“Give Me That Old Time Religion…” 

“Religion”, in and of itself is not a bad thing. Remember: the word itself can mean “re-connecting” (re-ligature), and don’t we all need some sense of that?

Reconnection with our heart, soul, mind, bodies?

Reconnection with a power that is greater than ourselves? Reconnection with each other?

I don’t know about you, but I know I sure do.

I stumbled across this video this week, and it’s a powerful reminder of what “religion”, in the form of ritual can do.

A teacher at a school for boys in New Zealand passed away tragically and unexpectedly. As a hearse bore his body to the school for tribute, hundreds of current and former students gathered and performed a traditional haka—a traditional Maori dance—to honor his influence on their lives. To be blunt, I found this video profoundly moving. I sat with tears in my eyes, wondering at the power of this gathering.

Watch it. Watch it all. 

Here’s what I noticed.

  • It is simultaneously aggressive and tender. The haka is associated with war and warriors (the New Zealand “All Blacks” rugby team use it to challenge their opponents). It is meant to intimidate an enemy or opponent, and many of the young men are making aggressive, angry faces. Yet, at the same time, some are obviously sad and weeping. Religion and ritual seems to have a way of “baptizing” our pain and even our aggression. It names something—our teacher has died—but it doesn’t leave us in our pain. It channels it.
  • It is simultaneously ancient and now. The tradition of the haka is pretty old, but it has been sustained in Maori and New Zealand culture. It strikes me that this video is not 20, 30 or 50 years old. By all accounts, these young men should be staring at cell phones and cutting up. But they have given themselves to this “old time” practice and the results are sobering and arresting. Silence. Attention. Gravity and gravitas.
  • It is simultaneously individual and communal. The moves are coordinated and synchronized, but you can see variation in expression. Each young man is processing the pain in his own way while at the same time he’s a part of a larger collective.
  • It is simultaneously tribal and multi-cultural. The haka is decidedly Maori, but the students transcend ethnicity. Though there are some controversies with how the haka has been used, the ritual is not limited to just Maori people. When it’s good, religion and ritual can transcend our tribal, ethnic and cultural captivity and help us express joy and pain in a collective way, as human beings.

Sometimes, I fear that in our quest to be relevant and conversational our North American churches have discarded way to much of our traditions and rituals, and in doing so, we may have cast aside our most powerful tools for “re-connecting” people with their souls and with each other. Many Christian “faith tribes” have whittled down the number of rituals and traditions to two (Baptism and Communion), when there are so many to still choose from. Corporate worship helps, but even that is occasionally being cast aside as “performance art” rather than collective ritual.

Practiced rightly, Christian “ritual” like communion can do all of the things listed above: it can gather us up in a collective but individual experience, simultaneously acknowledge pain, joy and hope, and transcend our ethic and cultural differences. It is certainly ancient and current (and even future, as it proclaims Jesus’ return).

And communion isn’t the only place this happens.

So a thought for you is this: how much ritual is in your life? In particular, how much religion and ritual do you participate in, and do you look at it as a way to give your life (especially your joy and pain) meaning?

Many of us discard ritual and religion, and treat them as disdainful things; things that we did “in that boring Church.” Many of us instead have embraced a conversational, casual faith that is pregnant with emotional engagement and spiritual mountaintops.

My response is, how is that working for you? 

If the main point of spirituality is change and transformation (and I believe it is), is your casual, conversational faith changing you into the likeness of Jesus Christ?

Are your mountaintop experiences accompanying you though the valley of the shadow?

Sometimes I think for a realistic, day-to-day faith and spirituality, we need the old stuff.

The vintage gear.

Not so that we can retreat back into 1950 or 1850 or 1500 or 150CE, but so we can move through today with faith and transcendence.

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