Friday, January 21, 2011

Wednesday Prayer with the Adventists

This past Wednesday evening I decided I could postpone no longer my encounter with the Seventh-Day Adventist church on Pleasant St. in Worcester, and so I worked up my courage and made the short drive over to the 7:00 pm Wednesday prayer service.

I have been apprehensive about immersing myself in the spirituality of the Adventists because of the larger goal of this project: I hope to communicate, from within each religious tradition, what they all seem to have in common, and what we all--whether practitioners of that religion or not--might learn from the particular way they orient themselves to the divine.

All I knew about the Adventists prior to Wednesday evening came from their national web site, which puts a strong emphasis on a literal interpretation of the Bible. I have never thought much of strictly literal interpretations of the Bible, and so I was concerned that I would find more to criticize than to praise in the Adventists--and I have no desire or interest in criticizing people's deeply held beliefs on this blog or in the book project to come.

But, as I noted last week, I hoped that an encounter with people whose beliefs were so different from my own might ultimately prove more illuminating than one with people with whom I identified more easily.

At 6:45 pm I pulled into the parking lot, which had just another car or two in it, and then came around to the front of the church, where two black men were shoveling and salting the steps.

“Is there a prayer service here tonight?” I said to one of them.

“Yes,” one of them said, giving me a look that was somewhere between surprised and suspicious.

I faltered, and then worked up my courage again.

“Is it . . . open to anyone?”

“Oh yes,” he said, and then he took on a more friendly tone. “I'll open up the sanctuary for you.”

So I followed him in the front door, through a hallway, and into the foyer at the back of the church. My guide left me alone there, and so I was free to wander through the back foyer and out into the church itself. What I saw there I will save for a future posting, but suffice it to say now that--as a musician--I was immediately excited at the prospect of attending the service on Saturday. There was no doubt, from the equipment and set-up that I saw, that music would be a major part of this service, and that the music was going to be loud and awesome.

I went back and stood in front of a pamphlet rack in the foyer, planning on stopping the first person that came in, introducing myself as a newcomer, and asking them to orient me and let me know what I should expect at the service. Fifteen minutes went by, though, and still I was the only one in the church. I finally went and sat down in a pew, admiring the church's beautiful interior and wondering whether the weather--we were just off a six-inch snowfall--meant that I would meet no one that evening.

I was about ready to give up when a well-dressed black man about my own age came in and sat down with me. He introduced himself, and seemed delighted with my explanation that I was simply here to learn a little bit about the Adventists. He told me all about the church, about how tonight's prayer service would work, and about the schedule for Sunday's worship services, which began at 9:15 a.m. and went into late in the afternoon.

“We're here all day,” he said with a laugh.

He let me know that he would be preaching this Saturday morning, and he really hoped I would come back for the service. I'm not sure I have ever felt as welcomed or attended to as I did in the few minutes we sat there alone; he seemed so sincerely delighted to have me in the church that I felt immediately at home there.

And yet, as we were speaking, I was beginning to suspect--based on the reaction of the men outside, and upon some of the things I had seen in the church--that I had wandered into a situation in which I was going to stand out from the regular worshippers in more ways than one. Before I could ask him the question that was now in the forefront of my mind, though, a handful of others began to straggle in. Each of them initially gave me that same curious look I had received from the men outside, and then smiled warmly and introduced themselves to me.

By the time we were all in and ready to pray, I knew the answer to my question:

Yes, I was going to be the only white person in the church tonight, and likely would be again if I came back on Saturday. This was a black Adventist church.

Of course it made no difference to our purpose that evening, and nobody said a word about it, neither I nor they. I was certainly glad I didn't know about it before I decided to come down that evening; it would have been one more source of apprehension for me, and so perhaps one more reason I might have postponed the visit or changed my mind about exploring the church.

But I will stop here for now, and post again next week to describe what happened when the service began and the group of us sat down (and sang, and stood up, and held hands, and hugged) to pray.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


We live around a two-minute drive from a great Mediterranean marketplace. I like to head over there on Saturdays and pick up olives, hummus, loose-leaf tea, and other culinary goodies. A few weeks before Christmas, I was out with my oldest daughter and decided to stop in. As I was pulling into the parking lot, for some reason my eye caught sight of the sign in front of the brick building next door: a Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

Just as I had with the Quaker house around the corner from me, I must have driven by this sign a thousand times and never really noticed it. So, much to my daughter's mortification, I grabbed her by the arm and told we were going down to check it out before we did our shopping.

There wasn't really anything to check out, much to her relief. I tried the doors and they were all locked, and the only information came from the sign out front: Sabbath School at 9:15, Worship Services at 11:00, and a Prayer Meeting on Wednesday at 7:00 pm.

I went home and looked up the Seventh-Day Adventists, and found enough of interest to make me decide that this would be the next tradition for me to explore.

So after a break from the project last weekend, I have been gearing myself up to attend the services this Sunday. I find myself more apprehensive about entering this church than I was to enter either the Quaker services or Zen group meetings. As someone who spends his time interpreting texts, and teaching others how to interpret texts--in my day job as an English professor--I tend to be dismissive of people who refuse to move beyond the literal meaning of the Bible.

The Seventh-Day Adventists believe in the six-day creation story of Genesis, and sponsor a research institute designed to demonstrate that the earth is only a few thousand years old. You can read some of their literature at the website for the Geoscience Research Institute.

In any case, while I am pretty certain that I will find myself uncomfortable with much of what the Adventists profess, I also know that growth--whether spiritual or intellectual--only comes when you are willing to hold up your most cherished beliefs and ideals and put them into dialogue with the strange and unfamiliar.

So this Saturday morning I headed back to the Mediterranean marketplace, in part to restock on hummus but in part to case around the church once more and see if I missed any additional information that I might need before attending services on Sunday morning. If there is a special hat or something I'm supposed to wear, I don't want to be the only guy not wearing it.

As I pulled into the marketplace parking lot, I was surprised to see the church's parking lot completely filled. I walked over to the church, wondering whether I had perhaps stumbled onto some Saturday event that would give me a more informal introduction to the church.

And those of you who know anything about Seventh-Day Adventists will now be anticipating the punch line here.

I looked at the main sign again, and this time I read it more clearly: Worship services, it announced were on SATURDAY at 11:00 am. It was nearly 1:00 pm at this point--which means that, next Saturday, I'm in for at least a two-hour service.

But I will be there. This week I'll do some additional research on the Adventists, and hope to report back next Sunday on my experiences at the service.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Final Thoughts from the Dalai Lama

Happy New Year!

The new year marks a transition for me to a new spiritual tradition (more on that next week), but before I embark on the next phase of my project I wanted to offer a final commentary on my experience with Buddhism—-and I want to be clear that this is not a commentary on Buddhism itself, but on my experience with with Buddhism. I hope I can make this distinction clear.

I found much of value in Buddhism, as my previous posts should demonstrate. I think it offers a terrific array of practices and principles that can help people lead a happier and more spiritual life. I will continue practicing the meditation techniques I learned from the teachers at Boundless Way, and expect that I will continue reading works by some of the Buddhist authors that I studied during these past couple of months, including the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh.

In the end, though, as someone who has lived within a Christian framework for forty years, I found too many elements of Buddhism that were too foreign to me to make sense in my worldview. Those foreign elements were in some cases tied into the principles and practices in ways that made me feel uncomfortable even when I was engaging in the beginner meditation sessions.

I can maybe best explain this by noting a few elements of the last book I read from the Buddhist tradition: How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life, by the Dalai Lama.

Two of the documentary films I watched about Buddhism included interviews or scenes with the Dalai Lama, and he came across as one of the most wise, warm, and happy human beings I have ever seen (search Google Images for the Dalai Lama and you will find a thousand images of him, in just about every one of which he is smiling). He had a warm and rich sense of humor, and yet came across as such a divinely spiritual person that it was not difficult to imagine how he inspires millions of believers. He also has an incredible track record of working globally for peace and social justice in the world.

His book reflects all of these qualities, and it has a particular focus on learning how to develop compassion for others. He suggests some meditative techniques for cultivating compassion that have made a real difference in how I view and treat those around me.

As he points out, for example, “each and every other sentient being wants happiness and does not want suffering, just like you; in this fundamental way you and they are equal.” What follows from this realization, he argues, is that we should do everything we can to reduce suffering in other creatures, animal or human. I have been trying to walk through the days now with this simple reminder in my head.

However, the Lama also says some strange things—-strange, that is, from my Judaeo-Christian perspective.

For example, here is a description of how and when human beings attain the deepest levels of consciousness: “Except in extraordinary meditative states, the subtlest, or deepest consciousness manifests itself only when we are dying. (Less withdrawn and therefore brief versions of the subtle levels of consciousness also occur when going to sleep, ending a dream, sneezing, yawning, and during orgasm . . .)”

Dying, orgasm, meditation . . . I get all that. But yawning and sneezing?

After I read this, I started to pay attention to my mind when I had to sneeze or yawn, and I never got the sense that I was experiencing anything other than a yawn or a sneeze.

More substantially, though, the Lama's spiritual practice depends upon the idea that you are seeking release from the cycle of birth-death-rebirth in which all sentient creatures are engaged. To offer a massive oversimplification, the idea is that as you become more compassionate and enlightened, you move up to higher and higher levels of bodily form until you achieve enlightenment and finally escape this cycle.

While I don't think this belief is any more outlandish than what any other religion believes, I also just can't seem to wrap my head or my heart around it. I am too stuck in a Judaeo-Christian mindset to accept this larger picture of the world.

So while I won't be converting to Buddhism at the end of the year, I do hope to continue practicing the meditation techniques it has taught me, and to remember, as the Lama says, that “even a small act of compassion grants meaning and purpose to our lives.”