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I grew up singing in church choir. When I was a teenager, youth group friends got me into contemporary Christian music (CCM), and I never turned back. I listened to it my car and bedroom all the time. I filled my ears and headspace with Petra's eschatological lyrics set to rock music, Steven Curtis Chapman's encouraging lyrics set to acoustic guitar, and Avalon's platitudes set to soaring, stacked harmonies (to name just a few). CCM was there during some transformational times. My first time profession of faith was made at a concert by the little-known Al Denson. DC Talk was all the rage and proved Christians could be cool. And I still remember the transformative prayer time I had after a break-up with a girlfriend. "Abba, Father" by Rebecca St. James was on repeat that night.
Later in life, I came to appreciate the theological treasure trove in the lyrics of bands like Caedmon's Call, Jars of Clay, and Rich Mullins. I also came to appreciate the lyrical depth of hymns. Although a fair number of them strike me as self-righteous or convey more confidence than I can relate to, their history and message are invaluable and are achieving more appreciation among millennials; the children of those now middle-aged adults who grew up with seeker services and praise music. I too have grown impatient with praise and worship music. So much of it is uninteresting, musically as well as lyrically. It tends to repeat over and over using near-romantic language to describe one's adoration (enamoration?) with God. It doesn't fit my experience and some of it would scare off any human love interest.
Lyrics I find most meaningful are ones that richly express one's heart, wherever it may be, not shying away from things like pain and doubt. Some of the most powerful prayers I have ever heard put to music are songs that were not necessarily written by a confessing Christian for a Christian record label. Regardless of the original intent of such songs, many have become prayers for me.
There have been days when nothing expresses my heart to God better than "Bring Me to Life" by Evanescence. "Build Me Up From Bones" by Sarah Jarosz, perhaps unbeknownst to her, contains biblical imagery from Ezekiel and, if heard as a dialogue between oneself and God, can give you the chills. "What I've Done" by Linkin Park, particularly its visuals in the music video, is a more theologically articulate expression of sin, fallen humanity, and repentance than anything done for a Christian music label. I've used their song "Castle of Glass" to go along with the theme of human frailty in Ash Wednesday services. Indie artist Paul Dateh nails the experience of second guessing and trying to move on from the past in his song "Another Chance." Though it's only known to some as the theme song for Dawson's Creek, Paula Cole's "I Don't Want to Wait" is a great soundtrack for praying that God would make me more present to the here and now. "Better Days" by the Goo Goo Dolls is the prayer that's on my lips every December 31 as the ball drops. Even dark and depressing bands like Breaking Benjamin can produce songs that connect with me and my ministry, like "Anthem of the Angels," a song that reminds me of the pain and anxieties expressed by the loved ones of people who are in their last days.
But I'm also one of these people who can sometimes get just as much meaning out of an instrumental song. I know that's not everyone. I chuckle every time I think of a certain colleague who wiggles and squirms during such numbers and has been known to ask, "Why do we spoil a good worship service with a prelude?" But for me, some instrumental songs can communicate more than words can. One of my favorite instrumental artists these days is Buckethead. Yes, I know, he's weird. I have no idea what's behind his getup. But that guy can play the guitar. Some of his stuff is grungy, experimental rock, but his album Electric Tears is downright transcendent. Brian Carroll (his real name) is no Christian, but lately I've been using music from Electric Tears for prayer and meditation, both for myself and with groups. When I listen to his guitar pieces on that album, I could swear I know exactly what he was thinking and feeling as he wrote it.
Music prays. For me, anyway. The Spirit may intercede for me when my prayers don't have words (Romans 8:26), but music does a little bit of that too.
Every once in a while I sit down at the piano and piddle. Usually, when a song comes out, it's gone and I don't remember how I played it. Absent having the right technology and time to put it to paper, I recently recorded one and uploaded it. I'm sure my low-quality, ambient recordings are going to impress no one in the SoundCloud community, but below you'll find my short instrumental piece called "Contemplating." The song is saying something...although I couldn't explain it with words.
Whether you're a music person or not, may you know that anything that comes straight from your soul can be a prayer to God, and counts as "sacred music."