Can You Say AMEN?
October 15, 2006
Rev. Jane Page
A few years ago we had a UU minister here at our fellowship as our guest minister. His name was Chester McCall. Do you remember his visit?
Reverend McCall shared with us that his preferred style of worship may be a little different that what we were used to. He indicated that he preferred worship services in which the congregation interacted with the minister – provided verbal feedback during the sermon. His African American heritage probably provided the foundation for this preferred worship style – but he had also witnessed it in a variety of denominations with varying ethnicities. He ASKED us to attempt w provide him with the nurturance he needed in order to bring us the word that he felt was on his heart. He shared with us that he NEEDED our Amens and affirmations.
He began his sermon and came to a point that resonated within my soul – so I attempted to provide that affirmation that he asked for by saying “Amen.” My voice was alone in that effort however. There may have been one other to attempt this – but I did not hear it. I made one further effort a little later – then fell into the silence that our congregation seemed to support.
Reverend McCall had a good beginning to his sermon – but it began to fall flat. He made it through it and was wonderfully kind to us at the end of the service. But I know he must have been disappointed. I certainly was. I was disappointed and I was embarrassed. Yet, I also understood that perhaps he was asking for something we were not – as a congregation – ready to give. We could not say “Amen.”
However, in the fall of 2006, I feel a different spirit in this congregation. We still look about the same, but down deep, we seem to have more soul! And all the people said —- AMEN!
Now let me share a little about that word – A.M.E. N. – pronounced “Aymen” or “Ahmen” in English. Here at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro, we often do end our prayers, meditations, and even sermons with Amen. But we are usually quick to add “and Blessed Be” or “May it be so” lest we offend some of our folks who tend to uphold more pagan traditions. Seems that those who follow pagan traditions favor these other affirmations because “Amen” is seen as so typically Christian. But my research indicates that the word “Amen” most likely has pagan origins.
From old Egyptian texts we can see that people believed the Sun was the emblem of the Creator. They called the Sun Ra, and all other gods and goddesses were forms of the Creator. One of these gods was a hidden and mysterious god named variously Amen, Amon, Amun, Ammon and Amounra. For the first eleven dynasties, Amen was just a minor god, but by the 17th dynasty (c. 1500 B.C.E.) he had been elevated to be the national god of southern Egypt. This position gave Amen the attributes and characteristics of the most ancient gods, and his name became Amen-Ra, that is, a supreme form of God the Creator. By the 18th Dynasty (1539-1295 B.C.E.) a college had been established to study Amen-Ra and as a focal point for worship.
Now, if you know your Bible Stories – you remember how the story is told of Jacob’s youngest child Joseph (the one with the rainbow coat) being sold into slavery in Egypt and later coming into a powerful position and inviting his family to come to Egypt to escape the famine in their land. Of course we are not sure of the accuracy of that story – but there is good evidence that the Hebrews did settle in Egypt for around 400 years – and during this sojourn there is no doubt they would have been fully exposed to the worship of Amen-Ra. By the time of their exodus from Egypt in 1447 B.C., Amen would certainly be in their language even if he were not their god. It would be a word that had associations with reverence and majesty. This is not difficult to understand.
For example – many of you who may not use the word GOD to symbolize what you worship – do use that word when you want to proclaim a feeling of majesty or awe. We use it in times of anguish or ecstasy! You walk out on a beautiful fall day and say – “Yes, Oh God! This is a beautiful day.” (And there may be other times as well). So this word – Amen – probably was in their language and was used as a firm affirmation! YES! Amen!
Even though this evidence of Amen-Ra exists, the dictionaries usually give the Hebrew language as the language of origin for this word. The online etymology dictionary traces the word to the Hebrew word for “truth” – from the Semitic root – a- m n – meaning, “to be trustworthy, confirm, or support.”
In the Bible, Amen is used most often as an adverb — and its primary use is to indicate that the speaker adopts for his own what has already been said by another. Thus in Jeremiah 28:6, the prophet represents himself as answering to Hananias’s prophecy of happier days; “Amen, the Lord perform the words which thou hast prophesied”. And in Deuteronomy 17:14, we read: “Cursed be he that honoureth not his father and mother, and all the people shall say Amen”. Now when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated to Greek – many of these affirmations – especially in the Psalms were translated to a Greek word, which means, “so be it.” But the Massoretic Hebrew text uses Amen. Also there is evidence that Amen was used in Jewish ceremonies and rituals. For example, in the book of Tobias, we read: “And when all had said, Amen, they went to the feast.”
A second use of Amen most common in the New Testament, but not quite unknown in the Old, has no reference to the words of any other person, but is simply a form of affirmation or confirmation of the speaker’s own thought, sometimes introducing it, sometimes following it. Jesus himself used it often to introduce remarks. Now you may not remember that – because in the Protestant version of the New Testament – the word is changed to “Verily.” So when you read, “Verily, Verily – I say unto you…. The original Greek and Catholic version have “Amen, Amen,” as the introduction. In other parts of the New Testament, especially in the Epistles of St. Paul, Amen usually concludes a prayeror a doxology. For example – in Romans 11:36 we read, “To Him be glory for ever. Amen.”
A third scriptural use is that Amen is sometimes used at the end of a chapter or book. Basically this meaning is “The End.”
Now my reading of the history of Catholic liturgy seems to indicate that the Christians in the very early church followed the tradition of the synagogues in that “Amen” was said by the listeners or the congregation as an affirmation to words or prayers said by others. The early prayers written down did not include “Amen” at the end but writings about church liturgy indicated that the congregation would say Amen. By the middle of the 2nd century however, there is evidence that the speaker himself uttered Amen in the church. For example, we have a noteworthy instance in the prayer of St. Polycarp at his martyrdom, in the year 155. A secular document indicates that the executioners waited until Polycarpcompleted his prayer, and “pronounced the word Amen”, before they kindled the fire by which he perished. And the liturgical documents that are available from the 4th century seem to indicate that, for the most part; the “Amening” had become the responsibility of the bishop rather than the congregation.
A final use of the word in earlier history seems to be that of magic. We can find it in Egyptian and Gnostic spells. And the numbers associated with it in the Greek alphabet add up to 99. (Alpha=1, Mu=40, Epsilon – 8 and Nu – 50)
And this number was often used with various spells and incantations. Perhaps like the one we used as teenagers to make the bus trip seem to go faster: “99 bottles of beer on the wall.” Who knows?
Now after the priests took over the Amens — we parishioners began to feel comfortable having them do that for us I suppose. Martin Luther tried to bring it back to a congregational activity during the reformation. He said that that ”if we do not end our prayers with amen we pray not in faith, but like doubters (James 1:6-7) who should not expect to have their prayers answered!” Anglicans too tried to restore the practice of everyone saying amen, but the idea met with resistance.
Now, you may not be surprised to know that our Unitarian ancestors – the Puritans – considered a congregational amen merely a formula, and therefore offensive. So with that great Puritan influence on the American way of life – we dropped the use of congregational Amens in public worship. However, some non-conformists Protestants and eventually the African Americans began to use it as more than part of a formula. They began to use is as a personal affirmation. Some said it softly – under their breath – but many said it out loud. Indeed, many rural churches had an Amen pew or an Amen corner for the more lively parishioners.
Most of my church going life was spent at the First Baptist Church here in Statesboro. Now the folks at first Baptist like to think of themselves as “uptown Baptists.” We were taught to be respectful in church. Church was where we wore our best clothes and tried to be on our best behavior. And good behavior was synonymous with keeping quiet. We did have Mr. Pat Brannen – who would let lose with a hardy Amen every now and then – usually at a more informal evening service – but he was the exception, and folks just smiled realizing that he still had a lot of that country Brannen left in him. But he put big checks in the offering plate each week so there were no complaints about his Amens.
I didn’t experience a REAL Amen service till I visited an African American church. The participation of the congregation was spontaneous and enthusiastic. THEN I had the experience of speaking to an African American church one Sunday when I was attempting to get folks involved with moving our school system away from the stringent tracking model that was re-segregating the schools. And as I stood in the pulpit of that African American church, I experienced that glorious spirit filled affirmation of the congregation as I spoke. This uptown Baptist white woman got a good plate full of spiritual soul food fed to me that day, and that nourished my efforts to stand up for the rights of all children in Bulloch County, even though many folks in my own church regarded me as a traitor to my heritage. And that was one of the blander criticisms.
I remained intrigued with African American worship styles and started watching services on television. Of course I noted that there services varied greatly – just as other Protestants did, depending on the denomination. But generally they were far more spontaneous and interactive and it seemed that the minister and the congregation connected in ways that were difficult to understand. When I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to study African American preaching and worship along with other styles. Henry called the style “transconcious.” He used this term as a way of explaining the function of “communally stored wisdom and cultural affinity” that is central to African American homiletics. According to Eugene Lowry, “it names a form of knowing that lies just beneath the threshold of consciousness and that provides the glue to the congregational bond. “The art of Black preaching,” ways Mitchell, “is not less than logical; it is logical on more levels or wave lengths.”
While on paper, the sermon may appear to be traditionally structured, there is a transconscious narrative that is also taking place. William B. McClain describes it as “slow and deliberate to a build-up. The path the preacher takes may be winding with a few detours but always he or she is expected to be heading someplace and to take time getting there.” Evans Crawford speaks of the “anticipatory silence.” Preacher and professor Zan Holmes was given this advice:
“Start low. Go slow. Go high. Strike fire. Sit down.”
These ingredients including repetition, rhythm, and rest, along with folk-based orality, and eyewitness biblical sorties all draw on transconscious connections and then move toward the culminating sermonic celebration. This narrative formula is so basic and so compelling that people may tell the preacher to “take your time.” “Then the final role of celebration – is a fitting climax. “All else leads up to the climactic moment.” (Mitchell)
After I studied the style, I understood why it moved me so.
Now this is the preaching style that the Reverend Chester McCall wanted to share with us that Sunday long ago. But we never moved to that transconcious state of worship. This was not Chester McCall’s fault. The sermon he had prepared required congregational participation and he told us so. Indeed the sermon was a dance – and it was a dance that needed a partner. Reverend McCall could not do this dance alone.
Now you all know that I’m a bit of a ham. I can dance alone. But I do so enjoy dancing with other folks. I enjoy the eye contact with my partners, and the rhythm, and the sway to and fro, perhaps dipping – perhaps leaping. After you installed me as your minister on September 24, I responded with the accepting words written in your program. Then added, “Let it be a dance.” We began singing that popular song from our hymnal with the words, “May I have this dance with you.” And I felt your acceptance of that invitation.
Therefore, I challenge you to get out on the dance floor occasionally. If I say something in a sermon that resonates with you – try saying “Amen” or “yes” – even if it’s just a whisper. Can you whisper yes? And I think you will begin to feel that transconscious state which may transform us all. And when we share in our joys and concerns, we may whisper, or even say out loud – “bless you” to one of our fellow members and friends who has opened themselves up to us as their beloved community.
I’m not expecting the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro to become what we used to deride as Holy Rollers. I fully realize that congregational participation can become very distracting and uncomfortable – especially when the participation is meaningless and inappropriate.
But folks – there are those special times, when we know that we’ve connected with some larger truth, when we know that the peace that passeth understanding is right here in our midst, when we know that together we can make a difference in our own community, when we know that in the midst of wars, sorrow, and pain, the love of our liberal faith can prevail — there are those times, yes – when we should all say AMEN.