I delight in your commands because I love them.Psalm 119:45-48
I reach out for your commands, which I love,
that I may meditate on your decrees.
A singer’s bread and butter are the church jobs. My dad sang at temple on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, and he sang at church on Sunday mornings. We were Jews, Huguenots, Catholics, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Christian Scientists, Universalists, Presbyterians … it just depended on who had the paycheck ready. Since my father was raising us single-handedly, we always went with him on Sundays, and sometimes I would go with him on Friday nights, too.
I loved synagogue. The men would on a rare occasion allow me to sit with them, a little Gentile, and listen as they chanted and prayed the words of scripture. Like a great wave of prayer all around me, dark heads covered in white shawls would sway over the pages of Torah, fingers lovingly touching each word as it was prayed aloud. Bass and baritone, their voices would rise and fall in plaintive fashion, as I listened. Their love for God was deep, palpable, a living thing. Some would raise their hands and faces to the Almighty, eyes closed, others would sweep and whisper soft words of worship, many with tears streaming down their faces.
Then my father would sing above them, sing a line from a psalm, and the men would respond, singing the second line, my father the third, and they again returning. “Hallelu yah,” praise YHWH.
My church experience was an entirely different matter. My father would deposit my sisters and me at the appropriate classrooms for our age groups, then continue to his rehearsal room. Sometimes I would stay in the classroom, other times I would slip away, unnoticed, to visit the library, and sometimes I would sit in the service, depending on how well I plotted my escape.
If worship in the synagogue centered around worship of God with a sense of hushed awe, and passionate love for God’s very words on the linen scrolls of Torah, then worship in church was first and foremost about pageantry. The stage was resplendent in candles, luxurious colors of red, gold leaf, brilliant blues and greens, especially in the magnificent stained glass windows. The choir director and his choir in their rich robes, the Reverends arrayed in their liturgical vestments, the acolytes in flowing white, with their high, arched brass tapers.
The most interesting part of a Sunday service for me was the processional, with all the accoutrements and costumery of grand opera. There my father would be, singing in his beautiful tenor, and all the choir, singing riotous glorious music in their promenade up the aisle.
The Bible, I knew, was the gorgeous, heavy book sitting on its intricately carved stand in the middle of the altar. On occasion the Reverend would solemnly move to the altar to recite a few words from its open pages. There it would lay, still and lovely, like Snow White lying in her lace and flower-strewn, glass- covered coffin.
All around me the people would sing from their hymnals, and say words they had learned by heart. The Reverends would intone in a chanting voice, a sort of hypnotic spell called ‘liturgy.’ It was like one gigantic play, and we were all in it. When it was over, and the last acolyte had walked down the aisle, the candles snuffed, the choir pews emptied, then the people would rustle about, gather their coats and purses, their hats and gloves, and murmur to each other as they waited to shake the Reverends’ hands.
Up front, in the now empty alcove, the Bible would lie, alone, like an artifact in a museum. I wondered if anyone had ever caressed its pages, or wept over its contents. Had anyone drunk in its words with rapturous love as they did in the synagogue?
(This is the tale of how I came to read the Bible…next post completes the story)