Sunday, March 29, 2009

Charlie Parker (Jack Kerouac)

Charlie Parker looked like Buddha
Charlie Parker, who recently died
Laughing at a juggler on the TV
After weeks of strain and sickness,
Was called the Perfect Musician.
And his expression on his face
Was as calm, beautiful, and profound
As the image of the Buddha
Represented in the East, the lidded eyes
The expression that says "All Is Well"
This was what Charlie Parker
Said when he played, All is Well.
You had the feeling of early-in-the-morning
Like a hermit's joy, or
Like the perfect cry of some wild gang
At a jam session,
"Wail, Wop"
Charlie burst his lungs to reach the speed
Of what the speedsters wanted
And what they wanted
Was his eternal Slowdown.

Jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker died fifty-four years ago this month (March 12, 1955 at age 34). I came to his music through the writings of Kerouac. Not long ago I bought Parker’s CD “Charlie Parker With Strings.” Some have considered this among the least successful of Parker’s recordings, but I wanted to hear it for myself. While it does not rank with his early Savoy sessions, I found the recordings intriguing nonetheless.

Anyway, as I opened the CD, I could not help but notice a picture of Charlie Parker with some of the other musicians on the CD – among those was Mitch Miller. Mitch Miller and Charlie Parker! Charlie Parker is considered one of the seminal figures in jazz music, innovative be-bop pioneer (a link to a live version of “Ko Ko” can be found down the page – I prefer the original Savoy studio version). Mitch Miller, on the other hand, is often viewed in much less favorable light – as a panderer to the most schmaltzy tastes in the listening public. Miller was a producer, an A and R person for Columbia Records, a host of a television show in the 1960s – “Sing Along With Mitch,” as well as a musician. He has been criticized for his “relentlessly cheery arrangements” (Wikapedia), and music historian Will Friedwald wrote of him “Miller exemplified the worst in American pop.” I have shadowy childhood memories of the “Sing Along With Mitch” television show, with its bouncing ball inviting viewers to sing along to orchestral versions of popular songs. Not exactly revolutionary stuff.

So here are Charlie Parker and Mitch Miller together, and the thought strikes me that there is something wise in this picture. The thought occurs to me that we might want to live in the balance between a Charlie Parker – creative, innovative, seeking change, and a Mitch Miller – appreciating what is and celebrating it. Either extreme is usually unhealthy – Parker died at 34 after abusing his body with heroin; Miller could be schmaltzy. Yet to appreciate what is, to try and bring a little joy and music into the lives of many seems worthwhile. So, too, the effort to challenge the status quo, to take life beyond what it has been, to be creative, to push at boundaries.

As a clergy person, I am in more of a Mitch Miller occupation, trying to keep listening to my inner Charlie Parker.

Where would I get the idea that both these life-stances have something to commend them? Maybe from a Jesus who on one occasion could say “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17); and on another occasion could say, “the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath,” just after he plucked grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).

With Faith and With Feathers,


Charlie Parker, "Ko Ko"

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Spong Leads to Hell

“Spong Leads to Hell.” So read a placard carried by someone outside a conference I attended this past weekend, a conference where retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong was the keynote speaker. There were two “protesters” outside the conference. The other held a sign that simply said, “Please Repent.”

The conference was called “Opening our Doors, Opening Our Hearts” and was about the church opening its doors and hearts to all people, with a focus on LGBT persons. In addition to Bishop Spong, Phil and Randi Reitan, a couple featured in the movie “For the Bible Tells Me So,” shared the story of their spiritual journey with their son Jake, who is gay. We also heard from a woman from our community, a woman who was hired for a prominent position, but has not always been warmly welcomed to Duluth. When it came out that she is a lesbian, someone in the community decided to vandalize her home and spray painted, “Leave Dike” on its foundation. What these perpetrators had against retaining walls we may never know, but it was clear they did not care for Barb.

Bishop Spong spoke about the Bible and theology and shared a number of personal anecdotes. I have heard Bishop Spong interviewed before and have read some of his books and I find I don’t agree with everything he writes or says. I agree with him that the church needs to be inclusive, inclusive of LGBT people. I don’t always agree with his theology. He has liked to speak about “the God beyond theism.” His criticisms of traditional theism are noteworthy, and he is certainly not the first theologian to make them. But to my mind he moves too quickly from critique to “beyond theism,” without engaging some of the intriguing forms of theism other theologians have proffered – open theism or process theology, for instance. I believe one can speak credibly about God in “theistic” terms, and I am not sure Bishop Spong does.

Even where we disagree, I find Bishop Spong intellectually stimulating. I also think that his openness, his authenticity, his integrity help lead some people to Christ. Imagine that – “Spong Leads to Christ.” The Christ to which Bishop Spong leads people may be different from the Christ of those holding placards outside our conference. Do you suppose that bothers them most of all?

I was privileged to be a part of a small group that had dinner with the Spongs and the Reitans. I left the dinner with a copy of Bishop Spong’s autobiography, Here I Stand, signed. For David, My best for your creative ministry. Jack Spong.

It was a good couple of days and the weather was nice for those who chose to stand outside with their signs.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, March 8, 2009

My dad, Jerry Bard, died last Monday March 2. His memorial service was held Friday in the church I pastor, First United Methodist Church, Duluth. I officiated at the service. My dad was not a church-going person so there was not another congregation in the picture. While I wrestled with the decision, I decided I wanted to officiate as a last gift to my father. Our relationship was not always an easy one, but I wanted to offer that last gift.

I wrote the following poem on December 16, 2008, the day I first visited my father in the hospital. He would never be out of a health care facility from that day until March 2. This poem, too, is a gift for my father, to whom it is dedicated.

Room 9108
for Gerald E. Bard, October 13, 1935-March 2, 2009

Behind the curtain
in the darkened
hospital room
not the blustering
wizard whose
angry presence
could evoke
fear, even
but a
small shriveled
man wondering
if he would
bounce back
this time or…
now fed by a
bottle and a
tube not a
bottle and a
shot glass.
Fear now
replaced by
which is
a form of

With Faith and With Feathers,