2013-03-30

On Ritual and Relationship


Recently, I taught in chapel on the Story of Mary and Martha, in which Jesus ends by helping Martha to re-focus her perspective to see the necessity of BOTH action AND contemplation in her journey with Jesus:

Luke 10.38–42 [38] Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. [39] She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. [40] But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” [41] But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; [42] there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Based on this teaching, one of my students wrote and asked me:

"Martha gets upset that Mary will not participate in the activities of preparing food/ cleaning up yet Jesus tells Martha that she is missing the point. My question is: couldn't the same be said about us in chapel? We go through the actions of repeating, rehearsing, sitting, and standing, but if you don't do those things, you're looked upon as Mary in the story."

And so I answered:

Great question and one that I have pondered for years. I wish I could give you a simple answer, but your question hits on a wide-ranging topic of how we worship as Christians. So please allow me to give a bit of background to the answer:

I think what you have hit upon is the constant tension of what we do FOR Jesus versus being present WITH Jesus. When used rightly, most rituals and activities can be used as a tool to become more aware of Jesus and present with Jesus. The catch is that most people- myself included- are not very good at being mindful of Jesus while doing activities.

Regarding specifically religious rituals, I have been a Christian in several different Christian traditions before I came to the Episcopal tradition. I have spent a great deal of time in Evangelical/ Bible Church/ Non-Denominational Churches, as well as Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches. I've also been a part of services in a wide variety of other Christian traditions: Orthodox, Catholic, etc.

So I will say that every Christian tradition has its own pattern of worship with expected rituals and patterns for prayers. For instance, think of the "sinner's prayer" used when someone gets saved in an Evangelical Church. It has a standard pattern: Confession of sin, need for Jesus, acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior, giving praise to Jesus.

Or the typical pattern in a non-denominational worship service or youth worship service: Typically you have a welcome, then gathering prayer, then upbeat worship songs, then a Bible reading, a message, a call to conversion, often ending in slower, more emotional worship songs while people come forward to receive Christ, and then finally a dismissal by the pastor.

Or if you go to a healing service in a charismatic or Pentecostal Church, there is a pattern for when to raise your hands in praise, how you offer healing prayers, or when (and how) it is proper to speak in tongues, and even when it is proper to faint (or be "slain in the spirit").

So, that's all to say that whether you are at Community Bible Church, First Pentecostal, Oak Hills, Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, chapel at TMI or chapel at SACS, you are going to find regular repeated pattern of certain kinds of rituals and certain kinds of prayers. In fact you find references to patterns of ritual in the Bible in places like Leviticus, Psalms, and even the patterns of worship we find with Jesus and the early disciples (cf. 1Co 10-11).

I think that any of these rituals can be good, if they are done with Jesus while being mindful of Jesus. And I think any of these rituals can be bad or useless if they are done for their own sake, or to impress others, or just out of habit. So the trick is to use rituals mindfully to connect with Jesus.

So, if raising my hands is a meaningful act of worship to me that draws me near to Christ, I should do that. If crossing yourself and kneeling is a meaningful way of drawing near to Christ for you, you should do that. However, I should not compel you to raise your hands if that is not helpful for you. And likewise, you should not compel me to cross myself.

But, it is even more complex than that. Because of we are going to practice the type of hospitality that Christ calls us to, by which we become "all things to all people" (in St. Paul's words) then we should be willing to try and use spiritual practices that are meaningful to thousands or millions of other brothers and sisters in Christ. So, while I should not be compelled to cross myself (or raise my hands, or bow) as an act of worship, I should probably be willing to practice it voluntarily if I am around many other Christians who do find it meaningful. If I do, I might also come to find it has meaning for me as well.

Whew. I know this is a long and complex set of arguments, but you find somewhat similar discussions of how to worship, and what to eat, or do, or not do, to please Christ in places like Romans ch. 14-15 and 1Co ch. 10-14.

Anyway, as for which "pattern" of ritual you use, that will depend on the context you are in. If you are in a Catholic context and you use Pentecostal practices (such as speaking in tongues) you are going to make people uncomfortable and they will not understand you. Likewise, if you are at the non-denominational Bible Church and use Catholic rituals (such as bowing and crossing yourself) people probably wouldn't receive you too well.

And anytime you have a group of several hundred people who gather on a regular basis (such as chapel) then most of the time you need to have a predictable pattern that everyone can use to worship. Granted, some people will mentally check out or be distracted or just ignore what is going on. That happens at Catholic masses and Pentecostal tent revivals and Episcopal Schools. But for those who choose to use the ritual framework to connect with Jesus, it allows for that capacity on a daily basis.

One thing that I miss sometimes are the things you can do in a smaller setting (such as summer camp or a youth retreat) that you can't do with several hundred people on a daily basis. For instance, times of silence, singing around a camp fire, and really intimate personal times of prayer. These rituals and practices work great with a small group of people. But when transposed into a huge group, what you wind up with is a lot of people who get really freaked out and uncomfortable, and a very few insiders who really like it. You can actually see this happen sometimes when guitar based songs are played in chapel. The students who have been to happening or sing these songs in their youth group like it. And many others- students and faculty- either don't get it or are uncomfortable with it. In fact, for every person I have ask me to do something in chapel (such as sing camp songs), I usually have at least one other person (if not more) who will complain that we did it. No kidding!

So, most of the time I use prayers and rituals that have been meaningful to most Christians through most of Christian history. That means a lot of prayers and rituals that have Catholic and Anglican roots. It's not everyone's cup of tea. But then again no style of worship is everyone's cup of tea. But it is a pattern that has been shown to shape and develop the spiritual lives of Christians through most of Christian history. And Jesus will use it, if you let him, to remind you of his presence and help you hear his Word.

And that leads me to the bottom line answer: It's all in how you use it.

Every relationship has rituals. My relationship with my wife has many rituals that involve speaking, listening, special names we use, sitting, standing, working and resting. Likewise, my relationship with Jesus has many rituals that involve speaking, listening, special names, sitting, standing, working and resting. I can use these rituals to connect with Jesus (or my wife). Or I can use the same rituals to ignore either of them and check out mentally. It's all in how I use them.

Martha's problem was that she was using her work instead of being present with Christ, and perhaps at the wrong time when Jesus may have been calling her to do something else. My hope is that we learn to use our work and rest, ritual and spontaneity, in the right way at the right time to draw us all closer to Christ.

I know that's a complex answer. But I think life with Jesus is complex, multifaceted and beautiful. It is easy to say "Love Jesus!"  But it takes a lifetime- and beyond- to explore how to love Jesus in the manifold contexts we find ourselves in.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.