Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
Catholics. Among the fundamentalist evangelicals who surrounded me as I was growing up, the word bordered the obscene.
I trusted that there were good reasons for this. I was always quick to believe unflattering things that adults told me about other cultures, communities, and church denominations. I felt more secure if could dismiss as a waste of time—or as the way of fools and villains—what I did not understand. And from a distance, Catholic tradition looked suspiciously foreign, weird, and mysterious. If there was anything we did not tolerate in the evangelical worship services of my upbringing, it was mystery. The Gospel was meant to be explained, after all.
I may have sensed, on some level, the dissonance between such prejudice and Jesus’ own teachings. But if I did, I suppressed it. That sense of superiority, of being on the right team, of having Jesus’ favor: they felt too good to give up.
One of the easiest targets on my denominational dartboard was liturgy.
Catholics, Episcopalians, anyone who went to mass instead of church or participated in services heavy with recitation was treated with suspicion. “The mass is just a whole bunch of people going through the motions,” I’d say. “Kneel down, stand up, sit down, chant and sing the same old prayers, Sunday after Sunday. It’s so mechanical and repetitious,” I’d say. “In our church, we pray aloud one at a time about our own concerns. We don’t just, you know, read prayers.”
But what did I do, right after church, when I got in the family car, or ran off with friends, or walked home with my headphones plugged into my Sony Walkman?
I sang along to popular Christian music. I sang my favorites over and over again. Hundreds of times. I walked to the beat. I joined in on choruses that were the same every time I pressed play.
And in so doing, I was participating in the experience of countless young Christians singing along to the same scriptures and prayers all over the world. At concerts, I’d stand up and sit down with everyone else, based on what was happening onstage. I’d go through the motions. Sort of like the liturgy—practiced in private, but connecting me to believers all over the world.
In the practice of singing those songs over and over, I found a world of rewards. The words of the songs often came straight from scripture, and I soon had them memorized. Through the practice of those songs, I absorbed them. They would come to me in hard times and times of celebration, and I would pray them aloud. What’s more, when I sang I felt an exhilarating surrender of my immediate burdens and concerns, and a sense of connection to something larger than myself. I didn’t need the lyrics to describe specifics of my personal prayer requests; the lyrics were often spacious enough to cover them and many other concerns. And then, at concerts, I would find myself among strangers who knew all the words too, and I felt a companionship with them.
In recent years, the activity of, yes, going through motions has become for me a rich and meaningful practice of worship. I now attend a liturgical service on Sundays. And, as exercise or dietary discipline rewards the body over time, the liturgy—repetitious though it is—rewards my head and heart. I pray prayers and sing songs that restore my perspective, that lift me out of my immediate circumstances and self-absorption and unite me with the church across centuries and cultures. I become part of something tremendous. Communal. Timeless. And, yes, mysterious.
Maybe you sing prayers in a liturgy on Sunday morning. Maybe you sing prayers in your car on the way to work. Whatever the case, read on to discover new prayer songs or find others who enjoy your personal favorites.
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The Lone Bellow’s new album Then Came the Morning is full of soulful, passionate anthems about finding hope in the midst of hardship, heartbreak, and poverty. Its opening track is a testimony of Easter glory, of resurrection and transformation at the rising of the sun. Perhaps you saw them almost set fire to the stage on Late Night with David Letterman.
But for many, the highlight of the album comes during the soulful prayer “Watch over Us.” I love the album version, but I prefer their live performances. Sometimes they walk right into the middle of the crowd. It seems like the right thing to do.
It isn’t just the harmonies. It isn’t just the passion and soul in their performance. It’s the purpose of the song. It’s the prayer. It’s the invitation to sing along, to cooperatively call out for help. Watch their performance on CBS This Morning from just today.
Prayer songs have been commanding my attention in recent months. Is it the unrelenting and oppressive onslaught of violence and hatred in the news? Is it political turmoil? The threat of epidemics and monster viruses? A sense that the end is near? I don’t know. Maybe I just need prayer songs right now. Maybe that inclination to seek is leading me to find. Whatever the case, I’m finding them everywhere.
I heard one on the new, posthumous release of music by Pops Staples, produced by Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy. Pick up Don’t Lose This and listen to “Sweet Home.” (You can hear it playing in the background of this video.)
I’m also listening to a new record from Aaron Strumpel called Bright Star. It’s an album full of prayers, many of which are drawn straight from scripture. Strumpel’s voice has a soft sincerity that sounds, at times, like Coldplay’s Chris Martin. And the instrumentation on this record is shimmery, layered, and rich—but it’s also restrained as if it is meant to support group singing. Perhaps Strumpel intends it to serve as a soundtrack for worship services.
My favorite prayer song on Bright Star is “Won’t Stop”—an affirmation of God’s relentless faithfulness. It’s the edgiest track on the album, the one with the most grit and gumption.
I actually prefer an earlier iteration of this song which first appeared on Strumpel’s record Elephants. There it had a startling, improvisational, four-alarm-fire ferocity to it. Elephants sounds less like a soundtrack for a comfortable worship service and more like an invitation to tear our hearts open so that God can reach inside and repair what’s broken. Listen to the wilder, crazier version here.
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We need different kinds of prayer songs for different occasions, contexts, and experiences.
Last week, I noted the prominence of prayer in D’Angelo’s album of peaceful protest songs, and how it carries forward the practices of gospel singer Andrae Crouch and the revolutionary leader Dr. Martin Luther King. While I was writing that piece, I had a notion to post a question on Facebook. “What prayer songs mean the most to you?” Wave after wave of answers washed in: worship songs, laments, songs drawn from the Psalms, effusive expressions of praise.
You can scroll the whole overwhelming list here. Here are some highlights:
And some people even picked songs that weren’t by U2!
Novelist Tina Ann Forkner and Charles Atkinson both chose The Wailin’ Jennys singing “Glory Bound.”
Rebecca Florence Miller chose Rich Mullins’ “Hard to Get.”
Mark Moring picked “When the Saints” by Sarah Groves.
Elizabeth Rambo chose this recording of “Be Thou My Vision” sung by Alison Krauss, which incidentally is the hymn Anne and I chose for our wedding.
Audrey Simmons chose The Innocence Mission’s adaptation of Gerard Manley Hopkins—“No Storms Come”, and Denise Frame Harlan picked their song simply called “God is Love.”
Are you old enough to remember when pop culture embraced the prayer of Mr. Mister—“Kyrie”? Audiences sang along: “Carry a laser down the road that I must travel / Carry a laser through the darkness of the night . . .” What some didn’t know was that the lyrics were actually “Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy) down the road that I must travel . . .” Anyway, Jennifer Lee chose that one.
Sarah Partain mentioned two by her husband, Nathan Partain, director of worship and culture at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana: “The Lord is My Joy” and “The Wonderful Grace of Jesus.” (Look for the “listen” links.)
My personal favorites? Bruce Cockburn’s “Lord of the Starfields,” which Anne and I asked Seattle singer-songwriter Bryan Rust to perform in our wedding ceremony; “Answers Don’t Come Easy,” by Sam Phillips (back when she was known as Leslie Phillips); and “Jesus is Mine,” a hymn remade for a solo performance by Nathan Partain.
And I don’t know what I’d do without this song.
No matter who sings it.
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Which musical praises, laments, and appeals to God have become a meaningful practice for you?
Which are you likely to still be singing in thirty years the way that U2 and their audiences around the world continue to sing “40” together?
“40”. . . as in Psalm 40. It’s the same old song every time. And yet, from the time David the Psalmist first wrote the words to the most recent U2 concert, it’s always a brand new song.
Join the liturgy. Sing along.