There are some pretty awful stories in the Bible – like the story of Tamar in Genesis. She was a young widow who disguised herself as a temple prostitute in order to entrap her father-in-law into having sex with her so that she would have a son. Have you ever wondered why that story is even in the Bible? The story certainly doesn’t illustrate what we call “Judeo-Christian values.” A few days ago I think I learned why that story is included in the sacred text.
It was Thursday, the day I play the piano for the women’s worship service in the county jail. As usual, the chairs in the chapel were arranged in a circle with a small table in the center serving as the altar. The chaplain asked the women to think about a time when they had to make a decision and they felt that they didn’t have any good options, only bad ones. Then she read the story of Tamar in a contemporary English version of the Bible. The story was vivid.
We were all quiet for a minute when she finished reading the story. Then we went around the circle, sharing our own experiences of having to make tough decisions. One woman talked about needing money to be able to take care of her two young kids. Her best option at the time seemed to be prostitution. She knew it was wrong, but she didn’t know what else she could do to provide for her kids. Another woman talked about having a mom who was so strung out on drugs that the mom had given her the responsibility of taking care of her little sister. She felt she had to steal to be able to get food for herself and her sister.
The decisions these women made were ultimately responsible for them being in jail. There were serious consequences for whichever option they chose. One woman said she was glad that her choice resulted in her going to jail, where she would have a chance to learn about other options in her life. She encouraged the woman who had been caring for her little sister to pray and read her Bible every day and to trust that God was watching out for her and her sister.
After this time of sharing we went around the circle praying for the person seated on our right. We ended the worship service by singing a song of praise to God, “This is the Day” and we read a final blessing together.
As we waited for a deputy to come and unlock the chapel door and to escort the women back to their cell block, I played some lively music on the piano, starting with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” The women knew the words to the spiritual and they sang along. After several verses, I switched to “Standing in the Need of Prayer.” They sang along with that, too. I asked them for suggestions of other songs to sing while we waited. We sang “This is the Day” again and the other song we had sung earlier in the service, “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God.” Then the woman who had been caring for her younger sister requested “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” followed by “Joy to the World,” and “Soon and Very Soon.”
This spontaneous hymn sing while we waited for the deputy was the special JOY of my day. The awful story of Tamar had prompted the sharing of tough decisions these women had made. Sharing stories, praying for each other, and singing together. God was with us again. I’m learning that this is what “church” is all about.