Not enough good things can be said about the ministry of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. The senior pastor, Tim Keller, is justly acclaimed for his Biblical preaching, which is both (unostentatiously) learned and deeply moving. And thousands of people, mostly young professionals, are attracted there every Sunday. I don’t go to Redeemer often — I tend on Sundays to attend more high-church, traditional-liturgy services, e.g., Episcopalian, Lutheran, Roman Catholic — but tonight I went to the evening service at Redeemer and was rewarded with one of the most spiritually affecting services I have ever encountered. The music at the evening services is provided by a six-piece jazz combo. I would call it lite-jazz if that term were not viewed as an insult by jazz people; let’s just say it was upbeat jazz. The band was simply great, its uptempo songs almost danceable; and now listen to some of the lyrics: “Sinners, whose love can ne’er forget the wormwood and the gall . . .”
The convicting message of sin and depravity — wormwood and gall! — could not be clearer in these lyrics. And yet the music is, at the very same time, utterly joyful. This is the Christian message in miniature: Suffering, failure, and heartbreak exist, they are — at least in this world — not abolished; but they are transfigured into something beautiful. This is the Christian understanding of joy: laughter and beauty in the full awareness and experience of tears.
The Rev. Keller’s sermon was terrific, relating God’s presence in the burning bush to the “FIRE” that blazed in the mystical experience in 1654 of Blaise Pascal. But the band had the final word, doing a splendid job with the instrumental postlude, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” by Joe Zawinul. (Here’s a version by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet; the version at Redeemer was a worthy competitor.) I strongly encourage visitors to NYC to give Redeemer a try; the services tend to be full but I’ve never had trouble getting a seat.