Sing Your Prayers

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sing Your Prayers

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, June 17, 2018, the fourth Sunday after Pentecost. A Tempo sermon series.

Texts: Isaiah 49:8-13, Colossians 3:16-17


“Those who sing pray twice.” It’s a phrase I’ve heard here and there for years, but never knew where it came from until this past week when I discovered—lo and behold—it is adapted from some words of Saint Augustine!  Y’all are going to start thinking I have some kind of obsession with the fifth century Bishop of North Africa!  After a little research, it seems Augustine’s point is that singing adds an extra dimension to a text—that words sung rather than spoken express a depth of emotion that cannot be conveyed otherwise.


This idea that song conveys meaning is a very ancient concept. Many of you know that “Myths of ancient indigenous cultures claim that the universe began with one root sound which permeates the entire universe. According to ancient Vedic (Hindu) philosophy, the Sanskrit word, Om, is the primordial sound from which the whole universe emanated. Om represents the Divine and the Absolute.”[i]  The idea then, is that chanting “Om” puts you on the same sound “wave” as the Divine Creator and connects you—or makes you aware of your connection—to the whole of creation. Indigenous and religious cultures from around the world have, over the centuries, developed their own unique chants and songs.  Songs of joy unite people in that spirit, narrative songs teach the stories of tribal identity and relational values, repetitive chants are used to focus and quiet the mind.  Stories are told of how the Muslim sung call to prayer—called the adhan—have brought about conversion simply through the power of hearing it.[ii]  Psalms—our Judeo-Christian chant and hymnbook—are the lyrics of prayers to God and meditations on God written to be sung or chanted.  Both listening to and singing certain kinds of music and chants are known to have concrete effects upon the body.  This isn’t just about sitting in the Lotus position chanting “Om.”  Think about what happens when you are singing something or listening to a piece of music and all of a sudden you are moved to tears; or you feel in your body a sense of strength and courage; or you feel more relaxed or at peace.  At a funeral, you might be holding it together pretty well until a familiar melody begins to be played and voices swell to lift up the lyrics of the hymn… All this is to say, that music has a kind of spiritual power. It is one of the most ancient forms of connecting with God, of being in relationship with God; it’s one of the most ancient forms of prayer.


As we continue to ponder how we might “return to God’s pace” through prayer in this A Tempo series, I want to focus today singing as a form of prayer.  One of the prayers I have loved from my youth is referred to as “The Prayer of St. Francis” and is included in our United Methodist Hymnal on page 481. The words of this prayer are beautiful.  Some years back, I heard these words set to music by the singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan and my heart broke open all over again at their power.  Something happens when words and music work together to express or carry a message.


Some might imagine that only a professional singer will be able to create or participate in such a powerful—and even mystical—phenomenon.  But every time we gather for worship, we are singing prayers.  Last fall, we spent a whole series calling to mind the ways that singing together is a central part of our worship life as United Methodists and we studied together John Wesley’s “Directions for Singing.”  We looked at our hymnal during another sermon series on grace and noticed the headings in the top corners of its pages that help signal the theological or spiritual theme of the hymns in that section. And today I want us to explore the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” that we may have sung for years but never mentally connected with prayer. And for those of us new to this whole Christian worship thing, my hope is that our reflection on this central act of worship and the idea of prayer through singing will help you understand why we do it. (and, by the way, if you don’t have a great voice or can’t carry a tune fear not! The Bible encourages us to “make a joyful noise” not “make a pretty noise”—so you’re good!)…


Our text today begins with the encouragement to “let the word of God dwell in you richly.” Singing is a great way to do that! I can’t help but think of my Nana floating around the house humming and singing hymns… a powerful image…  Singing is a great way to learn things—I probably learned most of my core theology through the songs I sang as a child and youth.  Singing songs that have been sung in historic moments of struggle—those sung on civil rights freedom marches or the songs sung at Reconciling Ministries convocations for example—help connect us to the movement across time. Some of our hymn lyrics are a statement of faith or testimony or a proclamation of hope or a call to action.  Singing these kinds of hymns invites us to contemplate the promises of our faith, the providence of God, the call of God, and more. These hymns plant the word of God deep within us, draw us close to God and are a form of contemplative prayer.  


But some years back, I realized that so many of the hymns I grew up with are direct addresses to God.  Not really sure how I missed that detail for so long—perhaps some weird disconnect between “this is a song I sing in church” and “these are prayers that I pray.”  I’d made the initial connection by the time I arrived here in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, but it was here that I encountered the tradition of using the words of hymns as public prayers.  I’ll never forget hearing Bishop Felton May pray before he preached using these words: “Breathe on me, breath of God, ‘til I am wholly Thine. ‘Til all this earthly part of me, glows with thy fire divine.” (UMH #420)  It was then that I began to really think about praying the hymns and singing my prayers.


I wonder if there are hymns and songs that come to your mind as examples of what I’m talking about… There are prayers of invocation like “Spirit of the Living God” and “Open the Eyes of My Heart.”   Prayers of lament like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See.” There are prayers of petition like “I Need Thee Every Hour” (#397) and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” (#384)  There are prayers of praise like “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty,” (#64) “How Great Thou Art,” (#77) “Blessed Be Your Name,” (WS #3002) and “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” (#89)  There are prayers of confession like “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” (#286) and “Just as I Am, Without One Plea.” (#357)  There are prayers of commitment and surrender like “Here I Am to Worship” (WS #3177) and “Here I Am, Lord.” (#593) There are prayers of thanksgiving like “For the Beauty of the Earth” (#92) and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” (#140) All of these and many more give us powerful words to pray through singing.


Think about what it’s like when the music in this sanctuary draws all of us in and we raise our voices together…there’s something mystical about it.  It’s a deep form of communal prayer.


Throughout the Bible we are not only encouraged to sing to the Lord, but we’re given whole books of songs—like the love song that is Song of Solomon and the Psalms.  I’ve long celebrated the way the Psalms cover the full range of emotions, but this past week I found a writer who made me think about that in a new way—particularly parts of the Psalms that get really raw in anger and suffering. The example the writer uses is Psalm 137, a lament over the destruction of Israel. Briefly, the context of that Psalm is that the people have been the victims of horrific violence, their loved ones hurt and killed, their homes destroyed, and they are now exiled into the very lands inhabited by their conquerors.  The Psalmist gives voice to the lament and the raw emotion of the moment. The Psalm begins, “By the rivers of Babylon—/  there we sat down and there we wept / when we remembered Zion.” But the last words of that Psalm are, “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! / Happy shall they be who pay you back / what you have done to us! /Happy shall they be who take your little ones / and dash them against the rock!” The author writes, “Verses like that embarrass us. They’re disquieting, disconcerting. Part of me wants to edit them out of the Bible. What a mistake that would be, like censoring a prayer… What if we sang out in our anger…? What if our vengeful urges were put to music to sing to God? I can imagine the experience would be cleansing, healing. We all have enemies. We’re supposed to pray about them…Why should we be surprised when a psalm gets raw? A lot of other contemporary music is.”[iii]  This is simply another reminder that we don’t have to hold anything back from God. God can take whatever we’ve got.  And this week I imagine we might have some anger and raw emotion to bring into God’s presence in prayer. 


Throughout scripture we see people at key moments break into song—I realized it like one long musical in the old style---dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, and then someone starts singing!  There’s Miriam’s song of praise to God for liberation from slavery (Exodus 15:20-21), Israel’s song of thanksgiving for God’s provision of water in the wilderness (Numbers 21:17-18), the fight song of Deborah, Prophetess and Judge (Judges 5), David’s songs of praise, the prophet Isaiah’s songs of judgment, victory, and praise, the prophet Zephaniah’s song of joy (Zephaniah 3:14-20) and Mary’s song of praise— what we call the “Magnificat”: “My soul magnifies the Lord, /  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, / for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” (Luke 1:46-48)


Pray the hymns. Sing your prayers. Connect with God and with others through the power and cosmic resonance of music and feel Spirit’s power. Prayer is the heart of our spiritual life. And when you sing, you pray twice.





[iii] Rick Hamlin, “To Sing is To Pray,”