Cigarette Butts & Sonny's Blues - Toward an Emergent Theology of Sacraments and Worship
Several years ago, in the midst of setting up the church sanctuary for the "emergent" worship gathering that I led at the time, I was confronted by a church member who didn't understand the concept of hands-on worship. She attended the traditional worship service at the church where I was serving as associate pastor. Our alternative worship service, which met one evening a week, utilized multi-sensory worship stations to enable people to experience God in new ways. She wasn't digging it at all.
"What does an art table have to do with church?" she asked. "Why do you need all of these candles? Is it really necessary to make such a mess in the house of God--a mess that someone else has to clean up?" (reality check: I was the one who cleaned it up each week) She then went on to point out some wax on the carpet from melting candles and the chalk dust in another part of the floor from one of our art tables. She warned of the dangers of the water inside the baptismal font I had put out for people to touch when the came in the sanctuary."It will leak all over the place and cause water stains," she said dourly.
Ironically, this woman was a retired art teacher. I have to be honest here. I am pretty darned glad that I never had an art teacher like her. That's my baggage talking, though. Bad baggage. All that aside, what fascinated me about the entire conversation with this woman was her ability to completely separate her worship experience from the passions that seemed to drive her in other aspects of her life. She truly did love art, and expressed her love by painting, sculpting, appreciating art shows, going to the symphony, sewing and a whole host of other ways. But for some reason, she saw no place for art in the context of worship, especially within the setting of the sanctuary of a church.
My conversations with her and others like her got me thinking, and my thoughts have travelled with me over the past few years in the form of a question: Why would God create us with unbelievable desires to create and then want us to shut them off when we gather to worship God? You might be saying at this point, "Seriously, there are so many ways that we already express ourselves artistically in worship...quit your whining." There's a point to made there, for sure, but let's unpack that a bit. What kind of artistic expression do we typically see in existing churches? Choral music? A praise band or two? Video clips (in the few churches who have video screens and projectors) from some company that creates canned, "artistic" video clips suitable enough to be used in worship? Liturgical dance (in churches that don't view dance as "of-the-Devil") Why should our artistic expressions within the context of worship be limited to "approved" forms, that the Existing Church seems to have blessed as right and proper?
Here's something else. Is it possible to show our worship of God through art? Can we worship God with our creations---our paintings, web designs, drawings, sketches, knitting or sculpture? Some within the Existing Church might say that if the inspiration of the art is drawn directly from Scripture, or portrays some scriptural story or theme, then and only then it is an expression of worship. But what about the art we create that doesn't have any direct Biblical connection? Our understanding of worship needs to be transformed, it needs to emerge from the existing paradigm and move beyond the four walls of the sanctuaries of our churches, beyond liturgy, beyond hymns and beyond what we normally consider to be "sacred."
Now don't get me wrong. I am not advocating that we abandon corporate worship, far from it. What I am advocating for is an emerging theology of worship that, though it is momentarily bound by context and space (a worship gathering takes place in a building, for example, at a particular time with a particular group of people), it is not bound by an intentional prohibition of imagination or creativity. Further, it is not bound by an unwillingness to be led in worship by the Spirit of Christ--an unwillingness that finds it source in fear.
God desires, first and foremost, worship that is authentic. Jesus described this kind of worship as both Spirit-filled and truthful. We worship when we realize that all good gifts come from God, including the good gifts that we create through our God-given talents and gifts. Our artistic creations can even become sacraments---signs and symbols of God's continuing grace-filled work in the world.
Veteran Christian education specialist Donald L. Griggs emphasizes the act of creating as a vital part of understanding and being in relationship with God. "The process of creating," he writes, "Is much akin to interpreting." He goes on to say that when we create we are "engaged in a process of discerning and expressing meaning." Along those same lines, the act of creating art either within or without the context of worship can be a way of understanding our experience of God. When we are open to an understanding that is unbound and imaginative, we are then free to express that newfound understanding openly and in community. Our acts of creation can often speak more clearly than our own words about the nature of God's kingdom and even of God's grace. Sometimes art can capture the very essence of that which is longed for, expected, mysterious, yet somehow within our grasp. In this sense our art is a sacrament.
Theologian Leonardo Boff understood the intricacy and importance of a wider understanding of sacraments. "Whenever a reality of this world," he writes, "without leaving the world, evokes another, different reality, it takes on a sacramental function. It ceases to be a thing and becomes a sign or symbol." For Boff, even the butt from the last cigarette his father smoked could be a sacrament. He writes of it being a "priceless treasure," and something that "belongs to the heart of life and the life of the heart."
This is true of the art that we create as an act of worship. When we create art with the Creator in our hearts and minds---even when we are not fully aware we are doing so---our creations take on a new life that is full of meaning and symbolism.
For a time I was one of the leaders of an alternative ("emergent," if you will) worship gathering, which was part of an existing congregation. I was the lead pastor and teacher of this worship gathering, which was called Song in the Night. At Song in the Night, creating art was an integral part of the worship experience---both for the worship leaders and participants. A friend of mine who visited our worship gathering commented on the way we used artistic expression to connect with our beliefs about God and how God is at work among us. "[this approach to worship] challenges people to interact with their belief in God in a way that is natural to them," she said. One of the regular worshippers and creative contributors to Song in the Night wrote to me about the way her own imagination and longing for God found space to be and to grow at our gatherings. "I've experienced the presence of God more often in the past several months," she told me in an email, "than in my entire life." She went on to add, "I am honored to be a small part of the creativity."
One of the main reasons I loved being part of Song in the Night in those days was because I was always blown away by what happened there. There were some memorable, creative moments at Song in the Night, to be sure. One Sunday, when we were teaching and celebrating the Eucharist, we turned the entire sanctuary into a restaurant, complete with waiters, waitresses and fine food. There was another time during the season of Advent when we transformed our worship space into a dark, cold, noisy, alley in a large city. Homeless people slept on the floor or warmed themselves by candlelight. Outside a street preacher warned that the end of the world was coming. If the worshippers went through a side door, marked "Street Mission" however, they were welcomed into a warm, bright, cozy worship space where we held our service that night. Some nights there were prayer tents, group mosaic projects, chalk art tables, outdoor fireplaces where worshippers gathered and prayed and even space to do oil paintings, group journaling, prayer stations and much more. Once we created a homemade waterfall that you could put your hands under on the day we learned about Baptism.
I remember one evening in particular when we turned the entire sanctuary into a jazz club. There was a velvet rope line at the door with a security guard, who checked everyone's i.d. when the entered. We gave out wristbands to all the participants, and we scattered sheets of jazz music all over the floor. Pictures of jazz greats were all on the walls, the lights were dimmed and we had soft jazz music playing while everyone found their seat. My sermon that night drew heavily from a great short story by James Baldwin called Sonny's Blues. The story centered on Sonny, the drug-addicted brother of the narrator of the story. I noticed a seven-year old boy drawing feverishly at the art table the entire time that I was preaching. When the service was over he came up to me and handed me the picture he had drawn. "This is Sonny," he told me. Not only had the boy been listening to my sermon, he was compelled both by his imagination and his longing to create a picture of what he was hearing. Then he gave it to me--a priceless gift.
Almost every time we gathered together to worship at Song in the Night, people would crowd around the art tables or in corner to create and to draw. Some would take a journal and retreat to a quiet place to write. I have kept these journals, and much of the artwork. Among the art that I kept are a few drawings that were placed in the offering plate one night during worship. We had been talking that night of how we should find ways to give of ourselves and our treasures to God, and how that was an act of worship. We had a cross set up in the front of the sanctuary, and the offering plates were there filled with envelopes, bills and loose change. Several participants brought their artwork up and left them at the foot of the cross. Those artists quietly reminded us that their gifts were no less important to the life and the ministry of our community, and we worshipped God more fully as a result.
There is a messiness and an unexpectedness that comes when we widen our understanding of what is sacramental, what evokes our acts of worship and deepens our understanding of who God is. Within the Existing Church things have become rather tame, to be honest. The beliefs and practices of the Existing Church when it comes to worship have been largely stripped of their creativity, their edginess. They are submitted to our existing congregations for their approval as a committee of the whole where they are sanitized, made acceptable, comfortable and easy. I appreciate what David Crowder said about this very thing in his book Praise Habit. "Our comfort is unsettling," he said, "It is an uncomfortable comfort. We have bedsores. Our skin itches. From the inside."
Many years ago, my friends and I used to go the our local movie theater where they had something they called, "The Midnight Movie Express." They showed classic cult movies in all of the theaters for a reduced price. It was there that I was first introduced to Monty Python's Holy Grail, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Pink Floyd's The Wall. I realize that not only dates me a bit, but also hints that I might have been somewhat of a burnout. Like I said...it was many years ago. I still love Pink Floyd, though. I can't help it. And The Wall is just a classic film by Alan Parker, a filmmaker I admire. The Wall is the story of a young man, who had everything---a rock star lifestyle, money, fame, fortune, everything. But he lacked love, understanding and he grieved over the loss of his childhood and the death of his father in World War II. The film uses art, music, fine cinematography and a host of other artistic expressions to demonstrate how a man can gain the whole world, but still lose his soul. One of the most poignant scenes from The Wall is when "Pink" the main character begins to numb himself from the pain of truly facing the messiness of his life. The song "Comfortably Numb" plays in the background. The chorus goes like this, I can't explain/you would not understand/this is not how I am/I have become...comfortably numb.
Back when I was a 20-something wastrel, I had no idea that I would one day use Pink Floyd to illustrate what I feel has happened to the Church. I may not have believed you then if you had told me I would one day do such a thing, but I would have thought it was a great analogy. It's a great analogy because the Existing Church has indeed become comfortably numb to the leading of the Spirit of Christ.
Here's the thing, this doesn't have anything to do with worship style. It has to do with a theology of worship and an understanding of what is sacramental. You see, there are existing congregations who are completely comfortable with their peppy, upbeat contemporary worship, just as there are existing congregations who believe the presence of drums in the sanctuary is a sign of the Apocalypse. Both types of congregations are comfortable with their own understanding of what constitutes worship, and are quite unwilling to step outside of those boxes, thank you very much.
(I just need to to point out here that most "contemporary" worship services utilize "contemporary" music that is at least 15 if not 20 years old...just pointing that out.)
While the "Worship Wars" over worship style continue to plague congregations within the Church, they don't disturb me nearly as much as the way the Existing Church has numbed itself to the messy, unexpected and wonderful places the Spirit of Christ would lead it. The emerging understanding of what is sacramental should not bound by dogma, should not held in the hands of a few to be dispensed only to a few. And when this is true for us, we will find that our acts of worship similarly will be unbound and free.
Several years ago, I was working with a para-church organization that helps students in public schools form Christian athletic clubs in their school. In the town where I worked, the club meetings and the larger group gatherings were attended by more than just student-athletes. Kids from all over came to our monthly gatherings where 150 - 200 students would gather for worship and fellowship. One night, while a praise band played and a worship leader sang, I noticed a young man who was on his knees in the corner with his hands stretched out. From time to time he would put his face on the ground, presumably while he prayed and worshipped God. Several of the parent leaders from some of the clubs approached me. One lady said to me through clenched teeth, "Do you see what he is doing over there?" I glanced over again at the young man, who had his hands lifted up once more. I nodded. "You need to go over there and say something to him," she said ominously. I asked her why. "We don't need any of that going on in here." I asked her what she meant by "any of that," and she shook her head violently. "You either go over there and tell him to stop, or I will," she barked. I looked at the other women, who mirrored her grim and determined expression. I knew that they all attended very conservative, evangelical, existing churches in town, and deduced from the way they were responding to the young man that not only did they not appreciate his expression of worship, they were downright threatened by it. So in the end, I went to talk to him. I whispered in his ear that although I had no issues with his way of worshipping, there were some folks who were stumbling because of it. He nodded, stood up and found a spot in the pews with all of the other kids, who were sort of listlessly standing and singing along with the band.
I can say now that the stated reason why I went over to talk to the young man was because I was afraid the grim, determined woman would do it and would hurt his feelings. But it didn't feel very good, and I am ashamed of myself to this day that went. What I should have done was stand up to those women and point out that out of all of the kids in the place, that young man was allowing himself to feel the Spirit of Christ rather than just remain comfortably numb like the rest of us. Instead, I worried more about my job, my standing in the community, my relationship with these leaders, and what my boss would say than I did about the young man. God help me... I will never let that kind of thing happen again.
I love the story in the Old Testament of how David was so overcome with joy that he quite messily and openly danced in his underwear "before the Lord" and "with all his might." His proclamation that he would become "even more undignified" if that's what was needed to express his worship is a clarion call for those of us who seek a more emergent, open, and unfettered view of sacraments and worship. Authentic, emergent, Spirit-led worship has the potential to be messy, after all. It could even be more messy than wax on the sanctuary carpet, or water stains on a pew. It might also be the kind of worship that is freed from the constraints of a sanctuary altogether. It might move out into a world that is full of sacramental objects and moments where the lines between what we consider profane and sacred are extremely blurry. It might tap into our God-given spirit of creativity, imagination and dreaming, and erupt into new and beautiful forms of expression.
And we might be able to see this incredible transformation, this emergence... If we are brave. If we are hopeful. If we are willing.