Bishop John Shelby Spong
June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021

Bishop Spong provided a much needed place for those of us who did not connect with traditional theology.
We love you Bishop Spong. You will be missed!

Ritual – It’s in our DNA

Apparently the Neanderthals lived as a human species somewhere between 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. Some scholars have recently concluded that many of us may have some genetic connection to these truly ancient people. As a result there has been more interest in trying to understand the culture and traditions of these ancestors. It appears they may have had burial practices. Anthropologist have also discovered what is believed to be the caves of these prehistoric people. The artwork suggests they did have some specific rituals they practiced. Some scholars have concluded they were far more sophisticated as a society than we may have previously believed. For one thing it appears they practiced repetitive sacred rituals and ceremonies. I think we can conclude from this the need for sacred rituals just seems to be part of our DNA. I have come to believe that we humans cannot be fully satisfied or feel complete without some kind of tribal or spiritual ritual in our lives.

Donna Henes, author of Celestially Auspicious Occasions: Seasons, Cycles, & Celebrations, addressed this point in a Huffington Post article last year. She writes:

“The need for ritual is a basic human instinct, as real, as urgent and as raw as our need for food, shelter and love. And it is every bit as crucial to our survival. A compelling urge to merge with the infinite, ritual reminds us of a larger, archetypal reality and invokes in us a visceral understanding of such universal paradigms as unity, continuity, connectivity, reverence and awe….ceremony—solitary or shared—offers us a way to relate intimately with the primordial universal force and allows us to embrace that sacred power that informs and fuels all existence. Ritual is our lifeline to the divine.”

For those of us who are still trying to hold onto the rituals of our faith, the challenge is trying to make them relevant and meaningful. They have to be more than a fond memory of something from our past if they are going to include those who have no such memory. This is particularly true for our younger generations. Rituals that are meaningful for everyone, should foster an experience of Oneness or connectedness that other actions cannot do.

Over the years, I have been a speaker at conferences hosted by very progressive churches. I was frequently asked to do the sermon after the two-day conference. The conference may have had several excellent scholars who systematically deconstructed the old Jesus story, usually to the delight of the audience. However during the Sunday service the next day it always seemed strange to hear the repeated rituals, prayers, confessions, statements of faith by the same people who had enthusiastically attended the conference the day before. The words they were saying or singing, flew in the face of everything they had just heard 24-hours earlier. It used to baffle me.

Only recently I have come to realize that these were familiar and comfortable rituals, even if the words no longer had the same meaning for many of the attendees. These were rituals most of these folks in attendance had been repeating for decades. They were probably not paying attention to words or their meanings. But they were participating in something that brought them together with their church family or their denominational home. They were experiencing oneness, a connection of body and soul with the people who surrounded them. That is what rituals are supposed to do.

Unfortunately, a growing number of people today, particularly the young, cannot connect to the rituals in our faith communities. For these younger people these traditional rituals do not satisfy what I believe is a natural craving for the sense of unity or a communion of all humans. These young adults are not fed by the same rituals, or the music for that matter, enjoyed by those of us who have been part of a religious tradition for decades. Even though the hunger for ritual is natural and healthy, fewer and fewer of our churches seem to be able to fulfill that hunger for the younger generations. Unfortunately when churches try to make changes to the language of those old rituals they are often met with some pretty strong resistance from some of the more traditional members.

I admit I have no simple answers on how to make these transitions without disruption. Change is always challenging and it is often painful. With good reason, participants in faith communities like to hold onto what has always brought them comfort. We all like rituals that can lead us to an experience of the Holy or the Oneness of life. Familiarity helps.

I remember with great fondness the annual Christmas Eve service in the church I served for 20 plus years. The ritual of lighting the candles at the end of the service was always so special for me. Regardless of how tired I might have been, or what was going on in my life, that part of the service took me to a place I have seldom experienced before or since.

Before we started passing the lighted candles, however, I would ask everyone to let the Christ Candle on the altar table represent the divine presence Jesus wanted to awaken in us. As one person turned to light the candle of the person next to them, I suggested they look for the divinity in each other. We started with only a few lit candles in the large sanctuary. As each person lighted the candle next to them, the entire room would slowly move from darkness to light. The singing was always more beautiful and unifying because of the familiar carols we had joyfully been singing for decades. I am convinced something special happened in that room each year in body and soul.

On a fairly regular basis, someone would let me know they were uncomfortable with my explanation of the Christ Candle and especially the idea that any of us could be divine or “god.” Sometimes someone would heatedly let me know this was not the way their former pastor explained it. As one man put it, “this is not the real story of Christmas.” Some stayed and some left but it was never easy for me to watch people struggle with those issues.

But churches and faith communities are changing. Change can happen with education and some sensitivity. Those who are holding onto the past are fading away. New forms of faith communities are forming all over the globe. They are now and will continue to be looking for new and meaningful rituals. As I wrote earlier, this has been in our DNA for at least 300,000 years. We hunger for forms, for rituals, for music that lead us to an experience of the holy, the Oneness, or to what some might refer to as a moment of heaven. So how do we create these rituals?

We do it the same way we humans have always done it. We make them up based on where we are as a community and where we are as a society. Many of us have done that with our holidays outside of any religious participation or connection. Frankly we are already doing it to some degree with families and friends.

Many people have gone to the ProgressiveChristianity.org website to find hundreds of alternative rituals for just about every kind of gathering. I was in Italy a few years ago at an international conference for religious leaders. I was talking to a gentleman who was there representing a New Thought community. He was trying to put together an opening ritual for a spiritual group he was leading at the conference. I mentioned the liturgical library on the PC.org website. He said he might check it out. Later that evening he came running up to me and could barely contain himself. He apparently had found exactly what he was looking for and could not have been more appreciative. He could not wait to get home and download a whole lot of material he saw there. I assured him it would be there when he returned to the States.

My wife and I are part of an intentional community. We meet at least once a week now, usually with eight to ten friends. We started this group nearly eight years ago with two acquaintances who are now dear friends. We wanted to get together to deepen our individual spiritual practices as a community. Over time, without thinking about it, we developed several rituals. Not the least of these is sharing a simple meal together every week. One of our participants suggested starting our gatherings differently. Each week before we start our conversation and meditation we form a small circle, hold hands and just breathe until it feels like everyone is settled. There are no words. There is no timer, just a feeling that we are now all in the same place. I believe it is a special moment for all of us. I do not think anyone would want to give up.

Sometimes we create our rituals after we talk about them. Other times they just happen. We do our best to accommodate everyone and it usually works. I find it interesting that we can change our format, our subjects for discussion even the dates of meetings. But we always find a way to hold onto the few but important rituals we have developed since we have been together.

It is my hope that faith communities, especially those communities trying to hold onto the best of Christianity, will work together to create meaningful rituals based on where they are as a community and where we are as a universe. With time the participants may discover they now have rituals and a community impacting them in mind, body and soul. It is, after all, in our DNA.

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