I live in a household of gifted musicians. My wife Jill, my daughters Emily and Ellie, sons Matt and Michael… Everyone, save yours truly has a nature “swing” woven deep in their bones. For them making music, and for me listening to it, has become inseparable from breathing and eating… and yes praying. Music works like a key to a secret door in my soul. When I want to focus in prayer, and integrate my mind and heart, music is a tool I leverage.
Sometimes for prayer I listen to contemporary worship songs; other times I turn to old hymns. I like Bach when I’m pondering the deep things of God, and Mozart when I feel playful.
But sometimes music surprises me, leading me to prayer through unexpected channels. The saccharine-sweet Christmas music that’s everywhere, all the time can be turned to a prayer. That takes imagination, I know, but it’s possible.
My friend Sig once prayed, actually for one of the first times in his life, listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Jennifer Schuchmann and I describe his story in our book, “Nine Ways God Always Speaks.”
Sig described himself as a practical atheist. He wasn’t hostile to religion, but he failed to see how religion provided realistic answers to the big questions in life. During spring semester of his freshman year in college, the computer science major would leave home to head for class. But instead, he would travel out of town to sit by a creek all day and read. When he returned home, he’d crank his cheap stereo and continue his “deep thoughts” while listening to Elton John, the Eagles, America, or Styx.
“Drifting” is how Sig described that time of his life. “I only liked tracks whose words I could understand,” said Sig. “Sometimes I would find a song I liked and play it over and over, dozens of times an hour, while I tried to make mental sense of the chaos that was my life. The song ‘Stairway to Heaven’ became one of my favorites.”
Sig was reading books by C.S. Lewis (he admired Lewis’s clear thinking), and Billy Graham (whom he admired for his convictions), even though he found them both wrong-headed. He was fascinated that those two authors–wildly divergent in style and content–both found Jesus fundamental to their ideas about morality as well as human purpose and personal identity.
“I wanted to have a sensible reason for living day to day, and by degrees I was starting to wonder if that reason might not be a person rather than an idea or philosophy. At last, I reached a point of understanding that Christianity entailed a decision on my part to believe in Jesus, not intellectually, but personally, by trusting and choosing to follow him.”
Sig describes what happened next:
One day in the midst of countless repeats of “Stairway to Heaven,” listening to the same words that I had heard probably two hundred times, I heard something new. At first, I thought the stereo speakers had gone quirky, because the volume, depth, clarity, and every aspect of sound quality improved. It was as if the stereo system had a disconnected speaker wire that suddenly reconnected briefly and brought out the full force of the music as I had never heard it before–for the duration of a single line: “The piper’s calling you to join him.”
Without knowing how I knew, God was calling me to join him–and I knew the way to do so was to trust in Jesus. I was so perplexed that I replayed that part of the song over and over, hoping to reproduce the acoustic effect. I couldn’t.
Later that spring, while sitting in a lawn chair beside the creek, I said yes to the invitation of God to come to Jesus.
Years later, I began to hear about the spiritual or unspiritual leanings of different musicians, and I was told–often with a judgmental attitude that questioned my faith–that Led Zeppelin was a “devil-worshipping band.” Whether or not this is true, I never tried to ascertain. Honestly, it didn’t matter to me then, and it doesn’t now.
When the Book of Hebrews opens with the declaration that God has spoken “at many times and in various ways,” I can confirm this from my own experience. If God spoke to me through words produced by those who hate him for the purpose of spreading lies from hell, then no ways of communicating are beyond his capability.
If God can speak to us through rock music, then we too can speak to God through the most familiar songs of our lives. Try it.
Check out the other “21 Ways to Pray” in a special Beliefnet devotional I’ve written. And as always, feel free to add in your own perspectives.