(Non)Traditional Christmas Post 2/6 : Jarrett and Joseph


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I meant to sleep in.  But I didn’t.  My mind and body, still on the school-day rhythm, woke up at 4:15 and I couldn’t get 'em down. I got up, brewed some coffee, and got a little excited about the extra couple hours of reading.  After an hour and a half, the routine of getting ready for work was stirring me from the couch, so I poured coffee to go, slipped on my headphones, and meandered down the same streets I scooter through every morning.  I slowly past the shops opening for the day, smelled the baozi, and noticed the steam. I took some pictures and kept walking, soaking it all in, listening to a podcast, and thinking about today’s nontraditional blog post.  The morning was quiet and dark and slow.  It was simple. Brilliant. Enlightening.

After two hours of walking, I headed for home with a blog post in mind.  Joseph, and Keith Jarrett.

In 1975, Keith Jarrett was hours away from playing an improve jazz show in Cologne, Germany in front of fourteen hundred people.  But when he was introduced to the piano he was supposed to play for the evening, he called it off.  It was not what he expected.  The piano was not only too small for such a concert hall, it was out of tune, the black keys were sticking, and the peddles didn’t work.  The concert organizer, a seventeen-year-old German girl, desperately tried to fit the piano, but she couldn’t. Nor could she get a new one.

He refused to play.

She begged him to reconsider. She begged him to play anyway, knowing full well it would be disaster, but what could she do?  Fourteen hundred people would be arriving soon.

According to Tim Harford, an Economist and author of Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, Keith Jarrett looked at the young girl and said, “Never forget.  Only for you.” Then, he and his producer prepared themselves for the catastrophe. Keith and his producer recorded the show to document the importance of quality instruments – so that this mistake would never happen again. 

Instead, what they got was a masterpiece, Keith Jarrett’s most popular piece of work, and the best-selling solo jazz album and the best-selling piano album in history.  What you’re listening to now is a piece from that concert.  

You can hear Jarrett at various times in the background.  Tim Hartford says Jarrett is yelling out in pain for having to play so hard, and that's probably true, but midway through Pt. I. I swear Jarrett is talking to the music, feeling it, lost in it.  What follows is some of the best thirteen minutes of uninterrupted piano I've ever heard. 

(One could write a whole blog post on why and how the restrictions forced him to play better, how his limitations allowed him to flourish, but since I’ve already done that, we’ll just move right along.)

The podcast finished around 6:40ish and I was still a short hour away from home so I listened to Jarrett’s story again because an idea had crept in through the slightly dawning street and I wanted to run it through, one more time.  It was something Jarrett said, something about that night described that caught me as more than just a great story.  Listening to it again, another song came to mind.  One I hadn’t heard in almost fifteen years and probably wouldn’t the rest of my life, if not for the day before.

On Sunday, Dan McCort, a friend and colleague, was sharing some thoughts on the traditional Christmas story and briefly mentioned a song by Michael Card, “How Could it Be?”  In this song, Mr. Card tries to imagine what it might have been like to be Joseph.  I hadn’t heard this song since my last Christmas at home (yes, it’s a Christmas song, but no way will it every make a top 64).

After hearing Keith Jarrett’s story, I couldn’t get the story of Joseph out of my head – nor the words of Michael Card – DANG YOU DAN MCCORT!!!

In the song, Mr. Card, writing from the perspective of Joseph, sings, “Father show me where I fit into this plan of yours.  How can I raise a king?  How can I raise a king?  He looks so small, this baby in my arms. Sleeping now, so peacefully.  ‘The son of God,’ the angel said.  How can it be?”

“How can it be?”  I love this question because, for me, while walking the early morning streets, listening to the story of Keith Jerrett, this question hit a nerve.  I bet Jerrett asked it when given the piano, and if I were Joseph, I would be asking the same question, but not just about the baby in my arms, but about the whole friggen thing! 

No rooms available?  Seriously?  This is your son, God, yours! And you can’t even get him a room? Really?  How can it be!?

But neither Keith Jerrett nor Joseph are me so neither of them freaked out.  Instead, they both said . . . okay.  “I will do this for you.”

Sometimes I forget that God is a pretty good storyteller, but this morning, I was reminded of it yet again. 

Think back to all your history classes and of all the kings, presidents, chairmans, and lords that have lived and died on this earth, that you studied. Then, think of how many of them have a famous birth.  One that most everybody can recall.  I can’t think of any, can you?

Just the one.

Now, obviously God had a greater story in mind than simply creating a memorable birth.  He wanted to show Christ as different than any other king, to show Christ as humble.  But Joseph didn’t know that.  He just knew he was asked to care for a baby not his own – the Son of God.  And he knew a stable wasn’t suitable for a king.

But Joseph was thinking too historically, to earthly.  For him, kings were supposed to be born in palaces, surrounded by the best society has to offer, not the lowest.  But God wanted to break the monotony of what kings looked like, He didn’t want Christ to fade into the line of kings before and off kings to come; He wanted to show Christ as the King of kings – different than the rest.

So He broke the cycle and changed the nature and purpose of Kingship.

In the same podcast Tim Hartford describes several instances where a break in routine forces us to find a new way of doing things, and often times that new way is a better way.  For example, commuters during a transport strike in London a couple years ago had to find a new way to work because the subway was shut down for a few days.  After the strike, some Economist looked at the data and found that thousands of people who changed their route during the strike discovered better and quicker ways of getting to work.  The break in routine allowed them to discover a better way.

Joseph knew his adopted Son would break the routine of the world and way of life, and he knew his wife was responsible to care for that child.  To nurture and to feed baby Jesus.  But what about his role?  He was the father, the husband, the man of the house – in a strong patriarchal society. His job was to guide, provide, and take care of the family.

And they were headed for the stable.  “Father show me where I fit into this plan of yours” is perhaps an understatement of how Joseph might have felt.  Imagine how Keith Jerrett felt as he stood alone, behind his tiny, broken-down piano, in front of fourteen hundred people.

It probably pales in comparison to how Joseph felt.

But still, Joseph said yes, I’ll do this for you.

“When everything is perfect” Hartford says, “when everything is tidy, we’re on autopilot and we’re not necessarily living in the moment, not necessarily paying attention. And that’s a problem for us.”  And perhaps, in these moments, we aren’t seeing other people, or a bigger plan, because we’re too consumed with our plan and how we think kings should be born.

When our daily routines our broken, we are forced to evaluate who’s in charge and why we do what we do.

Hopefully, when that happens, like Jarrett and Joseph, we are confidently able to say, “I’m doing this for you,” and then sit and joyfully play our small role in the brilliant masterpiece.