The family worship service. It had been the family tradition at Grandma’s house for as long as Zach could remember. It used to be on Thanksgiving, but with the craziness of the meal and the Turkey Trot 5K and everything else, the family had settled on Wednesday night. By the time everyone had arrived from work or from flights, found something for dinner in the fridge, and tried their best to pick off a piece of the smoked turkey without Grandma swatting their hand away. “No, that’s for tomorrow! You know better!” So, after the football had been tossed in the yard and the last trip made to the grocery store before it closed for the holiday, everyone sat down in the living room. Aunt Patty sat down at the piano.
Grandma had borrowed the hymnals from the Baptist church, and she passed them around to everyone. While she was out getting the books, Zach reminded the newbies of the rules:
- One, Grandma is in charge. She has worked hard on this, and this is really important to her.
- Two, everyone participates. This is not an optional event. You don’t have to have a perfect voice to sing, or a perfect attendance in Sunday school. Everyone participates.
- And three. No Christmas songs. Don’t even ask. Not a “fa la la” or a “jingle bell” or a “Holy Night” will be uttered in this house until the day after Thanksgiving. No exceptions. As Grandma says, “We are thankful Then we wait for the Christ child together. End of story.”
So, they sang the thanksgiving songs: Count Your Blessings; We Gather Together; Come, Ye Thankful People Come; and For the Fruit of All Creation. Everyone went around in turn and said something that made them thankful this season. It had been a hard year for some, so that part was particularly meaningful. Then Grandma stood up to read a Psalm that she had picked out:
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!
2 I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
3 Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6 who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
7 who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8 the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10 The Lord will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!
Zach couldn’t help himself. It just slipped out. He had been on the leadership of the Christian Democrats Club at college, and had been rather full of anger and anxiety the last few months – and rather full of himself after election day when his state candidate won. He had not said a thing the whole afternoon and into the evening. But he could not hold on any longer. He couldn’t help himself: “Don’t put your trust in princes, huh? It would be nice if our ‘prince’ in the White House would read this.”
And in an instant everything fell apart.
His uncle Jeff, who had proudly worn his Make America Great Again hat to the dinner table, itching for a fight, pounced: “What is that supposed to mean? It’s nice that we finally have someone in the White House that doesn’t hate Christians! Finally, there is someone in there who we are able to trust! I don’t know what they are teaching you at that school, but it is high time that someone let you know the way the real world works.”
Before Jeff could finish or Zach could respond, his mother Patty – Jeff’s brother – jumped in. “Now wait a minute, Jeff, that’s un-called for. Let him say his peace. We’ve had some really good conversations in the last couple of months, and it has helped me to see things differently. Now, personally, I can’t stand our president. But I voted for him and I will again, because I am terrified of what our country is becoming in regards to abortion. That issue is incredibly important to me. I just wish that there was someone else who was pro-life that I could vote for instead.”
Now it was time for Anna Maria to speak up. This was Anna Maria’s first Thanksgiving with the family, after she married into the family. Jeff’s son Mark started going on short-term mission trips with his church to Guatemala and over the years, and started to get closer and closer to one of the translators on the trip named Anna Maria. He had fallen in love with the country over the years, and when the church offered a longer-term missions residency, he took it. Jeff was more than a little surprised when he got the call that Mark was getting married…to Anna Maria! Jeff loved her, too, of course, but didn’t always agree with her perspective on politics: “Pro-life!” she said, “I am pro-life, too, but what about life after birth? What about health care? What about taking care of those in poverty? What about finding an immigration policy that isn’t based on irrational fear but on welcome and hospitality? There is so much more to the question of being pro-life than just abortion!”
And the conversation degenerated even further from there. Zach and Jeff were up out of their chairs, screaming at the top of their lungs; Zach had grabbed the MAGA hat and was threatening to throw it into the fireplace. Anna Maria and her mother-in-law were waving their arms as they talked. Both of their husbands were sitting there in stunned silence trying to figure out what had just happened. The worship service had become something between a political debate and a WWE cage match.
“Stop!” Grandma’s face was red, and her voice was louder than any of them had ever heard. “We will not do this here. We will not do this now. There is a time and a place for political debate. But it is not during a service of worship of God in my home. If you all had listened long enough, I had some things that I wanted to say about this psalm. I have been working on it for a month. Now, I kindly ask you to return to your seats and listen to what I have to say.”
The silence was immediate. Everyone did exactly what they were told, sheepishly returning to their seats, their faces as red as the cranberry salad in the fridge.
“There are three things that I want you to listen to in this passage. If you had listened before all of that foolishness, maybe we wouldn’t have gone down that road!”
“One. We trust God above all others. We don’t put our ultimate trust in princes – and it doesn’t matter what political party they are. We don’t ultimately trust the powers and principalities and institutions of our world to teach us how to be righteous. That is God’s job. It is our job to listen. To trust. To have faith. And to do what God says. In this family, it is our job to trust God, and to help each other trust God. First and foremost.”
“Two. We sing together in harmony. Of course, I mean literally, at our worship service at Thanksgiving and at Christmas. But I also mean that we sing our song of life together. The Psalms were the songbook of faith. They were the songs that the people of God sang to each other and sang in praise to God. The psalmist is commanding his soul to sing, to praise, and to trust. They didn’t all agree on everything, of course, but everyone sang the song together. But that doesn’t meant that everyone sounds the same. This night is one of my favorite nights of the year, because I love to hear this family sing together. We have such beautiful harmony. Jeff’s deep voice on the bass part. Zach’s tenor. Patty’s soprano while she plays the piano. Anna Maria, I’m so glad that you have joined me on alto…my voice isn’t what it used to be. All of our voices are different, and that is what makes it beautiful. That harmony is what makes it special.”
“And finally. Everyone gets a voice in the choir.” And here she looked around the room pointedly. “Everyone. The psalm speaks of those who were on the margins of the culture and the community. The blind. The outsider. The prisoner. The orphan. The widow. The hungry. Everyone is included in the song of praise. Look around this room. Around this family. In the family of God, in this family, everyone gets a voice. Our trust of God spills over into our trust of each other. Not in power or in position. But in persons. We trust that everyone has a voice in the choir.”
“So now, we are going to sing our final song. And we are not going to hang our heads. We are not going to glare at each other across the room. We are not going to burn each other’s hats. We are going to stand up and sing ‘Now Thank We All Our God…for hearts and hands AND voices.”
And sing they did. For most of the first verse, it felt a little tense and forced. But it started to warm up a little in the second verse. Anna Maria moved behind the piano bench and put her hand on Patty’s shoulder as she played. Their soprano and alto together were gorgeous harmony. Zach and Jeff caught each other’s eye and at just about the same time mouthed, “I’m sorry” and both laughed. Each voice sang out, as Grandma led them all. By the end of the last verse, people reached out to hold hands spontaneously. The sound was glorious: “the one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore, for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.”