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Jazz, Postmodernism, and BBQ

The future of the Church is jazz.

I first wrote that sentence in 1996 as I was just starting out in ordained ministry in the United Church of Christ. At the time, I was serving as a community-based chaplain serving women living with HIV/AIDS and out-of- town families coming to San Francisco to care for their loved ones dying from the disease. The calling to serve as a spiritual caregiver in the HIV/AIDS community was not easy.

At the time, no one was really tracking the particular struggles of women living with HIV and there certainly weren’t any jobs available to do that ministry. So, I wrote a letter to friends in churches where I had served as a minister of music and/or pastor and simply asked them to help me create such a ministry. And for five years, I was able to serve through my own project, Women and Families Outreach sponsored by Marin AIDS Interfaith Network.

This first foray into ordained ministry was definitely an improvised sort of thing. Like the beginnings of a jazz composition, I had an idea that I shared with others, and those people added to it, gave it juice, and helped it find its’ own groove. Then it took on a life of its’ own. Because my funders were friends, I had the luxury of being able to serve the ever-changing needs of these populations without spending precious time and resources trying to continually justify each element of this cutting-edge ministry. There was room, and permission with accountability, to grow the ministry and to gravitate towards genuine need, not artificially-concocted projections of need. And finally, when triple-combination therapy broke the cycle of constant death and changed the landscape of needs for folks living with HIV/AIDS, I ended this ministry and moved on, with great gratitude for the power of friendship to create what is needed at any given time.

Jazz is a decidedly postmodern art form and ministry in the 21st century is also a postmodern art form. What is postmodern, you wail? Isn’t that some crazy academic idea that leads to long tomes full of too many words?

While I think of jazz as a postmodern art form, you can also think about what postmodernism means by having a conversation (with just about anyone in the world) about barbecue. Now to a Texan like me, barbecue is any kind of meat that is dry-rubbed and cooked for many, many hours with lots of smoke – preferably in a pit in the ground. The sauce comes later. But if you are from the Northeast, it most likely means a steak on the grill. In North Carolina, it’s a pork butt with mustard sauce, and of course in Korea, it is meat cooked on a hibachi. All cultures have some way of cooking over fire, a.k.a. as barbecue, and we all define it differently depending on where we were raised and how we now live. It’s all still barbecue, but we have to listen carefully to one another to plan an actual eating event where everyone’s desires are met.

I submit that we are similarly baffled about our differing views of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. And unfortunately, we are not always as gracious in our desire to understand one another’s theological differences, as we are when we gather around a backyard fire to discuss our favorite recipes. So, learning to truly hear one another in all our glorious diversity is the first task in successful postmodern ministry. I’ll have some of that pork butt, if you’ll try some of my country-style ribs. Then after we have tasted one another’s favorite recipe, we can perhaps begin to have a truthful conversation about how the Jesus of your childhood doesn’t work for you anymore and you can hear from me why I love Jesus now more than ever.

My deepest knowing is that God is love and that love is never static. Like the rhythms of a gospel chorus and the improvised solos in a jazz waltz, the loving Spirit of God is in constant motion urging us forward together. Faith is the trust that moves us though our fears into a more loving relationship with God and with each other.

We are the people of God, Christ’s Body in the world. We are the heirs of the Spirit, promised to us in scripture to bind us together to be Christ’s body. As her winds blow through us, we are born again, equipped to love, teach, and serve one other and the wider community. Ministry happens in a myriad of mysterious ways. Some are planned and others improvised within the amazing solidarity of a community moving forward in a good jazz “groove”.

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