A few years ago I sang with a musician who I really respect and who tells it like it is. At the end of my coaching he asked me “why do you sing like you think you’re worse than you are?”
I just completed six days in an Institute for Arts and Worship. You would think, having spent nearly a week dealing with two of my favorite things that I would be writing prodigiously. Instead, I’ve found myself totally blocked. There are many new ideas bumping around in my head and not a lot of direction as to how to piece them all together.
One insight from the week that stuck with me was that there are many similarities between worship and art. Both require honesty, vulnerability, communication, and trust. Both are expressive and both can be a little bit radical.
There is a tendency to be fussy with our liturgical worship and prayer, dressing it up in inauthentic ways to feel as if we’ve prepared enough. I was relieved to hear John Bell, our keynote, announce that our worship should be free of gimmicks, as gimmickry is one of my biggest pet peeves in liturgical planning (and I’ve yet to find a diplomatic way to point it out when I see it). Much like in art, the nonsense we use to dress things up often ends up getting in the way of the Thing.
I, of all people, should know, master that I am of getting in the way. I have been working all month on Carmina Burana, a piece I find extremely difficult, and which, therefore, scares me to death. Practicing has been going well, but one movement was still giving me grief this week. I was singing scared, singing like I couldn’t do it, getting in my own way. Not only was I not making expressive art, I wasn’t even singing in tune. I dreaded going to the practice room, and my dread was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So after a week of being pushed and stretched a million ways through the workshops at this Institute, I decided to let it all hang out in the practice room, to decide what I wanted to say in this movement and just let it out. No thinking about technique or perfection or control. Lo and behold, it was pretty close to perfect.
Why do we pray like we think we’re worse than we are? Are we afraid to let it all hang out, to cede control? Do we think that we won’t be able to do it? Do we worry if we dig too deep to express ourselves most authentically that we’ll dig up something we – or God – can’t handle? We let our liturgies turn into variety shows – or morgues – rather than daring to be the Body of Christ gathered in prayer. If that gathering is not our goal, why bother?
Getting out of the way is challenging, especially when we are comfortable with our impediments. Fortunate are we that we don’t need self-conscious gimmicks or to become someone else in order to pray. All week I fought the good fight at this institute, listening to effusive enthusiasm from others about their prayer experiences in dance, improv, collage. My experiences were no doubt holy, but nothing to go home and write a poem about. I felt pressure to find my bliss in one of these less familiar prayer forms, and it was making me a little grumpy.
During our final worship together we sang one of the hymns that I know inside and out. I closed my eyes and sang my prayer with a confidence that I was offering my most honest worship. God met me there, when I was being most myself, rather than when I was trying on other guises. I trusted enough to sing and pray as I was, not believing I was worse (or better) than I am. I wasn’t in my own way, and as the singing ended I concluded just as the hymn did – lost in wonder, love, and praise.