Sabbath morning at the 2014 Adventist Forum Conference began with sunrise over San Diego’s South Bay, color seeping into the marina, barely illuminating the city skyline. With the day beginning outside large picture windows that way, Elvin and Linette Rodriguez led a participatory singing of Joseph Addison’s “The Spacious Firmament” with a melody inspired by “The Creation” by Joseph Haydn. Elvin Rodriguez brought Haydn’s magnum opus to life brilliantly before the audience joined together singing.
The spacious firmament on high
With all the blue ethereal sky
And spangled heavens, a shining frame
Their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day
Does his Creator’s power display
And publishes to every land
The work of an almighty hand.
The sun sparkled atop the blues of the marina just outside.
The audience joined in singing “Heaven at Last” From the 1941 Hymnal “when congregations could sing higher than they do now,” Elvin Rodriguez said afterward to chuckles.
Linette Rodriguez runs a piano studio teaching musical theory and performance and serves as vice president of the Riverside Branch of the Music Teachers Association of California. Elvin, her husband, is professor and chair of the music department at La Sierra University. The couple often perform music together, and through the morning alternated playing piano and leading singing.
Spectrum‘s editor, Bonnie Dwyer, read a prayer from Virginia Rickeman’s The Well Is Deep entitled “Singing God”:
Thank you, God, for your singing labor, creating and sustaining our world. Down into chaos your song descends, streaming trails of light. Up from the waters your music rises, giving birth to the land. You sound the notes of seaweed and fern; pine, banana, petunia, corn. You spin a melody of stars and planets, sun and moon. You sing into being penguins, dingoes, dolphins and deer; spiders, sparrows, lizards, llamas and humans.
And then, wonder of wonders, you give each one a voice of their very own in order to sing in harmony with you. Thank you God for such delight in your creation. How, how can it be then, that we so often shut our ears to the sound of your singing? Our hymns fall flat, our caroling gives way to noisy jangles. We shout to make ourselves heard or retreat in panic to arctic silence.
But you, gracious God, you have a gathering love; a wide-open heart; a warm, right, persistent song that calls out to every lost and isolated one to come in; come in and listen again to your sweet serenade; come in to hear and to echo back to you your love song.
O God, what if our voices are creaky from disuse or hoarse from screaming? What if we have forgotten how to sing? What if others disdain our tune? What if those next to us are singing off-key?
You croon to us still, to leave behind the silence of shame, to let lapse the dissonance of grievances. You yearn simply to return to us our true voices and to hear us united once more in a great, jubilant chorus. Ah, God, the song of your desire breaks our hearts.
Thank you, God, for your singing labor, creating and sustaining our world. Down into the chaos of our hears your song descends, streaming trails of light. Up from our throats your music rises, giving birth to love. You sound the notes of kindness and hope; justice, faith, courage and peace. Keep helping us to sing with you, to sing in spite of the cacophony in the streets or in our heads; to sing out with delight in each other, in your creation, in you.
Praise, all praise to you, singing God. Amen.
“We wept and wept until the day dawned.”
With the iconic words of the Great Disappointment, former Spectrum editor and social ethics professor at the Loma Linda University School of Religion Roy Branson explored the intersections of that Great Advent Disappointment of 1844 and his own experiences of aloneness and exile as a child growing up in Egypt.
“The denial of being with people was exile,” Branson said. Growing up in Egypt during the time of the 2nd World War, Branson experienced keen feelings of separation that came with his father’s being away from home, traveling as a missionary. Exile and return.
That aloneness was the exilic sense felt on the occasion of the Great Disappointment, Branson offered. That collective memory might serve as a reminder of an important point: “We should not hurry on from the experience of disappointment to hope, because hope can lead to triumphalism,” Branson said, referencing Ellen White’s words.
“The little flock was scattered, torn and peeled,” words of Ellen White again. Turning from those sharp and lingering memories of loss and abandonment, Branson suggested that disappointment points to ethical practices. “If we remember the great disappointment, we will remember the disappointed in our midst.” Branson said that the shift becomes one from ontological questions to the moral questions. Ellen White’s injunction was that the community must turn to the lonely, the forgotten—the marginalized. And seeing this marginalization has motivated us to say, “Never Again!” Branson said.
Wade In The Water
Following Branson on the platform, Shelton Kilby stood before the audience. Kilby is an accomplished performer, composer and collaborator and a masterful musical storyteller. He is also an ordained minister, and has helped to score films. His pieces have complex narrative arcs of their own. Kilby composed the music for The Record Keeper, a steampunk-style retelling of the Great Controversy.
Psalm 19 is one of Shelton Kilby’s favorite psalms. “The Heavens declare the glory of God.” The words of the psalm and the images of the heavens inspired Kilby’s “Nuances of Glory.”
The piece is a stirring movement from a harsh, dissonant chord, if it can be called a chord, through a quietly growing progression best described as the aural sensation of soaring freely through open sky. In the middle of the piece, a wonderful, jazz-infused riff on “To God Be The Glory” gives way to a powerful balladic re-imagining of the hymn. Kilby plays the piece on his own Yamaha keyboard, but his playing gives it the gravitas of a concert grand piano. The piece then returns, evening-and-morning-like, to where it began—a gentle untying, ending surprisingly: dissonance! The audience in the room, many of them with eyes closed, hangs on the mood Kilby just evoked. There is silence. Out the window behind him, boats slide by in the back bay. The sky is vivid blue. Then applause!
Shelton Kilby nearly left the church of his upbringing because he was told on more than one occasion that his music was the wrong kind. One evening in Maryland, Kilby had been thrown out of his college music room. Pastor William Loveless pulled up in a brown Chevrolet, Kilby says, and told Kilby to come over to the music department. Loveless pulled out his saxaphone, and with that sax, the piano and fourteen voices, “we made music,” Kilby said. “It was an important moment because I was on my way out,” Kilby told the audience.
Kilby missed out on Juilliard because his parents wanted him in “The Lord’s School.”
Shelton E. Kilby III speaking with Elmar and Darilee Sakala
“I didn’t want to be in denominational work, but when you have parents that pray you in, you can do nothing but respond to the call,” Kilby said. He made music for Breath of Life, “but it wasn’t scratching the itch.” He wanted to make film scores.
During his most troubled time musically, Kilby recounts playing consonant sounds with no dissonance. He decided he no longer wanted to play. He prayed about it, and heard within his spirit that he had been given the gift for a reason. “Tell the Story,” he heard within his spirit.
“I began to experiment with the fascinating art of Negro Spirituals,” Kliby said, from which the Aaron Copelands and the architects of Americana drew.
Kilby become immersed in slave music, retelling those rich stories though music. Preparing to share his rendering of “Wade in the Water,” Kilby said “you may hear a little of George Gershwin in this…Listen to the slave trudge through the water.”
Subtle, minor keys, the trudging starts soft. Wade in the water, children || God’s a-gonna trouble the water. Gentle, haunting and then suddenly bold, strong major-key chords. The trudge is now a march. The slave is moving swiftly, deliberately, then slower again, quietly. Almost as if to evade some searching eyes. Again a surprise ending—a strong, almost vicious closing chord. This time there was quick and strong applause.
“I began to live again as a composer once I understood the moral sense of my music,” Kilby told the audience. “Sacred music is that which is set aside out of a particular experience. We use whatever God has provided to preach a loving God,” Kilby said.
Sustained, hearty applause. Kilby killed it.
Photographs by Rajmund Dabrowski.