I know I’ve been quiet for a while; busy with church, prayer life, music and reading.  And that may continue for a while.  But I did finally get back to my clergy writing group.  And here is what I did for our free write today:

“What I’m thinking about is preaching and jazz. 

Being an Episcopalian, my sermons have always been short.  At least by Lutheran standards.  But even by Episcopalian standards my sermons have been short — usually (I believe) under 10 minutes.

And although I have used a variety of formats (including narrative and story), usually my sermons have been fully scripted.  And there were reasons for this.

I have found that I do not always say quite what I want to say when I don’t write it out.  I sometimes struggle to make the connections and transitions I want to make when I don’t write it out.  I understand that the attention span of the average adult in this country is well under 30 seconds (and I was told in training that I was the only one who would see my sermon as a moving picture — for most people I would be doing well if I left them with a single, memorable snapshot).

And I know that I write well.

But this past summer, I’ve begun to do something new.  Not all of the time, mind you.  But most of the time.  I’m preaching completely without notes of any kind.  This past week, I started with a sermon (complete in my mind) on Tuesday, forgot it by Friday, had a new version in mind later that day, another new version the next night, another new version before church Sunday morning, yet another version at the early service, and a completely revised version at the second service.  I believe it was the week before that I remembered during the second service that I had prepared a sermon for that Sunday a couple of weeks back, and changed from the new sermon I’d prepared back to the old sermon between the first reading and the sermon.  It’s been a bit scary.  But it’s been fun.  And people have been appreciative.

I know there are differences.  Because the sermon is something — most of the time anyway — that I do myself.  But the improvisational feeling I have in doing this reminds me a lot of jazz.  There may even be some of that interplay that goes on between musicians in jazz going on in the interplay between me and the congregation.

I know this is not an either/or kind of thing.  I still use a variety of sermon approaches (including full manuscript).  But I guess there is a sense of mastery (I feel conceited saying this), of feeling I know what I’m about well enough that I’m confident I have something worth hearing to share, and I’m not worried (too much) about being able to say it.

I’ve always felt that there was something special about the way musicians jam together.  There are rules.  There is a structure musicians have to know to play together.  But within that shared structure, they are able to be fully themselves, and yet at the same time fully a part of the community that is playing together.  And that, it seems to me, is a real gift — a joy to hear.

I’m reminded of when Dave Brubeck first played Carnegie Hall.  When it was time to start the first piece, he wanted to get everyone’s attention.  So he started banging out something on the piano that none of his group had ever heard before.  Then he moved into something familiar and they all picked it up.  But there was that moment when none of them had any idea of what he was doing …

I talked to a former musician (from St. George’s) about this, and his reaction was, “That sounds like a lot of fun!”  And I guess it does.”