Music and Mantras by Pastor Sarah Clark

‘Mantra’ is a big word we’ve borrowed from the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. In these original traditions, a mantra was a word or sound that people uttered over and over in order as an aid in meditation. And, in Hinduism and Buddhism, meditation is an essential faith practice.

I am neither Buddhist or Hindu. I’m Lutheran (and I’m a pastor). Prayer, for me, works best when it’s a mantra. A prayer that repeats words, and builds its own melody and rhythym… that’s my favorite sort of prayer. That sort of prayer works its way into my heart- its easiest for my brain to grasp- and its repetition leaves a mark on my soul.

My habit of praying mantra-style is probably weird. 😉 My congregation only ever sees me praying prayers that are like a one-sided dialogue; they’re either pre-written prayers or impromptu leadership prayers in worship or at meetings. I had to learn how to pray like that and it has taken years to calm the butterflies that inevitably take off in my stomach right before I stand up to lead a prayer.

I spent four years in seminary and never had even one class session on prayer. Prayer is a mystery to me… and when I walk through the book shelves at any book store, I realize that prayer must be a mystery to most people: there are a LOT of books published about praying.

I know people who pray silently, with their hands folded. I know people who pray long prayers, out loud, in public. I know people who pray while they run. I have friends who pray when they drive. My dad prays whenever he sees an ambulance or fire truck with sirens blaring. I know families who pray at the dinner table. I know pastors who love reading and teaching about prayer. I never buy those books about prayer sitting so nicely in the book shops. And, I don’t often pray in the regular ways that people would expect a pastor to pray.

I pray through music. Music gets me praying because music is only one quick step away from being like a mantra. Nothing makes me happier than when I discover a few lyrics in a song (usually on the Current) that could be my heart’s mantra. When I pray musical mantras my thoughts fade away, my inhibitions are calmed, my word choice doesn’t matter. I can just be in a state of prayer… and the musical accompaniment lifts my soul.

If you’d like to try it out, here are some musical-mantra-type-prayers I’ve found and loved: “ordinary love” (by u2), “and grace will lead me home” (from amazing grace), “the sounds of silence” (by paul simon), “shine, unsingable name, over everything” (by mike doughty), “God is around you and all that’s about you shines with the light” (by mason Jennings).

My Life Goes On in Endless Song

Since I am a pianist it probably won’t surprise you that music is at the foundation of my faith. Just the idea that God takes different vibrations and turns them into pitches–which create a musical language, which expresses emotion–bolsters my faith. Add inspirational text, for example Handel’s Messiah, and suddenly you have a complete miracle. Music is no accident of the universe. Music is one of God’s greatest gifts to us.

At the lunch table ten-year-old Mary asked a question from church this morning. What does consecrated mean? It came from the hymn “Take My Life and Let it Be.” Both kids started singing it right there at the table. Many Sunday afternoons I catch my family humming or singing songs from the service. Since I accompany the choir those anthems can stay with me for a very long time. What a high class problem–to get those pesky songs of faith and love stuck in your ear for the whole week! I believe that is the Holy Spirit at work. . .

I love all kinds of music–but I’m especially fond of old music. Old music feeds my faith because it anchors me to the faith of the past. When we sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” I remember that it was my grandfather’s favorite hymn and I think about the legacy of faith that he handed down. One of the last moments I had with my dad was sitting on the edge of his bed and singing through the LBW. After a mild stroke he couldn’t speak, but he could sing that bass part loud and clear. Now, when I hear those hymns I also hear my father’s voice. Music connects faith from generation to generation.

At the lake, the Messengers sing “The Spirit Intercedes for Us.” With sighs too deep for words to express. Music is part of that Spirit. Sometimes when things are so tough we don’t know what to say or what to pray–all that is left is to sing. The comfort of familiar melodies and harmonies gets us through to God when words alone fail. When even our faith fails. Once when I was having one of life’s little faith crises I overheard my son, Calvin, at the piano singing “God of Wonders Beyond Our Galaxy.” You are holy. Holy. It brought me back to whole. Back to holy. Sometimes we can sing for ourselves, and sometimes someone else has to sing the song for us for a little while.

My prayer is–wherever you are in your faith and whatever is going on in your life–that Easter and Easter’s musicians help sing the song for you a little every week. God bless.

Sara Stephens Kotrba