I grew up with “The Voice” singing from the 45’s and LPs that my parents played. Well, truth be told, it was more my mother’s choice than Dad’s. When I began earning money from paper routes and my job at the drug store, I started my record collection, and it my studyincluded some Sinatra records that my parents didn’t have. There’s a transparency (a slide, we used to call them) that shows a corner of my high school bedroom, a corner plastered with record album jackets that were thumb-tacked to the walls. There are several Sinatra album covers on the wall, confirming my memory that we were all big fans.

Over forty years have passed since I neglected my studies in that corner. But I still have a large collection of Sinatra albums and CD releases. His voice is one thing…and I’m interested in how it matured through the decades of his long career, from the high, clear, boyish baritone of his days with the Dorsey band, to the brash, huskiness of a jazz voice shaped by alcohol and cigarettes. And sadly, there is the voice of the man nearing 80 whose physical energy was waning, but whose spirit still breathed more life into a lyric than most younger artists will ever achieve.

And that is the point of this entry: Sinatra paid attention to the lyric of every song, and used his voice to communicate even more than the poet might have imagined when words were first put on paper. The word is that Dorsey’s trombone phrasing taught Sinatra how to voice a song, how to breathe meaning into the lyric that another singer might simply have sung like a worn nursery rhyme. For all his swagger and “rat pack” personality, for all the controversy he generated in the press, the man honored those who put words and notes on paper by singing as much from the heart as from that gifted voice.

I’m not a singer. My musical gifts are limited to struggling with hymns in church. I am an occasional preacher, now retired from the weekly public reading and preaching of the word. I am now a “consumer” (if you will) of those who lead worship and sermonize. And I have become aware, not for the first time, of how poorly the spoken word communicates the depths of meaning found in holy texts. If those words in Torah and Testaments speak of something the theologians call “salvation history,” and if these are indeed the words of “eternal life,” and if Holy Scripture describes the Holy One, Creator, Redeemer, Comforter, God who is love, then why, in Heaven’s name, is there so little drama, so little emotion or feeling,  in the public readings of “the word of the Lord.” In the case of some lay-readers, one gets the impression that the text was thrust into their hands just moments before they stepped to the lectern to read. And the professional clergy are rarely more animated.

In some Christian services, the reading of the Bible is followed by this exchange. Reader: “This is the Word of the Lord.”  People: “Thanks be to God.”  In reality the response might be more honestly stated, “Ho-hum.”  

If only preachers, pastors, priests and rabbis and all the lay folk who add their voices to the reading of sacred text would take note of Sinatra’s way with a song. I can’t imagine his walking into a recording studio and grabbing a piece of sheet music and mumbling the lyric while Nelson Riddle’s orchestra played obediently in the background. One take, and go home. No. Sinatra’s voice convinced us that he knew what he was singing about. He knew the great lyricists had stories to tell. He knew the composers meant the notes, the rests, the harmonies, the directions written on the scores. And Sinatra knew he had their permission to interpret the songs for his audience, whether they were in the front row of the concert arena or lying in bed alone with the radio on. He had fun with the fun songs, and there were many that were just that, minor entertainments that pleasantly passed the time. But the ballads and saloon songs, lyrics of love lost and found, whether from Broadway shows or his personal writing team — those songs spoke to the heart of the hearer.

With so much more riding on the hearing and doing of God’s word, one would think there would be a bit more passion from the pulpit. If we are to practice the faith, it is time for those who interpret the faith through ancient word and contemporary expression to practice their public reading and preaching until printed pages again open our being to the Spirit’s breathing. Solid musicians of every stripe practice, practice, practice. Might we who proclaim age old truths do the same? And preach like Sinatra?

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