They transport us across state lines like vampires. We sleep in bunks shaped very much like coffins, sealed with blackout curtains. These bunks number twelve: stacked three high, two deep, and on both sides of the center aisle. This part of the bus is sealed by pneumatic doors, so no light gets in at all. It's perfectly dark no matter when you wake up, so it only takes about a day to lose all sense of time and space. Each "day" begins with unanswerable questions. What time is it? What day is it? What city am I in?
You sneak out of your bunk and open the door, and the appearance of the curtains lets you know if it is day or night. Most of the time it is day and sometime in the afternoon. The crew is already gone–these are the hardworking souls that make events happen. In many ways, we performers are just icing and decorations on the cake that they bake all day.
Most of the time, it is a venue and not a hotel that is visible when you peak outside. That means today's shower will happen after the event, and this is a harsh reality of touring for a man like me who's days are anchored by a shower that happens minutes after leaving the mattress. It is in this foggy, discombobulated state that events put on by The Liturgists are born.
We're a collective of creators anchored by Michael Gungor, of the band Gungor. On this trip we are joined by members of The Brilliance, as well as me–the nerd who has no musical responsibilities in the event. My job is to narrate, and to inject my particular mix of science and faith into the consciousness of people who come out to one of our events. In time, other people will join us–but I can't ruin the surprise in this blog post.
We don't put on concerts, and you'll notice that I have been careful to avoid that word. The Liturgists invite people to participate in Liturgy and create Liturgical art–which is to say we create art and resources specifically for the Church. Our first liturgy is Vapor, available now on our website (for free) and iTunes (not as free). The live execution of Vapor is a 70 to 90 minute experience where identity is intentionally surrendered as we invite everyone with us to focus completely on God.
The only way we can make it work is to start by explaining that we're doing things differently tonight. We have to warn people that the expectations that have been built up about concerts and church services have to be set down for this to work. We let them know that this night will be a boring failure if they don't participate with us. Miraculously, people both churched and unchurched have proven themselves remarkably enthusiastic in answering this challenge. It has been humbling for us all.
After this introduction, Michael asks me to share my testimony of faith lost to atheism and then found again through a direct experience with the power of God. Then David Gungor and/or Lisa Gungor share a few words from their hearts before I start the scripted portion of the event by asking for a volunteer from the audience who does not have fake fingernails (fake fingernails will ruin the science experiment we're about to perform).
From that point forward, the band is hidden behind a giant screen. We light them in such a way that their shadows appear on the screen, while we also project words and images that relate to the music, prayers, readings, and other liturgies that occur in the program. It's a way to divorce the identity of the artist from the art that they produce. We were worried that this wouldn't work–that a giant screen would be boring. I realized the power in metaphor as I've watch people move into periods or real contemplation, lament, and worship. It seems that people are hungry for something like this, something where the goal is not to lift up a group of people above the rest.
We end with Eucharist, the ritual that ties all of Christianity together, all the way back to one room on the night Jesus was betrayed.
At events smaller than 500 people, I serve communion to people and it is deeply moving to see people respond. Some tell me afterwards that they have been struggling with their belief, and that this moment opened something in them. I can understand that–it was the Eucharist that brought me back from my doubts.
Then it's over, and we talk to people while the crew takes down all the elements and packs them into a trailer. Most nights we stand around for 45 to 90 minutes. Then we shower and load the bus for a time of celebration and reflection. Finally, we crawl into our bunks, like vampires hidden from the light.
And then we do it again.
Tonight is our last event in the first sequence. Other dates are being booked, but I don't know when or where they will be. I'm really excited about this last event–it's in a really big room at a conference in Columbus. I've been thinking a lot today about all the people we've met, from the tiny little space where we first tried out our program in Nashville, to the beautiful church just a few blocks from ground zero in Manhattan, to a college in Nyack, to Browncroft Community Church in Rochester. All these people showed up to an event that started out confusing and strange. But, they were patient, and they were willing to try and focus their hearts elsewhere, to focus on the God that all Christians worship.
So many people have offered me joyful, tearful, or stunned accounts of what happened in their hearts during our liturgy together. Typing these words brings tears to my eyes, because I know what it's like to hunger for a more personal experience with God. And here, this week, people from all different denominations, political affiliations, social and economic backgrounds, and even people who do not believe in God at all gathered together at one table to celebrate the gift of life and the gifter who provides it.
I have never been more excited about Church.