2010-10-27 by Rina Terry
If you have never read Frank O'Hara's poem, "The Day Lady Died," perhaps now is the time to do so. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=171368
Billie Holiday, nee Eleanora Fagan, reigns supreme, along with Ella Fitzgerald, in my female jazz vocalist collection. The first time I heard Lady Day sing, "Strange Fruit," like O'Hara in his poem, I stopped breathing. That lynching, something so heinous, so tragic, so horrific could be expressed in song taught me about the profound dignity of the Blues.
Child of a single, teenaged mother, rarely properly cared for, put in a home for troubled girls at age 9, sexually molested, exploited emotionally and financially by men she thought were offering her love, an object of extreme racism when she became the first black jazz vocalist to sing with an all-white band, imprisoned for her drug problem, enslaved by her substance abuse, Billie Holiday died at 42.
If your opinion is shaped solely by what "critics" say, you will find many who will disparage Holiday's singing style and her vocal ability. Her voice, admittedly, became as strained as her lifestyle; yet, I can listen to her for hours. Her voice tells the truth about suffering, about injustice, about hard times and harsh realities.
Isn't that something for which we admire the saints whose lives we wish to emulate, the fact that they were truth-tellers? I am not glamorizing substance abuse, nor am I suggesting that there were not moments when Holiday could have made better choices or taken different paths.
In my mind, the tragedy of her life is that people packed the clubs, the cabarets, the concert halls where she sang and took from her the raw gift of her pain and received it simply as their due--something for which they had paid a fee to receive.
When she sings, "If I go to church on Sunday, and then cabaret all day Monday, ain't nobody's business if I do," I hear not pretense or rebelliousness, I hear the failure of a church that did little to ease her pain.
When she sings, "God Bless the Child," and I hear the lines, "Rich relations give, crust of bread and such, you can help yourself, but don't take too much," I don't hear a cynic, I hear the voice of one who was never truly introduced to the one who gave everything for all those who had nothing.
Sometimes, I believe it takes a Saint whose descent into Sheol did not reverse to magnify the truth, that righteous and virtuous people know that they, too, are capable of truly contemptible behavior. On days when I feel alone and abandoned, I listen to Billie sing the Blues. On days when I feel abused or maligned, I listen to Billie sing the Blues. On days when I want to lie down and not get up, I listen to Billie sing the Blues. On days when the world seems like and ugly place that is only getting uglier, I listen to Billie sing the Blues--and I am comforted. It is then, in that comfort, that I begin to pray the Blues and receive the Breath of Life that fills me with the will to live, and love in Jesus name.
Chasin' the Trane
2010-10-26 by Rina Terry
Many years ago, I had occasion to attend an urban ministry conference in San Francisco. On Sunday morning, I wanted to worship and I didn’t want to “conference worship.” I had heard there was a church somewhere in San Francisco, “The Church of St. John Coltrane.” As a major Coltrane fan, I decided that would be my worship destination.I went down to the front desk and asked if there were any jazz fans working and was pointed to one of the hotel porters. “Excuse me, sir. The man at the front desk said you’re a jazz fan.” He grinned. “I’m wondering if you know where “The Church of St. John Coltrane is located.” He grinned wider. He gave me an address on W. Divisidero and told me where to get the bus the next morning. Coltrane and I share a September 23rd birthday—he, 1926. I didn’t come along until 1948 but on September 23rd, over the years, many legendary musicians were born on September 23rd. Amongst those saints are: jazz trumpeter, Clark Terry; the infamous Ray Charles; the amazing Les McCann; (and, still living, Rocker, Bruce Springsteen). When I arrived at the storefront church on W. Divisidero, I had no idea what to expect. It was a very narrow building with an unbelievably high ceiling. There were beautifully painted iconic portraits of Coltrane painted on the walls on both sides of the small sanctuary. It was (I have since heard they lost their lease on the building) an African Orthodox church. Shortly, two African Orthodox priests, both in elaborate priestly garb, both carrying a saxophone, came out and began to play, “A Love Supreme.” A man in layered ragged clothing pulled a sparsely spangled tambourine out of his pile of bags and began to jam. A young man in the pew in front of me, student age I'm sure, began to play hsi sax. A mainstream looking man began to play his guitar. All sorts of people were gathered in that sanctuary to praise God through the music of John Coltrane. It was a wonderful two hours before I made my way back to the hotel. It’s been at least fourteen years since I sat in the pew at that church and I still remember that worship service more than any other. I think it was after that service that jazz became my primary spiritual discipline. I feel closer to God when meditating to straight ahead jazz than at any other time. Yes, Coltrane died at age 40 from liver disease. He did not live a perfect life. Yet, if you read his bio you will find: decades after his departure his music can be heard in motion pictures, on television and radio. Recent film projects that have made references to Coltrane’s artistry in dialogue or musical compositions include, "Mr. Holland’s Opus", "The General’s Daughter", "Malcolm X", "Mo Better Blues", "Jerry McGuire", "White Night", "The Last Graduation", "Come Unto Thee", "Eyes On The Prize II" and "Four Little Girls". Also, popular television series such as "NYPD Blue", "The Cosby Show", "Day’s Of Our Lives", "Crime Stories" and "ER", have also relied on the beautiful melodies of this distinguished saxophonist.Coltrane’s Meditations, three movements entitled: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, speaks in tongues. Toward the end of his life, he communed with God in his music and I come closer to God every time I listen to his music. “My goal,” he said, “is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music--My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being.” . I’m thankful for the witness of John Coltrane.
Resistance, Persistence, & Openness
2010-10-26 by Stephen Schuette
If you’re going near Reformation themes this week, regardless of which text operates as your basis, it’s fair to say you’ll have to come to terms with what in traditional theology was known as the “doctrine of man” (sic), or theological anthropology. It’s a basic question whether you’re using Jer. 31:27-34 or Luke 19:1-10 or John 8:31-36.
It’s odd that who we are remains to us mostly a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (with apologies to Churchill). Like V’ger in the old Star Trek movie we are driven by motives we don’t completely understand as we long to discover our true purpose and yet that doesn’t stop us from acting with zealous conviction based on what we think we know.
And isn’t everyone vying for the opportunity to define us? The markets would define us as consumers. Politicians would define us as votes. To management we may be labor. The theological question is, “Who are we to God?”
That God continues to persist in the belief that we can learn who we really are even after all our failures to grasp it must tell us something about ourselves. It at least reassures us that even if we’ve given up on ourselves, God hasn’t. Evidently God holds that we have hearts that can be written upon enabling us to live in genuineness of relationship with God.
That we can be moved, changed, transformed, defined and opened by grace is the remarkable assertion of the Reformation based in scripture. So the story moves forward not so much because of our faith in God, but that God continues to have faith in us. And along the way, in a brief moment, perhaps when we’re up a tree someplace, we may get a glimpse of who we really are and rather than deny it come to believe it ourselves.
Welcome, Rina Terry!
2010-10-25 by David Howell
A warm welcome to our returning guest blogger, Rev. Rina Terry!
The Reverend Rina Terry is currently pastor of Cape May United Methodist Church in Cape May, New Jersey. That's Exit Zero on the Garden State Parkway. She is a published author and former college administrator.
She spent much of her clergy career as Supervisor of Religious Services at Bayside State Prison, an adult male facility with a population of 2,400 men.
Jazz is Rev. Terry's primary spiritual discipline.
Sinning Saints Hall of Fame
2010-10-25 by Rina Terry
Every year, when United Methodists gather for their Annual Conference, we have a service that begins with singing, “For all the Saints, who from their labors rest…” The voices swell with genuine fervor and we have a time when we read the names of those who have “gone on to glory” and we are invited to stand, if we knew the person, when their name is read. There is no punch line. We do it to honor their memory, to acknowledge their Christian piety and works of mercy and it’s a good thing. There are so many for whom I have risen from my seat and remembered with gratitude.Yet, each year, I think, as well, about the not so nice, not so perfect, not so intensely religious people whose memory I honor through their influence on my life. May I call them “saints?” Since I don’t want to offend anyone, I’ll call them not-so-saintly Saints. Because, for good or glib, I’m going to blog on these folks during the upcoming week. I have quite large posters of three of these people in my home.I want us to think about how the church fails to reach the image of God in such creatively charged, radically alive, sometimes deeply wounded people. I don’t want to argue whether they are in heaven or hell or whether there is a heaven or a hell. I do want to remember them, with genuine gratitude, for what they have given, and continue to give me. Their witness was to life in spite of it all. And, if we consider life God-given, then they witnessed to that gift. From the very first moment I heard Janis Joplin sing, I knew her. I knew her because it was full of the truth, the rawest kind of truth—the ugly, lonely, insecure truth that resonates in me so deeply, and so profoundly, I find it difficult to respond to God’s call except among the disenfranchised and the outcast.Yes, Joplin’s lifestyle was fraught with alcohol, drugs, sexual promiscuity and exhausting ambitiousness. I cannot paint pretty pictures of any of that. Yet, when she sings Nick Gravenites song, “Work Me, Lord,” I hear the searcher, the soul crying, “Don’t you forget me down here, Lord,” and it breaks my heart for all of us/any of us who, even for a moment, have ever felt forgotten and did not believe there was any hope—looked out on a loveless world, and looked and looked for someone to love us. As I write, I’m listening to Janis sing, “Cry Baby,” so full of the forgiveness, the invitation home, that is manifested in the gospel. She knew what she needed, what the world needed, but just couldn’t find it for herself even when she offered it to others in her music. Janis Joplin’s music and life make me want to empty myself out and embody that missing love, the love of Christ, in our broken world. I continue to be touched by the saint inside the sinner, knowing full well that I, too, wake each day a sinner in need of God’s grace.
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