My mom emailed me today to remind me that rituals can still be a very important part of our relationship with God, especially in times when our faith feels unstable. I didn’t mean to come across as critical of the traditions of faith in my quick synopsis of yesterday’s sermon at church. I think the point Paul made was more about how we define our relationship with God. Are we taking pride in how many Bible studies/small groups/other church activities we attend? Or do we use our good behavior, especially in comparison to others, as a benchmark for “how Christian” we are?
While my current church is less structured than the Lutheran church I grew up in, I still very much cherish the rituals we practiced each week. The call and response readings, the old hymns, the prayers of the church. These are beautiful rituals that certainly help to ground me in times of shaky faith. A great example is praying the Psalms. There have been many times in my life where I just couldn’t find the words to pray. I would read through the Psalms, praying the words of David as if they were my own. There are Psalms for when you are angry, joyful, fearful… it is comforting to know my every emotion is documented in these books. And let’s not forget the Lord’s Prayer. I know I have clung to those words in some very dark hours.
I really believe that people experience and worship God in diverse ways. I love seeing someone in church leaping with joy during worship. You will likely find me quietly singing, clutching my heart or furiously writing something in my journal. We are all unique – beautifully designed by our Creator – and we find connection with God in different ways.
But sometimes our connection with God becomes obscured by a list of behaviors we feel we must adhere to in order to win favor with God. It doesn’t mean these things are bad but they become obstacles when we take pride in them or allow them to fill the space of pure connection with God.
For example, there have been times in my life where I felt like I could only be classified as a “good Christian” if I read my Bible every morning, attended small group every week and journaled extensive prayers to God. I would feel anxiety if I didn’t fulfill these duties. They are all wonderfully important ways for me to connect with God but they became the idol. I could take pride in how much I read my Bible but what did it matter to God if I was just rushing through the verses to get them done instead of bringing my attention to Him?
Another example is when I was struggling to fit in with the Christian culture in a community. There were very specific behaviors that determined whether someone was really saved or just a wayward child. I witnessed a lot of judgment and exclusivity in a place where I expected to find acceptance and encouragement. But that’s a story for another time.
Tyler just reminded me of a conversation we had with one of our friends at the mosque. We were discussing the differences in our types of worship. He had attended a church service and remarked how there was a band and singing, markedly different from the 5 daily prayer times that Muslims practice.
He said, “Don’t you ever find that you’re not praying to God, but just, singing a song?”
My prayer is that we don’t replace our relationship with God with an empty collection of behaviors, however structured or unstructured they may be. When God is the purpose and the initiator, the small group flourishes, the service work amplifies, and the hymns leap off the page. Through Jesus, we have been given the freedom to connect with God through faith, not held by the old laws that required very strict and specific behaviors about circumcision, food, etc.
This is not about throwing out all sense of morality or tradition. Paul says “For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13)
Go forth and serve!