“In the Beginning!”

“God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good”

Genesis 1:3-4

Imagine the thrill of reading “In the beginning!” Not “Once upon a time,” which, though a real favorite of mine, was how pretend stories began. This was a real story, and it began at the very beginning of everything.

I could hardly believe that the secrets of the very beginning of all things that ever have been, were here for any ordinary person to read. How many people get to read about the beginning of all things? And this book had been so casually given! These people knew nothing of me. They paid my father to sing in their church. I had only quietly observed their Sunday school lessons. I had kept most of my thoughts to myself as I listened to the Sunday school teacher talk on about our story for the day.

Enraptured, I read about God’s orderly creation of all things. How sensible, I thought. Of course, first there must be light, so God could see what He was doing. To gather the darkness aside, so that the light would have room was eminently practical. After this God gathered together all the water, which was apparently everywhere, covering everything, and He made a space for the “firmament.”  The firmament was the sky, but such an excellent word. Very like “filament,” I thought, as I looked up at the light bulb in the ceiling light.

After this the water had to be scooped up again, this time so the earth would have a place to be. I loved closing my eyes, imagining the water receding, like one of those films running backwards, the water un-spreading, making tiny slurky sounds as it peeled back from the sky, revealing clouds and light, and peeled back from the ground revealing brown dirt and grey rocks. This is exactly how the beginning was, I thought. Just like this.

Being called to dinner would break into my Bible world, and I would have to emerge into the dinginess of my real life. Then there would be the quiet eating of our pasta fajole (with black beans), or our pasta with red sauce. Soon I would be back with my book, hidden in my room, under the covers.

Every now and then, when I had read a particularly spicy passage, I would let my father know, “I’m reading that Bible, Daddy.”

That’s fine, he would say, absent-mindedly patting my head, reading his own books. I was pretty sure my dad had no idea what was in here.

I remember, once, looking up from my Bible, and watching my father writing on his yellow lined pad. My dad and I were doing our quiet things together, in companionable silence. “I’m reading Genesis,” I said, “It’s got some interesting things in it.”

Oh yes, my father replied, I’m sure it does,

I knew my dad would press down hard as he wrote, leaving a deep indentation in the paper. As I listened, his pencil made a quiet sibilance as it moved across the page. It was early morning for us, and sunlight glowed on his black hair, making the white of his shirt almost brilliant. Tiny motes swirled in the beam as the sun fell on his yellow pad, and his coffee cup, and the libretto he was glancing over, at regular intervals. Let there be light, I thought.

My father was making something too, just like God, forming something as he wrote, creating what had never been before.

Steam rose up from his coffee, turning slowly, making curls of mist in the sun. “Vacca…”  My father said, then pursed his lips. He stopped, his eyes on the yellow pad, looking but not seeing. His gaze was far away as he sat and thought, and as I watched him. “…altalena… porta rugginoso…”

My father was singing to himself, very softly, a whisper. He followed the cadence of the recitative, the part in an opera where the story is being told. “Yes,” he said to himself. “Like a cow, swinging on a rusty gate,” and laughed. He was translating an opera for his friends. They would sing the arias and recitatives at Chez Vito’s for their guests as they ate their dinners.

Then he looked up at me, a halo of sun shining all around him as he smiled. His pencil had become blunt with its journeying across the pad. It was time for me to get the paring knife from our kitchen drawer. I handed it to my father with a sense of anticipation; this was a favorite activity we shared.

He placed the paring blade just below the tip of the pencil’s lead. With a quick snick, a paper-thin shaving of wood floated to the table, and then another as a fine dust of lead appeared on the blade. There was a warm earthy smell of sawdust, as four sharp corners appeared. They almost, but did not quite, meet in a point.

I watched my father’s hands, sensitive to the shape and movement of the knife, the stillness of the pencil. His expert flicks and wicks made the pencil’s point a beautiful sculpture. At school we used a pencil sharpener. But at home my father whittled his pencil just so, and I was his helper.

He set the paring knife down and lifted the pencil close to his eyes, examining its point in the sunlight… He was singing to himself again; his pencil had been approved, and was set to work once more, moving easily in my father’s hand as he thought and wrote.

This is how it must have been, I thought, God with light all around Him, singing to Himself, as He created.

“So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat.”

“So I opened my mouth,
and he gave me the scroll to eat.”

Ezekiel 3:2

As soon as I saw my father I held up my Bible with sparkling eyes.

“It’s mine,” I told him, still astonished.

“That’s wonderful, JoJo,” he said, smiling.

“I’m going to read it.”  I surprised myself. I hadn’t really made a decision yet about it. But I realized, as I spoke the words, that it was the only thing I could do. I had been given a book, this beautiful book. Books must be read; it was my duty, and my responsibility. I had been entrusted with it, I must honor the trust. I suspected that it would have something in it about Jesus.

“Sure. You can read it. It’s yours,” my father said, already distracted with finding my sisters, gathering us together, getting us to the car, moving on to the next thing.

In the next months I made my way laboriously through my Bible’s pages, beginning with the first page, which had a pasted-in label of the church’s name, and then my name, given on June 14, 1970, in neat type.

The next page began with the “Family Registry,” lines I left empty for the next five years, sensing that I should not ask about the “Wife,” or when she was “Born” and when the “Husband” and the “Wife” had been “Married.”  My mother was gone, as though she had never been. It was as though we had always been a family of one father and three daughters.

I left “Births” empty as well, and “Marriages,” on the next page. (Finally, in 1975, when Peter, my father’s youngest brother, and the love of my life, died at the age of twenty-one, I asked about the names I should put on the other pages. This was because the last page of the “Family Registry” was “Deaths.”  Peter’s death broke through the barrier of silence I had surrounded my pain with. His name, in the fresh grief of death opened, just by a crack, the way for my father and me to speak, if only in a few sentences of dry information, of our own older pain.)

I gave each page its due, continuing through the frontispiece to the title page, “The Holy Bible Revised Standard Version.”  Every word was precious, and solemnly read. My Bible had been translated from the “original tongues,” as old as 1611, and contained revisions from 1881-1885 and 1901 until this version in my hands, which had been “compared with the most ancient authorities” and finally revised in 1952. “You are eighteen years old” I whispered to my Bible, doing the math.

I made my way through the preface, discovering that the King James Version had “grave defects” which this Bible had corrected. What a relief! As I kept my dictionary beside me to look up the words I couldn’t decipher, I discovered that many men had labored years over the “ancient texts,” translating with much prayer and collaboration from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages.

They were so thorough that they went to other kinds of ancient versions, like the “Masoretic Text,” works in Syriac and Latin. I was fascinated with the incredible care and meticulous attention this book was given. In the summary I read, “The Bible is more than a historical document to be preserved. And it is more than a classic of English literature to be cherished and admired. It is a record of God’s dealings with men, of God’s revelation of Himself and His will.”

The summary continued about a mysterious word. “God’s Word.” I wondered what word that might be. What would God’s word sound like? Would it be in Hebrew? Was there an even older language? What meaning would The Word have? Was it like a spell? Would it be magic? In fairy tales, the names of things, in the most ancient language, carried great power.

I wondered how I would know that I had found God’s Word. It was somewhere in this book.

I read with amazement, and an increasing sense of anticipation, this word – whatever word it was –  had become “flesh.”  Immediately I pictured one of my father’s t-bone steaks, glistening redly on his plate. It was no wonder, I thought, that Sunday school stories were rewritten for children. This stuff was far too lurid for ordinary little girls. But I had been trusted with it. I had been entrusted with this book, and I was even more determined to read it.

I worked it out with my dictionary, and my knowledge from other sayings. According to my Bible’s preface, this “flesh” had evidently “dwelt” among men. “Live” that’s what “dwell” is. “Dwelling” is a house. “Flesh and blood” meant family, I’d heard that before. This Word had become like family, I guessed, and got a house among some men. A very powerful magic was at work, of this I was convinced.

The next page listed all the books inside my Bible. This was a new concept to me. I was familiar with chapters. But the heading clearly indicated that these were all actual books contained within the two black nubbly covers of my one book, the Holy Bible. There were two lists, an Old Testament and a New Testament. I tasted the word “testament,” enjoying its sound and flavor. I wondered how they could tell the difference between the old one and the new one.

There were more lists, all the books in alphabetical order, what a gem! There are no books that start with “B,” how unusual, I thought. “F” was missing, as were “Q,” “U,” “V” and “W,” but I was gratified to see “Z” was well represented.

Then came the subject lists. There was law, here, and history. There were poetical books, “major” prophets, and “minor” ones (I reassured the minor prophets that I respected them just as much. It was my way to help the small and overlooked feel protected and loved).

Then came the gospels and ho! What was this?! The early church! Apparently “Paul” was given much space, as there were a great many letters of his which had been added. “Other letters” came after Paul’s and finally, one prophetic book. I checked back to the major prophets, and the minor prophets, and puzzled over this strange subject heading. One prophetic book at the end of the Bible. Oh yes! It was in the “new” testament. This section was bookended, front and back, with some helpful hints on “abbreviations” and the “reference system.”

The next translucent page, with a satisfying crinkle, announced that we had come to the Old Testament. I paused and gave the moment its due.

(Next, “In the Beginning…”)

[Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]

“The word of the Lord came to me”

“The word of the Lord came to me”

Ezekiel 21:1

In one particular church, The Huguenot Memorial Church of Pelham, New York, I somehow – quite by accident, and unbeknownst to me – managed to attend the Sunday school class consistently for a full year. I discovered this on a confusing morning when all the Sunday school classes were assembled together for a special program. Children were summoned to the front of the room, made to climb the stairs up to the dais, and a man in a dark suit would say their name and announce their accomplishment.

As I sat in the back of the room, I didn’t pay much attention to their accomplishments. These were not my people, not my customs. But I enjoyed observing the unusual proceedings, studying all the different kinds of dresses and shoes, the fascinating hairstyles on the girls (complete with barrettes, ribbons, ponies and braids, headbands and curls), and the pristine shininess of the boys’ hair.

The sound of my own name being announced suddenly jarred me from my reverie. I heard my first name called out, then the usual pause…and struggle with my last name. Glancing down at my own clothes I was relieved that I had chosen my cleaner dress, that I had licked my shoes earlier in the morning and rubbed off the scuff marks, that my socks were clean and white. I had taken my weekly bath the night before, washed and curled my hair, applying generous amounts of Dippity Do to my foam curlers. Plenty of Hairnet hair spray the next morning helped me to achieve what, to me, looked like a perfect brown square roll of hair all around the base of my neck, and an even fringe of bangs set perfectly flat across my forehead.

Slowly I slipped from my folding chair and made my way forward, up the center aisle of seated children. What had I done? Why had I been noticed?

Apparently, I was now graduating! I had successfully completed the third grade and was heading into the fourth. For this momentous achievement, I was being given a Bible. Yes! I was breathless with astonishment as I looked at its black faux leather cover and gilt pages, held almost casually in the man’s hand.

“Go ahead, it’s yours,” he whispered to me. Cautiously, I lifted both hands to receive this stupendous gift. Certainly never would I have ever imagined people would give books away. Books were treasures, kept in libraries, lent out under great care, examined closely upon return for any mark or damage.

Even more outlandish, this book was a Bible. I had no idea Bibles were so plentiful that they could be given away for free to little girls who were only tangentially involved with a church. The only Bibles I had seen were those nave dwellers, those large, ponderous books, resting heavily in ornate cradles of carved wood, or scrolled brass; the ones Reverends, costumed in robes and embroidered scarves, would read from, slowly, in a special sing-song style, from the stage.

I had surmised that Bibles were, in fact, so rare and so incomprehensible, they were never referred to in our Sunday school classes. Our stories came in colorful workbooks, regardless of the church we attended. These stories had been rewritten for children to understand. There seemed to be no continuity to these lessons, they were stand-alone stories, lifted out of the great complexity of the Bible, the few understandable pieces children were allowed to learn. I could hardly believe that I, completely by accident, completely unknowingly, had somehow done something that warranted being trusted with this magnificent gift.

Throughout the rest of the morning I stroked its nubbly black cover, gently passed my fingers over the words on its pages, touching the words as the Jewish men did in synagogue. I marveled at the translucent papers, wondering if this was holy paper, reserved specially for holy words. I breathed in its dusty, inky scent. I brushed my fingers across the whole of the gilt-edged pages, following the contour of its corners, glowing and lustrous.

(This is the story of how God’s words came to me…next, what I began to read)

[Huguenot Cross, also called Pentcost cross – created by the jeweler Gilbert Albert – commemorating the 450th anniversary of Reformation in Geneva. Cathedral St-Peter, Geneva.]

Loving God, Loving God’s words

I delight in your commands because I love them.
I reach out for your commands, which I love,
that I may meditate on your decrees.

Psalm 119:45-48

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)

Tel Megiddo

Tel Megiddo

And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Harmagedon.

Revelation 16:16

Megiddo, in a sense, represents the first and the last in the Bible. It’s one of the first cities Joshua and the tribes encountered in Canaan, and according to the apostle John, Megiddo will also mark the world’s final war. Destroyed at least 25 times over the past four or five thousand years, Megiddo also represents both the resilient and power-hungry nature of humankind.

Clear back in Genesis, both of these human qualities became descriptive of Adam and Eve, as they left the cradle of Eden and entered the savage, unchartered world that lay ahead. It fascinates me, their story, and especially Eve’s story, her longing and suppression, how her experiences shaped her, how the men in her life affected her, and how her relationship with God evolved.

Eve’s story is like the source story, the metanarrative, of my own life story, and maybe of all women’s stories, in some way. All of us have yearned to love and be loved, to be forgiven, to be freed from our past, to be empowered partners, recognized for our character, creativity, strengths, skills, and proclivities. And we have all experienced, in some way, rejection, limitations, unfair expectations, burdened by obligations we didn’t choose, blanket guilt we didn’t earn, blame and shame.

It’s not that men haven’t experienced all those things, too; it’s just I’ve never been a man, that’s not been my journey, though for most of my life I can honestly say I’ve felt robbed not having that coveted “Y” gene. It’s only been recently that I’ve finally embraced the goodness of being a woman, as I slowly grew to understand Eve’s story, and to recognize how much God honors and loves women, how the Lord has accomplished heroic triumphs, and truly breathtaking achievements through women, and has always intended Eve to be as mighty and valiant as Adam. In her own way, as a woman.

This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.

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