by Matt Bays
This is God’s season…Lent…Easter. It’s the time of year when some of us religious folk smear ashes on our foreheads on Wednesday, get regular about eating fish on Friday, give up smoking, coffee, or TV for six weeks, and partake of the wine and bread that represents the one who threw himself on an executioner’s cross so we could intimately commune with the God of the universe.
Trouble is, the season of Lent seldom manages to connect me intimately with God.
Modern religious culture has taught us to base the depth of our connection to God on “blessings.” It often suggests that those who have an abundance of stuff (money, cars, summer home) or ease in life (healthy kids, stress free lives) are most likely connected to this power source in the sky at a deeper level than the rest of us.
The problem with this philosophy is, if “blessings” are direct proof of our proximity to the Almighty, then intimacy with God is no longer based on his reach for us, but on our ability to procure the kind of blessings we’ve been told indicate the esteem of God.
Folks, this is a serious problem. We have power over our lives, most certainly. But it will never be our power that will connect us to the source of life, although this is how many of us experience God – rating our personal God-bond by what we’ve accomplished or gained.
That said, the ritual of Lent could actually get in the way of the intimacy we long for with God.
Religious culture (pastors, bible teachers, books, study groups) frequently implies that RITUAL will get us there. Follow these rules, observe God in this way, give something up (AND THEN) prepare to receive a blessing.
It is a theology of I. Must Try. Harder.
Until about a week ago I had forgotten the season of Lent altogether. And here’s the kicker – I’m a pastor. Admittedly, I’ve never been a ritual kind of guy. I have the occasional obsession with order. Who doesn’t? (Lotion THEN deodorant… ChapStick in right front pant pocket.) But when spirituality is manifested out of empty ritual it becomes meaningless to God.
Recently, Heather and I had dinner with good friends. They told us what each member of their family had given up for Lent, (which is when I realized I had spaced it). For a brief moment I felt bad for not making some kind of sacrifice. Thankfully the funk lifted as soon as the shrimp cocktail arrived (on their dime).
I don’t think rituals are the problem of religion. I think empty rituals are.
The definition of ritual is “a religious or solemn ceremony.”
Solemn Ceremony. I don’t mind the sound of that. Solemn sounds quiet, peaceful, reflective.
The word “solemn” has three different definitions.
- Formal and dignified. This one doesn’t work for me. Brings to mind the image of an older gentlemen smoking a pipe and peering through a monocle. Definitely has that “empty ritual” feel to it.
- Not cheerful or smiling; serious. The word “grave” was also used in this definition, which can never be good. Because dead people are buried in graves, remember? And that’s kinda sad, right? Cuz, ya know…dead people.
- Characterized by deep sincerity. Regarding any sort of meaningful spirituality, this definition makes more sense.
God never wanted us to get bogged down in the responsibility of religion. And if this is what the season of Lent has become for you, a responsibility, either take a pass or find a new way to observe it. Otherwise you’ll end up gauging God’s love off your capacity to eat fish on Friday or to make it six weeks without The Walking Dead.
Wow. Insane, isn’t it? God in a neat little box is not such a pretty thing. Makes a tyrant out of him. And God is not a tyrant.
God is the Something Greater we feel when we look at our baby’s toes. He is the hope we have that our lives can be more beautiful than they are at this moment. And yet if we never change a thing about ourselves, his love will not waver.I realize I have a poet’s heart, but I bet you can feel it too. Something greater than empty ritual. Something more than just neurons transmitting impulses within your brain. Something in your spirit that calls to you from deep space, from ages ago, yet could whisper your name in a hurricane and you’d hear nothing else.
That voice brought comfort to me when I shed tears over my sister’s cancer diagnosis. It kissed me intimately when the most caustic lie I ever believed (that I wasn’t a real man) withered in the presence of Heather’s words, “You are a man among men.”
This is the voice that has always known me. It has become a friend to me.
I understand your higher power may not be the God I speak of. And I respect that mine may seem like folklore to you. But I believe in Yeshua. Jesus. The Son of God, Yahweh. So I am speaking to those who either follow Jesus or are curious of him.
I want you to know that his salvation by way of crucifixion is everything to me. That he who was resurrected on the third day is the nearness I feel in my heart.
He’s the one who transports you to that beautiful someplace each time you find yourself moved, inspired or loved. Yet he is also the immeasurable agony you feel over the loss of your child – he is the pain that will be a lifelong reminder of the magnificent love you still have for your child, a reminder you probably wouldn’t trade for anything.
He sees you in your cubicle at this very moment, and smiles with every email you read, every phone call you make, every time you push the photocopy button. He is so proud of you.
He is the one riding next to you in the car – sitting in the passenger seat, not because he has nowhere to be, but because there is nowhere he would rather be.
He is the one who whispers your name in the hurricane, sending it out as a song – a melody of grace notes that in time will balance every dissonant chord of your life.
He’s the one who, at this very moment, wherever you may be, has hung an invisible banner over your head that reads…
“I have called you by name; you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)
Pause for one sweet moment. Haven’t you already tried hard enough?
So take a deep breath, close your eyes and take in this kind of love…the kind of love that is anything but ritualistic – the kind of love that has been exposing the insignificance of ritual for over 2,000 years.
If Love is an infinite path that leads to God, ritual is but one blade of grass along the way.
The love of God is no ritual. No…not at all.
Matt Bays is the Worship Pastor for Northview Church in Carmel, Indiana, a rapidly growing mega-church with over 7,000 attending each weekend and has been in full-time ministry for over twenty years. Designed for widespread publication, Matt’s first book, Almost Redeemed, is due for release in the Spring of 2016, and will be published through David C Cook out of Colorado Springs, CO.