NEW YORK (RNS) I sat with my gospel choir colleagues, in a pew, while the host choir at Park Avenue Synagogue rehearsed a lovely Psalm setting in Hebrew.
Some sang the Hebrew text with ease, some with difficulty — a reminder that faith generally means learning a language other than one’s own.
After the synagogue choir sang in their other-language, we joined them to sing in our other-language: swaying to the beat, getting one’s body into the praise. They responded gladly, as our combined choirs rehearsed Richard Smallwood’s epic “Total Praise,” a setting of Psalm 121, which Christians and Jews share.
When two choirs from Park Avenue Christian Church and two choirs from Park Avenue Synagogue, plus some jazz musicians, performed Sunday, at a Psalms festival, we disrupted 2,000 years of animus between Christians and Jews. In the eyes of the creator God who made us all, we said, we are more alike than different, more connected than separated, more eager for shared faith than for separate and superior faith.
When the gospel choir did a piece written by our director and the soloist soared, in true gospel tradition, the congregation soared along with her, shouting, clapping, dancing in the pews.
Who knew that one of the largest and most influential Jewish synagogues in the U.S. could rock?
Those who have built careers and power bases on religious division will be offended. Traditions that don’t allow men and women to worship together will reject our happy blending. So, will those who separate the races, who pursue triumphalism, who consider gays and lesbians unwelcome in God’s house, who take comfort in using the hated “other” as scapegoat.
In fact, we offended on so many levels that God could smite us all — if God were anything like the harsh caricature offered by religious separatists. But the God I know was smiling, and wasn’t the least troubled when a gay black Christian male sang forcefully alongside a straight white Jewish female.
Religious leaders worry about the decline of religion in America, but I think their worry is misplaced. Faith is doing just fine. Faith communities are thriving when they focus on faith and not on denominational traditions, when they use contemporary tools to connect with people and reach across the divisions, when they turn outward to serve, not inward to gloat.
Yes, it’s a tough time to be a denominational partisan, to believe one’s own tradition is absolutely right and all others wrong. But that was never God’s desire. God has wanted oneness, not separation; and humble submission, not aggressive claims of superiority.
It’s a great time to be seeking God. A wide world is open to us, from synagogue to church, singing in a “thousand tongues,” finding the seed of hope wherever it has been planted, finding common ground and gleaning joy from what isn’t officially shared and yet is shared nonetheless.
Some see the “unaffiliated” as uninterested. I see them as not tied down. They move from venue to venue, from group to group, finding value in this faith community and that faith community, regardless of labels. Faith discussions among young adults are lively. Older adults are turning away from closed-off congregations.
The aim isn’t to be better or to be right, but to connect with other people who are connecting with God.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)