Beauty n. state of being pleasing to the senses • Liturgy n. work of the people

by Rev. Brandon Hudson

When I was on the back end of childhood, I woke up on Saturday mornings and headed to the back room. There, nestled into the dark, paneled corner at the end of the sofa sat the audio cabinet, holding a selection of vertically stacked vinyl records. Above that was the amplifier, the power behind the whole operation. Heading further up, a receiver held the tool for selecting the audio source. Higher still, a metallic tape deck waited to embrace the cassettes held along the back wall. Finally, at the pinnacle, lay the record player.

I powered on the amplifier, and then selected “Phono” on the receiver. Next, I raised the slightly mysterious turntable lid before lowering myself to the floor and flipping through the albums: Willie Nelson, Sandi Patty, the Beatles, Iron Butterfly—the collection was the definition of eclectic!

My mood made the selection. I pulled the sleeve from the shelf and carefully removed the slick, vinyl disk from within. I set the sleeve on the edge of the couch, placed the record carefully on the turntable’s spindle, and made sure the speed selection was in the right position. With everything ready, I touched the capacitive button; the tone arm and needle moved into place as the record began to spin.

The first sound was always a faint crackle and hum, a flow of aural warmth before the first notes played. I cranked the volume dial on the amplifier to unsafe levels (far away from my parent’s bedroom), and let the music wash over me while I read the info and credits on the album’s sleeve.

Most of my own music collection started on cassette tapes: Billy Joel, Bon Jovi, and Whitney Houston eventually moving (I wouldn’t say progressing) to Vanilla Ice, The Fresh Prince, and the Fat Boys. I carried those tapes in a faux leather box. I played them on tape decks in my parents’ car or at home, but usually in one of my Walkmen. (They break easier than they should!) With headphones hugging my ears and the volume loud enough to drown out adult conversations, I could fall asleep in the Suburban’s back seat.

By the time I was old enough to drive, I wouldn’t dream of buying a tape. The whole world was CDs. They might skip a bit more, but the sound was much clearer than cassettes, you could skip to specific songs, and you didn’t have to flip them over halfway through an album. CDs from Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and other early grunge rockers filled my room.

Now, in the phone sitting on my leg while I write this, I can access more music than would fit in my childhood home. Not only that, but much of it has been remastered to nearly lossless formats, meaning it’s the clearest music that can be heard without being physically in front of the musicians. I don’t want to trade that level of accessibility and musical quality. It works well with my eclectic tastes, and it meets my need to instantly hear whatever song my mood desires.

While audio technology has progressed to this point, an interesting trend has developed. When vinyl first moved to 8-track tapes, then to cassette tapes, then to CDs, then to digital streaming, you couldn’t find a store that sold real vinyl records. Sure, you could find them at a thrift store or maybe in the home of an audiophile, but not in mainstream retail. They were set aside for scratching on Beastie Boys albums.

But records have made a comeback. Many new albums are released, in limited quantities, on vinyl. You can now buy a record at 2nd & Charles, the Guitar Gallery, or Seasick Records. You can buy record players at Target and Walmart. While music has become as accessible as the phones in our pockets, demand for the original way of listening to recorded music has surged. Once again, a turntable may sit at the pinnacle of the audio tower!

It would be easy to dismiss this phenomenon as nostalgia. Sure, part of it is. It would also be easy to think only of the audio warmth that analogue provides as a driving force. That is also a part of it. (Who doesn’t love the initial hum and scratch of needle on vinyl?!?)

But for all the surface nostalgia and audiophile credentials, the return of vinyl signals something deeper: it points to our human longing for rhythm and ritual.

To play a song on my phone requires very little from me—a few pushes of imaginary buttons or simply telling the phone to play a song.

However, to play a vinyl album requires a set of dedicated movements. I have to take the square sleeve from the shelf, carefully remove the disk, place the disk on the spindle, start the platter spinning, and place the needle in the right groove. It requires a ritual. The experience becomes more than aural; it becomes physical, involving more of me. As more of me is engaged, I find myself more absorbed in the music that is playing. It sings a little more deeply into my soul.

We crave ritual. We were built for it and pick it up mindlessly until it becomes second nature. When rituals are removed, we replace them. We are all like those trying to quit smoking, surrounding ourselves with ever-mounting piles of gum wrappers. We need to do something, to inhabit some ritual, to make some regular set of movements. The accumulation of these movements provide the patterns of our lives.

Rituals matter in the life of faith. The way we order our worship service and adorn our sanctuary are matters of ritual. When the church season changes, we reflect that shift in our physical space. When we plan a worship service, we consider the cohesion of scripture with song and space. Our service is broken into five movements: Gathering, Centering, Hearing, Responding, and Enacting. We come together, move from a time of announcements into centered hearts ready for worship, hear from the scriptures, song, and sermon, respond in reflection, and leave to enact the way we have been formed in the world around us.

This ordering of our worship service is referred to as “liturgy”—a word that literally means “the work of the people.” The ritual of worship is not something that is designed to entertain us (though it shouldn’t be boring, either); it is a process that we choose to inhabit. Together, we move through seasons of worship, seasons of joy, and seasons of grief, all held together by rituals that point us to the greater reality of God’s goodness regardless of our present circumstance.

This liturgy, this work we do together in formal Sunday worship and informal communal connection, is beautiful and abounding in meaning. It provides a rhythm to which we can turn when all else seems astray. It sings deeply to our souls.

In the past year, this rhythm has been bumped out of its usual groove. We have made choices, out of love, that have altered the rituals and rhythms to which we are accustomed. Still, we have done our best to come together, to enter into space (albeit virtual) together, and emerge transformed.

To belong to a community of faith is to belong to a pattern of life. It is to bind ourselves together in ritual, and to have our bound lives glorify God through the patterns we inhabit. It is to be shaped and changed by the ritual of our work together, molded into more perfect union with God and one another.

As we find ourselves in continuing times of uncertainty, as we pick up some old rituals (like being in the building together) and hold on to some new ones (like wearing masks), let us open our eyes to how we are being shaped. Let us enter our rituals with intentionality, allowing ourselves to be shaped more fully in love.

Together, beloved, may our shared lives help us to be more malleable in the hands of the One who crafts, with love, through our rituals.