Jen is off in Las Vegas this week, so rather than leave folks hanging, I thought I’d compose an “interim post.” No doubt she will have her own report to write upon her return.
19 January 2008
One of the things that’s striking about attending church on a Sabbath that’s on Saturday, is that it throws off your inner week clock. Even as we drove to the church, I caught myself looking out the window of the car, wondering why the Presbyterians had an empty parking lot. Afterward, we went to lunch, and then the bookstore, and I kept wondering why the bookstore was so crowded, and kept talking about “tomorrow” as the upcoming Monday MLK holiday.
The OO 7thDA church is a warm, welcoming, and racially diverse congregation. We guesstimate a full 20% of the congregation weren’t caucasian—and, in an area that’s over 94% white, this is pretty amazing.
The bulletin contains information for all three parts of the service. We came in at the tail-end of the missions presentation in the Sunday School portion of the morning, which threw me off a bit, as I expected we were starting at the “beginning.”
A portion of the sermon is reserved for “praise and requests.” One of the other ushers, armed with a wireless mike, goes through the congregation as individuals raise their hands and talk about their blessings, thank God and the faith family for the help they’ve received, and ask for prayers on issues of concern. The praises ranged from giving thanks for the day, for members who’d returned, for weight lost, for prayers answered. One young man gave thanks that he got his truck out of his mother’s snow-laden yard, burned out the clutch, lost his job, got another job, was scraping together the money he needed to put in a new clutch, and for his friend, seated near him, who was able to help him with the clutch problem for less money than he imagined. Evident throughout the service was the congregation’s love for each other.
One of the problems with the 52 Churches project is that most congregation–especially smaller congregations– are very intent on keeping potential new members, which makes it difficult to slip in unnoticed, and to leave without being invited to return. As the project has several reasons for its existence, we’ve been giving Ockham’s: that, having a wealth of different traditions between us, we inadvertently raised a “cradle Episcopalian” and, before she takes confirmation class and decides if or not she wants to be confirmed as an Episcopalian, we thought we’d give Farmergirl a broad view of the rest of the body of Christ. Selfishly, I’m quite happy to have an excuse to explore some of the denominations that, being raised evangelical, we were hardly allowed to mention, let alone attend a service of. Although I think our theological views are probably at odds, I’m quite interested in visiting the LDS and JW churches, and seeing up close and in person what services in those traditions entail.
We were a bit surprised when we found that we knew the songs we were singing in the 7th DA service. There were a few note and wording changes, such that they weren’t quite exactly the same as the versions we know, but it seems that the tradition has a lot of overlap with mainline and evangelical congregations. There’s at least one prayer in the service where everyone is bid to kneel. I had thought, when we entered, how nicely spaced the rows were from each other. During both the giving of praise section and the children’s offering (when three of the most darling children went row to row, in no particular order with little baskets to take the children’s collection) that this row spacing was particularly useful. I suspect, though, that it’s spaced more for the ease of kneeling. There are no kneelers or kneeling pads, and I miscalculated how padded the floor wasn’t, and went down a little hard.
Because the 7thDA Sabbath is from Sundown on Friday to Sundown on Saturday, the official time of sunset is documented on the website, and the bulletin.
Creating community through counter-cultural practices. It strikes me that you create an instant community by counter-cultural practices. Within the 7th DA tradition, observing the Sabbath on Saturday, much like how Jerusalem has a three day revolving weekend with the competing religious observances of the Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
Since Jen’s flight was Sunday at 11, we decided that this would be a good week to attend a Seventh Day Advenist congregation. The Seventh Day Adventists (SDA) have an interesting history. I am hopelessly oversimplifying this, but the SDA was begun in the 1800s as an off-shoot of the Millerite movement. William Miller, a revivalist baptist preacher became convinced that Jesus was coming back during the year between March 21st 1843 and March 21st 1844. When he didn’t show, Miller moved the date to October 22nd, 1844. After another no-show, most Millerites gave up.
A group of Millerites decided that Miller had in fact been right about the date, he was just confused about what it meant. This lead to the development of some specific Adventist beliefs related to Jesus entering the “Most Holy Place” rather than returning to earth. I will note most of what I have summarized here I found on the web. I have a lovely theological library, including texts that would speak to this, but it’s in a bunch of boxes. Interestingly, the Adventists’ web site mentioned Miller on its history page, but it sidesteps the “Great Disappointment.” The Seventh Day Adventist church proper didn’t actually start until 1863, lead by James White and Ellen G. White. Ellen served as prophet within the Adventist tradition. Depending on who you talk to she was either a deeply spiritual woman, or a deceiver.
Much of this reminds me of Dispensational Truth, a book by Clarence Larkin from the 1920s that claims to have deciphered biblical prophecy and determined various eons of the world (dispensations) and what portents would indicate the second coming. I first came across this book in college while hanging out with some folks involved in a house church. Years later, when I found a copy, I just had to buy it — if only for the cool pictures. Trying to divine the future from scripture seems to have been (and still be) a very popular pass time in the revivalist and fundamentalist traditions. One of the things that learned during my theological educations (thanks Mom and Dad!) was that biblical prophecy really has nothing to do with predicting the future. Paul, and many of the other New Testament writers, follow the rabbinical tradition of exegesis in which passages from the Torah are tied to a specific here and now. Jesus himself does this as he lays claim to Isaiah 61 in Luke 4 proclaiming, “the Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me.” For that matter, Paul even does this with pagan traditions, proclaiming Christ as the “unknown god” from the shrine in Athens, and preaching the gospel while referencing pagan poets. There is an audacity to this style of exegesis that seems very reasonable when done by Jesus or the apostles. I confess I would be deeply uncomfortable about the average preacher doing this. More importantly, the apostles do not try to use the Torah to foretell what will happen. They use it to teach Jesus as the messiah. Jesus uses it similarly.
The point of my meandering here is this. The old testament prophets were bringing a message to God’s people in their current day and time. Sometimes it was a message of comfort, letting them know that the Lord had not abandoned them, and that he would return them to the promised land. Sometimes it was a message of judgement, declaring God’s disappointment and wrath as the Israelites worshipped foreign gods and forsook justice. Sometimes it was a message of warning, pleading for change that they might avert God’s wrath. But it never seemed to be a calendar or a roadmap laying out what the end times might look like. Those traditions that get caught up in such things seem to miss the point. The prophets have much to say to us today about God’s kingdom, even if they aren’t actually that concerned about whether Gog and Magog relate to Russia or Afghanistan. The social justice of Luke isn’t a biblical anomaly. It ties right back to Habakkuk, Micah, Zephaniah, and the rest.
So returning to the matter at hand, we showed up at the Aventist church in Otis Orchards around quarter to 11. Going to church on Saturday left us a little confused all weekend. We kept wondering why the other church parking lots weren’t full-up, and why certain stores were open on Sunday. Knowing a little about some of the Adventist beliefs and history, I was expecting the service to be a bit weird, but it really wasn’t. Other than some references to “robes of righteousness” which appear to be very specifically adventist, it was really quite normal. We sang traditional hymns like “Praise to the Lord,” “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”, and “Spirit of the Living God.” The preacher preached an impassioned sermon regarding the treasure that is the word of God, with plenty of references to heaven and the joy of being a Christian. All-in-all, it felt like a pretty normal church service (in a border-line fundamentalist sort of way).
One last reflection before I simply post this and head to bed. Part of the service was a time of congregational sharing, labelled “Praise and Request Time.” During this time a microphone was passed around to whomever wanted to speak. Of the 40 or so gathered, at least one representative from most families spoke. Praise was given for fellowship, family, weight-loss, vehicle repairs, healing . . . you name it. It was intimate and unrushed. By their actions, it was clear that this was a very important part of their worship that was worth the time it took to share with each other about what God was doing in their lives.
The love and community this congregation shared was very evident. No doubt they, like all groups, have their own internal struggles and frictions, but here was a group of people that was glad to be together, sharing a faith journey. I have been to many churches, but rarely is that sort of intimacy, community, and caring so integral to, or apparent within, the service. What an astounding witness to the power of God, and the vibrancy of faith in their lives. I wonder how much better the gospel would be received if the world could in fact, “know we are Christians by our love,” rather than by the little fishes stuck on the back of cars. I firmly believe that people are hungry for relationship with God. I also believe that that relationship almost always begins through people. Here was a group of people that shined forth the love of God, regardless of some of the stranger points of their theological tradition.
Bulletins, pictures, and other stuff to come . . . when I get around to it.