Monday, 9 March 2015

A Rhapsody

This year I’ve been drawn to the thought that prayer is music to the ears of God. A number of my favourite musical pieces have got a mention in the process. Prayer as a symphony, a concerto, a sonata, a theme and variations and an overture give us different ways of considering how we approach prayer. There is a discipline involved just as there is in writing those forms of music. Sometimes, however, it’s nice just to cast aside the formal patterns and let thoughts and words go where they will. That is Rhapsody.
One of the most famous perhaps is another of my favourites, the Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. In music the rhapsody is characterised by its freedom from recognised patterns. There is a sense of improvisation, of going with the flow. The Rhapsody in Blue is a classic example of melodies woven together and repeated in different ways throughout the work. Sometimes the mood is playful, sometimes reflective.
Prayer doesn’t always have to be formal. It doesn’t always have to have an intended purpose. It can sometimes be a fanciful, off-the-cuff conversation. It can be playful; it can muse; it can speculate. Is it too frivolous for God? I think not. I believe God chuckles when we let our minds go into free flight, exploring the possible and the impossible alike. There doesn’t always have to be a point to our prayer; simply being is purpose enough.

The rhapsody of prayer is not as easy to define as other ways of praying, just as the musical counterpart is less well defined. But it is often a sign of a deepening relationship. It comes out of a more relaxed – and less demanding – companionship; the easy silences, the shared joke. And perhaps in this way we begin to hear – and learn – more.

An Overture

When I think of the word ‘overture’ I am drawn to the musical meaning first. An overture is an introduction, often to an opera, and it is common to hear in it some of the main musical themes and melodies which will appear in full later. During the 19th century in particular this changed as composers wrote short descriptive pieces (eg Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture) telling a story. These were then used in orchestral concerts as an opening piece, lighter in intensity, before moving on to the more complex concerto and/or symphony. The word is also used to refer to the first approaches which are made in establishing relationships or opening business negotiations.
One of the important aspects of prayer works very much like an overture. Apparently Martin Luther once commented that he started the day with two hours of prayer, and he was often so busy he couldn’t get by without three hours of prayer! The more we need to do, the more we need to prayer.
The overture sets the scene; establishes the mood. It gives structure to what is to follow. It prepares the ear of the audience for the tale and the moods which they will encounter. Luther’s daily overture undoubtedly put him more in tune with God, but more importantly it prepared him for all he had to do. Perhaps it clarified his purposes, established his priorities, prepared him for the possible consequences. Prayer can do all those things for us too if we will use it that way.

But there is one more thing which overture prayer does. A successful journey requires that we are clear where we are starting from – and what our destination is.  Prayer gives us the opportunity to be grounded in Christ and know that wherever today may take us it is to him that we return.

Theme and Variations

In the early years of learning to play the piano, one of the pieces which caught my imagination was the Harmonious Blacksmith by Handel. Apparently inspired by the rhythmic sounds coming a blacksmith’s forge, it begins with a relatively simple melody which expresses a sense of joy in response to the beat of the blacksmith’s hammer. But Handel wasn’t content to leave it as a short piece. He began to play around with what he had written – the theme – and created a different melody which followed the shape – the rise and fall – of the first and kept the same pattern of harmony underneath. This was the first variation on the theme. After that he did it again, and then again, creating six variations in all. Many composers have done similar things, experimenting with different ways of expressing the same musical idea, pushing the boundaries to find out how far they can go before one theme transforms into a totally new one.
I think prayer can be a bit like that. When we are waiting for what seems like a long time for answers we are encouraged to be persistent. But praying the same thing over and over again can become a numbing experience. How many times have you prayed ‘Our Father who art in heaven…’ and got to the end of the prayer without being conscious of what you were praying? And does that matter? Given that our minds work on different levels of consciousness, the activity may still have value, but on a conscious level many have given up praying for a particular issue too soon because the answers haven’t come quickly enough and the prayer loses the passion which first inspired it.
Finding the variations on the theme is a challenging process and, I believe, God inspired. When God makes us wait for his answers he has something new to teach us – and remember that prayer is more about changing our minds and making us act rather than changing God’s mind or making him act. As we explore different angles (variations) on our prayer request (the theme), by praying for the same thing in different ways, we gain in understanding of what we are praying for. And when such prayers are answered they are usually more than simply lessons in persistence and patience; they do more than expand our understanding. The theme has expressed our passion; the variations are God’s way of intensifying that passion until we have no option but to act in response to that passion. And God smiles, because we got the message! He has answered our prayer!

A Sonata

While prayer may be likened to a symphony, where many threads of the music blend together, or to a concerto where a soloist performs with a supporting orchestra, these are only reflections of the activity when we come together. The Christian life involves a tidal ebb and flow where we gather together and then withdraw to our individual lives. The nature of our society means that we spend more time apart than together. Does that mean that, when we are apart, we cannot pray? On the contrary.
When we are apart the music of prayer takes on a different form. The sonata is an old form of music which has evolved over several centuries. Consequently it can take on different patterns but these are distinctive. One such pattern involves a fast section (or movement), followed by a slow one and concluding with a fast one again. Within each movement there will be phrases of music which are repeated or played in a different key. Sometimes the musical ideas can run through more than one movement or even the whole sonata.
Apart from the earliest examples the sonata is either a solo instrumental piece or else a soloist with an accompaniment. When we engage in prayer more time is spent as a soloist than in any kind of orchestra. There is much to be said for a discipline of form which similar to that of the musical sonata. Using simple patterns can help to keep our prayers fresh. One such is the four movement pattern ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. Another pattern is to be found in Jesus’ prayer recorded in John 17 where the first movement is prayer for himself, the second for those close to him and the third for the wider world. Two different kinds of sonata, and like the musical form they are not prescriptive. They can be varied, or changed completely. I believe God encourages us to be creative in prayer. But whether we use an ‘off the shelf’ formula or take a more creative approach, one thing is certain. It will music to God’s ears.

A Concerto

There are times in our prayer lives when the gathering for prayer takes a different form from the symphony. A piece of music can be built very successfully around a virtuoso solo instrument, or a small group of instruments, with the rest of the orchestra (although frequently not the full symphony orchestra) providing a supporting role. Some of my all-time favourite pieces of music feature concerti: Elgar’s Cello, Sibelius’ Violin, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano and, perhaps incongruously, ELO’s Concerto for a Rainy Day!
The solo instrument performs in the spotlight. The concerto is written to bring out both the special qualities of the instrument and the consummate skill of the performer. Sometimes a piece has been written specifically to cater for a particular person – like Ravel’s piano concerto for the left hand. At any time in our lives, any one of us may be called upon to stand out from the symphonic gathering (and remember that prayer is action as well as conversation). Each of us is an instrument with exquisite qualities (gifts, if you like) which, when played by a skilled performer, can move the listener in extraordinary ways.
The rest of the assembled instruments are no less important for all that their role is subsidiary in the performance. They are to use their own gifts and skills, as directed by the composer and conductor, in a way which does not highlight themselves but enhances the soloist, to give the soloist a brief rest while the work continues, or to be an appreciation society; a body of encouragement (as, for example, in ‘Mr Blue Sky’ – the virtuoso turn in the last movement of Concerto for a Rainy Day).
Whether, in any given prayer movement, we are called upon to take the solo or supporting part, there is one vital thing to remember. A Stradivarius may have qualities and capabilities not evident in a cheap factory violin but it still relies on the skill of the performer. In prayer we cannot play ourselves or one another, although to our shame it doesn’t stop us trying. So who is drawing the bow across our strings, pressing our keys, or blowing through our tubes?

The Spirit intercedes for us with [tunes] which words cannot express….!

Monday, 3 February 2014

A Symphony

I recall a song, which I first learned from the old Mission Praise songbook, beginning with the words ‘Lord make me an instrument’. The third verse began with the words ‘Lord make us a symphony, a symphony of worship’. There can be occasions when, at prayer meetings, two or more people can spontaneously pray the same prayer. Instruments playing in unison make a strong impact on the music but the richness of the symphony is in the different lines of music. Different instruments playing different tunes, some in a high register, some in a middle register, some deeper blend together to create an infinite variety of sounds. Sometimes there is a delicate blend of just a few instruments. At other times the whole orchestra is in full flow together. Instruments play for a while then rest. There is a constant ebb and flow of sound which makes up the power of the music to transport the listener.
                And different instruments have different sound qualities. Think of the plaintive oboe, the shrill piccolo, the haunting French horn. Each adds a special effect to the music when required. Part of the success of the symphony is in the intentional blending of the sounds to create a variety of moods.
                When we pray, we don’t all pray in the same way, or at the same time. We have different personal qualities and abilities. We use different language – and we focus on different issues. Sometimes unison prayer brings out a melodic theme. At other times we are all praying at the same time about different things. And God isn’t just listening…
                I guess at times our symphony of prayer must sound like the cacophony we associate with the orchestra tuning up at the start of a concert. But God is the composer, conductor and audience. When we pray ‘in his name’ we are alert to his baton, using our own special qualities, not trying to be like another different instrument, ready at his direction to blend our prayers and express our corporate concern and love for God’s world. Under God’s guidance our prayers become more effective; the symphony of prayer much more harmonious and full of melodies and counter-melodies. But if we get it wrong and it does sound more like the orchestra tuning up, remember this. I reckon God much prefers our cacophony to our silence…..