Praise God

PALM BEACH — For more than the first half of my childhood my religious upbringing consisted of two songs. One was my father’s Bar Mitzvah song. It went, phonetically, “Vay ik rah voo es yo may do veed yo moos, Vay, tsah ha. Esh lo mo bey no, ley mo . . . Bey nee . . . DA da da da da da da. Da da da da da da. . . .

It had been written out for him phonetically when he proved he couldn’t learn it any other way, he said. His religious upbringing had ended simultaneously with learning that song, because what he learned convinced him that none of it made any sense and he became an atheist. Apparently the whole song was about one biblical figure holding an inexorable grudge against another, which shouldn’t have been a deal breaker for him, of all people. Apparently he found something petty in it that didn’t justify the amount of time it was expected to take in his life. Still, although he couldn’t carry a tune, it had been dinned into him. He always sang it in the same melody, although I’ll never know if it was the real melody, as he strolled around getting ready in the morning, waxed moustache in set in bobby pins, boxer shorts, calf garters holding his socks up, his derby hat holding his hair down.

The other song also came from my father. It was something he learned from an atheist organization he belonged to briefly, until he realized it was too similar to an organized religion, perhaps particularly because of the song. Sung to the tune of “Praise God from whom all blessing flow . . .” it went: “Praise God from whom all cyclones blow. Praise him when rivers overflow. Praise God who burns down church and steeple. Who sinks the ship and drowns the people.” It runs through my mind frequently, at unexpected moments.

When I was nine my mother chose our summer camp, and because we were exposed to my father’s family’s holidays the year around, she wanted us to know the other side of our background and sent us to a camp where we wore white on Sundays, went to something called Vespers, and learned hymns that included He Leadeth Me, I walk through the Garden Alone, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, all of which I sing in the shower to this day.

So what I look for in religion now is something that I can carry with me, that I share with others, even if I don’t believe in the particulars. Something that carries a spirit of joy, solace and purpose. I look for those things where I can find them, and I look in church sometimes because that’s where the responses to some of the work that has made a difference in my lifetime  — for  social justice, humanitarian efforts started.

In Africa it was hard. Hard benches, crowded pews, and sadly all that to end up listening to hateful intolerant messages preaching homophobia. Back home I go with a friend, who goes to different churches all the time. We went to our mutual friend’s mega church, a Unity Church and we went to the Rich People’s Church By the Sea. Of those, we agreed our favorite was the Rich People’s Church, because of the music, and because it is so beautiful inside. Also when we went, the first time, the pastor gave a sermon that I thought applied to any belief system about how giving things up for Lent wasn’t about sacrifice but about making room for better things.

In some ways, it is a strange place. All the men, who all have white hair, dress exactly alike in blue blazers and khaki pants and all the women, in their stiffly styled hair and skirt suits look like the elevator operators in my elementary school, only they are white, and the whole effect of all that indistinguishability is reminiscent of cold war portrayals of communist countries.

We went the weekend after Thanksgiving this last time for all of those reasons. Also I was curious about how they were taking the results of the election two weeks earlier, which hadn’t necessarily turned out as they might have prayed it would.

The pastor settled that question when he asked the congregation to pray for “Barack” as well as “Rick” — Rick being the Republican Lex Luthor lookalike who is Florida’s governor now. So they seem to have adjusted.

The highlight for me was when they sang “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” which I realized, when I heard it, I had never known the real words to.

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