Rituals of Grace

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I began to tie my own necktie when I was a teenager. 

From the start, it seemed maddeningly difficult.  Unnatural.  I felt clumsy.  Do I really have to learn how to do this? 

Over time, however – and lots of practice – things changed.  Tie-tying became something I could do without even thinking.  In fact, if I had to explain to somebody over the phone today how to tie a tie, I don’t think I could do it.

My fingers know exactly what to do.  It’s muscle memory.  They “just know” that you lift the right side of the tie at a certain point, then tuck the left side around it at another point, and you just keep tucking and weaving and lifting until voila, you’ve tied the perfect knot. 

Recently, as I tied my necktie, I was struck by the fact that my body seems to know something that my mind has apparently forgotten. 

That’s the power of rituals.

“Ritual” is a word that irreligious people tend to associate with lifeless faith – empty traditions that believers practice because they were told years ago, “This is important” – even if they can’t remember why.  The real story, of course, is that rituals aren’t just for people of faith.  They are part and parcel of every human life. 

In his book Hustling God, author and theologian Craig Barnes defines a ritual as “a way of rehearsing our identity.”  They help us remember who we are.

Do you want to stand out as a success in our secular culture?  You know the rituals.  Work harder than the competition.  Stay late at the office.  If someone tries to push you around, push back.  Blame your failures on others.  Excel at impression management.  Keep reminding yourself that you’re on your own.  Strong people survive. 

Those are the rituals of our society.  Few of us pause to ask why they ever became cherished practices and attitudes in the first place.  This is just the way life works.

Barnes writes, “Few parents sit their children down and tell them that they should waste their life figuring out how to collect more money, power, or achievements.  No, the kids just watch the parents do this.”  That’s the power of rituals. 

Meanwhile, the practices of the Jesus-following life – the rituals of grace – are fundamentally different. 

They begin at dawn.  Every morning we awaken to a world we did not create and do not deserve.  We choose to express gratitude:  Thank-you, Lord.  Barnes observes, “The thing that distinguishes us in this life is not that some of us are in shambles while others are doing okay.  No, the thing that distinguishes us is that some of us are thankful while others are not.” 

Before we hear the myriad voices that beckon us to work harder, look great, and strive to be the center of attention, we pause to remember that we don’t have to strive to be blessed.  God has already blessed us.  The story of our lives began before we were born.  Since we are blessed people, our call is to bless others. 

Why do followers of Jesus regularly set aside times to pray, read the Bible, serve others, and sit quietly doing nothing at all?

These are the rituals that remind us that we are not on our own.  We are always in God’s presence.  Likewise we’re reminded that it’s not true that “strong people survive.”  None of us is strong.  But we serve a strong Savior who is more than equal to anything we will face today.

The gentle rituals of grace allow us, as we grow older in Christ, to develop “muscle memory” in things that matter. 

We gradually learn how to live.

When we see someone in pain, we respond with compassion – for the simple reason that we’ve slowly allowed God’s compassion to flow into our hearts.  When our feelings are hurt, we respond with God’s kindness.  When confronted with evil, we stand with the God who hates injustice.   

It’s like tying a necktie. 

At first it’s painful and slow.  With practice, it feels more natural.  Finally it becomes second nature. 

May God grant us the grace to learn how to love, forgive, and serve.

And, over time, to do such things naturally – straight from a changed heart.