I'm a wannabe musician. I play guitar to some degree. I sing mostly on pitch, especially if I'm singing with somebody else. I have been known to hold a bass or tap out one-note pads on the keyboard.
Learning to play music takes lots of effort. At least it does for most people. There is the struggle with learning fingerings, chord structures, rhythms, scales and harmonies. We work through the basics over a long period of time. It takes hours, weeks, and years to become proficient. Then at some point -- with determination, perseverance and effort -- the focus on technique and performance gives way to the flow of the music. And that's the goal. You want to reach that point that the melody flows from the soul. It bypasses your effort and cascades through the air, apart from your will.
On many occasions I have experienced that thrill. Strumming chords and singing (un-mic-ed) praise to Jesus connects my soul more and more deeply with my Lord. It doesn't happen every time I play, but often enough to make me expect and desire it.
Sadly, there are many musicians who reach a great degree of technical proficiency but never crest the hill of pure expression through music. It sounds good, but it never truly flows. This is true of worship musicians and nightclub musicians. They are good, but not quite great. They miss the feel of abandonment in the wave of acoustic beauty. Real music is more than a song.
This same process applies to prayer. When we first begin to pray, we recite prayers we have learned. "Now I lay me down to sleep..."
"God is great, God is good. Let us thank him for our food..."
"Our Father, Who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name..."
We learn the grammar of prayer. How to address God. What kinds of things we say to him. Prayer vocabulary, like grace, mercy and faith. We learn helpful patterns like ACTS, for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. These patterns are like practicing musical scales. They help us learn the technique of prayer.
Many of us labor at this level of prayer for years. We systematize prayer with note cards (my favorite), notebooks, prayer apps. We become thoroughly organized, and commit to following the program. We set aside time every day for prayer. All this is good and helpful, and maybe necessary.
But prayer is more than a song. It is more than technique. More than commitment and organization. Much more.
Sadly, many become stuck in this level of prayer. The act of prayer feels mechanical, rote, or sterile. It gets the job done, but without much joy or excitement. We pray because we know it is good for us, like exercise or hummus. Like plodding musicians hammering away note after note, we pray away request after request. Some people will never be really good musicians because they don't have the raw talent. But in Christ everyone has the "raw talent" to be a virtuoso pray-er. We have the Holy Spirit himself living in us, flowing through us. We need to set aside our self-effort, and let his Spirit take charge in us.
The form of prayer, like the mechanics of music, must give way to the abandonment of expression of the soul. The forms have been like scaffolding, providing direction, shaping technique, until those forms become unnecessary. We crest the hill of prayer after years of working with those guidelines. Then we realize that the whole point of prayer is not to get stuff prayed for. The point of prayer is to connect our souls with Jesus.
The requests and the model prayers are merely ways for us to practice until we finally get it. After cresting that hill, we still pray for requests, we still use model prayers. But the prayer flows. It becomes beautiful before the Lord. It shapes us through the Spirit, as the Spirit flows through us. He is in us, and we are in him.
I'm a wannabe pray-er.