Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Importance of Rituals

A few days ago I visited with one of our church members who has two young children (ages 5 and 7). These kids had serious questions for me – the preacher man! They asked: Why does the church have Bible classes? Why do we have trees in the church building? Why do we give money to the church? Why am I afraid of going to heaven? Why do we get baptized? Why doesn’t every church “look” the same? Why did God send Jesus to die on the cross if it’s unfair? Why do I always do bad things? Why do people get married? And the best one, why do girls like flowers? I was impressed with these kids curiosity. In that sense they are more honest than many adults. Adults stop asking questions when they think they know the answers. Questions are good. Questions are the “anti-complacency.”

But how do we pass on the answers to deep questions? It hit me last July 4th (aka Independence Day). I was with the American mission and medical team on the banks of the Zambezi River in a little town called Luangwa in Zambia. That morning we sat at our table under a large tree, eating breakfast. We wore shirts with U.S. flags, we decorated the table, and we sang the Star Spangled Banner. Never did I feel more American than that day. And yet we were thousands of miles away from America, isolated from the fireworks and parades. For dinner we ate hamburgers in Lusaka. The answer is ritual. Rituals forge identity. Rituals form bonds of community. Rituals motivate purpose. Rituals keep answering questions. I felt like an American on the 4th of July because of a song and a hamburger! Why? Because millions of other Americans around the world were doing the same thing.

That’s true in the church as well. And in a sense, America is like a big metaphor for the church – all people from every background can forge a new life and a new identity by adherence to a few core beliefs and practices. The power and necessity of ritual hit me when those kids peppered me with questions I had taken for granted. If our worship is ritualistic, all the questions will be answered – except the one about girls and flowers. Ritual is not stuffy, corny, or sinister. We cannot abandon ritual, because without ritual there is no memory. This understanding of the indispensable role that ritual plays in remembrance is the secret to the survival of the Jews. Ritual is the means by which, for thousands of years, Jews have been able to remember who they are. In the same way, Christians “eat the body” of the Lord, and “drink his blood” every Sunday to remember, re-enact, and pass on the gospel story. Jesus died for us, he rose from the dead, and he will return some day to claim us as his bride. Let’s never forget!

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