Monday, September 05, 2011

An Outsider in Worship: thoughts about Vintage Vespers and the Third Stone Sun Celebrants

Last Friday night, Vintage hosted its latest Vespers service. Vespers is a monthly gathering at Vintage, curated and led by the wonderfully creative Jonathan Perrodin. The purpose is Vespers is to provide fresh and artistic experiences that aid our spiritual development and life with God. Vespers services sometimes are liturgical, sometimes visual, sometimes participatory, sometimes observational, always memorable.

No two Vespers services are alike. But this last one was more different than others.

This Vespers featured a gathering led by the Third Stone Sun Celebrants, a group devoted to the mythology of Cisneros and the energy and peace of being rooted in the sun and stone.

The room was dark. The Celebrants were shrouded. The liturgy was difficult to understand and follow. The music was haunting. The rituals were bizarre. And I felt a range of reactions from fear to amusement, from being captivated to being bored.

But none of it was real. The Celebrants were not some traveling group with a well-developed tradition. They were my friends who cooked up this idea as they discussed how to push the limits.

But what was certainly real was the feeling of being an outsider in a gathering.

Here are some of the observations I made:

When I don’t know the story and I don’t understand the symbols, all I am left with is whether or not I like the music.
I had a hard time following the Celebrants’ liturgy. I hadn’t heard the stories before, and they were told in a way that didn’t give me much chance to process them. The symbols were strange and unfamiliar to me. All that was left was the music. I think that many people sit in church services week in and week out feeling something similar. At church, it is so easy to talk in jargon and code. It makes me wonder how many people feel lost. I wonder if the way we worship only gives people music to connect with. And maybe that is why people are so passionate about having musical styles they prefer in worship. If we worshipped better, maybe the "worship wars" over music would end.

Sometimes our rituals can appear very strange.
Near the end of the Celebrants’ service, they performed a ritual in which they placed a doll head in a bowl of milk, sprinkled the milk on stones, and then drank the milk. Yeah, it was that strange. It got me thinking about our Christians rituals and how strange they may appear to an outsider. We are so familiar with communion, for instance, that we fail to apprehend the strange power of Jesus’ words, “This is my body for you. Take and eat it. ... This is my blood for you. Take and drink it.” I am not suggesting that we abandon strange rituals, just that we recognize that they may be strange. And maybe we ought to mix-up how we practice them so that new insights and meanings can be found in the unfamiliarity of newness.

Trust matters.
Throughout the Celebrants' service, I kept wondering what I was going to be asked to do. Was I going to have to drink the baby-head-milk? Was I going to have to stand or say something or do something I wasn't comfortable doing? Vanessa and I talked about this a lot after the service. We decided that to fully invest in a service, to fully let yourself go, you have got to trust the people leading the service. Trust takes time to develop. And it requires relationships to be built. If worship leaders simply expect people to participate without first building trust, they run the risk of alienating the very worshippers they are trying to lead.

So does explanation.
I didn't leave this Vespers service knowing much more about the Third Stone Celebrants and their beliefs than I knew before the service. There was no explanation, no teaching. I had to connect the dots myself, and I had a hard time doing it. Certainly, preaching isn't the end all and be all of church worship gatherings. But it is important. The story of the gospel needs to be told clearly and compellingly. Didactic teaching isn't the point of Christian worship, but we can't leave people scratching their heads either.

I know that people had wide and varied reactions to this Vespers service ... I heard many of them while I drank a PBR in the moments following its conclusion. I'm curious for those of you that we were there, what did you learn?


jonathan perrodin said...

Just a note: credit needs to go Trevor Bates, this was his thing. The bulk of the creating/organizing/curating came from him. I was just a second hand.

I have some additional comments, but I will have to come back for them for later.

Trevor Bates said...

Thanks for the write-up Robb. I like your observations, especially the first one. To me, music is the strongest connection I have with God. The music of this Vespers was meant to compliment certain Celebrant themes but also be an expression of a part of my spirituality.

As I planned Vespers, I became less concerned about turning the audience into outsiders (I knew that wouldn't be a problem) and more about seeing God in the creative process. As I researched ancient ritual, sacred writings, and other worship, I became aware of a pervasive beauty in it ALL. So I tried to draw from common imagery to create something that was both personal artistic expression and beautiful, albeit mysterious, worship.

As far as explanation goes - I spent many hours pondering how I would structure the "debriefing". Until the day or so before, I had planned on something more formal. But I really enjoyed the conversations I had. I became more interested in how others explained what they felt. It was time for me to listen (and for Robb and Jonathan to get an earful).

This Vespers was a healthy exercise for me and I benefited from it. Vespers is a safe place for questions and exploration - Jonathan made that very clear and he has my thanks.

I would love to have further dialog with anyone who is willing to listen!

jonathan perrodin said...

I like your thoughts, though I want to push back on a few of them.

The first and last thing you said, hung on the idea of things making sense, everything being graspable.

I think you are missing out on a lot of what happens in a service, by boiling down it to what's happening on stage. Of course if the only thing a church is, is what is happening on the stage, then yes the music will be the only thing people latch onto (though this is probably only b/c most 'worship music' is derivative pop music, put some chanting/choral music and then even that's out the i right? but that's another post).

But the church is much more than the stage, even more than the worship itself. As Jesus said our witness is by our love--which can show through a worship service but more likely the time before & after the service itself. By that, I would say the 'Celebrants' did a good job. We stayed for hours afterwards talking with people explaining the what, why, or how; and above all genuinely showed love for all who were there.

The same goes for any other worship service. People most often stick with a church, because they were shown love by others. You could say Vespers is there to give people something interesting to talk about afterwards--when the 'real' event actually begins, in the relationships, new & old.

And we haven't said anything about the Holy Spirit, who I would say is capable of working through things that we don't necessarily understand, i.e., Peter's sermon in Acts 2.

The experience you describe was similar to what I experienced when I went to an Eastern Orthodox church for the first time. I was blow away by the otherness of the service, but at the same time could feel the divine presence within it, even thought I wasn't exactly sure what was happening.

I'm more worried about a church watering down its symbols & rituals, rather than their strangeness or unclear nature. It should be the attitude of the church to educate its members on what it does. While for this event we left things intentionally cloaked in mystery, for most any other church there needs to real teaching of the practices of the church, a catechism if you will. Even at the Orthodox church, everyone was *very* helpful in explaining so much of their rituals--but that doesn't mean I have it all figured out, none of us do, but we still keep learning and coming to the end our finitude where we can only open our hands.

As far as your last statement, it seems your taking a poor vision of what preaching, proclamation is. Vespers has been from the start an experiment in what proclamation can be. We had a message and I think we did a good job expressing it. In very McLuhan fashion, the medium was the message. You say you didn't learn anything more about the Celebrants & their beliefs, because that wasn't the point. We only created all that to help get the actual point across. The message was about outsiderness--we didn't need a thousand words because the performance said it all.

We've seen this so well in the stuff we did with Lent with Vespers & Sundays, people heard the story without anything that would seem like preaching.

The same holds true for any church service. It isn't just about what you say but how you say it. People will connect the dots over time, but it is the holistic overall experience people will hear first. This is basic Vintage HD stuff -- people need to belong > behave > then finally believe.