Leaving Room for the Spirit

Leaving Room for the Spirit

This Sunday I attended the annual Jazz Worship service at Flemington Presbyterian Church.  Unlike the Jazz Vespers at Allentown Presbyterian, which is meditative and features no liturgy but lectio divina, this worship followed the typical order of worship on the Lord’s Day; the music, though, was led by  jazz musicians from the congregation.  The Jazz worship band was complete with brass, percussion, keyboards, guitars and a vocalist.  Close to a dozen members and friends … ranging in age from 8 to 80 (I’m pretty sure about the 8, not so sure about the 80) … and including the pastor, the Rev. Dr. Tom Robinson, on rhythm guitar (My understanding is that Tom is also an extremely talented bass player).

jazz worship flemington pcJazz music is hard for a classically trained musician (like me) who learns the music by reading the notes on the page.  An authentic jazz band will abandon the grand staff for lead sheets with no more than a suggested melody line and a chord structure.  The music itself is based more on improvisation; as the band vamps, a soloist lets loose and takes the music wherever the “spirit” leads.  In that sense, Jazz music can be a challenge for Presbyterians who want their worship scripted — printed liturgy, prescribed verses of hymns, manuscripted sermon, well-rehearsed choir anthem, pre-written prayers — and timed to last precisely 60 minutes.  Jazz is more pentecostal, charismatic … spirit driven.  Sure, it’s based on a solid structure and traditional (albeit complex) chord progressions, but it’s fresh, spontaneous, relevant for the moment, and unpredictable.  Jazz lends itself to the  kind of worship I think is what we really need today …  well planned, but leaves plenty of space for the Holy Spirit to show up.

When the Holy Spirit shows up, the unpredictable happens.  That’s what we see in this weeks reading of The Story.  From the wind and tongues of fire at Pentecost, to the visions of Peter and Cornelius, to the conversion of Saul, to the healing work of the apostles, to the release of Paul from prison by the angels … this chapter brings us a reality that relies on the extraordinary, metaphysical power of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s face it … the Holy Spirit makes Presbyterians uncomfortable.  We are a modern, intellectually minded people.  We are born of the enlightenment and nurtured by the gift of reason.  We are the most studied and surveyed denomination; we are loathe to make a decision without years of study that is well documented and researched; we see no tension between faith and science or the scientific method.  We believe in prayer, but rarely embrace discussions about mysticism.  We honor our “call” but it needs to be visibly confirmed by the majority votes of sessions, congregations, and presbyteries.

When our pastors are seized by a “damascus road” power that shapes their call … we wonder if we need schedule their free mental health visits through the Employee Assistance Program of the Board of Pensions.  When our congregants ask for a prayer for healing, we tell ourselves that “healing happens in many ways.”  When our congregations seek a new vision for ministry … we rarely expect to be awakened at night by an angel in our bedroom or to enter a trance as we pray on our deck waiting for the grill to heat up.  Is it true that the Spirit doesn’t work that way anymore?  The member of my church who sees angels wouldn’t agree.

If we leave room in worship for the Holy Spirit to show up … we have to be ready for the unpredictable, we have to be ready for the uncomfortable, for the dangerous, for the possibility that we might not have all the answers, or that we might be wrong.  (See Dwayne’s post about the Sanhedrin and Gamamiel … a religious power broker who isn’t as afraid to discover what God is actually doing.)  If we leave room for the Holy Spirit in our lives, we might face accusations of treason or blasphemy, we might be thrown off our horse, struck blind, face our greatest fear.  We might need to walk into the dangerous places, meet with the people we hate (or are hated by), or risk being stoned.  At the least, we will be moved to action, we will question “the way we’ve always done it,” we will acknowledge the new creation to which God is calling us.

Then, again, we sing …

Spirit, spirit of gentleness.
Blow through the wilderness, calling and free.
Spirit, spirit of restlessness. Stir me from placidness.
Wind, wind on the sea.

You call from tomorrow, You break ancient schemes,
From the bondage of sorrow the captives dream dreams;
Our women see visions, Our men clear their eyes.
With bold new decisions Your people arise.

(Spirit, words and music by James K. Manley)

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