What I would really like to have been, given a perfect world, is a jazz pianist. I mean jazz. I don’t mean rock and roll. I mean the never-the-same-twice music the American black people gave the world.

— Kurt Vonnegut

For decades, a legendary trumpeter has taught an Improvisational Jazz course at the University of Virginia. He’s known internationally for being an accomplished player, but known locally for being a kind man who loves teaching. I fondly remember taking his class, watching him walk in ten minutes late each day and giving his undivided attention to a group of students whose talent ran the gamut from “promising virtuoso” to “amateur hack” (that would be me). He would often speak proverbially, offering silver bullets of wisdom. One of the lines that has lingered is, “You’re only as good as your last solo.” It is a humbling and haunting bit of truth for players of all stripes.

My professor knew that the nature of jazz lies in the moment. Once that moment passes, it’s gone. Such is one’s experience when climbing the ladder of success (i.e. the ladder of law that, as Bob Dylan says, “has no top and no bottom”). Whether you are a preacher delivering sermons, a teacher giving lectures, a pitcher starting games, or a detective solving crimes, you’re only as good as your last solo. The advertising legend Don Draper may have said it best: “Even though success is a reality, its effects are temporary. You get hungry even though you’ve just eaten.” He’s right. The temporal world is the stage of finite accomplishment.

While the pleasures and successes of this life are both real and wonderful, their shelf life is rather short. The fact that you are only as good as your last solo applies to everyone, providing a sweeping condemnation to both the virtuoso and the hack. Many a one-hit wonder has been haunted by the need to recapture that stroke of brilliance that launched their successful career. Whether it’s a relationship, an accomplishment, or a memory, many of us spend our lives doing the same.

And yet, the spontaneous, inspired spirit of jazz music itself tells a different story. John Coltrane’s masterwork A Love Supreme (which has been beautifully expounded upon here before) gives an account of being changed by the grace of God:

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.

This is where God’s grace offers relief from the long slog of matching your personal best. Whereas upward mobility can often resemble Sisyphus’ punishment, an action marked by grace is unselfconscious. Coltrane’s inspired work is in response to what was accomplished on the Cross. While his own accomplishment may not last (although I think it probably will!), there is a freeing realization that it was never his to begin with. Rather than being the driving force for Coltrane’s justification, the accomplishment is allowed to be an expression of joy and gratitude.

In Christianity, works are not the engine but, if anything, the caboose. The legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins once described the spiritual element of playing jazz in this way: “I’m not supposed to be playing, the music is supposed to be playing me. I’m just supposed to be standing there with the horn, moving my fingers. The music is supposed to be coming through me; that’s when it’s really happening.” Such is the inspired work of God. It’s never the same twice! As polish poet Stanislaus Lec once said, “The finger of God never leaves identical fingerprints.” Just as a seasoned jazz master, God’s Spirit moves on from one inspired note to another, not bothering to stick to the script. In both jazz and Christianity, the left hand often doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. And yet, by some miracle, the result is amazing.

Of course, you may be thinking, doesn’t it depend on who’s playing? Coltrane playing jazz sounds different from an amateur hack playing jazz (take it from me!). So, yes, it is good for one to be proficient in their profession. The theologian and the musician should both have appropriate training to do their jobs well, but the training is only the first part of the equation. As Charlie Parker once told a group of aspiring musicians, “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” One reason why people love jazz music so much is that it is infused with the Holy Spirit. It is informed by Jesus’ words, “Don’t worry about what you will say or how you will say it” (Mt 10:19). If jazz is too scripted it will lose its magic. There is an essential element of improvisation and surprise in order for it to have lasting value.

Thankfully, Christianity is not a craft to be proficient in but good news to receive. Every accomplishment, every good solo, is an echo of what God accomplished in Jesus Christ (Eph 3:11). While the effects of your accomplishments may only go so far, the purpose of his accomplishment is eternal. When we are given the grace to know and trust in the one needful thing — Christ crucified — we are free to forget everything else and just wail.