New/old prayer/songs that open the heart to Jesus...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday, May 25, 2014. We are starting to wrap up a series I've called "Meeting God at Table with Jesus." And this week I try to show how some prayer/songs have helped me stay connected to the mystery of the Eucharist. There will be singing and thinking in a way that is tender and fun.


(Begin to play “Father I Adore You” at the close of the Gospel reading from Luke.)

When I first heard this song – and I remember the time and place back at my
first church in Saginaw, MI – it changed my life.  That really isn’t overstating the case; it changed the way I related to church music, it changed the way I connected to songs outside of my tradition and comfort zone and it changed the way I worked in relationship to my friends in the Roman Catholic community.  It really did change my life.

Let me tell you a brief story and then I’d like if you would sing it with me.  I was a newly ordained pastor – a hot shot who thought I was going to both change the world and Christ’s church – as is often the case with young clergy.  It was the second Tuesday in September 1983 and the Saginaw Ecumenical Ministry group was meeting in our church. Most of the gathering was what I had come to expect – and dread – from these gatherings:  a fair amount of blathering and self-congratulations by the more dominant clergy and a lot more nervous shuffling of feet by the rest of us.  But everything changed when Fr. Tim of the cathedral church, St. Mary’s, was asked to offer the closing prayer.  And he asked us to sing this song, “Father, I Adore You.”

He led it – teaching it to us a capella – and then asked us to sing it with him – and when we got to the closing “alleluias” he asked us to do it as a three part round.  Now I had never heard this before – up until this point in time I wasn’t really crazy about the way I had heard folk in Roman Catholic churches sing either – and I had generally shied away from the songs of the charismatics.  We used to call them charismaniacs back at Union Seminary.

But I have to tell you, this song touched me – and who knows why – it just felt like soul food.  So as we sang it without accompaniment in this little meeting room at First Congregational Church, Saginaw I let myself be carried by both the words and the tune. And when we started to sing the alleluias in a round, as the harmonies washed over and through me and the fall sunlight came in through the stained glass, I have to tell you I was lifted up and outside myself.  Man, I was lost in the beauty of the Holy Spirit in the most tender-hearted way as I lost track of all time and space. 

And I know that for some of you this will sound crazy, but I ached when we stopped singing this song; I didn’t want to let that sacred moment pass. There were tears of joy on my face and like a little child hearing her favorite story I wanted to say:  do it again – can we do that again – but mostly kept quiet.
But for more than 30 years this song has been prayer language for me.  Can you try it with me now – and do the alleluias as a round – first all together and then twice in two parts?

(Sing “Father, I Adore You” together)

As you can probably tell, I became one of those charismaniacs that day – not speaking in tongues – but discovering a whole new prayer language in some of the emerging music of the contemporary church.  Not all of it, for sure; there’s a ton of schlock out there, but that’s true with all genres from rock and roll to high art and classical music.  So, as my heart was opened in a new way by this new music, I began to explore my deepest spiritual and theological convictions through music.  As I often say, I have come to pray to the Lord through songs – some people do it in sitting meditation or yoga, some head out into nature or engage in acts of compassion or justice work – but I mostly open my heart to God through songs.  And over the years I’ve discovered some tunes the both express and articulate my deepest spiritual convictions.

You know, in this morning’s gospel lesson Jesus asks his dearest friends to help him prepare for the Feast of Passover. Now Passover is a way of being in prayer around a table – it is literally feasting with God through food – and the heart of the Passover prayer is freedom.  Freedom from fear, freedom from political and religious oppression, freedom to become fully our best and most sacred selves:  freedom, freedom, freedom.

And another song that I discovered about 10 years later evokes that for me – and I still pray and sing it over and over.  It is called:  “Jesus Your Blood.” Now I’m not a big BLOOD song type of Christian – there are people who LOVE the blood songs – but not me.  What REALLY speaks to me is the second verse in this song that says:  “Father, your love has set me free. Father your love lets me… be me.”

That’s what authentic religion is all about – not forcing us into somebody else’s mold of what is holy and good – but empowering and setting us free to become our fullest and best selves. Like St. Paul teaches us in the metaphor of the Body of Christ: there are different, unique and vital parts of every body – and each part is essential – and each part is different. And what makes it all work is when the heart is free to the heart – and the tongue is free to be the tongue – and the hands and legs and eyes.  Are you with me?  So let’s try this one – and if you are game we can do IT as a round, too – on the third verse – Spirit of God, you comfort me…

(Sing “Jesus Your Blood” together)

Now let me ask you something:  how are these songs different from hymns?  Do you have any ideas or thoughts about how they are different from hymns? My hunch is that some of these songs are not as uniform as a hymn.

+  You know the beauty of hymns is that they have been constructed to help groups of people sing them well all together.  Did you know that?  The poetry and movement of a hymn invites group participation. 

+  These songs are a little more uneven – quirky – more like folk music than hymns, do you think?  And people learn to sing folk music, even the most syncopated songs with the weirdest runs, through repetition. That’s why some of these songs have simple melodies and even simpler lyrics that are repeated a variety of times: like folk songs these spiritual tunes take some practice.

The third prayer song that I’d like to try with you articulates some of my deepest theological commitments – and sounds a little bit like something the Beatles wrote combined with an old African American gospel – it is a pop song and a love song and a gospel song all at once. The Beatles used that chord progression twice in two different songs:  the first time was when John Lennon wrote, “If I Fell” for the movie “A Hard Day’s Night” and the second time was when Paul McCartney wrote “Here, There and Everywhere” on the “Revolver” album.  
One of the things the new song prayers played with was borrowing whatever was good, true and beautiful from popular culture even if it originally had nothing to do with God. That’s part of what Paul was talking about in the first reading today when he told his Greek audience that he discerned something of truth in the sculptures he was seeing all around him – and something of the sacred in their poems, too – and because Paul knew the art of his culture, he was able to talk about the heart of God in ways that his audience could comprehend.

That’s another thing these new prayer songs attempted: they borrowed riffs and chord progressions from pop tunes and found ways to make the work for new believers.  Try this one with me – and I’m going to ask my mates to help out at the end – where you will follow me while they lay another track over the top of what we’re singing.
These three songs all speak of God’s abundant grace – the healing and wholeness that is at the heart of Christ’s ministry – and the love sent to us through the Holy Spirit so that we don’t have to rely just upon our own strength, wisdom and ability.  Literally, figuratively, spiritually, theologically and emotionally these new prayer/songs invite us to TRUST in the Lord and REST in God’s goodness.

The closing portion of today’s reading from the gospel of Luke comes after table fellowship with Jesus. The Master has shared Holy Communion with his friends – taught them about how he will nourish and bless them with God’s grace forever – and then stopped them from arguing about who will be the greatest.

It is a fascinating connection that links how Jesus serves US at Eucharist – he is the HOST – and then asks us to go out into the world to do likewise. He asks us to live in the world as servant leaders who take on the burdens of one another as a sign of our commitment and gratitude.

The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

Most of the new song/prayers were NOT written by old timers and professionals in the church; rather, they came from the hearts of young believers who were discovering God’s grace afresh.  Often these songs are very emotional – the best ones are not sentimental (although there are enough of those, too – but born of the heart.  And that’s because they are an attempt to express a mystical connection – a living and vibrant intimacy – between God, Christ, Spirit and the community of faith.

The last song I’d like you to sing with me is a Eucharistic hymn – it celebrates the fullness of God’s promise to us whenever we sit down with the Lord at Holy Communion – and it is one of my favorites.  It is joyful and sad at different times, it is simple and complex, too; and always it is grounded in the experience of opening our hearts to God and being filled from the inside out.

(Sing, “Jesus Is Our King” together)
That’s the way my heart feels it, beloved, so let me leave you with this prayer that comes from the wisdom of both country singer, Kathy Mattea, and America’s favorite curmudgeon, Mark Twain:

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,
Love like you’ve never been hurt
Dance like nobody’s watching
And live like it’s heaven on earth.


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