~ Music as Prayer ~
“I will solve my riddle to the music of a harp.”
~ Psalm 49:4b
Dear Members and Friends,
Hollywood occasionally reintroduces us to old music that our society has long-since forgotten, little bits of Americana that ring a homey and vaguely familiar sound in our ears. This happened a lot in the early 2000s, as people were looking around for music that spoke a little more deeply to the soul than contemporary pop and hip-hop. The Coen Brothers came out with the now-classic film O Brother, Where Art Thou in the year 2000, and the soundtrack became more popular than the movie itself. It included such old-fashioned classics as “I’ll Fly Away,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and “In the Highways.” It also introduced us to songs most had never heard, but which had the same heartfelt sound to them. It was a mystery to me, when I first got back from Africa, to discover that all the most fashionable Presbyterians were singing a song about getting baptized in a river, called “Down to the River to Pray.” Why do we love music that sings of experiences we’ve never had—like river baptisms and breaking bread together on our knees?
Another movie from that era reminded us about the all-but-lost tradition of shape note singing—which is a form of sacred music that developed in Puritan New England and still lingers in some far-flung areas of the South. In 2003, the movie Cold Mountain featured hymns sung in the old shape note style, which is strictly a capella. It gives the melody to the tenors, and adds haunting and strange harmonizations. Shape note can take a familiar hymn like “What Wondrous Love Is This” and turn it into something wild and urgent-sounding. I recently encountered it in another film and found it so poignant and memorable that I did some research. I discovered that there is indeed a very devoted community of shape note singers around the world, with a club here in Pittsburgh.
Music speaks to the soul in a way that no other thing can. Music in church is never a performance, but a prayer. That’s why it’s really best not to clap after a great anthem by the choir or bell choir. We don’t applaud prayers; we simply allow them to bear our spirits to another realm, another perspective, a whole other dimension of life. And then, when they’re over, we linger in their afterglow, knowing that we’ve had an experience of the holy—something that no preacher’s words could ever begin to evoke. Besides, clapping is a slippery slope. If we do it once, won’t our musicians wonder if they did poorly when we fail to clap the next time? And if we clap every time, then won’t they begin to find it disingenuous? Something to consider. Of course, Psalm 47 does encourage handclapping in worship. There are surely times when it’s suitable, like when the children’s choir sings, or when we’re having our monthly service with First Baptist and everyone is clapping along to the beat.
You’re not going to find a choir as good as ours in many churches our size. Anne has transformed our music program. I invite you, in the coming weeks, to think about how music in your life functions as a prayer, music both sacred and secular. Also, let me know what hymns you’d like to sing. You can send me an email, or write them down on a prayer request card and drop them in the offering plate. Thanks for your part in the life of our church. It’s a privilege and a joy to be making this journey with you.
In Christ’s Peace,
PS: If you’re a visitor to Bower Hill Church and want to learn more about it, or about faith in general, we will be having a free “Newcomers’ Lunch” immediately following worship on Sunday, October 27, catered by Panera Bread. This is usually a small event with about a dozen people, and childcare will be provided. As always, feel free to contact me with any questions.