Thursday, July 7, 2011

Prayer and Song

Some of the most humbling experiences in my life happen when I realize that I am not God. Of course I never consciously believe that I am God because that would make me a nut job, but it's true that I can go about my day living as though the world revolves around me. I can tend to think I am pretty important.

I think we all do this. We hunger, we eat. We want, we get. Most of our daily routines, habits and hobbies are maintained with the hope of helping us to accomplish unattainable things for ourselves. We want things like financial security, comfort and freedom. Most risks we take are for our own sake in order to achieve, if not those things, a sense of accomplishment and self pride. In short, most of what we do we do to feel good about ourselves, with the hope that someday everything in our lives will be perfect. We are inherently self-centered.

But every so often something hits me like a gust of wind, powerful yet fleeting, and it scoops me off the ground and gives me, if only briefly, a different perspective, one where I realize that I am not the main character in a movie called The Life of Matt MacDonald. And then I realize that I am not in control, and that my sense of safety is an illusion. That I am and always will be as close to death and tragedy as anyone else on this earth, and nothing I can ever do will fix that. In these moments I realize all of my self-inflicted anxiety and stress in my petty quest for comfort is nothing short of a colossal waste of time.

These are great moments.

There are a few things in life that will usher me into these types of moments. One of them is the beauty of nature - an incredible view of the sunset, the stars, or a mountain range for example. This is simple, it helps me to remember that I'm just an organism trying to survive on a speck of dust floating in the abyss, and that my worries are so small compared to the infinite universe or the expansive natural beauty of earth that existed before human eyes could see it. The other two things are prayer and song. They seem to have the similar effect of shifting my perspective from what doesn't matter to what does.

The Apostle Paul said, "Pray without ceasing." I think he knew something about the power of prayer that most of us tend to forget. The power of prayer is not only that sometimes they miraculously get answered, it's that when you pray it changes your perspective. You relinquish control of the future, and by doing that you are recognizing that you are not the center of the universe. 

I think this is one of the reasons that Alcoholics Anonymous has been so effective for years. A primary step of the program is to recognize that you are not in control, that there is a higher power. You have to humble yourself, you have to give up the idea that you have control over your addiction. You have to realize that you are not God and you cannot fix yourself. I think this happens when we pray.

It's amazing when it happens. I'll have a conflict with a person and a list will start forming in my head. The list includes the many ways they've wronged me, clearly justifying my anger against them. But then I hear this voice, usually right before a confrontation. It says pray about this. If I respond correctly, something happens. I'm whisked away from my pettiness, my need for retaliation and justice. When I appeal to a God that not only said, "Love your neighbor" but who also said, "Love your enemies, do good to those who curse you," I can only respond with love. It's like I've switched to a wide-angle birds-eye view and I see what truly matters; the big picture. And then I realize that it matters very little if I get my revenge, and it matters a lot if I love this person. My heart softens, and I am able to extend the same grace that I've received. The result is always much more joyful and rewarding then when I choose to harden my heart and exact revenge.

A prayer and a song can be very similar. Come to think of it, many of the songs I've written have been prayers of longing, kind of like those old Psalms that David wrote. I've always gravitated toward songs that are about being in one situation but wanting so desperately for another. I think we all relate to that because we all have that insatiable hunger for more. I enjoy songs of praise, the ones that thank God for our blessings and for being, well, God, and I think gratitude is a major key to living a joyful life. But for some reason I identify more with the struggle. I wish churches would play more sad, longing songs about wanting things to be made right in the world, and how it really sucks right now, but I imagine that wouldn't be very good for church attendance. 

Regardless of my preference, songs of all types have occasionally ushered me into the presence of something that felt so good and so right that it gave me a new frame of mind, like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. But it wasn't a weight that was placed on me, but one that I had selfishly placed on myself. My body responds to this with a tingle down my spine, goosebumps on my arms and a lump in my throat. Sometimes I'll be choking back tears to a song that a week ago I criticized for being heartless and boring. Perspective is everything. When this happens I can only feel two emotions: humility and gratitude.

Whenever I praying or singing, complain or thank, I acknowledge that there is something else more powerful than me at work in the world, and it rescues me from spiraling into a black hole of self-"comfort" that only leaves me miserable.

We cannot change the past or predict the future. Safety is an illusion. 

Live and love today.


  1. I really enjoyed that. I especially loved the part "Perspective is everything". It is totally true. One day you may complain that someone is too sad or upset over something and they need to be happier. But if you were in their position, you wouldnt want to be happy because of what happened. Everyone has a reason for what they do, and if people can get into other peoples perspective, i think this world would be a better place.

  2. Amazing. Profound and comforting to read. I agree with every syllable and believe Humility is a constant reminder of how minuscule we are and our biggest of problems and storms are but speckles of dust floating around in this blissfull abyss.

  3. Matt, this is an amazing entry. I appreciate you being genuine and that's one of the reasons why I'm drawn to your music. One of my favorite parts is where you said "The power of prayer is not only that sometimes they miraculously get answered, it's that when you pray it changes your perspective. You relinquish control of the future, and by doing that you are recognizing that you are not the center of the universe." This is so true. Thanks for this. I really needed the reminder.

  4. Matt, it's certainly been a long absence, but well worth the wait as usual! I particularly like the part where you talk about listening to the voice that tells you to pray about it, reminding you to love your neighbor as yourself and also to love your enemies and how when you listen to it your conflict is resolved in a much more appropriate manner. It would do us all good to practice this more often, I'm sure that it would make the world a safer place to live and my own house alot quieter!

  5. I can't help but quote Switchfoot's song "The Blues" (an excellent choice for your first "Lamenter's Church Hymnal"):

    "Is there nothing left now? Nothing left to sing? Are there any left who haven't kissed the Enemy? Is this the New Year or just another desperation? Does justice never find you? Do the wicked never lose? Is there any honest song to sing besides these blues? And nothing is okay until the world caves in..."

    Beautiful song.