A seminary professor once ended a class by offering a memorable metaphor for the spiritual life.
Life, he said, is like playing in a jazz orchestra where the Divine One is both composer and conductor. We’ve all been given a score for our life to play, as well as the freedom to play it as we want. The composer’s aim to use every one of us to create an inclusive and beautiful work of music.
At times, we may play notes not in the score. Maybe we do so by mistake because we are tired or confused. Or maybe we do so willfully, because we like to strike out on our own, regardless of the consequences for us or others.
If this was a classical score, playing the wrong notes might ruin the piece. But it’s a jazz score, always open to improvisation and the unexpected. The Divine Composer takes whatever notes we have played and instantly rewrites the entire score to incorporate what we’ve done into something new, both for ourselves and others. And, as the composer is also the conductor, we are all invited to play our part in this newly revised score. In this light, no “mistake” is beyond an ultimate redeeming use. The score is constantly evolving, but the divine intent – to use us all to create something new and beautiful – is unwavering.
In this orchestra, none of us are mindless robots. All of us experience both the freedom to play as we want and the invitation to make something extraordinary when we follow the conductor’s lead and collaborate with others.
As we learn to trust the notes set before us day by day, we find a deep satisfaction in playing our life score as best we can, both for our own sake and the sake of the larger composition. Of course, accidentally missed or intentionally misplayed notes can keep appearing, but never are beyond being incorporated into something wonderful.
One thing I like about his metaphor is that it assumes we have free will. Other models seem to assume there is one, fixed, preordained plan for your life, which is a challenge to understand if we have free will.
Another point: if we make some poor decisions and play off-key, we’re not thrown out of the group. Every moment, every day, we are offered a fresh beginning and new music to play.
This model is not coercive. We are not being commanded to perform or threatened with punishment if we refuse. If we play it, it’s because we have decided we want to do so. We want to have our life count for something that includes a personal sense of satisfaction but goes beyond us. Musicians often talk about what a thrill it is to make music with others, creating something exciting that’s more than the sum of the parts. This is the key to a fulfilling life.
It could be that the basic teachings of the great traditions – loving God, loving neighbors, caring for the earth, seeking justice, and lifting up those on the margins of life – are like musical scales and keys that are the foundation of every score. But the genius of the composer is to use these in ever new ways while giving everyone an important part to play in bringing the music to its full potential.
Arguably the greatest jazz composer, arranger and conductor of all time was Duke Ellington. Here’s a sampling of his wisdom that seems to fit well with I’ve described:
“A problem is a chance for you to do your best.”
“The most important thing I look for in a musician is whether he (or she) knows how to listen.”
“Everyone prays in their own language, and there is no language that God does not understand.”
This metaphor for spiritual life may not be perfect, but it’s as good as any other I’ve encountered.
Photo Credit: Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, Blue Note, Tokyo