March 25, 2001

TEXT: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

When Frank Siekmann said that he wanted to start our jazz worship service with a medley of songs about “songs,” my first thought was “how do I tie this into the worship experience” and the scripture reading for the day. And then I realized that one of the first blues composers was the shepherd boy David who would later become King of Israel. His songs are found in the Book of Psalms, the hymn book of the Jewish people.

Many of David’s blues were “pit songs,” songs of despair out of the depths of his soul. “In Psalm 22, he cries “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” But there are many songs of joy deliverance, where the blues of the night turns to rejoicing at the dawn: “Weeping may linger for the night,” David says, “but joy comes with the morning.”

Singing was so much a part of the life of Israel; it was an expression of the soul of the people. When the Jews were exiles in the land of Babylon, one writer composed this song: “By the rivers of Babylon-- there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!" How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?”

But they did sing, and songs have come to be the expression of the soul’s longing as well as the joy of the human spirit.

In Jesus’ story of the “Prodigal Son,” a young man also finds himself in a foreign land, “the far country,”where he wastes his inheritance and is left destitute. He has lost everything—his wealth, his friends, his self-respect. But in losing everything, he comes to realization of how far he has traveled from his roots. The “Far Country” is a metaphor of self-awareness, for suffering that enables a person to get his bearings. Pain has a way of clearing the mind and sharpening one’s focus. Jesus, himself, spent time in the wilderness of self-annihilation and emerged with clarity of purpose and a sense of direction for his life. The great psychologist of logotherapy, Viktor Frankl, would say that if you see a purpose to your pain and suffering, not only will you be able to endure, but you will become stronger because of it.

So much of our great art and music have emerged from the crucible of pain. When African and European music first began to merge to create what eventually became the blues, the slaves sang songs filled with words telling of their extreme suffering and privation. One of the many responses to their oppressive environment resulted in the field holler. The field holler gave rise to the spiritual, and the blues, notable among all human works of art for their profound despair . . . They gave voice to the mood of alienation that prevailed in the construction camps of the South, for it was in the Mississippi Delta that blacks were often forcibly conscripted to work on the levee and land-clearing crews, where they were often abused and then tossed aside or worked to death.

The Southern prisons also contributed considerably to the blues tradition through work songs and the songs of death row and murder, prostitutes, the warden, the hot sun, and a hundred other privations. On prison road crews and work gangs many bluesmen found their songs, and many other blacks simply became familiar with the same songs.

When you consider some of the great blues singers and jazz musicians, so many of them died young, the results of their journeys to the far country. Charlie “Yardbird” Parker experienced many personal difficulties throughout his life. Often in debt and addicted to alcohol and drugs, he endured broken marriages, suicide attempts, and imprisonment. His death at the age of 34 was the result of a number of ailments, including stomach ulcers, pneumonia, cirrhosis of the liver, and a heart attack. Parker once said that if you don’t feel the music in your soul, it’s not going to come out of your horn.
Billie Holiday, whose mother was only 13 when she was born, grew up in a brothel. It was there she first heard the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith on an old Victrola. Billie died at the age of 44 in New York almost unrecognizable—thin, drawn, haunted. She had sold off her clothing to feed her habit and her little dog. Even on her deathbed, someone managed to smuggle heroin into her room. Joe Glaser, who paid for her funeral as he had done for Charlie Parker’s, said that her death was a concoction of everything she’d done for the last twenty years.

John Coltrane, whose addictions led to his early death, recovered in time to compose A Love Supreme, a synthesis of music and religion to the glory of God. Coltrane said, “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being . . . When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hangups . . . I want to speak to their souls.”

A Love Supreme is divided into four sections: “Acknowledgment,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance, and “Psalm.”

Acknowledgment: “But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!”

Resolution: “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."'

Pursuance: “So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
Psalm: “But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.

Unless you have been to the far country, and in some ways we all have, you don’t have an appreciation for how you have moved from your center, your source, your roots. It is in the far country that we can become aware of the power of God’s love that restores us to wholeness.

While songs and music may express the soul’s longing and aspiration, it also expresses the power and majesty of God’s presence. Jazz may not be the language that speaks to you. You may find your mystical experience in the written word, or in art, or in the natural world, or in the silence of quiet reflection, or perhaps in human love and relationships. But however God chooses to speak to you, and however you choose to listen to God, the important thing is that you do listen. Especially in those times of doubt and despair when you are in the far country. That is when the song will be heard most clearly and you will find your way home.

-Harry L. Serio