March 28, 2014

Take It to the Bridge: Jazz Prayers

“Lord, hear our prayer.” That was the sound of religion to me growing up, Sunday mornings in the darkened warmth of Saint Mark’s Episcopal on Capitol Hill, D.C. I heard these intonations not as the sound of heaven and earth mediated so much as a response to silence, and the courage to overcome it while also dwelling in it. Indeed, there were vast expanses of silence in this part of the service, some of them seeming to stretch out almost audaciously. Even as an altar boy (a pretty bumbling one, I admit), I wondered, was this how people did and sounded out religion elsewhere? Years before I knew about Quaker meetings or the range of meditative practices in religious traditions, the oscillation between prayer’s orality/aurality and those silent chasms unnerved me. But always, almost mercifully, a lone voice would rise up from some distant corner of the church, those vast vaulted ceilings giving the prayer a gravity, a context: a plea for strength as a relationship frayed, or for comfort during illness, to which the congregation responded as one, “Lord, hear our prayer.” I remember being stunned when my father became one of those voices, praying in 1985 for Uncle Bill, in 1989 for Grandma, in 1992 for himself. The possibility that one of those voices might be so close by, his hand in mine, had never even occurred to me. It terrified and consoled me at once.


November 19, 2013

Malcolm Boyd, “It's a Jazz Spot, Jesus” (1965)

Malcolm Boyd is, perhaps, best known for being an early supporter of gay rights within the Episcopal Church (publicizing his homosexuality in 1977).  Boyd had become an Episcopal priest some twenty-five years earlier, having had a successful career in advertising and television. In his 1958 Christ and Celebrity Gods, Boyd argued for the necessity of seeing the world as it is from a “Christian point of view”—building a bridge between theology and life. He arrived at this point having concluded that preachers and parishioners alike were enmeshed in “communication webs.” Boyd, known as the “espresso priest” for his poetry readings at the hungry i nightclub in San Francisco, was a freedom rider and civil rights activist, angered by white hypocrisy and those who pray for “one hour a week inside expensive Gothic or Colonial buildings” and then manipulate a “white power structure to keep Negroes in housing ghettos and interminable second-class citizenship.”