Monday, April 20, 2009


I've been talking a lot recently about the "Reformed" component of the Reformed Trombonist blog -- that is, the Reformed view of Christianity and how it applies to the world around us -- but I haven't been saying much about the "Trombonist" part. Well, boo on me. Mostly, it's been a slow year for me. I don't really gig much anymore, don't really want to, and am generally quite happy to play in church, stay home, enjoy our new sun room, and practice making martinis.

But this past week, I had a wonderful opportunity to play with the Eastern Tennessee State University Jazz Band. Their director, my friend, Dr. Dave, was a colleague of mine when I served in the 504th USAF Band at Travis AFB, way way back in the early 1980s. Unlike me, Dave went the academic route (I had tried that, and decided that it wasn't for me -- with my professors heartily concurring), and now runs the trumpet studio and the jazz band at ETSU. The annual jazz festival there has turned into an annual trek for several of us old band buddies.

The concert featured three trumpet soloists -- Jon, who also served with us at Travis and has matured into a wonderful trumpet player; Greg, a professor of trumpet at a large Midwestern university and a veteran of the Vegas scene; and Tony, former lead trumpet with some of the famous big bands and also a Vegas vet. With the three of them as well as Dr. Dave himself, there were some amazingly good trumpet sounds on stage this past Friday night. Dave was kind enough to add me to the program as the "comic relief", allowing me to do a solo on an old standard, "Makin' Whoopee." The entertainer George Gobel, once forced to follow Bob Hope and Dean Martin on The Johnny Carson Show, expressed his dismay in fine comedic fashion by asking, "Did you ever feel like the world's a tuxedo and you're a pair of brown shoes?" Yes, George, that's exactly how I felt. Nonetheless, the audience seemed to enjoy my efforts; if not, their politeness went well beyond the call of duty.

I particularly enjoyed working with Dave's students. Dr. Dave had me sit in with them even on the pieces on which I didn't solo. Dave runs a tight ship. He's tough on the students, I think, but fair, and accepts no less than their very best. We had a lot of those types of conductors when I was in music school, too. The difference between then and now is that, then, students did not talk back. Today, at least one or two students seem guaranteed to cop an attitude. This does not reflect badly at all on Dave, or on the other kids there who were respectful -- but it does reflect badly on our society, or so I fear, and confirms the downward spiral that seems so obvious to me, and perhaps others.

Thirty years ago, when I was in school, I don't think I ever witnessed a student talk back to a professor. I speak as an authority, of sorts, unfortunately -- if anyone could have served as the canary for student impudence, it would have been me. I was a bit of a hothead in my student days -- which is like saying Al Sharpton is a bit outspoken -- and quick to take offense. But I don't remember pushing back like a couple of these kids did, ever. I remember feeling like doing it. I remember suffering for sitting there and taking it. I remember complaining bitterly to my friends, who did not want to hear it. But I don't remember actually doing it. Those were the old days, I'm afraid. Respect for authority is vanishing, almost as fast as respect for America.

Just because someone happens to be older or in a position of authority, of course, does not mean they deserve respect. That's beside the point. There are practical reasons why one should be respectful of those in positions of authority, even when it is not deserved. First and foremost among these is that disrespect does not serve us well even on our own terms. The young simply do not understand how much they don't know, nor appreciate how unwise they are. They can't. All they can do is take our word for it, and they can't even do that if they cannot respect someone older and wiser.

But, as is always the case, practical reasons exist only because there are higher principles that must always be served, whether we like it or not. "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God" -- Romans 13:1. In the world the Lord has created, there will always be a higher authority than our own hearts, and we will need to learn, sooner or later, to submit to it. Who do we harm when we refuse to submit to God's will? God? Hardly. We harm ourselves and those around us. When we are in His court, He will not allow us make up our own rules -- any more than you or I would put up with a dog or a cat that repeatedly and defiantly soils the carpet. Sooner or later, the animal will submit, or will be banished outdoors, or sent to the pound. The Lord is actually blessing us when He provides authorities to whom we must submit, even when we don't particularly enjoy the experience. The Lord can live without our obedience; we can't.

But what to make of this younger generation? As my buddy Jimmy Ray says, "The report card is in for the parenting skills of the Baby Boomers: Straight F's." Kudos to those parents who have done the hard work of raising their children to love the Lord and respect authority. But at some point, for too many parents, it became more important to raise children to "make their own decisions," to "find their own answers" -- i.e., to treat authority as optional. This is the sort of foolishness that happens when the role of fatherhood has been diminished, as it has been in our society: each child grows up believing he is his own authority. No one could be equipped any worse for the job. It's just a stone's throw from there to Columbine.

True confessions time: I know whereof I speak. I was not a respectful person when I was young, and I would be much better off today, in every way, if I had been. I saw my father as a miserable, arbitrary, and often vindictive drunk, undeserving of my respect in just about every way. Though I called myself a Christian, somehow the part about "Honor thy father" did not register with me. Unfortunately, the Ten Commandments does not contain an asterisk indicating that the need to respect our fathers depends on fathers behaving well. If your own father does not get your respect, you are not therefore the more anxious to bestow it on someone else. Quite the contrary: respect is a habit. As I floundered my way into adulthood, I dragged around a burning hatred of authority -- senseless, arbitrary authority in particular. It was too much like being back home. This is the ball and chain I carried with me through college, the military, and into the civilian workforce. I still fight it, but I have learned (at last) that it is the problem, not the remedy.

The truth of the matter was that my father was a better man than I am in many ways; I was just too stupid and prideful to understand this. For one thing, he had (when he wasn't drinking) a pleasant nature, and was fun to be with; I'm on the opposite end, a sarcastic sort with a sharp tongue, who is actually a better person tipsy than sober. (I lose my self-importance and enjoy others a whole lot more when living better through chemistry.) Also, my dad served in World War II and survived the Battle of the Bulge; he suffered badly with frostbite, and wearing shoes was very uncomfortable for him for the rest of his life. I never gave that kind of service or sacrifice to my country. There are other ways my dad was better than me, but for now, just take my word for it. None of this justifies his drunkenness or excuses the way he used to treat us, but if I had been wiser, I would have had a better perspective. Through the grace of God, I do now honor and respect my father; too bad, my father never lived to see it.

When we disrespect authority, ultimately, we disrespect the Lord and harm ourselves in the process. This is the most painful lesson of my own life. I want to take those one or two kids who pushed back at Dr. Dave last week, shake them, and say, "You need to break this habit right now. If you do everything your professors tell you, as cheerfully as you can, they will do you far more good than harm. It is your best chance of getting where you want to be. You're not entitled to 'better' treatment. Jesus was the only one ever born who was entitled to the kind of deference you are demanding for yourself, and look at what we did to Him. If Jesus didn't get his just due, you certainly don't deserve any better."

In the master class last week at the jazz festival, Tony the trumpet player shared some of his hard-earned wisdom with the students, and summarized these matters in a breezy and economical fashion. "There are three things you need to remember in order to succeed in music," Tony said.

"One," holding up his index finger, "is, 'Show up!'"

"Two," holding up his index and middle finger, " is, 'Shut up!'"

"And three," adding another finger to the mix, "is, 'Play your ass off!'"

And then he concluded: "But the most important of these," brandishing his middle finger by itself, "is, 'Shut up!'"

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