Chops Don’t Fail Me Now

This past summer I bought myself a “new” trombone. A silver Olds with an F-slide, to be precise. It was used, off eBay, and there’s a sticker on the case with the fall football schedule of some high school team in Alabama, 1979. Oh, the stories this thing could tell, and the memories that came flooding back. 

The day I got it I polished it up, pursed my lips, and … phew … was reminded immediately that I haven’t played the trombone in over 10 years. There’s a reason why no one says, “It’s just like playing a trombone.” It isn’t a bike. There are specific muscles in your face and mouth used for brass instruments that, like any muscle, grow weak if unused for a long time. So if you don’t keep your “chops” up you’ll feel it sooner rather than later.

I needed to get my chops back because a friend asked me to play brass during the main Divine Service at our annual All Pastors Conference. Sure, it wasn’t really taxing music—more of a “pick up and play” situation with just a few hymns, a Sanctus, and a postlude—but again, picking up and playing after a decade of not would have meant a blown out embouchure before the service was even half over.

So I practiced. After a few weeks, the muscles came back and I could play for longer: 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes. Still nowhere near the endurance I had in my heyday, standing on the sidelines of a football game blasting out Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” and Pink Floyd’s “Money” at top volume. But it was enough for the more genteel setting of a Lutheran worship service.

Incidentally, one of the themes of the conference was on Christian identity and how we all need to strengthen our core spiritual practices for the culturally dark days ahead. Not quite a “circle the wagons” doomsday scenario, but rather a refocus on who we really are as Christians. In the face of so much evil outside of the church, we need to keep our chops up: worship regularly (in church), read the Bible, pray continually, be around other Christians, focus on your family. Get strong in peaceful (or at least neutral) times so that in hard times you know what to do and how to pray.

I’m reminded of a fairly new Big Band jazz standard I played in high school called “Chops Don’t Fail Me Now” by Dominic Spera. The song was fairly tricky, but it kicked. It was sloppy yet sharp in all the right ways befitting a jazz band. But yes, as the name says, you needed good chops. If we played that song towards the end of a set, your cheeks were screaming. Toward the end of the song you literally thought, “Chops don’t fail me now!” Like the last pushup before your arms give out or the final stretch of a footrace. Endurance wasn’t just beneficial; it was necessary.

I don’t know what the future holds, but Christians need stronger chops as a rule. To repeat what one of the speakers at the conference said (his name was Rod Dreher), “I am not optimistic about the future. But I have hope.” I agree: I frankly don’t believe in my fellow man. I think the real miracle is that anyone does any good at all. I think humanity is just as wicked, selfish, and irrational as it always has been. I think our current culture is getting worse, and maybe headed to the brink of another internal combustion. No, I’m not optimistic about the world at all. But I do have hope. I have hope that the Lord will sustain his church and send millions of hurting people into the arms of faithful Christian congregations. I have hope that Christ will continue to be our constant bulwark against a godless cultural maelstrom, even when our faith is vilified more and more in the public square. I have hope that the Holy Spirit will strengthen our chops so we can make it to the final postlude. As Jesus said about the End Times, “Because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matt. 24:12–14)

Amen. Chops don’t fail me now.