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The Good Roles and Subtle Risks of Ritual

Breaking Enslaving Traditions, Part Two

Sophia, our eldest daughter, is away from home for the first time. She has chosen to attend Sunday service at the First Episcopal Church in her Midwestern town. The church looks like a church, smells like a church, and has an organ in the Sunday service. On Monday nights, she goes to the liturgical evening service, followed by a potluck supper, where she is given leftovers to take back to her dorm.

This fellowship is culturally as far from the church Sophia grew up in as you could find within the faith. Since before her birth we attended a non-denominational evangelical mega-church, where we worshipped a in building we call “the Big Box.” It has a killer sound system, a smoke machine, a light show and not a liturgical reading in sight. When I asked her why she likes this tiny, traditional fellowship, she said it was because they just read and taught the Bible, and that – unlike the contemporary evangelical services she went to – she didn’t feel like they were trying so hard to be relevant, but just read the Bible.

In seeking a church steeped in liturgical tradition, Sophia is bucking her own family’s tradition. And I love it so much.

I love it because I believe in ritual and tradition as integral to living a spiritual life – a life of authentic connection with God and others. The practice of reading through common prayers together is a beautiful expression of the faith. And I also believe in worshipping a way that is so different from how she grew up adds freshness and freedom to worship. Even though repetition and tradition provide comfort and identity, they can also dull our senses to awe. They can also become a barrier to God, causing us to procrastinate in our prayers , if we can’t do perfectly what is set out as acceptable ways to be holy.

I grew up in evangelical, non-denominational churches. The rallying cry of my youth groups was that Christianity was not a religion but a relationship. Unlike all other world religions, we didn’t have to jump through hoops to relate to God or get to heaven, but could have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through grace. I’m ashamed to admit that we looked down on other expressions of Christianity as well, especially Catholics for their ritualistic worship, and questioned if while they crossed their bodies with their hands, their hearts were far from God. We believed also that their rituals were based on wrong belief.

I used to follow a woman on Instagram who calls herself the Christian Misfit; on Mondays she did something called “Fix a Christian Cliché Day.” In one she says, “Christianity is a religion and for some people, it’s also a relationship.” Her caption continues:

“Religion isn’t a bad word. If you believe the same thing as a bunch of people, and you’ve organized your beliefs into a system, and you live according to the code of those beliefs, and you all pool money towards impacting the world in the name of those beliefs, you’re part of a religion.”

When I have brought this same critical thinking to my own faith and its expression, I understand that “we,” the non-denominational Christians, weren’t as free as we claimed to be. Evangelicalism in the 1990s, when I was a teenager and young adult, had its own ritual, culture and tradition. We took away some bodily expressions of worship (like genuflecting, or walking to the altar to receive communion, for example); comforting liturgy that was actually theologically accurate; and hymns that were steeped in prophesy, the psalms and sound orthodox theology. But we managed to tie ourselves to new kinds of legalism.

Another friend on Instagram posted recently that all you have to do to trigger PTSD-like guilt in her is to use the word “quiet time.” Sing it, sister. I was part of a campus Christian ministry where they taught us that if we didn’t do an hour-long quiet time a day, in the morning (citing one scripture of Jesus going out to pray in the morning, proving the morning to be the holiest time), we were not making God a priority and were likely to backslide. We were told things like, “You’re either growing closer to Jesus or you’re moving farther away.” And also, “Feeling far from God? Guess who moved.” That second one was on a bumper sticker! And you know what, they were both establishing religious practices based on wrong belief. They don’t appear in Scripture. And yet these sayings were as much a part of my religious belief system as my Catholic sisters saying mass.

To this day, I hate the phrase “quiet time.” And yet, if such a thing can be quantified, I love Jesus more than ever. I read my Bible often, but not every day. I pray, but not always in the morning. I don’t journal – though I have a dozen journals, because people think all writers journal and keep giving them to me – but rather write out one- or two-word prayers, or a verse at a time as one stands out to me. I also call my sponsor to practice confession and get advice. I attend AA meetings. I request prayers and offer them for friends over text. I practice Step Ten regularly (“we continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.”) I attend church. I practice Sabbath (no laundry or social media on Sundays).

And I am loved by God, who never moves away from me. And I am free.

The Christmas season is a time we can easily become slaves to tradition in many ways. We can fall into the traps of secular materialism, trying to make “magic” for our families that culminates in the perfect Christmas morning. We can work to recreate the nostalgia of our childhoods, or serve a familial standard to prove our worth and loyalty, achieving a zenith of multi-generational connection in a big family feast! We can even fall victim to guilt when we aren’t doing the right advent readings or moving our hearts closer to Jesus throughout December, hoping that we will wake up on the 25th and somehow his birth feels more real to us on that day than ever before, with a victory cry, Hurray! We have managed to keep Christ in Christmas!”

Or, we can find our own rhythms of grace and awe, and embrace the freedom of our belovedness and God with us. The simple difference between routine and ritual is the intention we bring to it; our morning coffee becomes a prayer of gratitude, a quiet walk an act of worship. We can enjoy the extra beauty, baking, music and togetherness for what it is: a special season in a whole life lived with Christ in our hearts.

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