Monday, June 29, 2009

Let the rivers clap their hands

Why do we clap in church? I mean, applaud. Why do we applaud in church?

I was struck again, in a recent church visit, by this response of the congregation to adult immersion baptisms. It happens at College Church, too, so this is not picking on another church's culture. I can recognize and accept, at some level, that this is at least a sign of the peoples' engagement with what is going on, a celebration of the step of identification taken by those being baptized, and even an expression of praise to God. It can be all this. But is applause really the best way to express these things?

Where else and when else do we applaud? Performances - artistic, athletic, oratorical. For whom do we applaud? For those who have excelled or excited us by achieving at or above our expectations. Sure, we often applaud politely just because an event is finally over. But I mean those times when applause is sincere and spontaneous. Because whatever else may be going on when people applaud at baptisms, they are being sincere and (probably at least somewhat) spontaneous.

Interestingly, at my church - where we baptize infants as well as professed believers, and where we may sprinkle or immerse believers - there is never clapping at an infant baptism or an adult sprinkling. Does that help get at the focus or impetus for applause? Whom would we applaud when an infant is baptized - the pastor? the parents? the child, who is the least involved of all the participants? God?

If applause is an act of praise in a believer's baptism, then why do we not feel the impetus to applaud at an infant's? Baptism is a sign of grace, which is God's, so ...

No, I am stuck with the feeling that people applaud because, as with so many other areas of public discourse, we have lost a greater vocabulary of praise. I don't think we can convincingly argue that applause is a biblical response. The one - and I do really mean the only - biblical call to "clap your hands" is, famously, Psalm 47:1. Two other references are somewhat neutral, but specifically refer to nature anthropomorphically (rivers, trees clapping their hands). And these 3 references combined share a sense of God's awesome might and judgment. All other biblical uses of the verb are in the context of war, aggression, and taunting. So, not a lot of textual underpinning for clapping as an expression of praise. Go ahead and play the cultural card, but I don't think that gets us a whole lot farther.

We do have some biblical language that seems to me appropriate to the occasion of baptism - both of believers and of infants. The two that spring to mind have both been co-opted by popular culture's portrayal of rural uneducated American Chrisitianity. [Note: I am not saying the Christian church in rural America is uneducated. I am saying it is generally portrayed that way.] In those settings, the perfectly good and potentially exuberant expressions are made to look ... well, stupid.

I refer of course to "Amen" and "Hallelujah."
Amen - yes, or So be it.
Hallelujah - praise the Lord.
Hebrew words that have gone with the church into every language the church has gone, without translation, and transliterated in ways that are completely understandable to all who know the words. I have no doubt that in heaven - where the Bible suggests these words will be in vibrant use - we will hear "Amen" and "Hallelujah" in all the accents and colors of north, south, east and west. Why are we too cultured or timid to trot them out in our services?

I stubbornly, but I hope humbly, say "Amen" when someone comes up out of the baptismal water. Very few others join me in it. Well, but there are those who also don't clap then. Maybe we're just too used to spectating. Maybe I/we need to be leading and teaching and encouraging this - or some other, if there is a larger vocabulary of response.

But there is another level of response that I fear gets ignored when we have clapped at baptisms. As at a concert, we clap ... then go home. Have we done all we can do at a baptism service, whether we clap or add our "Amen"? I know I need to make one more response, and that is to somehow get to each person whose baptism I have witnessed - in person or in writing - and affirm God's work in them, celebrate personally their response of faith and obedience, and assure them of my prayer for them. This would complete the baptism service for both of us.

And it would long outlast a few seconds of, even genuine, applause. And, for that matter, the fading "Amen!"


Jim Lowery said...

AMEN, Brother! I "praise the LORD" for the Bible study you did on the "rationale" for clapping, and applaud your insights.

Thank you for (knowing you, humbly) sharing the wisdom that The Only-Wise God has granted to you.I am enriched again by your pastoral heart.

Vivien Pehrson said...

I, personally, am a little offended when there is clapping, as it has a cultural, worldly face for me. I understand the response as joyful affirmation, but would prefer to have a verse of a hymn that is appropriate, one sung immediately and one that would become so familiar as to be our corporate, loving, afirming response.

Chuck King said...

And thanks for your call about this, too, Viv!