Fellow Passengers: Today’s Primary Passage* (John 14:1-14) transports me to the NAMM Show (National Association of Music Merchants) circa 1979, in Atlanta’s World Congress Center. I was 17, and had been steeped in a year of learning to play jazz and blues guitar. During that senior year of high school, my life revolved around chord theory, ear training, arpeggio and scale practicing, and jam sessions to develop and hone improvisational skills. Looking back, it seems so strange, for a teenage boy of the 1970s to suddenly stop listening to his favorite music – Led Zep, Pink Floyd, Stones, Beatles – and become completely and singularly enamored with the world of jazz. Joe Pass, George Benson, and Mike Stern replaced Page, Richards, and Gilmour as my heroes. There were some crossover players, like Jeff Beck, who helped me keep at least a foot in the rock world. I particularly loved figuring out and analyzing Beck’s solos on Freeway Jam, one of my favorites of his. So when I found myself, on a fluke, representing Dunham’s Music House at the NAMM show, where every musical instrument maker comes with their signature artists to showcase their wares, I was in seventh heaven, walking around the coliseum floor with the likes of Ray Brown and Herb Ellis jamming away to “crowds” of 10 or 20 people squeezed into little makeshift booths. To top it off, I saw that Mike Stern, guitarist for Miles Davis, was going to be in the Fender showcase. To top that off, when I squeezed into the little listening room to hear him and his band, they started the set off with none other than Freeway Jam. It was all a confirmation to me, a sign that I was on the right path. My plans were to head out to LA after graduation, enroll in the Guitar Institution of Technology, and become some kind of cross between Pass, Benson, and Beck. Somewhere along the way, though, between the NAMM show and graduation, my plans changed, a calling was placed on my life, and I wound up going to college and seminary instead. A different kind of immersion ensued, and a different path. A different freeway.
I don’t know what kinds of plans any of Jesus’ disciples had when they left their lives behind and started traveling down his Free Way. One thing is for sure, they didn’t want the journey to end, and when he began describing the changes that were about to occur with his life – his suffering and death and his leaving – they were essentially lost. He tried to console them with a promise that they could continue to follow him; that he was showing them a Way, THE Way, a true way, full of life even in the midst of death. That they finally got it sometime after his death and resurrection is certain; the book of Acts names those early church folk as people of The Way. It was a Way of grace and mercy for enemies, a way of welcome for strangers, a way of shared contentment where people had neither too much nor too little, for they had everything in common. What a Way. They would be jamming on that FreeWay, Jesus said, and they would know they were on the Way by the works they would do. Works even greater than his. Jesus set the theme, the tune and the chord changes, but like a highly skilled jazz combo, the followers would be free to jam, to improvise on that theme, to take it to new places. When I look around now and see the amazing gospel works done by womanist theologians and restorative justice activists and gay and lesbian ministers breaking down all sorts of cultural barriers, taking it out as they say in the jazz world, I see the gospel at work, fulfilling Jesus’ words about greater works.
Sometimes I ask myself the what if questions, and wonder about what life would be like had I traveled a different path, followed a different way when I left high school. It doesn’t help matters when I see Jeff Beck videos now, as he is accompanied by the Australian prodigy Tal Wilkenfeld, a 20-something Kate Winslett look-alike jamming away with him on bass. I suspect that had I seen her on stage at the NAMM show in Atlanta, my teenage calling into ministry would have been forever lost to more earthly desires, and I would have been heading west on I-40, LA bound. Listening to Freeway Jam, for sure. No offense to the beautiful and talented young Australian, but I am grateful I found the better Way.
What 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, email, etc.