Prayer not performance

For a week now, my twins have been singing songs in the car they recently learned in school. One of them gets into it just a little more than the other. In fact, he does a perfect rendition of “God Bless America”… well perfect except for some missed words along the way. For example, he proudly sings each time “From the mountains, through the cherries…”  and ends with “my ho sweet ho.” 

We are working on corrections. 

But what I notice from him that I so greatly admire is that he is singing out so clearly with such unfettered joy. He clearly loves the feeling of the music coming from his mouth, and his smile while singing just lights up a room. I hope he never loses that.

Perhaps a not well-known thing about me is that I too love to sing. I always have. I remember singing a lot when I was a child, particularly in mass. I loved singing in mass. Somewhere along the line, however, I stopped singing if anyone was actually listening to me. I was intimidated by those who were better at it than me, and I received a few critiques along the way that honestly lowered my confidence a lot. I suddenly did not want to miss a note, and I did not want to embarrass myself. I started to get so overwhelmed with anxiety about singing in public, that I just stopped volunteering to do it. Perhaps, however, I was missing the point about what singing in mass was really about.

I had a great teacher for my liturgy class in graduate school that reminded us that singing in mass is not principally about “performing”. It is instead about praying. The music we sing in mass is a conversation with God, and the choir or the cantor leads the congregation in this special form of prayer. If it is about performance, than we have, perhaps, lost the point. 

At a conference earlier this year, we had the unique position of having no individuals who were liturgical musicians in the group. So, we just didn’t plan on having music during masses. At the first mass, I felt oddly compelled to sing the Alleluia before the Gospel was read. And everyone joined in with me as if they had just been waiting for someone to start it. So, at the next mass were having, I looked for hymnals and got a few other interested parties to do a few songs during the mass. Because we were all on the same level, making notes as best we could without instruments, it felt like one of the best musical prayers I had ever prayed. 

In the Gospel today, Jesus speaks about Pharisee who has forgotten about what prayer is really like. He has forgotten about the communal aspect of prayer. He has forgotten that in the Lord’s eyes we are all at the same level. And he has forgotten that it is not a performance. In contrast, Jesus also speaks about a tax collector who through his genuine and heartfelt words to God gets at the very root of what prayer should be…. Coming as you are, giving what you have, joining voices in praise. 

May you be able to share in prayer with your community this week without fear, coming just as you are, giving what you have, and joining your voice in praise.

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