Words aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be… often we’re crowded with too many of them — and the wrong ones, too frequently. Expression is possible without them, and not infrequently a wordless expression teaches us to stretch and experience in a new way.

I remember teaching once on prophetic ministry, and we were discussing the fact that sometimes the prophetic unction needs to be expressed without words… sometimes there’s an act or an action that can communicate something more effectively than trying to explain your point. We had musicians in the group, and one of them asked about whether or not they could play their instrument in this way. “Of course,” I replied, explaining that a good musician can improvise his expression of a word or a feeling in a way that words have difficulty explaining. In this way, music can gather people together into a common place, connecting them somehow. I explained how in jazz and blues, you have entire genres of music dedicated to expressing an idea or an emotion through music which often had no lyrics.

Words are sometimes over-rated.

This evening we dropped in at St. Ben’s and were happy to discover we’d hit one of the jazz liturgies that we tend to keep missing. In introducing the type of liturgy we were having, the regular weekly leaflet that normally contains the lyrics gave an explanation, making mention of a recent controversial Synod in which the blessing of same-sex unions was discussed, making much national news out of it. In this, Jamie Howison described very well this idea that words are not inseparably connected with worship, or with prayer.

Last month, during the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, Rob Burton and Larry Campbell (two of tonight’s musicians) were asked to lead a jazz-based liturgy to end off one of the long days of debate and deliberation. As fate would have it, they ended up playing at the end of the day most marked by difficult debate and powerful emotion; more than a bit of a challenge for anyone in worship leadership. What was really fascinating about that evening was how really well the jazz liturgy was received, in part because it didn’t call the General Synod to do anything other than to just be present and mindful as the music and the words of prayer were offered. People kept coming up to me over the next day or so to ask that I pass words of thanks to Rob and Larry for providing music that wordlessly helped them to pray on a day when words (words and more words…) had been in abundance.

The Holy Spirit intercedes with groans too deep for words and Jesus tells us not to pray as if many words will make us heard, yet we often have an aural fixation with words. I wonder how deeply we might understand and be better understood if we would better learn to express things while holding our tongues.

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