the role of music in preparation and preaching.

Okay, this is going to be a fun one.

I think I have to start with this: I am utterly, completely obsessed with preaching.  Of course I would like to think I am more obsessed with God.  But there is something not only weighty but borderline dangerous about the sense of calling that keeps my blood hot and mind racing ALL THE TIME.  I could never be accused of not taking the pulpit seriously enough.  If anything, I might take it so seriously that it borders on oppression and/or sin.

That might seem funny from a guy who, when at most home in God, radiates an easy confidence in what I’m doing.  But that’s a gift and sign of the Spirit for the moment, and through the week I feel like I’ve got a 60 pound stone on my back (Springsteen reference intended).  I think about preaching in most everything I’m doing. I view most everything that happens in life through the prism of what God might be saying to His people.  The extent of this is ridiculous and absurd, and I am in no mood on a Monday to tell you in detail how crazy that gets.  But trust me–it’s a little weird.  This is where I feel such a kinship with the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah.  I understand having a fire in my bones; I understanding not wanting to speak but having a hole gnawed through your belly if you don’t.  I have never felt like I had a choice in any of this–do with that theologically what you will.

So here’s where music plays such a crucial role for me.  Since music is part of everything in my life that is fun, I need a lot of music to keep myself from being consumed through the intensity of it.  That takes different forms.  When I’m prepping during the week at the computer, I keep ambient music on a lot because I get in the zone better that way.  Sometimes I’ve got so much emotion about the message that I’ve got to have something going that lets a little bit of what’s in me leak out so I don’t explode.  Saturday I was so swept up with the weight and joy of what God was doing, there was no white music I could think of that could articulate any of it.  So I was blaring old Kirk Franklin songs all day while I was prepping.  Amanda comes in and I’m about to run the aisles (um, in my living room) to “Reason Why We Sing.”

But sometimes the intensity is so great, I need music that is more fun than intense.  I need some hip-hop with hardcore attitude and serious swagger, or I need an Edge guitar solo than can take me to heaven.  The further along I get in the preparation process, the more I get away from ambient instrumental music that helps me keep my head clear and more into I’m-going-to-kick-the-devil-in-the-teeth-and-bring-the-word-of-God-like-an-alien-coming-off-a-spaceship music.

The role of music is even more pronounced on game day (defined as whatever day I’m preaching).  I understand that a lot of people need to be coming out of the prayer room from hours of communion with God going into the moment they deliver the message.  That sounds spiritual, and I’ve no problem with it in theory.  But I’ll remind you–I feel like I live in that place a lot of the week–heavy and light at the same time in God’s presence, being with Him and hearing His heart for His people.  The worst thing I can do when it’s time to preach is get MORE intense, because generally by then I’m already near the breaking point (it is not uncommon for me to sleep 2-4 hours the night before preaching.  See what I mean?)

So when the hour gets closer, the party gets to jumping.  I don’t review my notes down to the last minute anymore.  By that time, the word is embedded enough that what I need is not more mental preparation but more ease of spirit to let the message come from the deep place where it’s already living.  On the way to speak, or on Sundays driving between Little Rock and Fort Mill, the sound system in my Volvo is literally at max the whole way.  Amanda has learned to be delightfully indulgent with this practice of mine when she is with me.

So what kind of music prey tell?  That’s the fun part, wildly subjective, and possibly more than you want to know.  But here’s what it looks like for me: Early in prep when I need the ambient mood music, I listen to a lot of Brian Eno.  Not the experimental rock stuff, the keyboard driven floating stuff.  Favorites for sermon prep are the ambient classic Music for Airports, Volume One; Ambient 2: the Plateaux of Mirrors, The Pearl, and my all-time favorite ambient album for any creative task, the beautiful space music of Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundscapes.  If I need a shot of adrenaline in this stage, the epic instrumental rock of Explosions in the Sky may be called on.  Sometimes I listen to a movie score (stuff I shouldn’t say out loud, like Karate Kid Part II or The Neverending Story).  Daniel Lanois’ albums are also go-to favorites at this stage.

On game day, there will be U2 present, and invariably I will play some version of “Where the Streets Have No Name” because it is the most defining spiritual song of my life, what I would want played at my funeral.  Here’s where I will be really nerdy: it’s a different version of Streets depending on what the moment calls for.  My all-time favorites are the live version from Boston on the Elevation Tour (which includes Bono reciting a Psalm to open), the live version from Chicago on the Vertigo tour, the live version from the Super Bowl of 2001 (different Psalm opens this one after MLK intro), or the live version from Arizona from the Rattle and Hum DVD, or the U2 360 version live from the Rose Bowl with Amazing Grace as the intro.  (Those are all video versions–do yourself a favor and watch them)  If I could make people feel something of what I feel when I listen to any version of that song in preaching, no matter what direction–I am a happy man.

More than you wanted to know?  I understand.  I never claimed any of this was normal.

FYI, this blog post was written while listening to the synth pop of M83′s Saturdays=Youth.

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