Praying Our Songs, Singing Our Prayers

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[original publication]

The Seminary Choir was ready to lead the entire worship service. The planning was complete, and different students took various leader¬ship roles. The planning team had chosen a Psalter Hymnal setting of Psalm 43, "Send Out Your Light and Your Truth," as a sung prayer for illumination before the sermon. One worship leader began the service. After we sang this prayer, another student stepped into the pulpit and said, "Let us pray." He then offered a spoken prayer for illumination, read the Scripture, and opened the Word.

At the next choir rehearsal we did the usual "debriefing," and I asked him why he had offered a spoken prayer for illumination. "I always pray before I preach," was his response. But we had just sung a prayer! The discussion that followed raised an important question: Do we really pray when we sing? During that sung prayer, his thoughts were moving forward to his spoken prayer and the message to follow.

Praying with Words

Augustine once said, “He who sings prays twice." For some that statement still rings true, and their spirits soar in prayer when they sing. But others struggle to pray when they sing, or perhaps they haven t even tried to pray when they sing.

Our psalms and hymns as well as responses and choruses offer a rich array of ways to pray together in song. Many texts are extended prayers coupled with teaching and witness. For example, "Oh, for a Thousand Tongues" was originally eighteen stanzas long; the seven stanzas in the Psalter Hymnal include prayers of petition and praise, teaching on the power of Christ, and encouragement to those in need. Other songs are short and simple, with a focus on one particular petition or reason for praise - sometimes repeated several times. The prayer-song "In Our Lives, Lord, Be Glorified" is one such example of a short and simple prayer song.

There is a good place for both the more complex and the more simple texts worship. We can pray simply and we can pray with more "content," (For biblical exam¬ples, compare the three verses of Psalm 131 with Psalm 119). The important purpose of both types of songs is to unite us in prayer. When we offer our voices in song, we should also be offering our hearts in prayer.

Praying with Melodies

But the text is only one part of the song. It’s the quality of the melody that reaches as deeply into our hearts, some- in times more deeply than the words. We all know the power of a melody to evoke responses that cannot be put into words. Aid we know that when we pray the Spirit prays with us, interceding for us not in words, but with groans that words cannot express" (Romans 8:26). Music is God’s gift to us by which we can express every¬thing from groans of need h^^r- to exaltation in praise and thanksgiving. Learning new melodies is a challenge for many people, especially those who do not know how to read music. Most people are able to read words, but far fewer know how to read notes, and the growing practice of projecting only texts on screens will further diminish the number of music readers. If the notes are there, those who can read music can help the others learn new songs. Until we really know the song, it is difficult to pray and sing at the same time. Praying while we sing new songs may be a greater challenge than singing familiar ones.

Leading Sung Prayer

But there is still more to praying our songs, or singing our prayers. A song is more than just a text and a tune; it is not really a song until it is sung. To be able to pray when we sing, we need someone to lead us. The leadership is just as crucial as the text and the tune. And so, going back to the semi¬nary choir's leadership at that same service, the planning group paid just as much attention to the way the songs were introduced and sung as they did to choosing the songs. A song of praise— one kind of prayer—was introduced with bright organ sounds, while a prayer of confession was led very quietly One song was better suited to piano and guitar than to organ, another was introduced by someone singing the first stanza as a solo testimony.

Surely musical leadership is first of all spiritual leadership The whole issue is one of discernment: how best to help people pray when they sing. Whether the congregation is led from the organ or by a praise team, the impetus needs to be spiritual sensitivity to what is sung, what it follows, what it precedes, and why it is there.

To summarize, to be able to sing our prayers, or pray our songs, we need to offer the words and melody to God with our minds and hearts and voices, all together, led by those who can discern how to bind the whole body together, uniting us in our prayers.

Those who find it difficult to pray can be encouraged when others pray with them, perhaps for them, under¬standing also that even the Holy Spirit is praying with and for us all, and that Christ himself is with us when we meet together in his name. To enter into that kind of sung prayer is one of the most holy and beautiful experiences of Christian community.

So many worship songs have been composed in the last fifty years that one congregation may be singing an entirely different repertoire from another. New songs are replacing older ones at an ever increasing rate. Will there ever be another Psalter Hymnal? Or will Christian Reformed congregations become so diverse that each one reflects the kind of niche marketing that works against community?

A new Psalter Hymnal is not currently in the works, but a supplement is. Sing! A New Creation, with about 250 contemporary songs (all composed in the last fifty years) is being produced by CRC Publications, the Reformed Church in America, and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. It is scheduled for release in 2001. The supplement committee presented a draft to the CRC Publications Board in February, 1999. The discussion of that draft brought into very sharp focus the diversity in the Christian Reformed Church. One person's definition of "contemporary" was different from another's. What was familiar to some was totally new to others. Some congregations use the blue Psalter Hymnal some the gray, some use a second hymnal, some use no hymnal at all. It will increasingly be a challenge to keep a shared body of songs in our denomination.