sense of timing, as he would randomly add a beat to a measure, or start a measure one beat early. It is amazing to hear how well the backup band was able to keep up and adapt to the off-beat playing of the yodeling brakeman. Maybe it was because I cut my eye teeth of guitar playing on these sessions, but I’ve always been fascinated by syncopated rhythms and off-beat time signatures. Dave Brubek’s famous 5/4 riffing on Take Five became a favorite when I was playing jazz, as was Joe Pass’ ability to play ballads completely out of time. I wore out Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album trying to figure out how to get in a 7/8 time groove on Money and not sound like I was awkwardly stumbling around in one of those dark moon craters. After all that, though, I have discovered that the most difficult rhythm of all to master is the standard 4/4, without any missing beats or added beats thrown in. The ability to get in the pocket, as they say, of a standard rhythm, and stay in that pocket throughout a song, without rushing or lagging, is the ultimate standard of a good rhythm player.
Jesus had rhythm; you can say that much about him. He had an impeccable sense of timing that would have served him well in any studio band, be it country, jazz, or rock. He knew when to stay in the background and when to come forward and fly solo. He understood where the pocket was, where the groove was, in terms of the calling of his life, and he stayed in the pocket as well as any session player ever has. He knew when to poke and prod his audience through his teaching, and he knew when to heal and comfort and inspire. The problem was, Jesus was surrounded by off-beat people who had no rhythm, who had no sense of timing. His own brothers were trying to accelerate the tempo and rush him into the public limelight, before it was time for that measure to come ’round. The religious leaders were trying to throw a ritardando sign over his ministry to the suffering, and slow down God’s healing grace. Despite all the off-beat advice and criticism Jesus was getting from all sides, he stayed in the pocket. He didn’t miss a beat when it came to carrying out his life mission, all in the fulness of time. All in good time. All in good timing.
We don’t always know the time signature God is working on to bring about the fulfillment of the beloved community. We can look back, for example, and see that people had been laboring for decades, for centuries, to abolish slavery, and for all the world the institution of slavery seemed like a given, woven into the very fabric of society. And yet, in the fulness of time, the slave trade came to an end. Same thing with segregation. Looking back, we can see that the people working against slavery and segregation had been in the pocket of God’s rhythm all along, but it took centuries for the off-beat church to find the groove of the Spirit. It was the same with the issue of gender roles. For many long centuries women were seen as property, with clearly defined and restricted roles. And then, suddenly it seemed, in the fulness of time, liberation came, so that we now have women preaching and presiding over governments and doing all sorts of amazing things thought unimaginable to generations past. Looking back, we can see that those laboring for liberation were in the pocket of God’s rhythm all along; it just took the off-beat church a long time to catch up and get in the groove. It could well be that we are now living into the fulness of time for those laboring to end discrimination against sexual minorities. It feels like a clumsy thing when you’re in the middle of such seismic cultural shifts; the church’s fits and starts can seem like the awkward stumbling around of a group of grace-less folks trying to dance in the dark of 7/8 time. But, if the Lord tarries, future generations will surely look back and see that all those working for liberation, such as those laboring to defeat NC’s discriminatory Amendment One, were in the pocket of God’s rhythm all the time, and it just took the off-beat church world a long time to catch up and get in the Spirit’s groove.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc.