Singing Hebrew songs in a conservative synagogue in Boston only hours after learning of the death of my friend, mentor, spiritual director, and sponsoring rector Marcia (Mar-SEE-ya) Engblom might seem like a strange way to grieve.
And it was.
But I had planned to visit my friend’s synagogue with her for a while, partly because I am a major supporter of interfaith anything, and partly because I am in a liturgical music class and need to write papers on musical traditions different from my own. And then, the day that I was to leave for Boston, I received the news that Marcia had fallen at home after major heart surgery and hit her head, and she had not recovered. After several tortured phone calls with people in the Diocese of Northern California, my sponsoring diocese, I realized I did not want to sit in my apartment alone. So I got on the train to Boston to spend the weekend with my friend.
And in the morning, my friend took me to her conservative synagogue, which is in the rabbi’s home, and we had a long Shabbat service with a 13-year-old’s bat mitzvah. Although I don’t know any Hebrew words beyond “Adonai” and “Elohim” and “Shalom,” I managed to join in the singing quite easily. Sometimes the songs are in a call-and-response imitation style. And sometimes the songs were fairly repetitive, so I could follow. I did what I could.
At one point in the service, worshippers sing Psalms 116 through 120 in a sequence, and that was a very hard part for me because Psalm 116 is my favorite. It speaks to me of periods of grief in my life as well as periods of joy. It speaks to me of vocation (“I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will fulfill my vows in the house of the Lord”). And on last Saturday morning, it spoke to me of Marcia. “Grievous in the Lord’s sight is the death of his faithful ones.”
That is when my grief over Marcia’s sudden death overwhelmed me, and I thought I might need to leave the service. This was my first Shabbat service ever, and I noted the unrelenting theme of the 4-hour-long series of chants and songs: Praise God, Praise God, Praise God. I thought that weeping might not look like praise, and I didn’t want to ruin the mood in the room.
But I felt Marcia right in front of me, egging me on to sing with an encouraging smile and a pumped fist, a gusto for life and for God that was absolutely unflagging despite whatever ugliness might be around her. There is an element of Hebrew worship singing that is like play. It’s called nigun, and one sings “la la la” or “lie lie lie” to a tune that the rabbi starts. The idea is to let go of words and simply let the Spirit come, and it is fun and easy to do and inviting. Marcia would have loved it, not only because she loved singing, but also because she loved to be playful. She would have loved that the bat mitzvah girl and her little brother set the final hymn of the whole service, typically led by children, to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” She would say, “Keep on singing.”
That is why she was so endearing to teens at Camp Noel Porter and at SEARCH retreats and to young adults at VOCARE retreats. She believed in letting the Spirit lead. She believed in seeing what would happen. She believed in tapping into the play of our lives in God and one another. So for those of us who like to play in the fields of the Lord, she was a wonderful example and encourager. To me, she was the one who smiled and said over and over, “Keep going!” whenever I had doubts about where I was headed and the obstacles I faced. Seminarians need people like that in their lives. I can’t speak for other seminarians’ relationships with their sponsoring rectors, but she was the one who got me through a lot.
She was also doggedly faithful to her duties when I worked closely with her from 2006 to 2009; she believed it was important to show up in faith and do what was expected. From her online journal entries, I discovered that she apparently had been experiencing a decrease in physical energy the past year and a half. That must have been very hard for her because she loved the work of the Church.
So I take some comfort in the fact that Marcia’s labors are over, and I take tremendous comfort in the fact that Marcia is surrounded by a huge Gospel choir of heavenly hosts right now. She told me more than once that she wanted Gospel music at her funeral. I have no idea whether the choir at Trinity Cathedral in Sacramento is going to sing Gospel music for Marcia today, but I am absolutely sure that the angels sing whatever makes us feel joy, and for Marcia, that would undoubtedly be Gospel.