By Pastor Paula Burchill
This weekend I presided at the funeral of a young army veteran with full military honors. The church was packed as Taps was played and the flag was presented to her son. Many were weeping as the somber troops carried her casket with their precise march, finding great comfort in the Rituals of the military.
Yesterday I delivered communion to two of our members who live in a memory care facility. Both of them are in the late stages of dementia, but still, they hold out their hands to receive the body of blood of Jesus and they join in on a few words of the Lord’s Prayer. We are not really able to have a conversation anymore. But we are able to share the familiar words and elements of the sacrament of the church—a Ritual in which they can still participate, still receive God’s grace and peace.
I also had a conversation with a parent about her daughter attending a camp with one of the large churches in our area. Her daughter was baptized as an infant, but now she is hearing that her baptism didn’t really count because she didn’t have any say in it. She wants to be baptized again, and her mom is very concerned. She is wondering if her daughter might instead be open to affirming her baptism at their church, but her daughter seems to long for an outward sign [being dunked in a tank] of her newfound inner commitment. She wants a Ritual—well, she wants a ritual that is a bit more “showy.”
Rituals, and also Sacraments, can have a bad name. I think it is because it is so easy to go through the motions without much thought. But they also have such power in our lives for just that very reason. When a family loses a loved one—the church has rituals in place to carry them through. They don’t have to decide everything about the service—there is a set service that they can just be a part of, or they can let others surround and carry them through by participating for them, when all they can do is maybe show up.
And I have to tell you, it is beautiful to share the Sacrament with someone who has lived a lifetime in the church, and to know that there is something to offer them that goes beyond words—especially when they can’t understand words.
We seem to crave, as humans, ways to mark significant times in our lives. Candles are lit when someone dies. Offerings are made at the site of a death, or we gather to stand vigil.
Now it is certainly true that just going through the motions in worship can be a problem–same with being baptized as an infant and then never going to church. God, speaking through the prophets, regularly reminds us that he doesn’t want our solemn sacrifices if we are just going through the motions, or ignoring the poor.
A liturgical service is biblical and traditional and ancient and it comes out of the practice of humans gathering to worship God and finding that repeating certain things, week in and week out, is enriching for their faith. Learning why we do what we do and say what we say is so enriching and important. Pastor Bill does a great teaching in his Basics Class [which is on our website] about worship and what it means. I also find it helpful to focus on a particular part of worship now and then. One part that hits me often is the Alleluia verse, which we sing before the gospel is read. We sing the words Peter said to Jesus, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life! Alleluia! I just love that sense of there being nowhere else to turn. And then realizing that Jesus is exactly who we need—that he gives the life we all long for, even when we don’t realize it. No wonder Christians throughout the world say those words before they hear the Word.
I have seen lots of evidence of how important Rituals are in our lives this week. And I am thankful for the reminder that being in a liturgical church has a richness that is really important. We may not be the huge church in the county, but we have an important voice.
And that is that God uses ordinary elements—bread and wine, water—and adds his command, and then through those means, God showers us with his grace. They are outward symbols of our faith. And something to be celebrated, cherished, and shared with the world.
I hope that my friend’s daughter will know that she was baptized as a baby to show that being saved is all GOD’s work, and we have nothing to do with it. Even though I do rejoice that she is so fired up about her faith, and I understand her longing for a very big and public way to show that. Because Rituals and Sacraments speak to us in our most vulnerable times in ways mere words cannot. That is why God gave them to us. And I pray that we would cling to their power in our lives.
BTW – this is a good pamphlet on Baptism from our website: Infant Baptism, is it Biblical?