I love reading the obituaries in The Economist. They’re often such clever and insightful portraits of human nature in its myriad of expressions.
The most recent issue features legendary jazz musician Dave Brubeck, for whom jazz improv was in the blood. Brubeck “couldn’t live without performing, because the rhythm of jazz, under all his extrapolation and exploration, was, he had discovered, the rhythm of his heart.”
What a wonderful tribute to a life lived- that someone played jazz because it was the deepest expression of his heart, and he could not not play jazz.
Today I picked up one of my favorite works of theology, Heart of the World by the Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Its preface begins with the ancient church’s understanding of the cross. Those four outstretched arms of the cross “would gladly embrace the universe.” They meant solidarity with the world.
The cross was the deepest expression of the heart of God at the center of this beautiful and broken world. It embodied a God who could not not love, and who could not not stand in solidarity with the world, because these things, love and solidarity with the world, were the expression of God’s very heart.
In the immediate aftermath of the Newtown massacre, one image will remain for me: a jazz-saxophonist father who upon learning that his six-year-old daughter was among the twenty children who had lost their lives, could not find words to express his heartbreaking loss, but picked up his instrument and began to play.
He began to improvise.
The older I get, the more I’m convinced that I’m here on this planet to improvise- to learn to play to the rhythm of the heart of God, this rhythm of love and solidarity with the world. To attune my own heart to the movement of God’s Spirit in the world around me, and to embrace all the world, all of it, its pain and pleasure, joy and heartache, with open arms, come what may.
How hard it is to embrace the world this way. So many of us quickly turned off our radios or avoided the images on our computer screens in the wake of Newtown. We couldn’t bear the pain of even hearing about the tragedy anymore. When I read the headlines, I grew anxious; the depth of heart-wrenching pain that the families of these victims have experienced, knowing their six-year-olds were shot execution-style, still makes me recoil in fear.
Our souls are fragile. They can only carry so much. Yet, if we worship a God whose self-revelation is a crucified Jesus and if we have any honest self-awareness whatsoever about this fact, we must admit, I suppose, that we, too, are called to this task of holy improvization.
We are even called to trust that in the sheer act of offering we will make the kind of music worth remembering. The kind of music that lives on beyond ourselves. The kind of jazz improvization that will one day be heard in the streets of the city of God.
Here is jazz saxophonist, Jimmy Greene, playing “Ana Grace” in 2009: