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Denouncing Sabbath Worship

Friday evening worships were a major event in my parents’ home. After a sumptuous meal, Mom, Dad, and the ten children would transition to the front room and get settled in our favorite spots as we tried our best to get comfortable for the two-hour ritual. I still remember the anxious knot in my stomach as I impatiently waited for all my siblings to recap highlights from the Sabbath School lesson and recite the memory verse—from memory. And how can I forget the feeling of relief when my father finally concluded his Psalm 119 length prayer—and this after the rest of us had contributed to the Divine offering?

The high point of Friday evening worship was the song service. Vanessa or Ken would lend their superior talents to the piano, and once in a while I would strum or peck along with my acoustic or bass guitar. At times, my brother Peter would enthusiastically blow his trumpet; and if my memory serves me correctly, there was even a time or two when the drum set added its percussive beat. We would commence song service with several lively choruses and just when our collective energy began to get atomic, our parents would announce some serious hymns, the final of which was always one to “open the Sabbath.” The favorite Sabbath songs were “Don’t forget the Sabbath,” “Welcome, Welcome,” and “O Day of Rest and Gladness.”

The Sabbath Deified?

Memories from my childhood experience rushed through my body last Christmas when we worshiped with my in-laws in Fayetteville, Georgia. Three generations huddled together as we followed the unofficial order of service that my parents had imbibed. True to tradition, my mother-in-law chose the Sabbath opener—“O Day of Rest and Gladness.” I held one of the two hymnals, and assumed the role of liner as I announced each clause while trying to harmonize between vocal utterances. For the first verse, I sang with robotic automation. Then as we got to the second verse, my singing was mysteriously muted.

For the first time ever, I thought about the implications of the words I was singing:

Thou art a port protected from storms that round us rise,

A garden intersected with streams of paradise;

Thou art a cooling fountain in life’s dry, dreary sand;

From thee, like Pisgah’s mountain, we view our promised land.

These are absolutely beautiful words. When he penned this ode, Anglican bishop Christopher Wordsworth had definitely been visited by his Uncle William’s muse.

However, as much as these words titillate my mystical soul, does that qualify them for hymnic promotion? Bishop Wordsworth has written a wonderful ode to the Sabbath—but a hymn? Shouldn’t a hymn of worship be about the One we worship? Are our spiritual allegiances being divided between the timeless Creator and his temporal creation? Yes, the Sabbath has been blessed and sanctified, but does that mean that it has now achieved Divine status?

A Violation of the First Commandment?

Although this “hymn” was not written by a Seventh-day Adventist, it’s easy to see how it can be used as fodder for those who accuse us of overemphasizing the Sabbath. Right or wrong, someone might have a case if they argue that the reverent fixation on a day promoted by the fourth commandment may constitute a violation of the first commandment. Please don’t misunderstand me, I fully concur with Bishop Wordsworth’s observations. Sabbath is a time when the cares of this world mystically vanish and those who trust God enter an oasis in time. However, should my thankfulness be directed to the day, or to the One who made the day?

“O Day of Rest and Gladness” is not the only Sabbath “hymn” that has challenged my theology of worship. Others are Gustav Gottheil’s, “Come, O Sabbath Day,” the anonymous “Welcome, Welcome, Day of Rest,” and Gem Fitch’s, “Crowning Jewel of Creation”—an honor that I thought belonged to humans. I love what the Sabbath has to offer, but am I crossing a line when I write a love song to the Sabbath?

Conclusion: A Question of Theology

Like my wife, some of you may think I’m making much ado about nothing. However, if theology means nothing in our hymns, let’s include Michael Jackson’s “We Are the World” or George Benson’s “The Greatest Love” in the next edition of the hymnal. Apparently, the committee that produced The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal was concerned about the theological content of some songs. Somehow, they felt that “saints made perfect” was more theologically correct than “spirits made perfect” in “Redeemed,” even though the latter is a direct quote from Hebrews 12:23. They also felt squeamish about Isaac Watts’ use of the self-deprecating descriptive noun“worm” in “At the Cross,” and replaced it with the staid image-starved pronoun “one.” If they caught these minutia, I wonder how they missed the apparently idolatrous lyrics in “O Day of Rest and Gladness”?

Then again, with the Sabbath being such an intricate part of our brand, I doubt anyone really gave serious thought about the significance of the words we choose to define our respect for God’s holy day. I’m not sure if the General Conference has any plans to authorize another hymn committee in the near future, but when they do, it probably won’t be a bad idea to revisit the theology of all the hymns. Until then, the next time someone chooses “O Day of Rest and Gladness” for Friday evening worship, I’ll probably hum along, but I don’t think I’ll be singing.

Keith Burton is president of Life Heritage, Incorporated, and an adjunct professor of religion at the Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences, Orlando, Florida.

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