Monday, February 28, 2011

Amazing Grace

I am slowly working my way towards attending Sabbath Services at the Pleasant Street Seventh-Day Adventist church. This past Saturday I finally made it down, but not for the 11:00 am Praise and Worship services. I had been invited by one of the prayer service leaders to an afternoon concert in celebration of Black History Month. It was held in coordination with two other local churches, and featured choir members from all three congregations.

The event allowed me to see in action for the first time the terrific package of sound and musical instruments they have, including a full drum set, bass and guitar amplifiers, a piano and organ, plenty of vocal microphones, and a full suite of video and audio recording equipment.

The concert was both a history lesson and musical performance. A narrator told stories about the different hymns and spirituals that were then sung or performed by various combinations of musicians and singers. A definite highlight was a young girl who played a trio of tunes on the violin, including a lively fiddle tune, accompanied by a terrific piano player.

I was excited to see “Amazing Grace” on the program list, since I have always counted this as one of my favorite spiritual songs. A group of women came up on stage and I settled back to enjoy the singing. To my surprise and disappointment, recorded music began coming from the sound system.

A voice began to sing on the recording, and the eight or so women up on stage—dressed in matching robes and sashes—began translating the song into sign language. They signed in perfect unison, as the song swelled and subsided, smiling and proud of the work they were doing.

Although “Amazing Grace” sounds like a cry of hope from the depths of black slavery, the song actually was composed by a white man—even more astonishingly, by a white British man who spent much of his life working in the slave trade. The narrator reminded us of the song's history; I had actually just read it about in a textbook I am using in class which covers the history of the slave trade in England.

John Newton (pictured above) was a sailor in the British Navy in the late 18th-century, and then took a place aboard a slave-trading ship. For several years he sailed up small African rivers, procuring slaves and taking them into larger cities where they would be sold and bound for America. Eventually he had a conversion experience, and wrote “Amazing Grace” as a spiritual autobiography in 1772.

The song was immediately popular, and eventually found a place in the canon of African-American spirituals. One author of a critical work on gospel music labeled the song as reflecting the “universal testimony” of the African-American experience of delivery from slavery and oppression.

So here in the Seventh-Day Adventist church, on a Sabbath afternoon, I find again the incredible potential that spirituality has to build bridges and foster community among disparate peoples and communities. A white man from the American Midwest, I sit in a church of black New Englanders transplanted from the Caribbean, listening to a song composed by a white British sailor and beloved by African Americans, and watching a group of women signing its lyrics to a church full of people who have ears to hear.

Amazing grace.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Keeping the Sabbath

According to Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart's Seeking Sanctuary: Seventh-Day Adventism and the American Dream, a big fat scholarly history of the religion from Indiana University Press, Seventh-Day Adventists are the contemporary heirs of the Millerites, a group of Americans who became convinced by a man named William Miller that the world would come to an end on October 22, 1844.

In the wake of that fateful date—since, as you may know, his prediction turned out to be incorrect—his followers split into a number of different groups, initially determined by their reaction to their disappointment at the earth still existing. The group that became the Adventists ultimately came to the conclusion that the process of bringing the world to its close, as described in the scriptures, had begun in heaven on October 22, 1844, but for some reason was delayed here on earth. Only until the work of “cleansing” heaven of human sin and stain was completed would the end times begin here on earth.

But a second belief of these disappointed Millerites soon became essential to membership in the Adventist church: the conviction that we were meant to keep Saturday as the Sabbath.

“After some years of disagreement as to when the Sabbath should begin and end,” Bull and Lockhart write, “they agreed in 1855 that Adventists, like orthodox Jews, must observe the Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.”

When I got to the Pleasant Street Seventh-Day Adventist church last night, for the Wednesday evening prayer service, I was able to get into the main doors but not into the sanctuary itself. So I waited out in the stairwell, hoping that the service had not been canceled for some reason. Eventually a young man showed up and tried the sanctuary doors as well, and then went down to the basement, where I could hear a baby crying.

He came back and announced that nobody down there had a key, so we would have to wait until one of the Elders came by and opened the sanctuary. Then he extended his hand to me:

“I haven't seen you here before,” he said.

We introduced ourselves, and I told him why I was visiting. I asked him about the Saturday services, and he reviewed the schedule for me, giving me the same basic rundown that I had heard at the last prayer service I attended. We had struck up an easy rapport, so after he finished talking about the services, I just blurted out the question I still had on my mind:

“So when I come here on Saturday, am I going to be the only white person in the room?”

“Not the only one,” he said. “There might be one or two others.”

He explained to me then that the church was actually composed primarily of people of Carribbean descent. Most of the people who ended up at the prayer service that evening—around eight of us—were from Jamaica, either by birth or descent.

Since I had just been reading Bull and Lockhart's explanation of the Sabbath, I thought I'd get his perspective on it. Perhaps now, I thought to myself, I'll get a little bit of the wackiness I'm expecting to find in this strange religion. I asked him whether, like Orthodox Jews, all work was forbidden on the Sabbath.

“Naw,” he said, “you can come in here and turn on the lights, open the church, drive your car, fix if it breaks down, all that kind of thing. But you shouldn't be doing your real work, work for your paycheck. You shouldn't be taking phone calls for your job, that kind of thing. You're supposed to focus on God on the Sabbath, to rest and rejuvenate yourself. But you can still make your food and do the things you need to do to live and get around.”

“So it sounds like it's less about forbidding certain things and more about encouraging certain kinds of things?” I said.

“That's right,” he said.

At this point an elderly man in a Boston Red Sox hat came in, and he too tried the sanctuary and then settled down with us in the stairwell. My new friend spoke again.

“I have a friend at work who asked me about this,” he said, “and I told him that celebrities go to these therapy centers where they have to put away their phones, and they're forced to just relax and do nothing for a day or more. It's the same thing. You're taking 24 hours out of your week and saying, these hours are for God. You rest and focus on what's important. You come to church, spend time with your family, have a meal together.”

“And you don't even have to pay a bunch of money to some therapy center,” I said.

“Exactly,” he said. “And people always say they would never have time to do that. But you know, you make time. You can make time for it if you want to.”

“Just like exercise,” I said. “Nobody really has time for exercise, but if you decide you're going to exercise, you make time for it.”

“That's right,” he said.

I don't know how many times, over the course of this year, that this same scene is going to be repeated for me: I go into a new religious context, expecting to be shocked or turned off or baffled by some doctrine or practice I have read about, and instead what I find are good and sensible people doing things that make a whole lot of sense.

It may seem horrifying to think about—I am not sure how I would handle it—but can you imagine the impact it would have on our lives, our communities, and our identity and unity as a nation if more and more of us began to take one day a week and set it aside to gather together, focus on family and and the things that matter to us, and share a meal or two?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Wednesday Prayer with the Adventists, Part II

Today’s entry continues the narrative from last week, which describes my orientation to the Wednesday night prayer service at a black Seventh-Day Adventist church in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Once the prayer service itself kicked in, things only got stranger.

At the outset, there were just three of us present, although a few more would eventually join us over the course of the next forty-five minutes. The service opened with three hymns. The two others who were there with me, all of us sitting in pews near the back of the church, each picked out a favorite hymn or two, pointed me to the correct hymnal and page number, and then we launched into song.

Just three of us, a capella.

I don’t have much formal experience with singing, though I have been doing a bit of singing recently in a little musical side project. Still, it was difficult and disconcerting to have to join in on completely unfamiliar tunes in this context, trying to read both the tune and the words with no advance preparation. When there are forty people in a room, you can mouth the words and not actually sing; with just three of us in there, I had to do my best to belt it out and try to stay in tune. I would not have made it far on American Idol.

Fortunately, though, the male service leader had a great and powerful baritone, so eventually I realized I could just match my voice to his and get by. It remained enough of a challenge that I don’t remember anything about the songs themselves; I think I can say with certainty that they were about Jesus, but I wouldn’t venture anything beyond that.

By the time we were done singing, our group had swelled up to a half-dozen, and then it was apparently time to go around the group and state what you were thankful for. When my turn came, I muttered something vague about gratitude for my health and family.

Then we went around the circle again, this time stating what prayer intentions we had for the evening--another thing I had not prepared for. As I listened to the people before me asking for help for various family and health issues, I was wracking my brain to see what I could come up with. Finally it occurred to me that I could throw out the name of a friend who had suffered from several medical setbacks over the past year or two. So when my turn came, I mentioned this friend and briefly described her problem.

“What’s her name?” the service leader asked.

I hesitated, not wanting to expose her problem to the world, but then figured that it was highly unlikely that anyone in the room knew her. So I said her first name.

When we had all stated our intentions, everyone stood up, and so I did the same. We scootched out into the aisle, and then we formed into a circle and joined hands. I am not the most physically affectionate person in the world, especially with strangers—so as a friend correctly guessed afterwards, I was much more uncomfortable about having to hold two stranger’s hands than I was about being the only white person in the room.

At that point the prayer service leader designated three people as the ones who would speak for the group. So we all bowed our heads and closed our eyes, and one of the group members began praying for each of the intentions we had articulated. When he got to me, he not only prayed for a minute or two for my friend’s affliction, and referred to her repeatedly by name, but he also prayed for a few minutes for me—thanking God for bringing me into the church, and hoping that I would benefit from the service.

When he had finished, five or more minutes later, one of the other designated leaders took up the task, and also went around and prayed specifically for each of our intentions, again asking Jesus’s help for my friend’s medical problems in great detail and referring to her by name again and again. She also spent a minute or two thanking Jesus for bringing me to the service, always mentioning me specifically by name. When she had finished, a third leader followed suit in the same way.

The whole process took fifteen or twenty minutes, by the end of which—after dozens of repetitions of my friend’s name and medical problem—I could almost see her standing there in the midst of us. She had been invoked so specifically by each of the three prayer leaders, and they had spoken of her with such intensity and hope, that it was difficult not to feel as if we had done something good for her. I felt deep gratitude, as well, for the way in which they had invited both her and me into their prayer lives.

This was the real surprise of the evening for me. I had come into the church expecting to find people who believed in a six-thousand year old earth, or who handled snakes and spoke in tongues, or who would argue with me about the literal interpretation of scriptures. Instead I found a handful of people who seemed genuninely happy to welcome me into their presence, who prayed intensely for me and my friend, and who spoke with great faith and hope about the way in which they believed God could improve their lives. It was a salutary reminder of the ways in which spirituality and religion can act as a force for building community and creating connections between people.

After we sat down, the service leader spoke for ten minutes about a book that they had been studying. It was less of a sermon than a conversation, as other members of the group would occasionally interrupt and offer their own perspectives on the ideas in the chapter they were to have read for this week.

The service concluded with a song, and then one last gathering into a circle and hand-holding session for a concluding prayer. Afterwards we all hugged, and they asked me for my name and phone number, which I was happy to give them. The leader had told me that he would be preaching at that Saturday’s service, and as I was putting on my coat he reminded me to make sure I came by.

“I’d really like to see you here,” he said.

That was two and a half weeks ago, and I have not been back since, either for Saturday Sabbath services or for the Wednesday prayer service. That has not been entirely my fault; the snow here in Worcester has been brutal, and school and family obligations have interfered a couple of times. I did drive up the following Wednesday for the prayer service, during a snowstorm, and waited in the parking lot to see if anyone showed up, but no one ever did.

I am doing some background reading on the Adventists now, and expect to be able to get back to a service of some kind this week, either on Wednesday or Saturday, so I hope at that time to provide a more informed perspective about my next experience, which I will post about next Sunday.