Our Gathering Song
This morning, our third son threw a bin of Duplo across the living room because I said he could not watch “Goldie and Bear” right then. At noon, our fourth son toddled into the bathroom and delightedly threw his father’s toothbrush and toothpaste and hair gel and spare glasses and lip balm from their drawer into the tub. After school, our second son complained loudly that everyone hates the cello and no one should ever practice it, least of all him, before playing “Minuet in G” faster than would seem humanly possible with all the rage of a death metal mosh pit. And by the time my husband came home from work, our first son had been snacking for two hours and didn’t want to set the table for dinner, thank you very much.
I stand at the stovetop stirring the curry or turning the bacon or tossing the pasta or whatever it is that day that seems to repeat itself too often. It is the booth I have made for myself, where I sit in the shade until I can see what will become of the children. My husband says hello, kisses my cheek, asks how my day was. I gesture to the world clearly ripping at the seams, look back at the curry or bacon or pasta, and breathe. My husband gathers the boys to the table and I set supper on the trivets.
Fresh from work and glad to see his people, my husband looks at each of us and assesses how we have brought ourselves to the table. He says, “Let’s sing.” Our third son yells, “I’ll start!” Our second son groans and glares. Our first son looks up from the book he is hiding under the table: “Huh, what?” And our fourth son, in the high chair, reaches for a first bite of bread.
I don’t want to sing, but I don’t say so, because I am a grown-up who should exhibit contentment when her children do not. Is it not an astonishing delight that I would be given the challenge of raising these hellions into citizens who pick up their belongings and make beautiful music? I should be glad to sit down at the table with these precious people and their songs. I should be humbled and grateful to worship God freely at my dinner table with these other humans. But I am not. I am tired and annoyed and sometimes worried or angry. These people have not acknowledged my ability to manage a serene household if only they would obey and stop having so many feelings. If they want to be hypocrites and sing, fine. They do not deserve to have me sing with them.
“Okay,” my husband says to our third son. “You start.”
So the four-year-old sits down, grins at each member of his family to make sure they are ready, and begins the Doxology.
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
Listening to my people sing this line when I’m all out of sorts is a deeply embodying experience. The first two words effect a factory reset. They remind me that I am a glad creature made by a God who is praiseworthy all of the time. I may not bear his image well most afternoons amid the noise and mess, but God restores. He blesses. In fact, he has given me this food, these trivets, this table, these people, and even perhaps their shenanigans as blessings. They bless me because they both humble and exalt me. The unending neediness of my children and the relentless mundanity of most of my tasks reveal my weaknesses; I am not up to motherhood or homemaking or even adulting. Then, by grace, I simply press into the dailiness like a daughter of Eve and revel in the glory of a smiling child, a sink clean for 10 minutes, a word written in a notebook sitting near a hot cast-iron skillet.
“Praise him, all creatures here below.”
I’m singing now too. The factory reset has lifted my eyes and opened my mouth. I sing to myself and to my husband and to the kids. I sing to the cats and to the yellow garden spider on the porch and the frogs on the windows. I might even sing to the mosquitos. The Doxology invites the broadest array of creatures to form an odd choir. And the six of us at our table are a good start. Our oldest son sings like a firstborn: respectfully and in tune. Our second son points at everyone else when he sings “all creatures” so that we make sure to get the point. Our third son cackles through the last part of the line. Our fourth son begins to clap.
“Praise him above, ye heavenly host.”
Now we dare to sing to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. Our second son jabs the air above his head as though it’s no big deal to command the unseen beings. He might have the right idea. Our third son looks at his brother’s fingers as though he might have seen what he poked.
“Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
In case we had forgotten the peculiarity of the faith we practice and teach our children, the finale reminds us that we are trinitarian. Sometimes our sons look around when we sing “Son” and notice all the sons at our table. Sometimes the second and third sons make a spooky face when they sing “Ghost.” Sometimes I marvel that we would be bold enough to declare such doctrine so briefly before eating peas and sausage. Here we are at our table, we six with our meal . . . and the Trinity.
I have grand visions of familial harmony every time we approach this cadence. I hear in my head everyone finding a different note and building a rich chord. Instead, what we usually make is a silly show. The baby smiles wide and applauds. The rest of us hang onto “A” for four beats . . . or maybe eight. We strain out from the “men,” the older boys stretching their arms wide like they’re finishing a big number on Broadway and the preschooler yelling his “so be it” with all his extroverted glory. Sometimes I go a third up and the boys look at me like I’ve grown horns.
However we hit it, we’re usually all happy by the time we finish the Doxology. No matter how we started, we end in gladness. Singing that poem of praise with these people has lifted my fog or funk or fatigue. We may yet find snark during our meal. One or more of the boys may yet complain or provoke or chew with his mouth open and get a rebuke. The preschooler may yet take my coveted last piece of bread for himself. The baby will undoubtedly throw something gleefully on the floor. But we’ve begun with thanksgiving, which is the least we can do.
I first began singing the Doxology with our oldest son when he was our only son—singing seemed a practical way to pause before lunch with a toddler. Because he loved it, the practice moved to dinnertime too, and our second son learned its rhythms before he could speak. We added motions at some point—fingers running like rain for the first line, hands patting the heads of imaginary small creatures for the second, fingers pointing up for the third. One of our third son’s first words was “Amen”—or at least “men.”
So the old song has become our family tradition. My husband and I grew up in more formal churches and can still say the creed and the communion liturgy by heart. But the church we have been a part of since college has few of those particular pegs, so we teach them to our children in other ways, like this one: most evenings, once we’re all seated, we sing. The Doxology is our gathering melody, our pause from the world, our momentary fast from the food set before us, our looking at one another and together to our God with gratitude and repentance and exultant sacrifice.
The ends of our meals tend to trail off less ritualistically. The preschooler finishes first and struggles to wait for the rest of us. He begins singing loudly or turns the table’s bench into a gymnast’s beam. I remember to check the lunch menu from school to ask the big boys if they want to eat in the cafeteria or take a lunch from home the next day. The baby throws his sippy cup on the floor. The big boys ask to be excused and begin to clear the table of its butter and napkins. My husband and I look at each other in that way that says, “Well, I guess we’re done here,” and may yet find a few more moments alone when he can ask again, “How was your day?” and I can ask him about his. Then kid baths, books, a rocking chair, lights out, and amen.