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.