What follows is an article published in the local paper a few weeks ago. I want to add it to the blog because I’m about to start work on an article on ritualism as a popular form of Christian idolatry. The importance of ritual, and the idolatry of ritualism should not be confused.
Some folks have a spiritual hunger, and seek a more intimate connection with God, however they understand God. It seems many also have reasons for not liking church, synagogue, or maybe even mosque (something I know little about). One complaint I hear often is a dislike of ritual, so perhaps we can talk about that a bit.
Rituals are all around us in every place. Service clubs, athletic teams, classrooms, city council meetings, job sites, even getting up in the morning. Each has a ritual that illustrates what’s going on, why it’s going on, and how to participate in what’s going on. Rituals give structure to what we are doing. They’re important.
Think of ball team rituals with coach’s pep talks before they gather in a circle to clasp hands, yell a cheer, and get themselves up for the game. Religious rituals are like that with some added dimensions. In the end, they help us get ready for the game of life. No matter how different they are from one another, and different they are, each is designed to open doors to God’s presence in a time and place, and to strengthen “the team” for the work ahead.
I once had a coworker who attended a large Baptist church of mostly black members. She use to say that my Episcopalian services were so formal and orderly there was no room to rejoice in the power of the Spirit. What dull way to spend a Sunday morning that was. To which I responded that her services were so loud and rowdy, God couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Whoever heard of yelling at the preacher to “bring it home” because it was time for lunch? What a waste of time that was. It was our shared ritual.
Liturgical churches, such as mine, share a style of worship borrowed from Jewish tradition. The opening includes music and singing, an explanation of why we are gathered, an invitation to prepare our hearts and minds to hear what God has to say, and several fairly long readings from scripture. Singing of hymns often separates the parts. That's followed by a brief sermon or homily about how what we have heard can be applied to our daily lives; then a time for reflection, affirmation of faith, and prayers for ourselves and others. Finally, for us, comes the highlight, a ritualized meal of bread and wine in which we recognize the real presence of Jesus entering into us to be a part of us.
It’s true that we tend to sing traditional hymns out of hymnals accompanied by traditional music. We do a lot of standing, sitting, kneeling and stuff like that. Other traditions have other rituals: more contemporary music, bands that entertain while leading worship, shorter readings and longer sermons. For many, the ritual meal of bread and wine is seldom celebrated. What we all share are rituals intended to welcome all into a time and space where we make ourselves more intentionally present to God’s presence in our lives. What works for some may not work for others. There are lots of choices. It’s also true that each of us thinks we have it more right than the others. It’s one of those human foibles we can’t seem to ditch. The point is, there is one that’s more right for you.
Do you need church to do that? Yes! It’s hard to become knowledgeable about God if you don’t go somewhere to learn about God. It’s helps to be among others trying to do the same, each burdened by their own doubts and failures. Knowing you are among others you can call on, talk to, share your hopes and fears with, become friends with, it’s all part of being in community.
From the beginning, God has called us into community. History is dotted with those who went off to find God all by themselves. Those who succeeded never found God. They were found by God, who sent them back into community to do God’s work. Those who didn’t simply wandered about learning little, accomplishing less, and never finding that sense of fulfillment for which they had yearned.
There’s a church, synagogue, or mosque right for you. Find it. You’ll be glad you did. Needless to say, I recommend the Episcopal Church. It’s the one that most got it right, so we claim – with tongue slightly in cheek.