Last night, my friends Kari and Tom invited me to a Blues Vespers at Immanuel Presbyterian church in Tacoma. Those were two words I’d never heard together before: Blues Vespers.
Vespers, for the uninitiated, traditionally refers to evening worship marked by music and prayer. I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist church where these services were often held on Friday evenings, the beginning of our Sabbath.
At our University church, vespers often consisted of Christian musicians or string orchestras performing the works of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, or Dvorak.
My grandparents lived near the church, so if my sister and I happened to be visiting their home on a Friday evening, we would hear the church bells chime at sundown.
We either attended the church’s vespers program, or my grandmother would find my grandfather (who always seemed to be stepping out of the shower at sundown), round-up whichever grandkids happened to be at her home, and we’d have family worship in their front room. Grandma played hymns on their upright piano. Grandpa read a short devotional piece or a story from the “Kids’ Corner” of the church’s magazine, The Adventist Review. And we would pray.
Every denomination has its specific sub-culture. Adventists are no exception. Yes, we believe in blood transfusions, and we celebrate holidays (you’re mixing us up with Jehovah’s Witnesses). No, we’re not all vegetarians, although Adventists are strong proponents of healthy living.
Sabbath observance from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday is particularly central to Adventists who believe that the fourth of the ten commandments is frequently disregarded among Christians.
When I look back on my childhood, Sabbath-keeping was both terribly legalistic and amazingly beneficial to me.
In the Adventist community where I grew up, these were the things one generally didn’t do on the Sabbath, unless your family was…what do the Mormons say, Jack Mormons? Unless you were a Jack Adventist, I guess, this is a bit of what Sabbath observance looked like:
- Parents didn’t work. Children didn’t study.
- Adventists didn’t purchase things on the Sabbath: groceries, clothing, gas. You organized your week to take care of those things before Friday night. In fact, Adventist schools and business often closed at noon on Fridays to allow families to have time to “prepare for the Sabbath.” (In high school, my friends and I got out of school at noon and “prepared for the Sabbath” by sailing the afternoon away at nearby Lake Perris.)
- Families didn’t do household chores: laundry, cleaning, yard work, car washing, etc.
- Media remained off for the day. Television sets were turned off. Radios went silent unless they were tuned to Christian stations or classical music. You didn’t go to the movies. (Then again, you didn’t go to the movies pretty much any other day of the week, either, if you were a more conservative Adventist.)
- You didn’t compete in organized sports on Saturday because it was a day of rest and worship. A casual game of frisbee in the park? Yes. An organized soccer match or baseball tournament? No.
Families differed on what recreation was permissible on Sabbath. Generally hikes and nature walks and bicycle rides were good things that helped you appreciate God’s creation. Water skiing or downhill skiing were likely on the “no” list.
A friend in high school jokingly explained that if it required any kind of motor, it was taboo. Cross-country skiing: yes. Downhill skiing: no, because of the ski lifts. I suppose it would have been permissible if you were willing to forego the ski lift and sidestep your way up the mountain for a downhill run…
In many ways, Adventists would have made legalistic Jews of old proud, the Jews who crucified Christ and then hurried home to observe the Sabbath. Form and outward behavior sometimes eclipsed the real values of a day of rest and worship.
Looking back on my childhood, I grimace at some of the legalism surrounding the Sabbath, but then I’m also grateful for the boundaries and structure it provided.
My workaholic father wouldn’t consider breaking the Sabbath by taking business calls or meetings with clients, and my mother wasn’t consumed by managing our household. For at least one day a week, my parents were utterly available for walks and board games, bike rides and trips to the mountains or beach.
My family went out to lunch almost every Sabbath after church (my parents were liberal Sabbath observers that way!), and we’d linger over our meal, in no hurry to get to sport practices, run errands, or home to do chores.
In high school and college, Saturday was a complete break from studying and homework. It forced me to manage my time better knowing that I wouldn’t have that day to get things done. And it taught me how much I needed a break; a day to stop so that when I resumed whatever I was working on, I’d be starting up relaxed and refreshed.
The Sabbath reminded me that God was sovereign and didn’t need me to keep everything going for him. The earth continued to rotate on its axis while we took a day off. Observing the Sabbath also helped me put consumerism and entertainment in their proper places. For one day, you unplugged and said ‘no’ to purchasing more things.
A weekly Sabbath reminded me to stop and worship and reflect on God’s grace in my life.
As a parent, I have to determine anew what Sabbath looks like for my family. (Legalism isn’t great, but at least you can save yourself some thinking if you just adopt a set of rules!)
Instead, I’m forced to think about whether or not I take my children to the theater to see “Wicked” on a Friday night. Are sermons in a church any more “spiritual” than moral stories on a stage? I discuss with my kids which school activities we participate in and don’t participate in when they fall on a Saturday. I’ve come to dismiss the notion that only classical and Christian music genres are “religious.”
I smiled when the Rev. Brown of Immanuel Presbyterian got up last night at the Blues Vespers to read sensual poetry laced with images of “intermingling” and “intertwining” because this stuff belongs in the church, he said. Then the “Blues Buskers” resumed their music set for vespers.
With apologies to Neil Diamond, I thought of them as Psalm sung blues.
“Blues music expresses in its words and music human joy, longing, passion and pain. This evening’s music reminds us that God is there for us in all of life, often in the places where we are most human. Blues, like many other forms of music, can help express what we experience in life. At times, music can be a prayer.” -Immanuel Presbyterian program