SUSTENANCE for the SOUL
Music can be a means of worship, a prayer in itself
By LORETTA SWORD
THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN
Music. With or without words, it’s a universal language that transcends creed and color, dogma and doctrine.
It’s been around thousands of years longer than any of the world’s religions, and in recent decades has become an integral part of many of them.
For some, it is as powerful a form of worship as prayer, and more powerful than anything a priest or preacher could utter from pulpit, altar or revival-tent stage.
For others, it is a unifying force – a communal act that binds together people of varied backgrounds who share a common faith – or fears, or doubts or hope. Although early religions forbade most instruments from churches and didn’t allow song from anyone but the priests or other “holy” men, hymns began easing their way into Catholic, Anglican and Protestant churches several hundred years ago.
Then came gospel, a genre birthed in the fields of Southern plantation owners by slaves who weren’t allowed a church, or even to worship in the open.
Today, there are nearly as many types of Christian and religious music as secular music, and churches that once frowned on anything that didn’t emanate from an organ, harp or choir now advertise praise band entertainment before or during services.
Undoubtedly, some churches use music as a draw or pre-show entertainment – more window dressing than substance.
But plenty have integrated song and instrumentation into the worship experience in a way that enriches it rather than detracting from it.
Dave Foncannon, well-known as a member of the popular Fireweed bluegrass band and pastor at Pueblo Mennonite Church, grew up with the comforting acappella music that is typical of churches in his faith.
He loves it still, and can conjure a crystal-clear image of his mother when he hears “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”
But his soul is stirred by the sounds of strings, too, and the mournful and joyful ways they can blend with human voices. Surely, he says, those creations make God smile and weep, too.
“God is creator, and if we are an image of God, there is creativity that we are supposed to express,” Foncannon said.
“I was the first person to take a guitar into church and do special music.” The reaction, at first, was “cautious, but supportive.”
Today, Fireweed often weaves its sounds into the messages he delivers from the pulpit, if not during services, then afterward. His worship messages often are embellished with his guitar and his voice, sharing favorite old hymns or pieces he penned himself.
When choosing selections each week, he doesn’t consider variety or what he thinks his congregation will enjoy, but “what will take us to where we’re going” with that week’s worship topic, he said.
“Music is one of those ways our spirits can talk to God without words. For me, personally, it can be very spiritual. There are times that I pray just by playing music.”
Power to the people
Ken Butcher, a lifelong music teacher who is retired as a deacon and musical director at Pueblo’s Ascension Episcopal Church, says music “is an integral part of worship for me – and always has been. Music can be a tool for good or for ill, and people have recognized that for centuries. Martin Luther used it as a means of giving power to the congregation – to the people – rather than the choir. It’s a sort of democratizing influence” as well as one that unifies, whether there’s harmony among congregants outside the walls of their church or not.
That’s not to say everyone agrees with him (when they’re not swept up in the music). “The presence of popular music in the church has been an issue way back to the 16th century, because popular music was creeping into the Catholic Church and the pope began insisting on certain standards. We still have that battle, about what’s appropriate, in our denomination,” he said.
“Of course, music can be a substitute for a real spiritual experience; you can be so swept away in the music that you miss the message. So it can be both a blessing and curse. But it also can be an entree, a way to open the door of receptivity” in a closed mind or heart.
Butcher conducts regular worship services for inmates at Pueblo County Jail and finds that beginning the services with a few hymns eases tension and helps him bring his listeners to a common focus.
“ ‘He who sings, prays twice.’ I use that phrase all the time when I go into the jail,” he said.
“The words can have whatever the meaning that the words have, but the music can add the dimension of emotions to it. It can reflect your mood or change your mood.”
Christian Piatt grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition, where music was a part of the worship scene, albeit it muted, carefully chosen and sparingly woven into the larger tapestry of church life.
His uncles were in Baptist gospel barbershop quartets, he said, and some of the music he grew up is a comforting, nostalgic snapshot from his youth. But it’s not what feeds his creative fire, or his faith, as co-pastor at Pueblo’s Milagro Christian Church.
“Music is my direct line to the divine. That’s how I got invested in organized religion after 10 years away,” he says.
Highly opinionated about the way some Christian music has been used (and what’s good, and useful, or not), Piatt said he seeks out and shares what he believes are universal messages of spiritual longing and fulfillment in the music of secular artists, as well as his own compositions.
For instance, he hears his own inner voice and that of many spiritual seekers in U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
Piatt definitely wasn’t looking to become a co-pastor or musical ministry leader when he met his wife, Amy (Milagro’s pastor). He hadn’t been inside a church in more than 10 years. Soon after they met, she invited him to come with her to a church in the Denver area and he went to appease her, “to show her that I just wouldn’t fit.” The music he heard there convinced him that he did.
The congregation “sat in the round, and there were people like me there,” he said. “I’m not a church-music kind of guy. I was like a rocker guy, and music was a very secular experience for me then.”
He heard some of both types of music, and more, at that church before being invited to play for the group himself. It took some talking from his yet-to-be wife and her pastor, but he finally agreed.
“I almost didn’t make it through my first song because I just burst into tears. I had to excuse myself from the worship service to compose myself,” he remembers.
“I had allowed myself to be vulnerable with this group of people and I connected with something I had walled off for years,” he said.
Later, he sang at a church in Boulder and the pastor there asked him if he would consider a job as musician at church in Fort Worth. Picturing a “megachurch,” Piatt at first said no.
Then Amy received a scholarship to the divinity school at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, so he decided to check out the church he had already judged.
“It was a small, open and affirming church. It deconstructed and reconstructed everything I knew about religion,” he said.
A few years later, he and Amy (who since had married) moved to Pueblo to start Milagro, where he approaches his music ministry in much the same way she approaches her weekly message from the Bible.
“The music has to be about something bigger than one hour in church. It’s about love and God, but also about struggle and pain. It’s about all of those things because we are about all of those things,” Piatt said.
Music reverberates at an almost primal level, he said, because “probably before humans could understand the concept of a creator, there was music. What connects us is stories, and at its best, that’s what music does.”