When I was a kid there was a sign on the wall in the choir room at church with its message written in ecclesiastical Gothic script -- it's still there, I'm told -- that said, "He who prays sings twice." As a kid I scratched my head, wondering what it meant. Still do. (How can you pray twice?) One thing I'm pretty sure of, though, is singing is a way to pray.
Look at the Psalms. It's so easy to forget they're songs and songs with extraordinary range. Some are very easy to set to music, and they have been a million times. A half-dozen tunes come to mind for the 23rd Psalm: "My shepherd is Lord, I have all I need..." Others would challenge the gifts of the finest composers. The opening of Psalm 137 -- "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept..." -- could be bluesy, but what do you do with later lines like, "Happy shall be he that takes and dashes the little ones against the rocks?"
Verses like that embarrass us. They're disquieting, disconcerting. Part of me wants to edit them out of the Bible. What a mistake that would be, like censoring a prayer. What if we thought of them as songs? What if we sang out in our anger, like some hip-hop artist? What if our vengeful urges were put to music to sing to God? I can imagine the experience would be cleansing, healing. We all have enemies. We're supposed to pray about them. Even sing of them. Why should we be surprised when a psalm gets raw? A lot of other contemporary music is.
Of course, music is a great way to memorize words. In a pre-literate, pre-print era, putting a text to music was a way of remembering it. When you couldn't carry a pocket Bible or use a Bible app on your cell phone you could carry the words in your head and heart, surely the best place for them.
The early church created hymns that clarified their beliefs. Paul is probably quoting one of those early Christian hymns in his epistle to the Philippians (2:10-11): "That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things in earth and things under the earth. And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." Must have been the sort of thing Paul and Silas sang in jail, their feet in stocks. How else do you get through misery? Sing your way through it.
Civil Rights protesters sang as they marched. On the Sunday before the Martin Luther King holiday, we sing the African-American anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" at our church and I feel connected with every campaign for justice when I sing that high A at the end. The women in Liberia who led their peaceful protest against the monstrous Charles Taylor -- Pray the Devil Back to Hell in the documentary -- sat in the marketplace singing hymns.
First responders in Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010 remarked on the hymns the people sang as they waited for food, medicine, water, clothes, praising God. Why praise? Because praise is healing. Praise takes you out of yourself and puts you back into God's world. Praise is a song.
The songs that help me, the songs I pray, don't necessarily have to have God in them or faith or any conventional prayer language. I remember a paralyzing moment of depression many years ago. Fearing the onslaught of some panic attack, I reached for a cassette recorder and put in a tape of an old musical. In a rotten mood, in a rotten voice, I sang along and felt myself pulling away from the darkness in my head. Can't even tell you what the song was, but the act of singing was a Godsend.
You might be one of those who was told at a young age that you couldn't sing. Maybe you're scared of what will come out even if you attempt "Happy Birthday!" Mind you, the psalm says, "Make a joyful noise to the Lord." Nothing there about a perfect sound. I'd rather stand next to someone singing the wrong notes than think they are too intimidated to sing at all. We'll call it harmony. I sing loud anyway.
Someday I might lose my chops; I fear a wobble has entered my voice already, a vibrato big enough to drive a truck through. But I will sing, sing at the top of my lungs until I can't anymore, I will sing with my last breath. It's all prayer.