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How Prayer Can Be Like Playing Jazz

Just like a musical form that allows for creative roaming and riffs within a framework, the same can be done when you pray.

Pray like jazz
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Though I’ve played trombone, tuba and baritone in public, I don’t consider myself a musician. I am, however, a music lover, and among the many forms I enjoy is jazz.

Some people suppose that jazz musicians just make up whatever comes into their heads at a particular moment in a song. Not so. Jazz is a form, like other music styles, and it relies on each musician or vocalist knowing what’s going on and what his or her place is in the whole. Yes, improvisation happens, but it’s possible only within a structure or pattern where everyone participates. It’s a form that fuels the fires of creativity.

Prayer can be like that.

My prayer life is fed and fueled by various structures that provide a pattern in which I can play and improvise. For example, I learned as a child the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as clear and complete a prayer as I can imagine. I often pray those words exactly as I learned them in childhood. 

At other times I pray like jazz, using the Lord’s Prayer. I might start: “Our Father, who art in heaven…how I thank You that You’re still in heaven, that You remain King and Sovereign over all the earth,” and so on. 

I might go on, later, to say: “Forgive us our trespasses—especially the things I said to my wife this afternoon—as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Though The Lord’s Prayer is a mere 58 words (in Luke’s Gospel, Matthew’s version is 68 words long), when I pray like jazz, it expands considerably. 

I also pray like jazz in my compline or bedtime prayers. Among the standard features of the compline liturgy that has become precious to me is a prayer attributed to St. Augustine:

“Keep watch, O Lord, with those who wake or watch or weep tonight, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend your sick ones, Lord Christ; rest your weary ones; bless your dying ones; soothe your suffering ones; pity your afflicted ones; shield your joyous ones; and all for your love’s sake.”

Sometimes I pray it just like that, word for word, but at other times I verbalize the needs that come to mind, like this: “Keep watch, O Lord, with those who wake or watch or weep tonight—especially Fred as he grieves his loss—and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend your sick ones, Lord Christ, including Norm and Deb; rest your weary ones, especially Rhonda,” and so on. 

The Psalms—because I’ve read and prayed them many times over the years—also shape the structure of many of my prayers, providing a form while allowing ample room to improvise and specify.

When I’m feeling low, I might recall the words of Psalm 5: “Give ear to my words, O Lord; consider my meditation. Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King and my God.” Then move on from there to pray: “You read my thoughts; You know how low I’m feeling,” etc.

Or when I’ve stumbled and sinned, I begin as David did in Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1 NIV).

Then I begin naming the wrong things I’ve done, eventually finding my way back to the psalm with, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 NIV).

Like a jazz musician who can soar to new musical heights with improvised riffs in the midst of an existing piece of music, my prayers are constantly refreshed and enriched by the ability to add my humble “riffs” amid the forms and cadences of Scripture and liturgy.

Praying like jazz may not be everyone’s style. It’s not even the only style in my prayer repertoire. But it’s become such a natural and beneficial part of my prayer life, I’m immensely grateful that I fumbled my way into it.

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