Lately I’ve been musing over attitudes of worship in churches and synagogues and thinking of how they compare and contrast. For example,

In the synagogue, during the holiest part of the service, the Amidah, and the Shema, Jewish people rise. In some churches, Christians rise for the reading of the gospel. Many more rise for the songs.

Since Jewish services are quite long, people feel the liberty to arrive and leave at different times. In Christian worship services it would be considered rude to arrive late or leave early. However most Christians (at least in the U.S.) do not expect their worship services to last more than an hour and a half.

Jews cover their heads to show reverence. Christian men bare their heads to show reverence. Some Christian women cover theirs.

Few Jewish people carry a Bible to the synagogue. At the synagogue, prayer books and yarmulkes (skull caps) are provided at the door for those who have not brought their own. In many, if not most churches, Bibles are provided in the pews, along with hymnals, which, in liturgical churches, also include prayers and other responsive readings, like a siddur.

I am not laying any particular stress on these similarities and differences, or saying things ought to be one way or the other. I am just thinking about attitudes of worship.

Have you ever thought about what worship must have been like for the children of Israel? When one considers the temple service, the sacrifice, the liturgy, it would be difficult to imagine one of the priests or Levites using the occasion to share humorous stories with the congregation. Sacrifice was a serious business and telling jokes would be about as appropriate as telling those same jokes at a funeral.

There is a time to mourn, a time to rejoice, a time to shed tears of sorrow and another time to shed tears of joy and there is a time to laugh and a time to cry. In other words there are appropriate occasions for us to express appropriate sentiments.

God must have a sense of humor because there are several humorous passages in the Bible. Just try to imagine what it would look like seeing a camel threaded through a needle. Do you start with the whiskers on his nose or the hairs on his tail? What do you suppose he is doing while you are trying to thread him through a needle? Jesus’ teachings contain a great deal of irony to make people smile, but there were also teachings that would make people cry.

Those who seek out pastors to compete with standup comedians would be well advised that any clown can make people laugh, but only a prophet of God can bring people to shed tears of repentance. There should be joy in every worship service, but we worshipers must be careful that we don’t seek to enjoy the wrong thing.

Some argue that the music must be the same kind that the kids listen to on their radios. That is unfair to young people, as it presumes their kind of music is the only kind that they will understand or appreciate. It is an insult to the young people to presume that they have a cookie-cutter taste for music.

Anyone attending the symphony or opera will note that in the upper balcony where the seats are cheaper, there are plenty of high school and college students, who have managed to come on their own. Very few young people have one-dimensional tastes. I think we need to listen to them and try to enter into those things that help them find joy in the Lord or solemnity in their contemplation. It is not an either/or thing but a both/more when it comes to the selection of material for worship.

One thing that deeply impressed me from my childhood experiences in synagogue was the profound sense of otherness” conveyed by the architecture and furnishings. Even the light bulbs were different, not the kind seen in an ordinary home or business. The use of colors and symbols wouldn’t be found in home decorations. Sometimes I miss that sense of otherness in some of our churches. I love the people, and I understand the desire to make everyone feel at home in God’s house. I appreciate that because of Jesus, God allows us to draw very near to Him. But He is also transcendent. Sometimes I miss the sense of that transcendence in our worship services.