Music and Art as a way of Prayer...

NOTE: This Sunday, September 7th 2008, we will experiment with a new form of prayer using music and poetry in addition to the radically open communion table of Jesus. What follows are my introductory remarks for this celebration of Music, Art and Beauty as a Way of Meeting God in Worship.

I want to invite you into a new way of thinking – a fresh way of experiencing prayer and spiritual insight – a reformed way of entering worship. For, you see, today I want to ask you to be open to the voice of the Living God as encountered in music and the arts. Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that the One who is Holy is not present in traditional styles of worship and prayer; nor am I suggesting that what we are about to embrace in this experiment is better than the liturgies of previous generations. That would be both stupid and arrogant.

Rather what I am trying to articulate is that at this moment in time – for a thousand different reasons – there seems to be a consensus emerging that music – and other forms of artistic beauty – have a new role to play in the awakening of sacred compassion and hope within and among God’s people. That is to say, from painters and dancers, to poets, sculptors and musicians a chorus is forming around the idea that art can not only show us something of the world that ought to be, but beauty and music can help us taste it and see it, too.

Music, you see, can bring healing and nurture to both head and heart simultaneously – it can inspire and strengthen – and put us into intimate communion with the Lord so that our prayer is no longer an abstract intellectual exercise or a childhood habit of superstition, but a feast where we are fed from the inside out by God’s gracious presence. The poet, Maya Angelou, put it like this:

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here on our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out so clearly,
Come, you may stand upon my back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in your ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.
Now the Rock cries out to us today,
You may stand upon me; but do not hide your face.
For across the wall of the world
A River sings a beautiful song. It says,
Come, rest here by my side.

Does that resonate with you at all? She is saying what is being felt and created and experienced all over the world: the ground of our being – the Rock of existence and creativity – the very heart of God is calling us to rest – to be comforted – dare I say to be healed? So that we, in turn, might share the bounty we have received from the very heart of God as compassion and beautiful acts of justice.

This is critical – this is a deep way of living our spiritual commitments – for it is embodied spirituality, it is shared in community rather than privatized and it is about both head and heart. "Come to me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you rest, right? Are you tired, frustrated, burned out on religion? Come away with me… and I will show you the unforced rhythm of grace." (Matthew 11: 28)

And that is what this morning’s worship asks you to consider: letting go so that you can feel the unforced rhythm of grace. Letting go and being carried by the music, you see, is a way of prayer.

One of the readings you will hear in a moment comes from the last chapter of the book of Job – it is Job’s confession of faith. Scholars have argued for millennia about this ending – some choose to translate the Hebrew one way while others turn it upside down and draw opposing conclusions – but another consensus is emerging that perhaps the poet Stephen Mitchell has got it right. After 42 chapters of agony, death and fear – after 42 chapters of Job sucking it up and getting horrible spiritual wisdom from his so-called friends – after finally breaking down and screaming at the Lord in rage and encountering God’s mystical and almost Zen-like response from out of the whirlwind – Mitchell translates Job's epiphany like this:

Lord, I now know that you can do all things and nothing you wish is impossible. Who is this whose ignorant words cover my design with darkness? I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite. Listen and I will speak; I will question you, so please instruct me. For before I had only heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes has seen you – I have experienced you – so now I will become quiet, comforted that I am dust.

Now be careful: Job is not confessing that he is worthless or unworthy or filled with shame or sin when he tells God that he will be comforted that he is dust. No, he is admitting only that when he surrenders – let’s go to all his preconceived notions, hopes and fears about God – can his humanity - dust - be at rest in God’s loving and sacred presence. Are you with me? When Job let’s go… he can find rest and comfort in his human condition because he has found the healing presence of God in his life. No more abstractions. No more superstition. When he let's go, he let's God be God and that allows his dust to dust/ashes to ashes humanity to rest.

Since September 11th, more and more artists all across creation are wrestling with how they can help us both let go and be comforted by God’s presence. They are reclaiming their sacred calling to help us move beyond the cynicism of the status quo and imagine the world the way it ought to be – a world where we do something beautiful for the Lord – and are strengthen by the unforced rhythm of God’s grace.

So, let me ask you to sit back in active contemplation – what we are about to experience is NOT a performance – let the music and the poems become for you an extended time of prayer. The songs we have selected – and the readings from the Iona Community of Scotland and Holy Scripture – are a tapestry woven together to encourage your imagination and emotions.

Together they tell our faith story of how a Compassionate and Creative God set in motion a love that will not let us go no matter how wounded or broken we become. And the songs – taken from popular culture – underscore that in the eyes of the Lord there is no sacred or secular culture – no in and out – holy and human condition for the word has become flesh and dwelt among us full of truth and grace. These songs, then, are a way of bringing our real lives – not our pretend lives or our lives the way we wish they were but our real lives – into the presence of our Living God to experience the promise of comfort and rest and even peace. So pray with us now – rest – let go – and listen for the voice of the Lord here in community…

NOTE: what follows is an extended meditation on music and scripture based upon readings from the Community of Iona.

Song: “Hymn to Grace” - James Lumsden
Reading One: The drama of creation
In the beginning, God made the world: made it and mothered it, shaped it and fathered it; filled it with seeds and with signs of fertility, filled it with life and with song and variety. All that is green, blue, deep and growing, God’s is the hand that created you. All that is tender, firm, fragrant and curious, all that crawls, flies, swims, walks or is motionless. All that speaks, sings, cries, laughs or keeps silence – all that suffers, lacks, limps or longs for an end. God’s is that hand that created you. The world belongs to the Lord: the earth and all its people.

Song: “One Thousand Beautiful Things” - Annie Lennox

Reading Two: The drama of incarnation
When the time was right, God sent the Son: sent him and suckled him, reared him and risked him; filled him with laughter and tears and compassion, filled him with anger and love and devotion. Unwelcomed child, refugee and runaway: Christ is God’s own son. Skilled carpenter and homeless wayfarer: Christ is God’s own son. Feeder and teacher, healer and antagonist: Christ is God’s own son. Lover of the unlovable, toucher of the untouchable, forgiver of the unforgivable: Christ is God’s own son. Loved by the least, feared by the leaders; befriend by the weak, despised by the strong; deserted by his listeners, denied by his friends; bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, writing heaven’s pardon over earth’s mistakes: Christ is God’s own son.
And so the word became flesh and lived among us as one of us – full of truth and grace.

Song: Mary’s Eyes - Gaelic Storm

Reading Three: The Morning Lessons
Listen for the word of God in these words from Job: After Job had railed at God – and the Lord replied in a mystical and mysterious way – Job said: Lord, now I know that you can do all things and nothing you wish is impossible. Who is this whose ignorant words cover my design with darkness? I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite. Listen and I will speak; I will question you, so please instruct me. For before I had only heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you – I have experienced you – and that makes me content to be quiet, comforted in the dust of my humanity.

And from the gospel according to Mark: Now Jesus was at Bethany, a guest of Simon the Leper, and while he was eating dinner, a woman came up carrying a bottle of very expensive perfume. Opening the bottle, she poured it on his head. Some of the guests became furious among themselves. "That's criminal! A sheer waste! This perfume could have been sold for well over a year's wages and handed out to the poor." And they swelled up in anger, nearly bursting with indignation over her. But Jesus said, "Let her alone. Why are you giving her a hard time? She has just done something beautiful for the Lord. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives so whenever you feel like it, you can do something for them. Not so with me. She did what she could when she could—she pre-anointed my body for burial. And you can be sure that wherever in the whole world the Message is preached, what she just did is going to be talked about admiringly."

Song: “Things the Grandchildren Should Know” - Eels

Reading Four: The drama of salvation
When the world could wait no longer, the carpenters took up their tools, they made a cross for God’s own son, fashioned from wood and skill of human hands, fashioned from hate and will of human minds. He was a man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief – and for us he grieved. He was summoned to the judgment hall as an enemy of the state, a danger to religion: by us he was judged. He was lashed with tongues and scourged with whips – by his stripes we are healed. He was nailed to the cross by human hands – bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh. He died, declaring God’s forgiveness. He rose on the third day, transforming death. He ascended into heaven that he might be everywhere on earth. He sent the Holy Spirit as the seal of his intention: the creation of beauty among us. He sets before us bread and wine and invites everyone to his table so that we might rest… and be refreshed and made well again. For God sent Christ into the world not to condemn the world… but that the world might be made new.

Song: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” - George Harrison

Reading Five: The drama of faith, hope and love
In the end as in the beginning, God is God. Loved by us, wanted by us, praised by us, served by us; filling us all with the gifts of the Spirit, making us whole for good of creation: for bread and wine, this place and this time we return thanks to you, O God. For the peace we are promised which the world cannot destroy: we give thanks to you, O God. And for the hope of heaven on earth and the final song of joy: we give thanks to you, O God.

Song: “One of Us” - Joan Osborne


Adam said…
This is a powerful post, and I glad and excited to see your experimentation. A few years ago, my spiritual director helped me discover that the most important form of prayer for me is song-writing. This has given me the license to bring my music to God and offer it up as my gift back to God. In my musical prayers, I discover what God has written on my heart, and I notice things that I should be dealing with but have been ignoring for one reason or another. Music and art are powerful things because they connect us to the Creator by allowing us space for our own creativity. Thanks be to God!
Your fellow CCblogger
Anonymous said…
Hi. It seens the only time I comment it's to ask questions about the art. Do you have any information on the female christ figure? It is not the christa sculpture I am familiar with.
Trev Diesel said…

Greetings! I stumbled across your blog today. Great stuff - I love your thoughts on music, the church, God, etc.

I'm part of a multi-faith website - - the crossroads of music and spirituality. I'm interested in chatting with you about possibly contributing some of your wisdom to our site. If you're interested in talking about possibilities - shoot me an email at Thanks, RJ! Take care!
RJ said…
Hey Adam - thanks for the encouragement, man. I would love to hear some of your tunes; I, too, have found that bringing my music into worship opens me to the Spirit and gives us all a chance to pray in new and deeper ways. Keep up the groove.
RJ said…
Trevor - what a hot site! Thanks for stumbling on me. Let's keep in touch and see what might shake out. I would love to try writing a bit for you guys.

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