Please watch this video message from Bohuš, the pastor of the church in Nitra, and his wife Nataliia, who is from Ukraine.
As you pray for Ukraine, please add to your prayers a word on behalf of our Slovak brothers and sisters who are helping their neighbors. As fuel for your prayers, consider how Paul urged his beloved Philippians to “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (Philippians 2:14-16).
I’ve thought especially about our Slovak friends shining as lights in the midst of that crooked and twisted generation as I’ve read about Juraj and Zuzana and the churches in Nitra and Bratislava opening their home and organizing other Christians who are willing to open theirs. And our colleagues the Gregoires readied their beds for Ukrainians—and drove to the border Saturday to offer aid and warm place to women and children seeking shelter from the storm of war. Ask God to shine the blazing light of the gospel through the love of his people in this dark time.
MTW is providing updates to guide your prayers, as well as a way for you to material support, here.
CRONKITE: “Are there any rules for improvisation?” BRUBECK: “You bet your life there are! And the rules in jazz would just scare you to death. They’re so strict it’s pitiful. Just break one of the rules and you’ll never end up in another jazz session with the same guys again, believe me. For instance, if you don’t keep the harmonic changes that were set up, the whole thing’s gonna fall apart.” CRONKITE: “Are these rules written down, or have they become sort of an unwritten law among you musicians?” BRUBECK: “You can study the rules of jazz to a point, just like you can study to become a classical composer; but that wouldn’t make you a classical composer. And to be a jazz musician you must know these rules so thoroughly you never think about them. It’s like a baseball player or any athlete: he’s only good when he instinctively does the right thing. And the only limitations on jazz are the self-imposed limitations of the performers.”
I know almost nothing about music and harmonic changes and chord progressions and all that jazz (so to speak), but I did play baseball. I remember the coach hitting grounders to the short stop about a million times. Grounders right at him. Then to his left. Then to his right. Then flies to right field—three million of those. Line drives to the gap between centerfield and left. Four million five hundred thousand seventeen. Then choppers to third, and the throw to first—seven-point-six billion. Over and over and over, engraving that muscle memory, till the short stop could field a grounder backhanded and turn and throw to first while blowing a bubble.
Once the players have their instincts (the “rules of jazz”) burned in, they have to apply them in a game, when it isn’t the coach hitting grounder after grounder, but an opposing player who might hit the ball anywhere, at any angle, at any speed. And there are all those situational conditions to account for: runners on base, number of outs, balls and strikes, right- or left-handed pitcher and batter, angle of the sun…. The players and coaches remind each other before every pitch what the situation is: Runners on first and third, two outs! Then there’s the pitch, the swing, the ball in play—and all those preprogrammed reactions kick in and adjust and in about half a second a million things happen that never happened before and will never happen just like that again—and yet it was all prepared for and executed according to those “rules of jazz.” And when it’s done well, the players and the fans taste the excitement that Brubeck talks about in the interview.
Brubeck’s comments about the rules of jazz and improvisation made me think about prayer. I’m not sure I know all the rules of prayer, or whether I could articulate them. They certainly include chord progressions, laid down in the Psalms. I say that because we see Jonah and Jesus and the Apostles improvising on the Psalms in their own situations. They must have known the psalmic chords so well that, when they faced overwhelming pressure—like being swallowed by a fish, or being nailed to a cross, or being threatened by corrupt rulers—they improvised those lines and phrases and verses into custom prayers fitted to their situation.
If you have a cross-reference Bible and look at Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish, you’ll find that almost all of it—except maybe the bit about the weeds—is cobbled together from a few dozen Psalms (and Lamentations and other biblical prayers). Jesus, of course, prayed from Psalms 22 and 31 on the cross. And in Acts 4, after the arrest of Peter and John, the Apostles led the church in praying from Psalm 2, adding some contextualization to their situation.
This is why we over and over pray the Psalms and over and over sing the psalms in worship together on Sundays and day by day in our communion with God. We are internalizing God’s “rules of jazz,” so that when his providence takes us down uncertain paths like the war in Ukraine, or the loss of a friend to death, or personal betrayal, or even our own moral failure—whatever the situation, his Psalms help us improvise our prayer according to God’s word, so we know that we pray according to his will.
Speaking of situational awareness and prayer: A decision is looming for me. Or rather, a Decision, capital D. At the end of April, two vocational roads will diverge in the wood, and I can travel but one. I’ve been riffing off of phrases from Psalm 25, asking God to lead me in his way. Please join me in these prayers as the Day (another capital D) inexorably approacheth.
No matter how heavy life gets, we always have reason to give thanks. My parents marked 66 years of marriage on Friday, and Nicholas and Karen brought their families to our house Saturday to help us celebrate. All that is a gift of God. We’ve also enjoyed the budding of some refreshing new friendships. The discussion and the relationships in the poetry group I mentioned last month have grown richer every week. The self-giving love of Christ is shining in our Slovak friends. God is on his throne. Give thanks.
Now may the Father, from whom descends every good gift, give you one thing more: A grateful heart; not thankful when life pleases you, as if he were a stingy Lord; but such a heart that pulses with his praise.