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How playing piano taught me to pray

It was one of my very first nights at seminary. Some new friends and I explored the town: walking the Princeton campus, crossing under the great stone arches, passing by the ivy-laden Nassau Hall, and landing at a local pub surrounded by many other college and grad students. At some point during the evening, I briefly left our table and went up to the bar to order another drink. While I was waiting, I noticed a gray-haired man watching me with a sour lip.

“You look like you’re having fun,” He observed bluntly. “Are you a student at the university?”

I shook my head. “At the seminary.”

The man looked me up and down in disapproval. “You’re a seminary student? Shouldn’t you be at home praying?!”

I’m still astounded that this perfect stranger assumed today’s seminary students spend hours and hours cloistered away praying. In my coursework, I studied the history of prayer, methods of prayer and the theories and practices of prayer of different theological thinkers. I studied a great deal about prayer but, admittedly, not all that much dedicated time in prayer. Nevertheless, my time in seminary helped me discover that I had been practicing a daily prayer regimen for most of my life — and I didn’t even know it!

Growing up, prayer wasn’t natural for me. When I managed to carve out time to spend with God, often the right words didn’t come, and I would grow frustrated and quit. Yet from the tender age of five, I was well-versed in the language of music. When I was upset or stressed, excited or joyful, I came to the piano bench and I played. I didn’t have to come up with words to express how I was feeling, my fingers simply settled on the keys and the right notes gave voice to my soul.

Through music, I have learned to invoke God’s name into my lived experience. When I sit down at the piano bench, I thank God for the opportunity to play. As I begin, the notes on the page lift up particular moods and evoke memories of the day. Bright melodies in major keys summon grateful thoughts of my many blessings. Haunting melodies in minor keys layer the contours of life’s many cares and difficulties. Being present and honest in my own experience reminds me of the many ways in which God is with me, walking this journey of life beside me. Over the years, I have gradually tuned my ears to God’s presence in my life, on and off the piano bench.

John Calvin writes that through faith, “Our hearts are trained to call upon God’s name.” Calvin speaks of prayer as an exercise, the chief exercise of faith! Summing up Calvin’s view of prayer, Matthew Myer Boulton writes in “Life in God” that prayer is a “relational workout, a strengthening discipline that builds up our trust in God’s fidelity and care.” Little did I realize that every day, in diligently practicing piano and lifting my experience to God, I was, in effect, training my heart to call upon God.

Calvin had an ambitious vision for daily Christian prayer. He wrote in “Institutes of the Christian Religion” that we should each pray throughout the day: “when we arise in the morning, before we begin our daily work, when we sit down to a meal, when by God’s blessing we have eaten, and when we are getting ready to retire.” He also recognized that most of his peers did not live up to this very high standard. Calvin knew that the language of prayer often doesn’t come easy for us. Remember, even Jesus’ own disciples came to Jesus seeking instruction for how to pray (Luke 11)!

Nevertheless, prayer should not be a daunting task. Prayer should not feel uncomfortable or forced. It’s not about feeling guilty for not being “at home praying!” Through faith, prayer is simply “training our hearts to call upon God.” If we remember this, we can find little ways throughout our day to invoke God’s name. Wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, in prayer we simply ask God to be present with us — in a meditation practice, on a morning walk, or in a daily commute. It’s that simple.

But what if the right words still won’t come? What if we fail to find any words at all? It’s okay! For Jesus reminds us that “our Father knows what you need before you even ask him” (Matthew 6:8). Prayer builds our trust in God’s holy presence in our lives. As we again and again lay our joys and cares at the feet of our Lord and Savior, we become more and more aware of this ostensibly simple yet life-altering revelation that our God hears us and is always with us — every single hour of every single day.

Whether through music or something else, find a prayer language and practice that suits you. Don’t worry about saying or doing it the exact “right” way. Ultimately, prayer isn’t about doing.

Prayer is about being: being fully and authentically yourself before the God who made you.