Applause in Church: I’m for It

A couple of Sundays ago, we had a splendid service of worship in which we celebrated Independence Day by singing some of the great national hymns that are in our Hymnal and listened to some of the great writings from our nation’s history. We called the service, Lessons and Carols in Celebration of Independence Day. Our readings were from the pens of John Adams, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Robert Kennedy, and, of course, the Gospel of Matthew. Our songs were all the great ones that you would expect along with some rather surprising choices. I found the service so very moving as the lessons and carols reminded us of both our triumphs and our failures as the people of these United States. Our worship helped us remember who we have been, who we can be, and how the way we choose to be citizens of the United States can be a potent reflection of our citizenship in the Kingdom of God.

I was particularly moved by the solos offered by two members of our choir. One of the selections was a jazzy piece called Freedom by Duke Ellington and the second was the very traditional, God Bless America by Irving Berlin. Our soloists, accompanied by our uber-talented Music Minister, did a marvelous job with the selections, and I was so moved that I, along with many others in the congregation, felt the urge to offer my applause. Despite the urge, however, I also had the competing sense that there was something wrong with expressing applause in the church building and during a service of worship. I kind of looked around as I clapped, thinking to myself that, despite this seemingly very natural impulse to express our appreciation through applause, we were being somewhat naughty. I had the thought that my supremely Episcopalian and proper mother would be very disappointed indeed.

I did some reading about the history and nature of applause, and what I discovered was surprising, interesting, and encouraging. It seems that the clapping of hands is something that human beings adopted very early in our evolution and that it is almost universal across cultures. In the ancient world, applause was both acclamation and communication. In a sense, this strange action of striking one member of our bodies against the opposing and symmetrical other member of our bodies in order to make sound was an expression of power. Applause, it appears, was the effort of small, fragile human beings to replicate and recreate the thunderous roars and crashes that they experienced in nature.

Of course, the Bible is not silent on the topic of applause. In Scripture, applause is used for both acclaim and disdain. But regardless of the purpose of the action, the Bible clearly indicates that the clapping of hands is an appropriate and effective means of communication. In short, the Bible is a big fan.

Psalm 47 expresses applause as acclaim, “Clap your hands, all you peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy.” Similarly, Psalm 98 exclaims, “Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together.” The prophet Isaiah remarks, “the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” In contrast, the book of Lamentations describes applause as a tool for expressing disdain: “All who pass along the way clap their hands at you; they hiss and wag their heads at the daughter of Jerusalem.” Likewise, the prophet Nahum says, “There is no easing your hurt; your wound is grievous. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you.”

Ahah! My impulse to express appreciation to our singers through the clapping of my hands was appropriate, after all! Whew! When we give our applause, we are connecting and communicating with others in God’s creation. It is natural; it is appropriate; it is effective; it has historical and Biblical precedent. So, sorry Mom, applause in church… I’m for it.

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Praying

There are many misconceptions about prayer. What exactly are we trying to accomplish in our efforts to connect with the Divine? Do we hope to somehow alter the course of human history, or at least, that part of human history that directly affects us? Do we wish to receive some elusive peace in the midst of our stormy lives? Do we long for the opportunity to say thanks to the Source of the Universe for blessings that we have experienced? Do we wish to simply connect with something that is bigger, more true and beautiful? Prayer can be all of these things and much, much more.

We are told in the Bible that on a number of occasions, Jesus went away to be by himself to pray. Oftentimes, this happens when he has been engaged in a demanding period of ministry, and he needs to connect once again with the One who has commissioned and is guiding his course through life. Its as if Jesus pushes a pause button so that he may once again think and see and behave in accordance with his true identity.

Many of us have become rather adept at packing our lives with activity. We schedule every minute and fill every nook and cranny of every day with busyness. Much of this busyness is important and perhaps even necessary. And yet, without some pause in our lives, without some occasion to step aside to reconnect, it is very easy to become bitter, disillusioned, and lost.

In her poem entitled Praying, Mary Oliver describes time spent in pause and prayer like this…

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may sp
eak.

This day, take some time to pause, to pay attention, and to walk through the doorway to the One who is waiting.

This day take some time to pause, pay attention, and walk through the doorway to the One who is waiting.

The Wilderness

Sunday morning at church, we read the story of the birth of John the Baptist. His father, Zechariah, was a priest serving at times in the Temple in Jerusalem. By all accounts, John could and should have followed in his father’s footsteps. And yet, instead, John’s choice was a radically different ministry served in the wilderness.

Power and prestige are rarely found in the wilderness. One does not journey into the wilderness in order to reach the next step on the ladder of success. And yet, so often, it is in the wilderness that faithful women and men find their sense of identity and purpose. Abraham, Issac and Jacob all spend time in the wilderness. Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness as they rediscovered God’s dream for their lives. The great prophet Elijah flees, for a time, into the wilderness to regroup. And of course, Jesus himself, upon being baptized by John in the river Jordan, proceeds into the wilderness for “40 days” to be tempted and to receive some clarification as to his own identity and life path.

Henri Nouwen once said that sometimes it is necessary to go far in order to come close. I think that’s why time spent in the wilderness is quite often time very well-spent. I think that John the Baptist knew that God shows up in powerful ways in the wilderness and in ways that cannot be replicated in other spaces.

So, may we all find some wilderness in our lives this week. May we find some spiritual space outside of our normal routines that are a bit dangerous in which to reside, at least for a time. My hunch is that, in allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in these unsafe spaces, we will discover the utter faithfulness of our good and loving God.

Can I see something real, please?

On Father’s Day, my wife and I drove down to Como Park, walked among the gardens, and went to the zoo. It was a beautiful day, and there were many people enjoying the park. At the giraffe grazing area, we sat down on a bench and watched both the giraffes and the people watching the giraffes. Or, I should say, we watched the people not watching the giraffes.

It was the strangest thing. There were many people in the immediate proximity of the giraffe area, but precious few were actually looking at the giraffes at all. Granted, caged giraffes are not the most engaging of creatures, but still, they are giraffes, and one would think that a real live giraffe would warrant at least a casual glance. And yet, person after person after person passed them up.

I continued to watch these people, wondering what destination or attraction had captured their attention. And I was so disappointed by what I discovered. People preferred snow cones to the giraffes. People preferred the cheap fair rides to the giraffes. And worst of all, many people preferred the concrete replicas of giraffes to the giraffes!

The reasons for this are probably many in number. Perhaps blame should be placed on the zooscape architects who designed the giraffe grazing area. Perhaps blame should be placed on those tricky concession vendors that placed the snow cone booth so close to the giraffes. Some might even blame the magnificent giraffes themselves for not being more entertaining… if only they could be a bit more like the chimpanzees! But whoever is to blame, how can it be that folks prefer a concrete version of a giraffe to an actual, genuine giraffe?

I am reminded of the story in the Bible where the children of Israel, at a rare moment in their wilderness journey when their leader, Moses, was otherwise preoccupied and thereby absent, ask the second-in-charge guy, Aaron, to make them a golden calf. They so insisted that they preferred an idol to the real thing that Aaron eventually consents. (By the way, they get into big trouble.)

Mary Oliver, the great American poet who died just this year, states her three rules of life as: (1) pay attention; (2) be astonished; and (3) write it down. And while you don’t have to write anything down, my prayer is that we might pay attention to and be astonished by that which is real and alive and right under our noses rather than being captivated by the fake idols that our culture offers. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather spend my life watching a real giraffe any day.

A Proper Goodbye

Over the weekend, my family and I were with my oldest daughter as she graduated from college. It was a joyous time, a time to celebrate a substantial milestone in her life and in the lives of so many mostly young people. But it was also a sorrowful time, a time for these same mostly young people to say goodbye to others who have become central to their lives. Both hearty laughter and muffled sobs could be heard in virtually every circle of friends, family and faculty. I, like most parents that I observed, found myself standing somewhat awkwardly in the midst of the circle, wanting to help my daughter through this difficult but clearly important moment in her life but realizing that it was probably best that I allow her to find her own way.

How many times does a person say goodbye in an average life? Many, I suppose, but most of those times are the everyday, normal sort of goodbyes such as that which one utters to one’s spouse when leaving for work in the morning or that which one offers to friends after a shared evening meal. But what about those real goodbyes, the ones like my daughter experienced yesterday, the ones that mark a real turning from one chapter to another in a human life… how many of those do we experience in our lives? Not as many; precious few, actually. And on those soul-stirring occasions, how does one offer a proper goodbye? What words does one say? What thoughts and feelings does one give?

On our Sundays at church over the past several weeks, we have been reading from the farewell discourses of Jesus in the book of John. Over the course of four chapters, Jesus says goodbye to friends with whom he has been traveling for three years. The reader gets the sense that Jesus understands the significance of the occasion, and is intent on providing a proper goodbye to his friends. He has important things to tell them to prepare them for the time that he will no longer be with them, and one cannot help but feel a certain urgency in his words. These chapters are filled with remembering and thanksgiving and weighty truth-telling, but more than anything else, these chapters are filled with words of love. In his goodbye to those closest to him, Jesus is intent on communicating that what they have all experienced over the last three years is love. He needs them to know that while the shape and form of this love will change as they all turn to a new chapter in their lives, love will, nevertheless, relentlessly remain. Jesus is insistent that love has been the source of their relationship and that love will continue to be the lifeblood. Neither a change in geography, nor a transition to a different life path, nor even death itself can alter the persistent presence of love. That kind of love comes from God, and it is tenacious. It cannot be terminated or killed. And that kind of love flows in our relationships with each other as well, whether we consciously recognize it or not. That kind of love, too, cannot be extinguished.

So, when saying our goodbyes to each other, speak love. Speak of love experienced and speak of love that persists. Tell of love that has bound you to the other and love that stubbornly refuses to unbind. Proclaim love that has made you one with the other, love that has made you whole, love that has sustained, and love that persists. Or better, don’t say anything at all. Just allow that same love to fill the sacred goodbye space and know that God is in your midst. There are no right words in a proper goodbye. There is only love.

Rising with God

When I was a young priest, I heard a much older and wiser priest say something that changed my life. He told me that when rising from his bed each morning, he always said the following prayer: “Abba, I belong to you.” I adopted the practice, and now, I too say the prayer.

It is such a simple prayer, really. And yet, it sets everything and everybody in a proper perspective. Before beginning the day, it allows me to right-size myself and my day. The prayer urges me to recognize that I am not the center of the universe. God is. The prayer helps me to understand that, despite the urgent cares and concerns of the impending day, all that I am and all that I do is ultimately subsumed in the Eternal One who lovingly claims me as his child. The prayer reminds me that just as God has adopted me into a royal household, so God also claims all living creatures as well. And thus, all creatures have the right to say the same prayer.

I wonder what the world would be like if all of God’s creation, and especially those of us created human, said this prayer each morning. I wonder how different things would be if we actually treated each other with the full recognition that God has included and is, indeed, embracing all, this day and every day. And I wonder what would happen if we allowed this prayer to become more than prayer, if we allowed the prayer to transform our lives, at least for the day. That’s a whole lot of wondering. Perhaps I should just stick with the prayer… Abba, I belong to you.