So I had this thought today as I was pulling away from the bank: it’s all ritual.
Let me put it into context. I just finished The Shack, a book that explores grief, loss, relationship, and God (mostly God). It is a book that I both really liked and made me a little sad. I really liked it because it explores topics such as suffering, free will, heaven, intimacy with God, guilt, among many others, and it articulates some of these frustrating theological concepts. More than anything, it reminds me that God is a God of love and relationship, a God who is always with us and desires more than anything to be intimate with us. For all this, I really liked it. Additionally, it tackled some tough theological concepts (free will, anyone?) and, while certainly not offering a concrete conclusion, it does offer some insight. It made me sad, however, for the small reason that the writing itself doesn’t have much going for it. The ideas are great; the writing is average at best. This makes me sad not because it won’t reach a good number of people in our culture today (it will), but because it won’t have staying power: a book that is read fifty or a hundred years later needs both ideas and writing. I think some of the ideas have enough going for them to last fifty or a hundred years, I don’t think the writing does.
But I digress. A line in The Shack, when God is talking to the main character, has God saying “nothing is about ritual. It’s about relationship.” I found myself nodding as I read this line. Until I pulled out of the bank today.
Think about it. What do you do before you go to bed? Brush your teeth, put on your pajamas, etc. How about when you get up? Do you shower or eat breakfast first? Do you read the paper or check news on the internet? (I’m a breakfast-shower-internet person, myself.) We do these things consistently because we have developed morning or evening rituals.
Brooke, during the school year, would call me everyday around 4pm. If she didn’t call, I’d call her. We’d ask about each other’s days and talk about what we wanted to do that night — generally not too much. We didn’t plan it, but it became ritual over time: Brooke’s school day ended at 3:30 but she never left then and it was a good time to call and connect. It became a ritual.
I think that we hear this word — ritual — and get scared of it. I know I do. I hear it and think of church services where you stand up and sit down and recite verses without thinking. I think of being told to read my bible or pray a certain number of minutes everyday. And, in these cases, the ritual can rob the relationship. It can cause obligation or unthinking and unfeeling action. But, that doesn’t mean we get rid of ritual.
Other rituals, even spiritual rituals, hold deep significance whenever I get to do them. Communion or witnessing a baptism are reminders of who God is and who I am, of my relationship with the Creator and Redeemer God. These rituals are central to followers of Jesus, they are symbols and reminders.
The answer, I think, is to embrace ritual without being bound by the ritual. Embrace ritual for the deeper meaning behind it. I brush my teeth before bed so I don’t get cavities; I shower in the morning so I don’t smell; I call Brooke because I love her. I need rituals in my life — and they are quite present in my life when I take a look — but don’t want them to define me. It’s about the ritual when the meaning gets lost, when the ritual itself becomes the object. When I read my bible because that’s what you do I am voiding a brilliant activity from the relationship that makes it brilliant. When I read my bible every morning to connect with God, because I need connection with Him, I embrace ritual without it defining me. Maybe I miss a morning: no big deal. Maybe I find other ways to connect. Good.
I want to be someone who forms rituals and habits that make me a fuller person, more connected and alive, while never acting simply for acting’s sake.