GATHERING in PEACE & QUIET.
It is 3:30 Vespers on a sunny Thursday afternoon at Baylor University. Miller Chapel is filled with sixty warm bodies within her walls and stained glass windows—this is the most students she will see this day, perhaps this week. The 55 year old structure is found within Tidwell Bible Building, but sits behind tall heavy doors at the back of Tidwell’s foyer. She is a place of silence, except for the rattling air conditioner, buzzing like a bee above. She is a place set apart, waiting for them to come. And slowly but surely, they stumble inside.
RECOGNIZING GOD’S PRESENCE.
Associate Chaplain Ryan Richardson, known affectionately by students as Chapel Ryan, stands at the front, in a spot between the stage and the students. He stands beside a waist-high table and holds a sheet of paper, one of many that are spread about the chapel in the hands of the students, holding the flow of the service, each piece of liturgical worship. It’s time for “Recognizing God’s Presence.” He asks students to silence their phones, not to listen to music, not to be distracted. “Do me the favor of engaging,” Ryan asks. It is time to begin.
His voice echoes from the center of the chapel. “Spend a few moments in silence. Slow your mind down to be truly present.” A hush descends on the students. A full minute goes by.
The students are silent and still. Somewhat. There are the fidgeting few. A girl in a sweatshirt leans over to her friend, mouthing something that obviously can’t wait. The crackly sound of papers being shuffled comes from the back. Some people can’t slow down, it seems.
OPENING our HEARTS.
The Vespers service has traditionally been the evening prayer service of the Christian Church for more than 1400 years. This service at Baylor, while not in the evening, encapsulates the tradition of liturgical worship and prayer in a thirty minute piece. It was created by Ryan Richardson, University Chaplain Burt Burleson, and Jared Slack, Pastoral Resident for Worship. “Created” isn’t the best term, of course, because they’ve pulled from both personal experiences and ancient sources—Burt’s years at the liturgical Dayspring Baptist Church in Waco, Jared’s childhood memories of Catholic Mass, Ryan’s selections from recent books and classics as well. Each service, though they differ in the details, incorporates the same main elements- Silence, Song, Confession, Scripture, Prayer, Benediction. It is a way of bringing order and peace into lives dripping of rush and busyness.
“This is the place and this is the time; here and now, God waits to break into our experience.” Rows of students read words, mumbling, “To change our minds, to change our lives to change our ways.”
LIFTING our VOICES.
Vespers finally entered into Baylor’s spiritual life after decades of attempts to bring it to fruition. Monday/Wednesday chapel in Waco Hall is still the central worship time for all students to gather in worship. Back in his office at the Bobo Spiritual Life Center, Ryan Richardson shares his thoughts. “The common experience is really important for me because I think that for every Baylor student since 1845, they’ve all had this one thing in common.” But the weaknesses are apparent. A visit to chapel reveals people slouched back, whispering, ear buds hidden under hoodies, a dark auditorium where people can hide in shadows. The students robotically stand and sit upon command, working for a checkmark on that day’s attendance. Vespers is one of the Chapel Alternatives that arose in 2009. Students can choose to attend Vespers, a missions class, or a spiritual disciples class for their entire second semester in order to receive chapel credit. Vespers is also a means of grace. Students who have missed a chapel can attend Vespers for chapel credit, only a few times though. That is the majority of students in the room, waiting for the moment to sign the clipboard that forgives their absence in chapel. Still, students participate, pray, and sing with much more connectivity than they do in Chapel.
It is Jared’s turn to invite the ones gathered to sing. Jared asks the students to stand. “Let us sing, “Amazing Grace.” Students sing in husky tones and recite the words.
CONFESSING our SIN.
In his office, Jared talks about today’s culture. We’ve grown to believe busyness is a “good” quality, he says, and are pulled in so many directions. With technology, we’ve been trained to be “immediately connected to everyone and everything.” Vespers is about slowing down and connecting to God. “It’s about relearning to be human again.” In contrast to modern rock band worship, the simplicity of Vespers appeals to people. He speaks of an agnostic girl that is taking Vespers as a chapel alternative. Recently she told them, “I don’t buy into the thing that happens in Chapel, what happens on Sundays, but I’m comfortable with Vespers.” She knows no one is going to preach at her. It’s a chance to rest, a time to simply be.
Ryan reads the prayer. “Lord, we have got it wrong. We thought you just wanted our worship: songs of praise and prayers of passion. But you want the whole of our lives.” Students read with Ryan. “Forgive our sins, we pray.” Jared starts the singing, once more. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”
HEARING from SCRIPTURE.
Some students read Bible verses from scraps of paper. It’s the story of the Prodigal Son, a story of repentance, of returning to God. Ryan instructs everyone to look at the tiny picture that accompanied the day’s liturgy. It is a beautiful painting by Rembrandt, poorly reproduced via photocopier, showing the Prodigal Son at his father’s feet. “Look at the father.” Ryan beckons all to look deeper, see the love of the father. “I am a work in progress,” Ryan shares. God the Father offers forgiveness, “a mercy that actually restores us.”
Miller Chapel is one of the “Sacred Spaces” around Baylor campus. “What is a sacred place?” Ryan asks. It has nothing to do with God’s presence. God is present everywhere. It simply makes us realize, “I should make myself available to God.” The light streaming in through stained glass and the feel of old hymns simply help create the mood of contemplation.
Ryan moves forward to talk about praying. We are rushing, all so busy at each moment of our schedules. He says prayer is a method to slow oneself. “I am not good at it,” says Ryan. Still, it allows us to become presence to God’s presence. “Let us pray.”
PRAYING for our COMMUNITY.
In the midst of ancient liturgy, the worshippers recognize the present pain and sorrows of the Baylor community, and Ryan reads name after name of person suffering from illness or grief or hurt. He asks God to come down and bring healing and redemption. People, with bowed heads, rustle in their seats. Prayers are made for people around the world, in Libya, in Egypt, in Afghanistan, in Iraq. Each prayer is followed by a responsorial phrase, the Kyrie Eleison.
“Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.”
Jared leads the students to sing “Amazing Grace” once more. Four o’clock is drawing near. But the students do not shuffle. In chapel, backpacks zippers are zipped and students begin to stand a good two minutes before it ends. But students present in Vespers are, for the most part, present. Ryan returns to his spot and speaks once more, speaks on being God’s presence to a hurting world. “There are people in the community dealing with tragedy. Do not be depressed by that news, but see the work of God as yours.”
Ryan reads a prayer for the students. Once done, Ryan takes a moment and smiles. “Thank you for coming to Vespers. Know you are welcome anytime.”
It’s not intended for everyone, Ryan shares later on. The goal is to instill a spiritual practice, not simply attend an event. It is to teach students to be still and commune with God. “A successful Vespers service is something that does something for someone.” Even just one.
Students return to a zombie-like state, rising from their seats and massing together in a large horde, waiting to sign their name and get away. Heads are bowed, faces illuminated by glowing iPhones. Conversation grows and fills the room. Students discuss Vespers. Words like “calm” and “peaceful” are shared. But, if it wasn’t for chapel credit, they wouldn’t be there. Too slow. Too boring. Except for one student, a tall guy with a gold necklace bearing Arabic letters. He says it is his first time—but he’d like to come back.
Miller is once again silent and still and emptied of students. And still, she is filled with light pouring in from colorful windows— and something more. Though there is no one present, there is a presence within, one that will remain with her until next Tuesday’s 3:30 Vespers service.