Thelonious Monk, aside from having one of the most enjoyable names in history, is also on the short list of all-time great, influential jazz musicians. I am not a jazz expert, but I still find a great deal of enjoyment when I listen to Monk’s music. At best, I have a novice understanding of his musicianship, but I know that it was common for him to use discordant notes and odd pauses in his music, causing some to refer to him as a musical humorist. I know that Monk seemed to live a fairly chaotic and tortured life.

My favorite Monk song, “This Is My Story, This Is My Song,” is his rendering of the chorus to the old hymn “Blessed Assurance.” It clocks in at less than two minutes, a mere 1:42 to be precise. Yet, for all its brevity, so much is spoken to me in this brief, wordless solo performance.

One of my favorite things about jazz is how artists can take the same song, the same basic chord structure, and tell an entirely different story. A musician’s style transforms the way a song is played and received, reorganizing preexisting themes to make something new. Miles could play a song with his lyrical, often sparse style and create one sound, and then Coltrane would play the same song with his chaotic “wall of sound” and create something else altogether. Then the two could come together and the extremes played off each other and created something else again, and all the while the same base song was being played each time.

There are many wonderful conversations that have taken place, and continue to take place, about how jazz improvisation relates to theology, as well as about how we approach scripture and how we understand what the gospel looks like in different times and cultural contexts. The way a jazz musician performs or records a song is intentional and is part of how they are telling that particular story, or setting that particular mood, et cetera. The improvisation of jazz provides space for the creation of new meaning out of old chords, and it is in this space where I believe redemption is active in Monk’s recording of “This Is My Story, This Is My Song.”
Monk was a master pianist. He could have played this simple hymn without any effort at all—mediocre church pianists all over the world manage as much every week. Yet Monk performs as if he is struggling through each note. He plays the song slowly, agonizing over each moment. He stutters and pauses in odd spots, he misplays notes multiple times, he sounds more like an eight-year-old at a recital than one of the most important figures in the history of jazz. Perhaps this is just another manifestation of his unusual style, but even so, it takes on more significance for me given the song selection. As Monk plays the melody of the hymn’s chorus, the lyrics probably surface in the minds of those familiar with it. As this happens, the original lyrics take on new mean ing for me as Monk slowly struggles his way through.

This . . . is . . . my . . . story. This is . . . my song. Praising my . . . Sav . . . ior . . . all the day long.

Each of us is continually involved in the co-creation of our story or the performance of our song. A song and a story alike are each common, apt metaphors for our lives, for living both as individuals and within a community. It is in the reality that we are all continually stumbling our way through life that the beauty and truth of Monk’s intentional awkwardness with this song becomes evident. His characteristic discordant notes and unconventional timing are so appropriate as a symbol for our own lives. It aptly expresses our own imperfect faith, our own inconsistent story.

I hope that I can tell my story in a way that contributes to the story, in a way that offers redemption to the broken world around me, yet my stuttering tongue and broken heart often keep me feeling useless and futile. I want to be able to play my song in a way that points to the beauty of the Kingdom, but my clumsy fingers seem to ruin the power of the melody. It is here that Monk’s performance offers me hope and inspires me within my own believing unbelief, in my own “already, but not yet” song.

Monk stutters his way through the song the way we stutter our way through ours; we forget the words, we play the wrong notes, we consistently strike the wrong keys. At times we feel like we are getting the hang of the whole thing only to stumble and trip over ourselves all over again. We play like children, barely making it through each line.

And yet, for all our stuttering and through all of our mistakes, the melody is still recognizable. Despite our butchering the delivery, this is still our story of redemption, still our song of salvation. Our assurance rests, not in how skilled our fingers may be, but in the beautiful Composer who joys in our feeble attempts at playing the music because it’s the song that we’re bumbling through. The Composer watches with the agony and joy of a mother watching her child in that first awkward recital.

There is something tremendously attractive and yet also mysterious and troubling about the idea that God insists so strongly on co-creation that the wrong notes and missed cues, instead of being merely tolerated, or even simply understood, are actually expected and welcomed because their presence is required if we are truly to be involved in the creation process.

Perhaps we learn a thing or two about performing as our experience increases. Perhaps we get a better sense for the timing and a greater grasp of the chords the more our ears become attuned to hearing the Composer’s performance. Yet in the long run, even a lifetime of progress amounts to very little, like the musical equivalent of the difference between a child who has been playing for a few days and a child who has been playing for a few weeks.

And still, for all of our ineptitude, this is our story, and this is our song. And Monk’s intentionally awkward fingers tell of my own beautiful futility in a profound way.

In the end, I am weak and selfish.

/ perfect submission / perfect delight /

I hurt others and live in ways that oppose everything I say I believe.

/ visions of rapture / now burst on my sight /

My pride and fear are overwhelming.

/ angels from heaven bring from above /

At any moment I feel ready to let go, to give up on belief, because the Gospel seems like it will never fully take hold of me.

/ echoes of mercy / whispers of love /

Sometimes I stare at the ceiling in the dark, wondering where the strength will come from to face myself and the harsh reality of life for one more day.

/ this is my story / this is my song /

I doubt and I rage. My heart curses His name.

/ praising my savior all the day long /

I scream and I spit. I lick my wounds of abandonment and loneliness. At my fingertips the story seems a lie, the song seems like so much meaningless noise.

/ this is my story / this is my song /

And a voice whispers in the darkness: “I am here. You play so beautifully. Take heart child. This is still your story; this is still your song, and it will be until the end of the age.”

/ praising my savior all the day long /

Lord, have mercy on these clumsy fingers. Amen.