What better way is there to give thanks to God for all God’s good gifts than to sing? To quote our faculty consultant in liturgy, the Rev. Dr. James Farwell, the default mode of liturgy is singing. So, in that vein, shouldn’t the default mode of our lives be song as we give thanks and praise to God? As we sidle up, once again, to the great American holiday of Thanksgiving, perhaps we might consider how our thanks this year can be expressed in song, and not just in turkey, stuffing, and cranberry relish shared with family and friends around a table bedecked with gourds, fall leaves, and a host of autumnal displays.
I’m thinking particularly of the power of music and song to unite people in an intimate way that is simply hard to describe. After all, in the tense, politically-charged climate of the U.S. at this moment in history, maybe we need some song this Thanksgiving 2016, even more than ever before. Rather than risk awkward dinner table exchanges about which way you or your family or friends voted in the recent election, I wonder if singing, especially singing in praise to God for the glorious splendor of life and creation, for the many blessings of life, might be the way to go this year, and not just this year but in future years, too. It’s not about denying the division, pain, and hurt in America right now, but it’s about finding grace that is still latent amid brokenness and darkness. It’s about making an effort towards unity, an effort towards acknowledging the other in community through music and song.
The Center for Liturgy and Music recently hosted a wonderful Raising the Song Symposium. The premise behind this symposium was that music and singing can build community. (For proof, watch this video of our symposium.) And this community-building can especially happen when people tap into the music that is already living inside them. In a similar way, what kind of music can we tap into this Thanksgiving?
Some of my fondest memories of Thanksgiving are of a series of holidays where I and my dinner companions sang a medley of Thanksgiving hymns from The Hymnal 1982 as a kind of extended grace before the meal. What about having a good, old-fashioned hymn-sing before or after sitting down to your Thanksgiving feast this year? No piano or hymnals, in sight? It doesn’t matter! Sing what is on your heart, and if you start simply enough, I’m sure you and your dinner companions will find music in common. I also happily recall memories of a choir with which I was affiliated that sang William Byrd’s “Non nobis, Domine” before every meal as a group. Or what about singing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” to Old 100th as a grace before eating your Thanksgiving feast?
In some ways, long gone are the days in which evening entertainment was gathering around a piano to sing, as opposed to logging into Netflix to watch the latest episode of your favorite TV show. But why not bring back some aspect of those days this Thanksgiving? Sure, it sounds sentimental, but I think the communal power of music is not sappy but a real means of drawing people together in spite of their differences. And if our American society needs it anytime, it needs it now, when we are so deeply divided in many ways.
Perhaps this Thanksgiving can be a small essay into making song the default mode of our lives. Even when the world seems chaotic and confusing, there’s always room for praise and making music. For the wonder of life, for the beauty of creation, for the presence of family and friends, for the love of God for each of us, thanks be to God!
The Rev. Dr. Kyle Babin is Administrative Assistant for the Center for Liturgy and Music and a deacon in the Episcopal Church.