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Singing Through Our Tears: Adventist Music and Great Disappointments

The Sabbath morning “church service” portion of the 2014 Adventist Forum Conference in San Diego, “Singing Through Our Tears: Adventist Music and Great Disappointments,” began with music provided by Dr. Elvin Rodriguez, chair of the Music Department at La Sierra University, and his wife, Linette.  This talented couple performed both solos and duets on the piano and accordion as well as accompanied each other’s vocal renditions.  

Since people were sharing their stories, Elvin began by telling the assembled worshipers about the dissonance he experienced between growing up in Cuba and Southern California and learning to turn it into harmony.  He played one of his dad’s favorite hymns, “My Jesus I Love You,” on his accordion, followed by introducing the audience to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ hymn, “And Have the Bright Immensities,” number 168 in the SDA Hymnal, appropriately emphasizing “A little candle sheds its light as surely as a star.  And where His loving people meet to share the gift divine, there stands He with unhurrying feet; there heav’nly splendors shine.”  Next he shared what he called a “Cuban spiritual” about a rock where one can get away from the storm, “mashed up,” as he called it, with a couple of Beethoven piano sonatas—a very moving piece.  The Rodriguezes concluded their portion of the morning by leading us in hymn number 536, “God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens,” reminding us that the stretching could include some dissonance.

Roy Branson

Loma Linda University School of Religion Associate Dean, Dr. Roy Branson, shared his “Growing Up Adventist Stories” by telling the congregation of one of those times when Adventist academics were being criticized, they gathered at a national meeting.  North American Division president, Charles Bradford,started his addresstothem by saying, “You are a treasure to the church.”  Roy went on to speak of some of the denomination’s treasures.  He explained how early Adventist leaders stopped setting a time for the Second Coming,stopped thinking the Lord could only come in their present but might come in the future.  James and Ellen White received criticism for participating in the institution of marriage—clearly they no longer believed that the time of the Second Coming might possibly be delayed. In that sense, around 1859. the founders of Adventism really stopped being Millerites They simultaneously began calling for the creation of institutions. The Whites and Joseph Bates began calling for the setting up of a publishing house, then the organizing of a church, even though “the remnant” had been thrown out of their established churches!  Ellen White spoke of the need to not only love God but also to love humanity through Adventist educational and health institutions.  While some analysts of Adventism spoke of Adventists coming into and out of Adventism through a revolving door, Adventist institutions were also filled with people who remained Adventists and helped many to ride the escalator up social strata.

Roy illustrated how that happens by telling his experience with Joe Mesar who joined him for a summer project to help the “down and out” in downtown Washington, DC.  Joe went on to join a legal defense agency, not angry or bitter, but as a product of an Adventist institution, he was following Ellen White’s counsel to help humanity.

Roy shared two ideas that during the last decades have changed Adventism for the better, underscoring  that institutions within Adventism are communities of hope enacting the Kingdom.  The first is our understanding and experience of the Sabbath.  Roy first became acquainted with the writings of Karl Barth on the Sabbath through a class at the Seminary with Dr. Earle Hilgert.  These writings are so extensive that if gathered together they could make a small volume.  Then it was Dr. David Cotton and Jack Provonsha who introduced Roy to the writings of Abraham Heschel on the Sabbath; later Roy actually became acquainted with Heschel on the Selma March.  From these writers we learn that Sabbath is sacrament, not law; it is rather a signal of hope.  The second is our understanding of apocalyptic, the end time.  Rather than fearing a time of doom, we look forward to a time of vindication.   

Roy spoke of the influence in his thinking of his AUC English professor, Dr. Ottilie Stafford, who helped him see the Bible as being multi-hued, not just in a book like Job, but also Revelation.  He referred to some of the lines in her Spectrum essay, “The Holiness of Beauty”.  Ottilie Stafford, a life-long teacher in Adventist educational institutions called for Adventists to “imagine a world where language is clear and honest, where image and symbol and parable coincide exactly with reality, where words do not break down under emotion, but are filled with ‘an Elixer, an excitation, a pure power.’ ”   She called for members to “imagine a world where the redeemed , in perfect freedom and perfect harmony, are themselves a part of the beauty of the holiness about the throne of God.”  She celebrated what the church can be.  “In song and in words, in architecture and in music, in sculpture and in landscape gardening, in liturgy and in the words of the preacher, the church may, even in this imperfect world, join together in that great song of praise to the Creator with the morning stars and the other Sons of God.” 

Because of our founders and forebears, we’ve had “treasures” in our institutions who have helped us see our true home.

 

Kendra Haloviak Valentine

When it came time for the introduction of the morning’s main speaker, Dr. Kendra Haloviak Valentine, Associate Professor of New Testament at La Sierra University’s HMS Richards Divinity School, Bonnie Dwyer called her another one of the “treasures” of the church.  There is no question but that she is rapidly becoming a leading Adventist preacher as well as biblical scholar.  Her “sermon” was entitled:  “Adventist Hymnody and the Wonder of Creation:  The Church that Sings Together Stays Together.”  This creative attempt to take a fresh look at the celebration of creation in the SDA hymnals was something I had not ever heard addressed before; it will be published in its entirety soon in an upcoming issue of Spectrum.  In the meantime, what follows is a brief summary of her message.

It began with a quote from Walt Whitman, “After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d), After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’ed their work, After the noble inventors—after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist, Finally shall come the Poet, worthy that name; The true Son of God shall come, singing his songs.”

Kendra compared and contrasted the first hymn in each of the two Adventist hymnals she has known, “Before Jehovah’s Awful Throne” from 1941, and “Praise to the Lord” from 1985.  Both refer to the creative attributes of God, not surprising since the Hebrew Psalter (e.g. 8:3; 100:3) and hymns in Revelation (e.g. 4:8, 11) contain many references to God as the creative source of all life.  It was Kendra’s thesis that “Our hymns reflect these rich biblical understandings of creation because our hymn writers (poets) draw from the cultural and literary worlds of the biblical authors.  The imagery the authors of our hymns use also reflects their own diverse scientific understandings.  It is fascinating to observe that in different eras hymnody reflects the science of the time.  Scientific assumptions enter our hymnody and thus our liturgy as new theoretical constructs make possible new language for worship.”  She noticed the richness of the language of the hymns on those occasions when she and her husband, Gil Valentine, periodically sat at the piano singing through the hymnal. Phrases such as “radiant orbs,” “curves of space,” and “atom,” caught their attention and she then began studying the cosmologies reflected in these hymns where she discovered a very wide cosmological diversity.  She concluded that hymns constitute a form of poetic language that is inclusive, rather than boundary-making.  And she also discovered their close association with Scripture (out of the total of 695 hymns only eight do not have any scriptural allusion).

“And how is the language of Scripture understood by the poets whose works are in our Adventist hymnals?  As we look at the hymns we will notice both the theoretical assumptions and the new scientific language which became available at different times in the approximately 300 years during which most of our hymns were composed.  This was a period of remarkable change in scientific understanding of the universe and its basic elements and the liturgical language of our hymns reflects the best science of the poets’ times.  We can also see that science and worship need not be at odds with each other, but work in harmony at least within the liturgical documents we refer to as our hymnals.”

Kendra went on to consider these “Adventist hymns” in four groups, each reflecting distinctive ways of understanding the structure of the world or cosmos:

  1. Bible’s three-tiered cosmos.   The middle tier was for human life, a flat earth surrounded by the “waters below” and the firmament (sky dome) holding back the “waters above” (e.g. Rev 5:3, reflected in such hymns as “Heavenly portals, loud with hosannas ring!”)

  2. Ptolemy’s two-sphered universe with the sun, moon, stars and planets all orbiting around a stationery earth, a picture behind the “to my listening ears, all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.”

  3. Copernicus’ sun-centered universe empirically supported by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, so Milton can say in Paradise Lost “all space, the ambient Aire, wide interfus’d imbracing round this fluid Earth.”  And Isaac Watts can write, “He framed the globe; He built the sky; He made the shining worlds on high.”  So science changes but wonder remains.

  4. Einstein’s universe which was flexible, dynamic and finite, and whose physics also made possible the “big bang” theory as the beginning of an expanding universe.  Such a view may be seen in Howard Robbins’ hymn, “Have the Bright Immensities received our risen Lord, where light years frame the Pleiades and point Orion’s sword?  Do flaming suns His footsteps trace Thro’ corridors sublime, the Lord of interstellar space and conqueror of time?”  And Albert Bayly’s “Lord of the Boundless Curves of Space” knows a scientific world (our world) that biblical writers could not have conceived.

Kendra concludes this fourth group by talking about hymn writers like Pratt Green (1903-2000), 15 of his more than 300 hymns being included in the current Adventist Hymnal.  His 1976 Thanksgiving hymn, “Come, Sing a Song of Harvest” expresses the danger of arrogance when science and wonder do not go hand-in-hand:  “Shall we, sometimes forgetful of where creation starts, with science in our pockets lose wonder from our hearts?”  And contemporary hymn writer Fred Kaan (1929-2009), whose hymn, “God Who Spoke in the Beginning,” which Adventist compilers included in our hymnbook, reiterates the title in its first stanza, then continues: “Forming rock and shaping spar, Set life and growth in motion, Earthly world and distant star; He who calls the earth to order Is the ground of what we are.”

Finally, Kendra recognized that “In our hymnals, diverse and contradictory cosmologies sit side-by-side, sometimes within the same hymn.  For some, new cosmologies pose serious crises of faith.  How does one take your sacred texts with you on the journey to a new cosmology?  Hymns help us live with the tensions.  In the poetry of our hymnody there is a richness that is able to hold elements of continuity and change.”

So, Kendra said, “We need the inclusive poetic language of our hymns—with its ability to hold our past as well as have room for the possibilities of future discoveries.  We need poetry’s ability to spark our imaginations invoking wonder and worship.  We need the language of liturgy—which can absorb science language in ways prose often finds problematic.  We need hymn language—filling the imagery with meaning while retaining humility—we know we only have a piece of the picture. We need our hymns. . .and to keep singing them together—for a church that sings together, stays together.”

The Sabbath morning service concluded with a “Call to Action” by Dr. Charles (Chuck) Scriven, President of the Adventist Forum, the publisher of Spectrum.  Everyone knows there has to be an offering call in any Adventist Sabbath church service!  Chuck began by saying, “Where there are two or three gathered together, there is God.  There is no reference to hierarchy or income.  Here we are, not a large group, but one that includes people of different colors, generations, and income.  I’m proud to call for the offering to support Spectrum, and I do so in humility and for progress.  The vision of the church over time was affected by the way the Roman Empire operated.  Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, was persecuted and beheaded.  He had a concern for the unity of the church.  He said the church was founded on the bishops, that the bishop IS the church, and that if you are not with the bishop, you are far from the church (no Mathew 18 here)!  I remember Gottfried Oosterwal at the Seminary saying that every member shares equally.  I remember Charles Bradford in the Adventist Review saying that the fundamental virtue is humility and that there is no room in the church for a sense of hierarchy.  I say this is the premise of the Adventist Forum.  Above all things we must be hierarchy-averse.  And for that reason I now call for the offering, a match of $16,000 which has already been committed by the members of the SpectrumBoard.  It is now your privilege and duty to voluntarily make your influence felt.”

Everyone I met or talked to who worshipped that morning was moved and inspired.

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