Dave Brubeck made a jazz listener out of me—and, because Brubeck made a jazz listener out of me, I discovered the theological significance of the next note, which may be a helpful thing for us all to think about as we begin a new year.

Not familiar with Dave Brubeck?  He was a pianist and composer who died a day before his 92nd birthday in 2012.  Brubeck hit his popular peak in the 1950s and 60s with songs such as “Take Five,” which you’ve probably heard before even if you didn’t know what you were listening to.

I confess that I had never heard of Dave Brubeck until I happened upon his obituary in a magazine.  Reading it, two things immediately jumped out at me.

First, was his bright, happy smile.  If the photo that accompanied the obituary was any indication of his personality, then Dave Brubeck clearly was the exact opposite of the stereotypical brooding, tortured, musical genius.  He appeared to radiate joy—and, by all accounts, he did.

Second, was the way that Brubeck’s Christian faith shaped his music.  He came to faith in middle age, after completing a piece commissioned by a Roman Catholic publication.  In his original score, he had accidentally left out an arrangement of the Lord’s Prayer.  Asked to go back and include it, Brubeck one night dreamed the entire orchestration and chorus—then jumped out of bed and immediately wrote it all down before the music slipped out of his mind.  “Because of this event,” he said, “I decided I might as well join the Catholic Church because someone somewhere was pulling me toward that end.”  For the rest of his life, he worked hard in his music to convey what he considered to be the heart of Jesus’ teaching: Love your enemies.

By the time I finished that obituary, I had decided that Dave Brubeck was a musician I wanted to get to know better.  So, I bought some albums, started listening, and before long my appreciation for jazz expanded beyond Brubeck.

Specifically, I started to appreciate the art of improvisation—the moment in a song when a musician steps out of the group and begins to play solo.  Improvising soloists have an idea of where they want to end up, but they haven’t decided exactly how they’re going to get there.  So, each note, then, opens up a whole range of possibilities and becomes a jumping-off point for the next note, whatever that note may be.

I was talking about improvisation once with Noel Friedline, the jazz pianist I know best.  “There really is no such thing as a wrong note in improv,” Noel told me.  “It’s the next note that counts.  A good soloist can take what sounds like a wrong note and use it to take the song in a great new direction.  It’s all in what you decide to do with that next note.”

For most of us, last year was one, long, loud, sustained wrong note.  Now, as we begin a new year, it’s time for the next note.  How will we play it?

We really have two choices.  We can look back and obsess over what went wrong, how it went wrong, and why it went wrong.  We can nurse grudges, point fingers, look for scapegoats, and continue to expect the worst from our leaders, from one another, and from the year ahead.  It’s not easy to recover from a wrong note.  Sometimes it can bring the whole song to a screeching halt.  That’s one option.

Or, we can look forward, focusing our hope on what lies ahead and where God is opening doors that we’ve never noticed before.  If this is the decision we make—if we choose to concentrate our attention on the next note—then we allow the melody to continue flowing in a direction that may be different, but is most definitely something new, positive, and joyful.

There are plenty of places in the Bible where we read about God’s plans for the future—and God’s determination not to let God’s people stay stuck in an unpleasant past.  While Isaiah 43:19 and Philippians 3:13-14 are obvious examples of this, it’s Hebrews 12:12-13 that—for me, right now—highlights the theological significance of the next note.  “Therefore, lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet,” we read, “so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”  We can stay out of joint, or we can be healed.  That’s where things stand at the beginning of this new year.  All of us have choices to make.

And so, may the next note we play together in the name of  Jesus bring healing in 2021—and may the peace of Christ be with you all year long!