On Music: Singing Our Way to the Table
Mary Margaret Flannagan
Rev. Mary Margaret Flannagan serves as co-pastor at St. Giles Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina. She previously served as one of the staff for the Glory to God hymnal project.
In my household, everyone has a different opinion about how best to set the table for a meal with special guests. Should we use our everyday plates, showing an authentic (and perhaps more intimate) side of ourselves? Or should we use our special occasion plates to honor our guests? Should we use our clean, formal tablecloth or the much-loved and much-stained tablecloth? Should we decorate with store-bought flower arrangements or collect wildflowers from our yard and make hand-crafted art for the table? Sharing a meal is a big deal, especially in the wake of COVID’s long-reaching isolation. How can we best honor those who dare to join our rambunctious bunch, sharing with others the best of who we are and what we have?
“It is fully evident that unless voice and song, if interposed in prayer, spring from deep feeling of heart, neither has any value or profit in the least with God. But they arouse [God’s] wrath against us if they come only from the tip of the lips and from the throat.”1 With these words, John Calvin reaffirmed the importance of congregational song in public worship. Calvin called Christians to sing with their whole heart and mind, soul and strength, not just absentmindedly or because it is the next item of business in the liturgy. He believed that investing one’s whole self in the act of song brought God greater glory.
Calvin, Martin Luther, and other reformers sought the full participation of the worshiping body in the worship service. This was often (though not always, ahem . . . Zwingli2) accomplished through congregational song. Sung biblical texts, as well as harmonized hymns, in people’s vernacular language became a key method of both theological education and evangelism; worshipers not only heard the Word of God read and proclaimed, but they also participated in the reading and proclamation themselves through song. Worshipers more easily memorized Scripture through singable tunes accompanying psalms. They sang the hymns out the church doors, down the street, and into their daily lives, until they became earworms that stayed with them through the week. Congregants were able to ruminate and reflect on the particular theology of this hymnody in ways that weren’t possible with Catholic liturgies recited and sung in Latin, a language most worshipers could not read, write, or understand. Singing “A Mighty Fortress” and “Now Thank We All Our God” invited worshipers to personally claim their congregation’s profession of faith. Passing travelers knew a town’s theological preferences by listening to the sounds of evening prayer from household windows; Protestant areas echoed with catchy tunes and discernable lyrics. Travelers took these songs to heart, singing them down the road to the next village, unknowingly spreading musical seeds of the Reformation as they went. Hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs carried newborn Protestant theology and praxes from village to village in words that ordinary people understood.
People also joined the song around the table in the sacrament of communion. Their voices joined the priest’s, arising like incense in prayer and praise before God. No more “hocus-pocus” by a priest mysteriously waving his hands over the feast. Whereas people misunderstood the phrase hoc est corpus meum in the Roman Catholic mass (the magical phrase’s rumored beginnings), they now heard “This is my body” and knew what was being proclaimed. Thus began a theological revival as ordinary pew sitters became invested in the meal they shared. They reclaimed the story of faith as their own, seeking more frequent and more personal experiences with the sacrament.
The experience of learning and understanding table rituals comes alive with every shared meal in my family. Preschoolers in our house know that we do not eat until we have each said “Thank you, God, for . . . ,” during which time God usually receives gratitude for sharks and fire trucks and cupcakes and other simple, yet heartfelt experiences of our day. We conclude our prayers of thanksgiving with a communal blessing, which used to be led by the adults. Recently, though, our children staged a coup, demanding we all take turns choosing the shared blessing. When it’s their turn, they always choose to sing. With twinkles in their eyes and commitment in their voice, they choose blessings from a “deep feeling of heart” that Calvin must have sought in congregational music.
One table blessing that our children frequently choose to sing is an adaptation of “Lord, We Thank You for This Food”3 (Glory to God, #660). The melody is from the Bunun people in Taiwan, though in our family we call this song the “Tom, Tom Blessing.” While one person cants a melodic blessing, the others hit their fists into their own palms as if they were mashing up food, singing “tom” each time their fists hit their palms. As Glory to God notes, the sung “tom” is an onomatopoeia that simulates the sound of pounding rice. Because this part of the blessing doesn’t require any words from the group, it is a perfect song to teach children while they learn to talk. It teaches so much more than a fun blessing: they have learned another culture’s music, another culture’s food tradition, the song style with a cantor and congregation, and the global church’s praise of God.
Camp blessings are another example of the congregation claiming its place at the table. A few days romping and playing in the woods is special, but the blessing (which probably got minimal attention at camp) is often what people remember and sing proudly into adulthood. Whether it is the “Johnny Appleseed” blessing made famous by the Walt Disney cartoon4 or the “Superman” blessing sung at many summer camps, people gladly—with full heart and body—sing their praise of God before a shared meal. Neither the meals nor the blessings are formal or fancy, though one can be certain of the authentic place from which these songs are born and the deep feeling of heart they evoke.
In watching our children choose to participate in and occasionally lead our table blessings, I am reminded of how powerful it can be when everyone at the table brings understanding and responsibility. We each have a place at the table and we each have a part in the song we sing. Oldest and youngest, clergy and lay folk. God must be well pleased when we all sing with our whole heart and mind, soul and strength, not just the tip of our tongue or the reflex of our spirit.
Colossians 3:16 reads, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly . . . and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” Sing not just old hymns, not just favorite songs, not just formal liturgies, but psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. Around the table, into the woods, with everyone you know, sing praise to God, the giver of all life and host of our daily feast!
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.20.31.
- Frank C. Senn, Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelica (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 368.
- I-To Loh, admin. GIA Publications, © 1990.
- Melody Time, Walt Disney, 1948.