1/18/2007                                                                                       View Comments

Transforming Prayer and Hymns

By RubySera

One big issue many of us ex-Christians struggle with, esp. in the early stages of deconversion, is prayer. For me, music is a big issue, too. I was never exposed to anything but church hymns from the 1800s and earlier. Those hymns expressed many deep feelings as I struggled to cope with and understand life. They held the higher ideals of human existence. They explored the depth of human woe. They promised peace to the submissive soul. They gave voice the exuberance I felt when nature bursting with new life in spring and the scent of young grass and dandelions and birdsong filled the air.

I have a good voice and good memory and I love to sing. I would find self-expression of many forms through singing as I worked—it was a way to express my deepest secret feelings without anyone knowing what I was feeling. At times I was hanging onto life by the skin of my teeth but no one would rebuke me for feeling what I was feeling because they heard my voice heartily singing and never guessed at the hidden meanings I was expressing, of the desperate nourishment I wrung from these hymns. Thus, singing hymns was, and remains, a very important part of my life.

Since I, today, disagree so strongly on such a fundamental level with the overt messages of these hymns, yet I have nothing to take their place, I have explored new ways of understanding these hymns. If god is nothing but a feeling produced by a certain firing of neurons, then perhaps the feelings I associate with the old hymns are also nothing but an expression of certain feelings. When I find myself singing a hymn as I go about the business of daily life, I stop and ask myself what feeling it conveys. Invariably I find that there is a certain feeling rather than theology that I am expressing. The same goes for prayer.

When I find myself desperately "needing" to pray, I ask myself what issue, what concern, I actually am grappling with. Invariably it is some issue of life common to the human condition. This allows me to rephrase the self-talk to more accurately reflect the immediate concern as opposed to abstract it into god-talk. Talking to myself about the situation brings the relief I used to get from prayer. It clarifies the situation and helps me get a better handle on things in a way that might actually lead to some real problem-solving. I am in control. I am honest with myself. I don't have to sit on pins and needles hoping for all I’m worth that god will answer THIS prayer.

In this way I feel I am transforming prayer and hymns to serve the purpose of my new-found life. Perhaps others will benefit from the ideas. Maybe not.

25 comments:

Jim Etchison said...

I totally appreciate what you are saying. I, too, missed prayer during my early deconversion. I also found a very suitable replacement in simple quiet contemplation (i.e. thinking to myself.)

Music, however, is a bit more of a challenge. I think the music we initially identify with sometimes creates deep neural pathways, only only that original music can touch us deeply. For me (luckily) I always had a secret penchant for "secular" music so I was able to find secular music that helps me express various emotions. Your problem, however seems tougher, as it is those actual early hymns that touch that certain part of you. Your response is, in my opinion, remarkably rational. I'm not sure I could pallate those old hymns after deconverting, but if you can still use those songs to help express your emotions, great! Your other option is to explore the vast world of other great music that is out there.

Nice post! Thanks.

freedy said...

Ruby,...I know by heart over 300 worship songs,(20yrs.of music ministry}.

I've also wrote over 200 contemporary christian songs during that period.

I still play the old hymns(music only).I recently started to re-learn my old 60's 70's and 80's favorites,...I've found it to be very comforting.

Great "support" post for me.

Thanks for sharing it,Freedy

twincats said...

I still love the music, too. I sang in the choir for 15 years and really love choral music.

I have been known to sing the entire Matins liturgy from the Lutheran Hymnal (circa 1947, the one I grew up with) when I'm home alone. Sometimes I'll make up new words, sometimes I just substitute all the "thees" for "me's" and laugh at how silly it sounds. Usually I sing it through as I've memorized it after years of repitition.

I just like the music and the words don't mean anything anymore; they're just syllables to carry the notes.

Sarge said...

As a musician who was also (against my will) involved in church music, I can identify with Rub, Jim & Freedy.

Luckily for me our surroundings were saturated with an eclectic mix so I'm pretty comfortable with anything, and I now perform in many venues with many styles.

Not for nothing are oldies stations and collections so popular, music can almost restore the feelings one had when the music was playing.

In Viet Nam both times I was evaced to a surgical hospital for wounds, the staff in triage had a tape deck blasting away. On both occasions a medic (remarkable guys) got us all singing along with the tapes, had us sing as loud as we could. Made us all feel better, even guys that they couldn't give any pain meds or sedation to told me later how much better they felt doing it. I can't think about Brown Eyed Girl or Crimson and Clover without the picture of those places coming right back.

One of the xians I played for was a really silly old turd, and he hated the new hymn that were appearing in the updated hymnals. He would just say,"They're just trying to tear everything down. We had good Lowell Mason Hymns when I was growing up, and they were just fine."
I asked him if he couldn't envision another old dink like himself when the Lowell Mason numbers came in bemoaning the passing of the shaped note music, and before that someone feeing deprived because motets were being undone by shaped notes, and the good plain song was usurped by these new-fangled motets.He really saw no connection, but he was about the biggest doofus (and ultra religeous and hypocrital) I've ever run across. I wouldn't have been surprised to see gyroscopes and tornados studying him, taking notes on how to be really self centered.

freedy said...

Another thing I kind of miss is praying while exercising.

I use to pray in tongues while riding my stationary bike every morning.I would then proceed to interpret,...I had volumes of words I thought the lord was speaking to me.

Man I was freak-in crazy back then,(bi-polar).O the wasted follies of youth!

Anonymous said...

I like the music to, and I'm more of an atheists than most atheists. I think its very/very easy for people with talent (like you) to read way more into the tunes than is there. However, its still most enjoyable,I just tone down the imigination a dab. Elvis had the same problem- big time. In a way-its kind of like love-not all that bad with both feet on the ground

Micah Cowan said...

I really miss the music, too. Actually, if I hadn't been so emotionally caught up in the music ministry, I'm pretty sure I would've had an easier time losing my Christianity. After I'd convinced myself that the Bible had plenty of "nonsense" passages in it, it still took me a while to come to grips with "But, what about the testimony of my heart to God's presence when I'm worshipping?" (also, the times I had been convinced of God's direct intercession in events of my life).

One former worship leader, Dan Barker, the author of "Losing Faith in Faith", simply turned his creative energies to churning out songs about not needing a Savior or a God to feel good about oneself, or general themes of secular humanism. For my part, I don't feel strongly enough about those things to sing or write songs about them (I'd rather sing about the current norms of human reasoning abilities, and people's general inability to construct rational arguments, unwillingness to check up on facts, and eager willingness to deceive themselves... these things are a little difficult to convert smoothly into music).

My background seems to have involved a lot more "Contemporary Praise" music than yours did, but I still loved several of the hymns.

I think that the answer to reconciling the music you have loved (and continue to), with your newly conflicting values and beliefs, depends a lot on how seriously you must take the songs when you sing them. Many people who are not Christians and do not consider themselves to be "wretches", nevertheless have little difficulty in singing along with everyone else for "Amazing Grace". Like freedy, I have found myself playing old hymns and, very occasionally, a few of my favorite praise songs; I haven't sung to them, but there are a few hymns I might not mind singing to (this wouldn't include "The Battle Hymn of the Republic").

Basically, those songs in which I could find significant cultural, or possibly even just musical, value, I probably could be somewhat comfortable in singing. Even spiritual sentiments, if they can be somewhat separated from the concept of God.

As to prayer... I find myself wishing I could still do that. I consider it to have been a useful exercise in focusing my thoughts, and meditating on the areas in my life or the lives of others I want to pay attention to and improve. There is also an aspect of creative visualization to it that can be beneficial. I sometimes toy with the idea of continuing to pray to the God in whom I no longer believe, simply to continue to have these benefits, but of course I really wouldn't be able to bring myself to do it. I am looking for a suitable form of meditation with which I could feel comfortable, and could replace what prayer once was to me, but I haven't yet found it. Still, even the practice of setting aside time to sit quietly and think about the things I want to think about, could be very helpful.

Anonymous said...

Ruby - your love and longing for the music is understandable, given that it was such a big part of your early life. You really capture the essence of the debate with reference to the arts and the Catholic Church through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In those days, all expression of art - be it music, art, sculpting, architecture, literature - had to be expressed in the name of the church. Most were men and very few were women; but still, song for song's sake had to be hidden with religious lyrics. Poems were all religious in nature and the Church was really at helm artistically.

Does this make sense? If you are surrounded by nothing but religious music as your back drop, of course you will miss it - as I miss the music of my youth. It's all about environment...

Anonymous said...

Prayer has been a big issue for me. Growing up in a Christian home, I was taught to turn to God with EVERYTHING. So anytime something goes wrong, I'm in a bad mood, a friend needs help, whatever, my first impulse is to pray. I completely agree though, the "peace" that comes from prayer is due to thinking the situation out in my head, not from any metaphysical power. Thus, changing those prayers into much more rational thoughts of "what can I change about this situation and what's out of my hands" helps a great deal.

I've also found that not praying helps me stop worrying so much. Before, I would think, "If God isn't answering or is answering this way, then it must mean this and this or that is his will." That's just more bullshit to worry about when I should've just been going on with my life, doing what I could to remedy the situation and letting everything else go.

"There is only one way to happiness, and that is cease worrying about the things which are beyond the power of our will." -Epictetus

Lynn said...

Dear Ruby, thanks so much for your lovely post. Music is one of those things that just speaks (or sings) to the deepest and sweetest part of me. Some of those old hymns are just lovely music. After quite a long time, I have come to where "Abide with me" just expresses my human need for a comfort and connection when things go wrong or I am lonely. Amazing grace without the wretch part, lovely. I find myself singing hymns sometimes, feeling the artist who wrote the song, rather than the two-bit theologian who wrote the words.

I also find myself rewriting words to old Sunday school songs- I borrowed part of this from another blogger here - the Calvinist version (if they told the truth) of Jesus loves the little children. It goes a little something like this- sing along with me won't you? Ahem.

"Jesus loves the little children,
he predestined long ago,
red and yellow, black and white,
few are precious in his sight,
all the others straight to hell will surely go." Yes, they just don't tell the kids how it is, do they?


I'm so glad this site is here, I'm not the only one who lived through hellish religion, how good to know. Feeling alone with that stuff is just nightmarish. And to the christians who come through to try to harass us regularly, how do you lie to children that way?

Anonymous said...

I had forgotten about prayer. I remember thinking "I wish there really was someone who would listen and help me", but of course it doesn't matter how much we want something it doesn't change anything, there is no god.

Music, yep me too. All of our music was centered around church music. I did have some rock records but I missed out of so much good music. This wasn't just because of religion, I grew up in a small country town with two AM radio stations but there was still plenty of music I could have been exposed to. One of the joys of modern technology is going back and discovering old music, it's not just the access to the music but information about the music. At the moment I am interested in the old Manchester stuff (Joy Division etc) and old Blues.

Brett

Anonymous said...

Easiest thing to do to replace prayer is meditation, much better than any prayer i've ever done.

jim earl said...

It's funny how we react differently to the same things. When I came to the truth of religion, I gave it all up. The prayers, songs, worship, fellowship, all I gladly gave up. I don't miss any of them at all. However, I do find myself humming or thinking of some of the old gospel songs that I learned as a child. But I don't miss them at all. There is just too much other music out there to enjoy.

Now that's not to say I don't understand your need. I do. I just can't bring myself to enjoy anything from my religious past. I guess what I'm trying to say is I don't enjoy the reminders of when I was living without a brain.

To Lynn: I have my own version of the song you mentioned in your post. It goes much like yours:

"Jesus loves the little children, most of the children of the world,
red and yellow but mostly white,
they are precious in his sight,
Jesus loves most of the children of the world."

Left of Center said...

prayer is a hard one for many to get away from. There are many forms of meditation that acheive the same nueral effects in the brain. As to music... wow there is so much out there. Try this..
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ddn4MGaS3N4

Anonymous said...

How about meditation and singing?

Prayer, when done right, really is a form of meditation. Usually its not done right, but if you were really enjoying it and getting something from it, you were probably getting into a meditative state. That's beautiful and good for your mind. So try taking up meditation. It can be done through chanting or you can use 'light and sound machines' to achieve the same effect. Look them up, they actually do work, I own a few.

Leonard said...

Never missed prayer one little bit, but that is probably mainly because I usually talk to myself. Out loud. I talk back, as well.

The music, yes. George Carlin said, and I say it with him, "The only good thing to come out of religion was the music". Not the shitty modern Gospel stuff or, Set help us, Christian fucking rock music -
No. Classical music. Some of the greatest music was written in a tribute to God. I wonder if the music could have been so great otherwise. These composers were worshipping something they consider greater than themselves.

Perhaps that is somehow soothing because it´s such an innocent sacrifice compared to killing an innocent man. A god who likes music might not be such a bastard after all.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, folks, for your responses. For me, prayer was not that difficult to let go of. Several years ago, I found myself in yet another very distressing situation. I had to wait an hour to see a counselor. Might as well have been eternity. I was desperate.

As I waited outside the office the thought impressed itself upon my brain that neither god nor man can be trusted. Another thought that impressed itself upon my brain during that hour was: Prayer is wrong.

Since then, whenever I wanted to pray, that thought was there. At the time I assumed it came from God. Part of me denied the existence of god but part of me still believed and prayed "without ceasing." Since then, I have not prayed.

I sing all the time because it is the way I do. It feels good. I don't really like instrumental music. I don't understand it so it's just so much noise. Left of Center, I listened to the one you suggesed. I like the beat. What I like is to hear and understand the thoughts of the poet. But I don't want just poems; I want to be able to sing and meditate on the words when I'm waiting for the bus or doing some mindless task.

About a year ago I found some of Dan Barker's songs like "Pie in the Sky" and "Life is Good." I love those and play them when I want inspiration, but the selection is tiny. About seven songs on that list.

The main reason for writing this piece is that I keep coming across posts on exC from people struggling with the no-prayer issue of life. For me, there is little difference betweeen singing and praying, except when I just sing for pleasure. As I say in the article, singing has been a way by which to express my feelings (in words) but without having others be aware of what I was really saying. I would pray the words with my whole heart--or praise, depending on the situation.

Since prayer and hymn-singing went hand in hand for me, it made sense to also discuss singing while I was writing anyway. As I read the responses it occurred to me that someone might happen to mention something on the internet that I really like. Or it might help some other person with the same problems, though I don't know of anyone else on here who was raised without either musical instruments or radio.

And I am finding out that few communities are talented with group singing like the community where I lived most of my life. On Christmas Eve I attended a church service for the Christmas songs and carols. They had a lot of singing and the volume was very good. The beat and rhythm were less than perfect. They were good, I guess, but less than perfect. I am not used to that.

When you get two hundred throats singing as one voice--being part of that is just plain awesome. That is what I miss most from the OOM community where I was born. I've heard that our community was exceptional so I guess that means not all OOM communities can sing so well but I didn't really believe it; I thought we were just ordinary. However, I have not yet found any other church that can sing like that. Not even with song-leaders and a large number of congregants who are professionally trained. Not one of the OOM people had professional training.

Someone mentioned knowing three hundred songs off by heart. I would guess that is the tip of the ice burg for me but I've never counted them. Everytime I tried, I had to sing a song in order to know whether or not I know all the verses. And then I got side-tracked by singing and automatically lost count. Okay, I don't know all the verses of more than three hundred songs. Probably not even that many. But I can sing at least one verse without help from a book.

RubySera

Anonymous said...

Thanks, folks, for your responses. For me, prayer was not that difficult to let go of. Several years ago, I found myself in yet another very distressing situation. I had to wait an hour to see a counselor. Might as well have been eternity. I was desperate.

As I waited outside the office the thought impressed itself upon my brain that neither god nor man can be trusted. Another thought that impressed itself upon my brain during that hour was: Prayer is wrong.

Since then, whenever I wanted to pray, that thought was there. At the time I assumed it came from God. Part of me denied the existence of god but part of me still believed and prayed "without ceasing." Since then, I have not prayed.

I sing all the time because it is the way I do. It feels good. I don't really like instrumental music. I don't understand it so it's just so much noise. Left of Center, I listened to the one you suggesed. I like the beat. What I like is to hear and understand the thoughts of the poet. But I don't want just poems; I want to be able to sing and meditate on the words when I'm waiting for the bus or doing some mindless task.

About a year ago I found some of Dan Barker's songs like "Pie in the Sky" and "Life is Good." I love those and play them when I want inspiration, but the selection is tiny. About seven songs on that list.

The main reason for writing this piece is that I keep coming across posts on exC from people struggling with the no-prayer issue of life. For me, there is little difference betweeen singing and praying, except when I just sing for pleasure. As I say in the article, singing has been a way by which to express my feelings (in words) but without having others be aware of what I was really saying. I would pray the words with my whole heart--or praise, depending on the situation.

Since prayer and hymn-singing went hand in hand for me, it made sense to also discuss singing while I was writing anyway. As I read the responses it occurred to me that someone might happen to mention something on the internet that I really like. Or it might help some other person with the same problems, though I don't know of anyone else on here who was raised without either musical instruments or radio.

And I am finding out that few communities are talented with group singing like the community where I lived most of my life. On Christmas Eve I attended a church service for the Christmas songs and carols. They had a lot of singing and the volume was very good. The beat and rhythm were less than perfect. They were good, I guess, but less than perfect. I am not used to that.

When you get two hundred throats singing as one voice--being part of that is just plain awesome. That is what I miss most from the OOM community where I was born. I've heard that our community was exceptional so I guess that means not all OOM communities can sing so well but I didn't really believe it; I thought we were just ordinary. However, I have not yet found any other church that can sing like that. Not even with song-leaders and a large number of congregants who are professionally trained. Not one of the OOM people had professional training.

Someone mentioned knowing three hundred songs off by heart. I would guess that is the tip of the ice burg for me but I've never counted them. Everytime I tried, I had to sing a song in order to know whether or not I know all the verses. And then I got side-tracked by singing and automatically lost count. Okay, I don't know all the verses of more than three hundred songs. Probably not even that many. But I can sing at least one verse without help from a book.

RubySera

eel_shepherd said...

[Bit nervous about posting this one, as I don't want to double-post it. Thought I posted it last night but it still doesn't seem to have shown up; maybe the software doesn't care for my taste in music...]


RubySera wrote:
"...If god is nothing but a feeling produced by a certain firing of neurons, then perhaps the feelings I associate with the old hymns are also nothing but an expression of certain feelings..."

Yup; I'd say you just about nailed it.

Speaking only for myself, I must be the only person in North America who doesn't like Amazing Grace. (Sue me. Don't like "Danny Boy", or "The River Is Wide", or "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" [well, punk, will it?...] either.) Same with "The Lord Of The Dance"; ptooey! The hymn-like "Shenandoah" just barely makes it under the wire, too, provided I'm the one singing it. These tunes, to me, are like Hallmark Greeting Cards, with the "religious sky" theme (big impressive beams of "glory" charging down out of the clouds onto some deer digesting its leaves and grass and dropping pellets, etc.)

On the other hand, I can listen to J.S. Bach just about nonstop, and he was a religionist extraordinaire. (Anyone who's reading this in hopes of an eventual point may as well move on to the next poster; I'm taking the night off from reason.)

When I was a single-digit-age kid, in a time long long ago, and a place far far away (Regina, SK; the 1950s), we used to hafta say the lord's prayer every day and sing God Save The Queen (same friggin' queen as now! Talk about fibre; that old bat's going to outlive me) and every Wednesday there was "assembly" where the whole school would get together and sing hymns and generic patriotic songs, half of them from other countries, not even our own one. All I can say is thank Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins and Bill Haley and Chuck Berry (and most of all, thank Robert Johnson) for Secular Music. Otherwise the "sound-track of my life" would have been "All Things Bright And Beautiful". Ick.

You like those old hymns? Super; here, have my share. At least it's not rap, I s'pose. Don't know what kids are gonna do for hum-along tunes 20 years from now; they're going to look and feel kind of silly bustin' a rhyme while taking inventory or driving a bus.

SpaceMonk said...

Thanks for the techniques Ruby.

In my family we weren't allowed to listen to secular music (until I asked at the age of twelve if I could listen to the radio and Dad finally relented).
The only music we had was Dad's classical collection, and Mum sitting down with her guitar and singing her own songs, as well as others.

I never really liked any of the hymns at church, even though I liked classical music.
The only ones I enjoyed were the war type songs.
I liked 'Onward Christian Soldiers' the same as I liked 'Ride of the Valkyries' - just because of the idea of spiritual warfare.

I did like it when the men got to sing without the women though.
It's awesome, same as I liked Russian male choir with all those big deep voices...

Nowadays I've moved onto 'Battle Metal' for pretty much the same reasons, although I still like it to have a bit of classical influence.
Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish bands are best for that kind of classical/metal combo with operatic harmonies by both men and women singers.

I remember hymn singing sessions at 'the Manse' where people would suggest the number of a hymn from the hymn book then we'd all turn to it and sing along.
There were 730 hymns in the book, so, being my mischievious 13yr old self, I asked for number 666.
There was a bit of ooh and umm, but people began to sing anyway.
Except, before the first verse was even finished people were singing different tunes and getting mixed up.
Nobody knew the tune! lol.
They'd never bothered to sing that song before.
Classic.

freedy said...

I believe this answer to this problem is secular music and meditation,......right?

Nah,...too simple.

Gotta have an angry diety in there
somewhere?,...wrong!

SpaceMonk said...

Thanks freedy.

Left of Center said...

One thing to realise about classical music like Bach,Mozart, etc is that the only way you could make a living as a composer was by writing religious music. They had to pay the bills. This also means that alot of this great music was not inspired by religion, but just a great composer making great music... and getting paid by the church and wealthy patrons.

Leonard said...

But Bach, considered by many to be the greatest composer of all, did believe. And I think a great many of the others were also sincere (it was the default in their society after all).

Artists do tend to be fairly emotional people. My mother once asked me (herself almost in tears from, I believe, part of the Matthäus passion) "How can you hear this and not believe in God?"

As an argument, it is not weaker than many other arguments I have heard on the subject.

It´s an emotional issue, and what gets to your emotions more directly than music?

Sarge said...

Music has always been a draw, and this was realised early on xian history. Ambrose (later 'sainted') of Milan during the early days had hymns set to the popular music of the day to toll in the upper class kids.

Back in the day of Bach et al, remember: dissent and non conformity were punished most severely, so it was probably a good idea for people like me to keep their pie holes shut about it.

Funny, the Sunday school songs were the first things that made me see that there was something wrong. I lived in places where I could see that if Jesus loved the little children, it was a pretty tough love, one that I could do without.