Learning the Cycle of Gospel Proclamation
Here’s a little quiz: What do these songs have in common?
- “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling”
- “The Beat Goes On”
- “Theme from M*A*S*H”
- “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”
- “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”
- “Mission:Impossible Theme”
- “Wichita Lineman”
- “California Girls”
- “La Bamba”
- “The Way We Were”
The common denominator is Carol Kaye. The songs on this list are less than a tenth of a per cent of the more than 10,000 tracks where she played bass or guitar. She was the only woman in the group of studio musicians that came to be known as the Wrecking Crew. Kaye paid the bills in the 60s and 70s cranking out tracks, often laying down the bass line or guitar lick that created the hit-making hook.
By night, though, Kaye sat in with the hot jazz combos in south LA. In a career retrospective interview, she says she learned the basics of jazz chord progression and how to use diminished, sustained and augmented chords to create depth to the music. She says, “When you know these jazz notes, you can create anything from them.” Kaye calls it “the cycle.”
Another jazz bassist, Anthony Cox, echoed Kaye when he told me about sitting in his basement studio practicing scales and runs for hours. His wife would fall asleep upstairs hearing his fingers thumping his fretless bass. Those hours created a muscle memory in him that served the music and allowed for the improvisation that’s at the core of jazz.
I never wanted to do that kind of work for Mrs. Kinkaid, my piano teacher for my single year of lessons in sixth grade. As a result, I have to think too hard to make the connection between the key signature and what my hands do. Five sharps are the stuff of my musical nightmares. Had I steeped myself in the structure of the music, I’d be able to play more than simple hymn tunes and a stumbling rendition of Schumann’s “Träumerei.”
Law and Gospel preaching has the same structural and improvisational aspects to it. It’s not an activity that comes easily to an untrained hand. But it’s possible to become an adept by learning “the cycle.” There are a melody and rhythm that begin to seep into a preacher’s being by shaping tongue, teeth, and lips to the announcement of mercy for sinners on account of Christ crucified.
Martin Luther intended such shaping with the Small Catechism (1529). As a member of a team of visitors who evaluated local congregations and pastors at his prince’s behest, Luther discovered the lousy state of preaching in Electoral Saxony. He held pastors and bishops accountable for not preaching in a way that the language of faith could come to their hearers. The need was dire, so Luther drafted the Catechism as a theological language primer.
As a teaching assistant for James Nestingen and Gerhard Forde’s course in the Lutheran Confessions, I had the task of quizzing class after class of second-year students in their oral exam. They were required to memorize the Catechism and the subjects of the 28 articles of the Augsburg Confession. I’d done my own memorization in confirmation when I was 14 and again when I was an MDiv student. That was done via a binge-and-purge method, but listening to these recitations cemented the Catechism in my ears and heart.
The language of the Catechism is a 200-proof distillation, shorthand for how God’s Word works in Scripture and in the church’s most vibrant preaching through the years. John’s Gospel, Paul’s letters, and the Psalms are present and accounted for. The Catechism both teaches us how to read Scripture and how to preach the “Living Word” that Gustav Wingren spoke so eloquently of.
Luther’s phrasing surely represents far less than a tenth of a percent of the proclamation sent abroad by the Spirit’s urging over the span of Christian history, but it’s mighty good stuff. The practice of speaking it will reconfigure a preacher’s thinking. A short list is even better than Carol Kaye’s discography:
- We should fear and love God, so that…
- Respect, obey, love, and serve
- Fatherly and divine goodness and mercy
- Not with silver and gold but with his holy and precious blood
- Drowned through daily repentance
- I cannot by my own understanding and effort
- Calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies
- That I might be his own and live under him in his kingdom
- For you
- This is most certainly true
By knowing “the cycle,” it’s possible for a preacher to address any passage of Scripture, even the most difficult of texts. In my first call in South Dakota, the synod asked four of the newest pastors to deliver studies on the assembly’s theme, “Rooted in the Gospel.” Each preacher was given a single word to preach on. Paul Rohde, campus pastor at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, was tasked with “the.” He preached about the difference between indefinite and definite articles. “A” and “an” imply that there are any number of gospels. But “the” is an assertion that this one, the Gospel grounded in history, in the person of Jesus Christ, and him crucified, is the only one. It’s the Gospel that does what it announces as it forgives the sins of the ungodly.
Albrecht Peters, the great scholar of the Small Catechism, knew how Luther’s little text nurtures preachers. "After all, all of the writings on the Church fathers do not afford such clarity as could be concentrated in the Small Catechism. This is why the reformer, together with those charges learning their ABC's, patiently and continually wants to suckle these central words of God and remain daily 'the catechism's student," (Peters, The Ten Commandments) If we are to suckle, the Holy Spirit is only too happy to express this Word.
Carol Kaye’s thumping bass line on Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” didn’t come from nowhere. Kaye knew the cycle. It’s something she still lives and breathes. True preaching arises when the Holy Spirit steeps the proclaimer in its own cycle of judgment and mercy. When that happens, new wine is poured and savored.
Hamlet said to the players at Elsinore, “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue” (Act 3, Scene 2). The Catechism makes for preaching done as trippingly as it gets.