Practice Makes Perfect: Ritual, Routine, and Rites

Posted: March 13, 2015 in Spiritual Formation, Theology and Faith
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There seems to be a great amount of distrust in the Evangelical church of anything that resembles ritual.  I’ve grown up in that tradition and for many years had the same assumption.  Repeated exercises robbed the exercise of its power.  In psychology, that is known as the Law of Diminishing Returns.  As the novelty wears off, the activity seems to produce less response in our brains.  This is usually understood when it comes to things like addictions, in particular.  But, it can be applied to other areas as well.

Our aversion to ritual is not only found in this notion of diminishing returns.  We have a history connected with the Protestant Reformation that saw the abuses of a Church that had become so enamored with rituals that it seemed to walk away from its Christological center.  Thus, we conclude, rituals are to be avoided because they might somehow compromise what is most important.

Here, it might be helpful to move to a different realm of life to explore this idea.  Every year my wife and I celebrate each other’s birthdays.  We celebrate holidays (i.e., holy days) with family and friends.  We tell each other “I love you” every day – sometimes even when we don’t “feel” it.  We both show each other love by doing things the other loves, sharing time with each other, and talking about things we’ve talked about together a million times before.  If ritual and routine were seen as something less than genuine, we might conclude that we don’t have a relationship at all.  But, then again, that would be silly.  Our love is demonstrated to one another through the traditions and routines we have constructed together and some that we have inherited together.  Love is played out in the routine, normal, everyday occurrences that make up our lives.  It is the mundane moments of our routines together that continue to shape our love for one another.  If either one of us were to stop these routines in our relationship, it would communicate something less than care for the other.  It might even be received as rejection.

Now, there can come a moment when those “rituals” that construct our lives as a married couple cease to be heartfelt or genuine.  They can become opportunities to go through the motions.  But, that does not mean, again, that we should conclude that the rituals are bad.  I will continue to tell Becca I love her because there is value in that routine.  As such, the routine may not need to be discontinued.  Rather, it may need to be re-engaged with intentionality on our part.  The attitude with which we act upon those routines can make a significant difference.  And, in addition, I will find that those routines help continue to shape my love in tangible ways – even if, as I mentioned before, my heart is “not in it” at the moment.

When it comes to the traditions, rituals, routines, and sacraments of the Church, it’s important to remember that not every ritual is worth reviving.  However, many of the traditions that we have in the Church have been passed down to us because they have demonstrated their capacity, through the work of the Spirit, to shape our lives in helpful, healthy ways.  They have been valued been many generations of faithful because they have experienced these disciplines as great means by which God works in the lives of the faithful.

It is unusual that in a tradition that has sometimes warned against traditions and rituals that they are the most vehement about maintaining regular practices of church attendance, Bible reading, and prayer.  Whether they do that or not remains to be seen.  They recognize the value of rituals and routines, although they would debate as to which are important and necessary.  But, I think it’s a good start to recognize that EVERY church has routines and rituals – some good, some bad, some ugly.  The question is to then discern which traditions, rituals, and routines are true “means of grace.”

We also should address the Law of Diminishing Returns for things like the sacrament of communion.  Many fuss over the loss of meaning if one should take communion too often.  If the sacraments are something that we do, then I would agree that is correct.  Our experience would diminish given enough repetition.  However, if the sacraments are something that God gives and imbues with God’s grace and something that we receive, then the argument doesn’t hold much water for the very simple reason that we cannot exhaust God’s grace!  This is the very basis of the sacraments and the means of grace.  They are God’s gift to the Church as ways of growing in grace.

John Wesley often encouraged his parishioners and ministers to take communion as often as possible.  Sometimes he took it multiple times a day because he understood it to be a means of grace and not something that we accomplish.  Wesley recognized that it was a practice that shaped us in profound ways, even if one could not “feel” or “sense” a difference in that moment.  Yet, even in the mundane moments of communion, Wesley believed God was at work.

Practice makes perfect, not because we are achieving something, because we are cooperating with the grace that God is giving us.  Practice makes perfect for the very reason that we are equipped by the Spirit to be what God calls us to be (this is the Aristotelian over the Platonist view of perfection), not because we are without flaw.  Further, practice makes perfect because we are being trained to love God and neighbor with a greater depth than we could before.

I once heard a story, although I cannot recall where I read it, about a man that came to fully appreciate the practices of the Church.  Every Sunday that church he attended would receive communion.  It is the sacrament that constantly reminds us of the forgiveness which we have received and also of the ways that we participate in the very life of Christ as His Body.  This man’s son began to act out and in ways that were damaging and detrimental to his life.  It went on for some time and there was nothing the man could do but watch the destructive path his son had decided to take.  However, there came a moment where the son came and asked forgiveness from his father for all the things he had done to him.  The father recalled all the times he had taken communion and how he had received God’s grace and forgiveness at the Table.  Those times of practice and routine now shaped his loving, forgiving response of reconciliation with his son.  Practice made perfect.

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