Praying Twice (for real this time)

Last week, I created an unnecessary problem for myself. I dove down a rabbit hole with rockets strapped to my feet, wondering for more than 600 words if something I knew to be true was really true, creating unnecessary insecurity that required a fair amount of intellectual meandering before I could resurface.

My wife tells me I overthink things.

She’s right, of course. But it’s not always a bad thing. I’m committed to intellectual and spiritual coherence. In other words, I want things to make sense. I don’t want to be duped by religious fairy tales, and I don’t want to ignore facts right in front of my face. Doing so is the path to all kinds of idiotic behavior, from denying climate science to thinking the president is somehow on God’s side. The last thing I want–and I mean literally the last thing–is to fall into that abyss of mass stupid.

But my tendency to overthink can be paralyzing at times. When you try to see the world from every perspective, you end up with a fly’s vision. You get lots of angles, and all of them fuzzy.

Every summer I end up trapped in overthinking hell. My job as campus pastor slows way down, which is a welcome relief at first. As the weeks drag on, however, I find that I have too much time in my own head. I think-think-think, and as I do I question everything from the meaning of the universe to my own mortality to the inevitability of the designated hitter coming to National League baseball (all of which are equally disturbing propositions to me).

In this state of mind, religious observance gets more and more difficult. Prayers become obligations at best and embarrassments at worse, litanies of worries recited to a God who may or may not be listening, if God is even real. There’s too much noise in my head to sort it all out, and I wonder if my being a pastor means I’m a fake. By the beginning of August, I’m usually pretty depressed.

What lifts me out of it is music.

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Students gathered in my back yard for WUTS–Worship Under the Stars. When we sing, we pray twice.

Each year when school starts, part of my task is to gather musicians to be part of a worship band. If I’m honest, however, that’s not really how it works. My students form the band. They invite their friends, arrange many of the songs, handle most of the logistics. I’m theoretically in charge, but that doesn’t do much for my soul. What brings me back to life is being invited into the music, included in the circle of musicians.

This year more than any other, I’ve been struck by how song and prayer are one and the same to me. So much of my life revolves around words, words, words–rooms of words piled upon words. A good song sweeps away words that are lazy or inconsequential. It gets at the essence of prayer–people and God, working in time, trusting the worth of the moment itself.

Playing and singing with these young adults gets me out of my own head. It forces me to listen to what’s around me–to tuning and voices and instrumentation. It calls me to stop worrying so much about the physics of harmony or the transient nature of sound in our temporary universe. It reminds me that my faith is intellectually plausible, but not dissectible. I can’t know everything. I don’t need to know everything.

Except that we love and are loved, which is reason enough to pray and to sing.

 

 

Praying Twice (Take 1)

“The one who sings prays twice.” 
                                                           –???

It’s the question marks beneath that quote that bother me. I don’t like loose ends.

IMG_2926Despite my wishing, however, no one seems to quite be able to pinpoint the source of this bit of spiritual wisdom. The signs I’ve seen in choir directors’ offices usually attribute it to St. Augustine, if it’s attributed at all. Others credit Martin Luther, although I’ve heard some Methodists suggest Charles Wesley best embodied the saying. In the end, however, no one can definitively say which of our spiritual forebears coined the maxim about praying twice when we sing.

I suspect that the general population doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about the origins of such meme-able quotes. Unfortunately, I am a member of not one but two nerd tribes–academia and clergy–for whom sources matter a great deal. The question of originality thus drives me bonkers.

On the bright side, one of these two tribes offers me a way to quiet my unease at the sing-pray ambiguity. And it’s not the one you might expect.

There is an aspect of the Christian faith that involves giving yourself over to a set of standards that are outside your wishes or expectations. Loving your enemies or giving away your money isn’t the most natural thing in the world, and yet those are clear expectations set forth by Jesus. When you sign up for the Jesus life, you agree to be shaped by the Bible, among other things.

But when you rely on a standard outside yourself in a search for truth, sources become critically important. If you follow an untrustworthy source, you’ll end up in some sketchy neighborhoods.

Church scholarship doesn’t offer any definitive answer as to who first suggested the link between prayer and song, and that’s a problem. There is no shortage of voices who say the exact opposite–that music gets in the way of a faithful life, that it causes us to turn our eyes and ears away from God and onto ourselves. Whom to believe?

Thankfully, my second tribe–academia–comes to the rescue, and in a surprising way.

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Jonathan, my bassoon-playing 12-year-old who knows my love for music, carved a lego-sized guitar for display in our office.

For all of its neuroticism and occasional arrogance, the academic world strives to be honest. What drives most of the researchers and professors I know is a search for truth in a methodical way. Those who fail to abide by basic intellectual and experimental standards usually get weeded out over time, brought into line by peers who challenge dubious practices or results.

Ironically, those who try to downplay science on religious grounds fail to realize that a similar thing has happened in the development of Christian faith. Much of what we hold to is the result of long-term experiment, the testing of what was passed down to us from Jesus and his followers. What we believe is tried by practice and then kept or discarded, not based on individual tastes but on long-range evaluation.

Kathleen Norris tells us in her brilliant book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography that we go to church to sing, and theology is secondary. This is wisdom borne out by centuries of experiment, of which I am now a part. And the results from all these various laboratories give me confidence that when I sing, it’s more than just belting out a tune. It’s an act of devotion that is both creative and formative.

More to come…

Be(liev)ing the Good

It’s not an easy day to live in the world. Not if you’re paying attention.

Perhaps that’s an ungrateful thing to say. Where I live and work, it is sunny and 74 degrees. Student athletes moved in yesterday, so the campus is alive with activity for the first time in months. Despite a few inevitable grumbles and annoyances, I have a truly terrific life.

But I can’t stop thinking about places where things aren’t wonderful at all—places like Iraq and Honduras and Gaza and Sierra Leone, where people are desperate and hopeless. I’ve read accounts of children being murdered by religious fanatics. I’ve heard news reports of the ebola epidemic. I’ve seen pictures of children who, unaccompanied, have traveled 2200 miles from home, only to be screamed at by anti-immigration zealots at the US border.

It’s all second-hand. It’s a long way away. But it’s the same world as mine. I share this planet with those who are killing and those who are dying. Some days I can shake that fact.

Today, not so much.

Some days, it takes more effort that others. Do it anyway.

Some days, it takes more effort that others. Do it anyway.

I know these sort of things have happened before. Happen all the time, when you take the long view of human history. Assyrian pillage. Roman oppression. Black Death. Spanish Flu. Nazis. Khmer Rouge. Innumerable thousands of catastrophes. It occurs to me that believing in a loving God in the face of it all boils down to a stubborn act of will.

To pile on even further, I am painfully aware that all of these atrocities belong in my NADTICDAI file, where I store things I have no way to deal with. I’ve filed them and gone about my day, and how have I spent my time? Smiling at students. Giving polite directions. Saying my prayers. Being nice.

And how does that address the problems?

It doesn’t.

NADTICDAI. Not a Damn Thing I Can Do About It.

I might as well sit in my corner and pout.

Which is where this line of thinking takes me. Which is a place I know I can’t go. Not and still live out the faith I profess.

I will likely never be able to address any of the world’s big problems directly, at least not on a large scale. I can look for ways to help, of course, and I am bound by creed to do all the good I can, whenever and however the opportunity presents itself. But in a realistic sense, I doubt I will ever make a peacekeeping mission to the Middle East, or that I’ll have the knowledge to treat an ebola patient, or that I’ll negotiate a truce in the Holy Land. Whether because of previous choices or providence or some cocktail thereof, these are not courses available to me.

But I have to live somewhere. And I have to live some way.

At Dakota Wesleyan, I see people wearing bright blue shirts that say “Believe there is good in the world.” But the text is highlighted in such a way as to embed a second message. “Be the good in the world.”

This afternoon, when I grudgingly approached my devotional reading, the opening prayer made me angry. It says:

“Lord Jesus Christ, hasten the day when all of your people may know the joy, peace, and harmony of your kingdom. Grant unto me this day the power to live within your kingdom. In the name of Christ. Amen” (from “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants” by Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck).

It seemed at first like such a stupid thing, to be so reduced by scope and geography that I can respond to urgent suffering with a trite prayer for joy and peace and so forth.

But as I think more about it, the prayer isn’t trite. It is an act of humility, admitting my limitations. At the same time, it is an act of faith, placing broken hearts and a broken world in God’s loving hands.

Believe there is good in the world.

And maybe what I do in my own context today matters too. Maybe there are minor tragedies to be averted through simple human kindness. Maybe my actions among the people I meet today will produce someone, even five or six degrees down the line, who does have direct impact in a matter of global importance. No way to know. Jesus never promised knowing. He did say love your neighbors.

Be the good in the world.

It’s not an easy day to live in the world. Maybe it never is.

But it’s still a day to live in the world, and to live well in it. It is a day for prayers and service, however small, and for simple trust in a God who has seen it all and has not turned away.