There is a story of a man who played his violin in the subway. He played a classical piece; and then another. He played for 45 minutes. Trains came and went. People rushed by. A few paused for a moment– some dropped a dollar or two in his open violin case.
The same man played his violin later that evening in a grand concert hall. He was the featured soloist in a symphony orchestra. People dressed in gowns and suits paid a couple hundred dollars each for tickets to hear him play. They sat spellbound as his music filled the air. This was the same music, played by the same man, on the same violin as before. The only difference was how people listened.
When we pray, we’re not praying to an audience of rapt listeners. We’re pouring out our heart to our Heavenly Father. And it is music to His ears! Whether we are praying through our tears in a lonely jail cell or a war-torn shelter, or praying in a grand cathedral, or on a yacht in the Mediterranean; whether we are praying in broken phrases punctuated by heartbreak, or singing praises– it is the same music to Our Father’s ears.
Others may judge our words or our lives to be worthless. Others may not bother to listen to us; they may even try to silence us or drown us out. But God is ready to listen even to our weakest whimper, or our loudest scream.
God sends us music in return– the smile of a neighbor; the sunlight breaking through clouds; that unexpected sense of His presence in the middle of the darkest night.
Are we listening? Or are we rushing to catch the next train?
Have you ever thought that right now, somewhere in the world, someone is singing praises to God? Someone is praying somewhere in the world at every moment of every day. There is not a solitary silent moment in the universe, where God is not receiving the worship He deserves. In fact, Jesus told some angry Pharisees, when they asked Him to rebuke the people of Jerusalem, that if they (the people who were shouting praises) were to be silent, the very rocks would cry out! (See Luke 19: 37-40)
In fact, “the whole earth is full of His Glory” (Isaiah 6:3). From the smallest insect to the giant creatures in the seas; from the smallest of dust motes to the stars in the galaxies, all of creation sings, shouts, shines, and testifies to the Majesty of God.
We don’t hear this constant praise. Nor do we smell the aroma of constant prayers that rise up “like incense” to the throne of Heaven. But our prayer should be that Jesus would be as close as our every thought, word, and action throughout the day; that in everything we think, say, and do, we would be participating in the eternal and glorious worship of the One who is worthy. And that our prayers and praise would blend in harmony with all the others in the great “Song of the Redeemed.”
Prayer and praise should not be a single activity undertaken for a minute or even an hour a day. It should be as natural as breathing or blinking. And while we are in the flesh, and may not physically “pray without ceasing,” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) we can ask God to “take our moments and our days–let them flow in ceaseless praise!”
1 I love you, Lord, my strength. 2 The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. 3 I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I have been saved from my enemies. 4 The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. 5 The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. 6 In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears. 7 The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook; they trembled because he was angry. 8 Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it. 9 He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. 10 He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind. 11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him— the dark rain clouds of the sky. 12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced, with hailstones and bolts of lightning. 13 The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded. 14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them. 15 The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, Lord, at the blast of breath from your nostrils. 16He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. 17 He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. 18 They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. 19 He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.
Psalm 18:1-19 NIV (taken from biblegateway.com)
I grew up hearing hymns– lots of them. My mother and grandmother and aunt all played the piano or organ for church, and often practiced during the week. My father led the congregational singing sometimes, and my grandfather taught himself to play many musical instruments, and used hymns to become familiar with the chords, notes, and fingerings of the instrument du jour. The congregation at our small church sang with more gusto than musical talent, but we sang during the Sunday morning service, the Sunday evening service, the Wednesday evening service, and at any special occasion.
Two things happened as a result of this: one not-so-good, and one very good thing. The not-so-good thing was that I became somewhat inured to the songs and lyrics– I knew what the songs said, but I didn’t really understand or internalize the truths they contained. However, the very good thing was that the hymns stuck in my memory– years later they came back like the best of friends to comfort me, challenge me, and remind me of sacred realities in the midst of mundane frustrations and worldly confusions.
This old hymn, neglected, out-dated, and seldom sung in our current services, was my lullaby growing up. My mother would sing it over and over as she rocked me to sleep, often running out of verses and words and just humming or filling in with “la, la la, la,” until she reached the chorus. “Love lifted me. Love lifted me. When nothing else could help, Love lifted me.”
As a young child, I experienced the loving arms of my dear mother lifting me to her lap and rocking me for what seemed like hours until I drifted off to sleep. As a teen, I scoffed at the lyrics a bit–what need had I to be lifted and helped, when I was invincible and young and ready to conquer the world. As an adult, this old hymn came back with power and comfort when my own efforts and life’s stormy circumstances left me with little hope and lots of confusion, doubt, and regret. It reminds me that help and hope can be found even in the raging storms of grief, depression, oppression, and pain. “When nothing else could help…” God could, and did! He can and will!
“Love lifted me”–such a simple phrase, and by itself not a solid foundation for hope and victory. In fact, there are many popular songs that speak of love lifting a person up, making one feel buoyant and hopeful, joyful or young. But this song speaks of a different and everlasting, all-powerful love– the Love of Christ. And it doesn’t just lift us up from one pleasant place to another. It reaches down into the depths of sin, despair, and even death to lift us up beyond all hope, beyond any strength or effort we could generate or receive from any other source. And this great Love reaches down to lift me–even me! It does not belong only to the elite, the wealthy, the beautiful people, the gifted or the powerful. In fact, this love is especially close and available to those who have done nothing to deserve it; those who have been bypassed and ignored and left to drown in their own shame and sorrow.
Love. Lifted. Me! My prayer is that this same Love will surround you today, lifting you up, and helping you, just as it helps me and brings me life and hope, to the Glory of Christ our Savior.
I heard the bells on Christmas day Their old familiar carols play; In music sweet the tones repeat, “There’s peace on earth, good will to men.” I thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom Had rolled along th’ unbroken song Of peace on earth, good will to men. And in despair I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said, “For hate is strong, and mocks the song Of peace on earth, good will to men.” Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor does He sleep, For Christ is here; His Spirit near Brings peace on earth, good will to men.” *When men repent and turn from sin The Prince of Peace then enters in, And grace imparts within their hearts His peace on earth, good will to men. O souls amid earth’s busy strife, The Word of God is light and life; Oh, hear His voice, make Him your choice, Hail peace on earth, good will to men. Then happy, singing on your way, Your world will change from night to day; Your heart will feel the message real, Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with alterations and *additional text by Harlan D. Sorrell.
Some Christmas Carols are the joyous outpouring of Christmas cheer, filled with the laughter of wonder of the season. Others are forged in pain and doubt that has been turned to the light of hope and renewal. Such is the story behind this hymn. http://suvcw.org/mollus/art005.ht
The famous American poet, H. W. Longfellow had lost his wife in a tragic fire just three years before he nearly lost his son in the horrors of the Civil War. When his son was severely wounded in battle, Longfellow went to the military hospital, and, when he could, he transported his son home, knowing the journey would be painful and the outcome might not be a happy one. (His son lived, but never recovered fully– see the article above.) As he sat with his wounded son over the Christmas season, he could hear the bustle and chatter, and the bells ringing from the church steeples, announcing the good news of Christmas. As his pain and bitterness churned, he wrote about it, and about how his heart was turned from bitterness to hope. (See the original poem here: https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Poetry/christmas_bells.htm
Christmas is a time of warmth and good cheer for many–the ringing of bells, the singing of merry tunes, the tinsel and glitter of decorations–but for others, it is a time of deep soul-searching. “My life is a mess. I have suffered greatly. There is no Peace On Earth!” Yet, the hope and promise of Christmas rings out greater than the darkness and the blast of gunfire, the angry outcries and the weeping of those in grief.
How can this be?
Christmas reminds us that our circumstances, though very real and very painful, are confined to this time and space. They are temporary– not in the sense that we will forget our pain or loss– but that we can still experience hope and joy and healing in their midst. “The Wrong shall fail”–there will still be evil in the world, injustice, hunger, abuse, sickness–wrong will still exist, but it does not have the power to define us, to enslave us and take away our ability to do good. “The Right, prevail”–God’s promise of Messiah (among several hundred other prophetic promises!) has been fulfilled. God is Faithful. God’s word endures. God’s Justice Will Be Done, and there will be “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.”
Christmas also reminds us that it is just in those very small things– the tolling of bells, being able to hug your child, to share memories of loved ones who are no longer here, being grateful for small gifts, giving a word of encouragement–that hope and joy are spread like ripples of water and echoes of sound. Christ’s birth was humble, but it was heralded with the hosts of angels from the highest heavens.
My prayer today is that we would listen for the true message of Christmas, and that we would echo and repeat the message– even if it seems that we are being drowned out by sirens and protests, or silenced by those who are hurting and cannot hear the sweetness in the music of the season.
One of my favorite old hymns is the ancient Irish tune, “Be Thou My Vision.” I have heard it jokingly referred to as “the optometrist’s hymn.” But there’s a lot more to unpack in the title than just a plug for good eye care.
God’s word is full of references to sight, seeing, blindness, light, lamps, darkness, night, day, visions and dreams, foresight and prophecy, images and reflections, and much more. God is both the source of our sight, and of our insight. God sheds light on our deepest secrets of the past, and provides a lamp allowing us to see the obstacles ahead more clearly. Jesus came to be the Light of the World, and bring sight to the blind, both physically blind and spiritually blind.
Many times, we pray for answers– we want a quick solution to our circumstances, or a definitive direction for our next step. But God sometimes wants to show us a bigger picture. Sometimes, he wants to show us more intricate details. Instead of asking for what we want God to give us, we need to ask for God to give us the vision HE has for our future. He may not reveal every detail– or he may only reveal the next detailed step. But God’s vision is clearer and bigger, and more glorious than we will ever know if we aren’t willing to look with His eyes to see.
We also need to ask God to BE our vision– that we would see him more clearly for Who He Is! Whatever is in our focus will appear bigger and clearer than things in the periphery. When we allow Him to be our vision, we start to see things from His perspective, which makes all the difference. What we see on our own is often an optical illusion– problems look bigger than they really are, hurts and grievances grow larger, and people become distorted by the lenses or mirrors we use to view them. And we lose sight of God’s glory, wisdom, majesty, power, and everlasting love. But God restores our focus and our perspective, so that we see problems in the light of His power to overcome; we see people who are made in His likeness and image– people who are loved by God, even if they are in rebellion against Him. We see the glory of God’s creation as it was meant to be, even as we see the wreckage of pollution, corruption, disease and disaster. We see God’s mercy as lives are transformed and families are mended and justice is finally achieved. And we see the rays of hope in God’s promises fulfilled and those yet to be fulfilled.
World Cup fever is at a high this week. England was stunned by Croatia in the semi-finals–Croatia will face France in the finals on Sunday. Teams have played hard all season to make it to the World Cup– most of them will go home disappointed (at least a little). Fans will have to wait until next season to see their favorite team make another attempt at winning it all.
In the meantime, the players will be in the “off-season.” Some will take well-earned vacations, and spend more time with their families. Some will spend time with doctors and physical therapists to work on injuries sustained during the regular season. Some will be working with coaches and trainers to develop in areas where they feel they need extra help. Others will cut back on their training schedule. Still others will spend time with agents trying to get traded to another team (or avoid being traded to another team).
People who study sports often say that what happens in the “off-season” can be as important to players and teams as what happens during the intense training of the regular season. Habits form, attitudes develop, team chemistry alters– any or all of these factors can change for better or for worse.
The same is true in our prayer lives. When we are facing struggles or heartaches, we pray with intensity and passion. But when things are going smoothly, sometimes we let our prayer lives “take a break.” We pray with less frequency, less intensity, and less focus. I’m guilty of this; even though I know it can happen, bad habits creep in, and suddenly, my prayer life is haphazard and lackluster. Using a journal helps, in that I have a focus for each day already written in, and a place to write in new requests, and even answers.
However, a major part of staying on course is to commit to the discipline of prayer. “Discipline” sounds boring and constrained–something I do out of obligation and not out of love. But that’s not true of all discipline. Athletes are disciplined– because they love their sport, and they want to develop and play at the best of their ability. Musicians are disciplined– because they love music, and they want to develop their art. Professional athletes and musicians often have a contractual commitment to stay in practice and develop their talents. When athletes are part of a team, or musicians are part of a band, orchestra, or chamber group, they have an additional reason to be disciplined– to play more effectively with others.
In my personal life, there are disciplines– hygiene, sleep habits, diet, and exercise, that I practice, not because I love saying, “NO” to that piece of chocolate cake or walking that extra mile, but because I want to stay healthy, clean, and active. Prayer is no different– except that it is for my spiritual health– and it is part of my relationship with God.
Instead of slacking off during the “off-season”, many athletes and musicians will use this time to step back and look at what they have learned, what they would like to do better, and how they can develop their skills. I think this offers a great opportunity in prayer, as well. After a season of grief, struggle, doubt, or testing, it is good to take some time to make some assessments. Sometimes we don’t know all the reasons for the times of testing or trial we have just faced. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t look back and see whether we have grown, or if we need to make some adjustments, or if we have developed new habits or skills (good or bad). It is a good time to “count our blessings”, “pray without ceasing”, “ask, seek, and knock”, and look at the ways God has been faithful (and hopefully ways that we have been faithful!) over the years.
Some of us are in the struggle of a busy, harsh, or painful season. Let’s not let that struggle go to waste. Some of us will be facing trials next week, or next month–spending time training in the “off-season” will make us stronger for the fight! And the best news– we already know the outcome! Let’s pray harder– pray stronger–and go for the win!
I have a song that Jesus gave me,
It was sent from Heaven above;
There never was a sweeter melody,
‘Tis a melody of love.
I love the Christ who died on Calvary,
For He washed my sins away;
He put within my heart a melody,
And I know it’s there to stay.
‘Twill be my endless theme in Glory;
With the angels I will sing;
‘Twill be a song with glorious harmony,
When the courts of Heaven ring!
In my heart there rings a melody,
There rings a melody with Heaven’s harmony;
In my heart there rings a melody;
There rings a melody of Love.
Hymn by Elton M. Roth (1891-1951)
My grandfather had perfect pitch–he could hear a musical note and tell you what the note was or whether it was “in tune”. He loved music and taught himself to play several musical instruments, including trombone, ukulele, auto harp, thumb harp, saxophone, violin, flute, banjo, dulcimer, trumpet, penny whistle, ocarina, and harmonica. My grandmother played piano, organ, and a host of percussion instruments.
My grandfather could hear perfect pitch, but he rarely sang. He could make wonderful music with instruments, but not with his own voice. He might have done so, but he never bothered to practice. In fact, while he could play a multitude of instruments, he never became proficient on any of them.
Prayer is accessible to anyone, as is music, but tuning and practice are required if we want to pursue prayer as a discipline and a means to develop a more harmonious relationship with God. Prayers that are out of tune can be sharp– nagging, complaining attempts to bargain with God; or they can be flat– lifeless and empty of trust and affection. Prayers that lead to growth, healing, and change are those that are “attuned” to the heart of God. What a sweet song of praise when we live in harmony with God and others– working, growing, sharing, and singing together.
I don’t have perfect pitch– I can usually hear if my voice or my flute seems out of tune with another instrument or other voices, but sometimes I need help. The same is true of my pursuit of prayer. I need help to keep in tune– a prayer journal is one tool I use. But it also helps to have a prayer group or prayer partner, a prayer list, or a book of prayer. For more ideas, see: Proactive Prayer Points and Prayer Journal.