Today was an odd non-liturgical occasion celebrated in main line congregations. It is called "Rally Sunday." It is a day usually celebrated near the beginning of the school year, and marks the beginning of what we call the "Program Year." Sunday School, Adult Classes, Choirs and other music groups begin to gather again for the purpose of singing and playing in worship. People return from vacations and cabins and other summer retreats. Although it never feels like the whole congregation is ever together at the same time (what would that be like?), there is usually a larger and more diverse crowd in worship than there has been during the summer. Plus, at our congregation, there are a lot of colorful balloons.
It is not Christmas or Easter, but it does feel like a celebration. It certainly felt like a celebration for me this morning, anyway. Our congregation has been in redevelopment for a couple of years now. We are still finding our way, re-defining our identity, learning to listen to the Holy Spirit in new ways. There have been both growing pains and contracting pains as we have tried new things.
This morning we had a new interim organist playing for the first time, along with our gifted pianist. We installed four staff in new positions. The new director of children's and youth minister gave the children's message for the first time. The choir sang "I Love to Tell the Story." The Spirit Singers (our contemporary music group) sang an original song called, "Do Not Fear, For I am With You Now." We had a soloist sing a song called "Amazed", one that we hope to teach the congregation later in the fall.
And we clapped.
Of course, we clapped during the original song, "Do not Fear." I think I even snapped my fingers on that one. It was a a hand-clapping sort of song, and a number of the members of my congregation seemed happy to provide hand percussion.
Now I did not grow up with clapping in church. Organ was the only acceptable instrument in my faith tradition at that time, and we same hymns. We didn't clap. It was not our style.
But somewhere along the line (probably first at summer Bible camp) I learned to clap in worship, at least during songs. I still don't clap when the organ is playing hymns, but I like to clap along when the occasion allows.
Today, however, I believe we also clapped AFTER that particular song was done. I remember that, and it was loud clapping too, because I was standing at the altar, getting ready to begin the communion liturgy.
It is twelve hours later, and I can't be sure now, but I think we clapped a couple of other times as well. I think we may have clapped after the new staff members were installed. And I am not sure, but it is possible that we even clapped at the end of the children's message. It seemed natural as we had just finished singing a short phrase from Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."
I know, you had to be there.
At the time, I remember thinking that there was this great, affirming, celebratory spirit in worship this morning. The clapping seemed to me to be saying, "We are all so happy to be here, in the presence of God."
Later on, I suspected that not everyone shared this interpretation. In some worship circles, it is not considered appropriate to clap after the special music, not matter how glad it makes you feel. The music is an offering to God, not a concert, they would say, and I suppose they have a point. But still, what do you do if the music makes you feel so glad that you want to do something? What if you want to clap, not because you think you are at a performance, but because the music makes you want to DO something?
I always thought that the Pentecostals dealt with this admirably by encouraging people to give what they called "a clap offering to the Lord." If the music makes you feel like doing something, they said, go ahead and do it, but remember to do it for God. Once, when I told a non-Pentecostal this, she looked at me as if I was trying to sell her some questionable real estate in Florida.
Perhaps one of the first things to do (and not just with regard to clapping) is to take a deep breath and realize that we don't know why someone does what they do during worship. Actions that are normal for one set of worshippers seem odd or even inappropriate to others. Yes it is true: clapping is an act of worship. (The Psalms even say so.) Kneeling is an act of worship. Making the sign of the cross is an act of worship. Silence is an act of worship, reverent and full for some, odd and maybe even inappropriate for others.
A couple of years ago during the offering, our gifted pianist accompanied himself in a heartfelt version of the gospel song, "To God be the Glory." It was electric. He sang and played full of spirit and emotion. After he was finished, I expected people to clap. They often do. But there was silence -- full, reverent and yet somehow also uncomfortable. One person even asked me after the service, "Why didn't we clap?" It was as if they did not totally understand their own actions.
It was an act of worship.
It was an act of worship, just like clapping, and the Spirit moved us, just as the Spirit moves us to put our hands together, because we are full of joy, and we want to do something.
Perhaps the question is not whether to clap or to keep silence, but to listen to the Spirit, who is inviting us to do both, and even more: to live to the glory of God.