As I left the large building in Portland and said goodbye to my friends I sauntered off to find my car on this warm Saturday afternoon in June. Being that I was near downtown Portland, people were coming and going. Some on bikes. Some walking their dogs. A few jogging, lost in the music flowing to their earphones.
I had just spent almost three hours in a wooden church pew and I can’t deny that walking felt good on my back. As I continued down the street and around the corner, I found myself contemplating those last three hours.
I had just experienced a most formal ceremony. More so than anything I’ve experienced before. And, among other things it made me consider the ways that formality and tradition have been pushed aside in much of our society.
Many schools no longer participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. While in some cases this is political, I expect that in many cases is it just considered an old routine and ritual that serves no purpose in modern society.
Graduations, once fairly serious and formal, were designed to bring solemnness to what many considered a transition to adult responsibilities. Pomp and Circumstance was always played. It was something that our band directors considered important and worth doing well. Now there is often little dignity or formality. Rather than celebrating the “class of” it seems to be much more structured towards the individual. Schools schedule fundraisers all year so that the graduates can have a great party afterward.
And weddings. Oh my. When was the last time you attended a formal wedding. They are rare. The trend seems to be the more informal the better. You no longer even need a minister or a judge to perform the ceremony. We are only a couple of steps away from filing your marriage papers at LegalZoom.com and dispensing with the whole bother of a ceremony.
The modern church, for decades has been evolving into informality. Come any way you wish, we are not judgmental. But this move to a casual atmosphere is not so much about avoiding clothing rules, or determining who gets treated differently based on wealth or reputation. The Bible speaks clearly against that. No, we are accepting informality by choice. For comfort. For convenience.
You might be thinking, “Come on. That was yesterday. Today is different. It’s good to lighten up.” I hear that. Anyone who knows me certainly knows I’m not opposed to a good time.
But in shifting this balance we, as individuals, family, community and society, are missing something. We are quickly losing the traditions, and with them the beliefs, that hold us together.
Tradition and ritual give you a foundation and a sense of who you are. But as that is lost, more and more individuals only have a sense of being lost, and all too often, alone. You can have hundreds of Facebook friends and be alone. You can sit on a crowded bus and be alone. You can sit in a packed out stadium and be alone.
Think about the few formalities we still practice as a society. Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Christmas, the playing of the Star Spangled Banner before a sporting event. They generally give us a good feeling because they bring us together. They draw on our common history.
That’s formality. Formality and yes, even ritual, brings us together in ways we otherwise would miss. I can’t even count the times I’ve been to a funeral and heard people say, “it’s too bad these are the only occasions that bring us back together.”
Back to that three hour ceremony. The official title was “Ordination to the Priesthood of Jesus Christ.” It was a Catholic ceremony of which I have, really, no experience. It was long, elaborate, symbolic and highly choreographed. Above all it was beautiful and one of the most spiritual experiences of my life. As the choir sang and the priests performed the various functions. I briefly closed my eyes and imagined I was in old testament Israel. Reliving those times when the nation of Israel would come together to worship and bring offerings to God. They would read from the scripture and recall their history remember the things that God had done for them as a nation.
“I will praise your name forever Lord
Generation after generation praises your works and proclaims your might.
They speak of the splendor or your glorious majesty and tell of your wondrous works.
I will praise your name forever Lord.”
It’s hard to fully explain. But as I listened to the choir and congregation sing the above words, I couldn’t help but think of the heavenly worship described in Isaiah and Revelation. Hours later I had to consider if the casual worship of many churches, some with paid musicians, hasn’t caused us to lose something.
Traditions and ritual are important. They help us pass on to the next generation the things that are important to us; the things we believe in.
In a recently released book, Lost in Transition — The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, Christian Smith identified five major problems facing emerging adults (age 18-23). The book is based on extensive research and interviews by both Smith and several collaborators. The five problems identified are:
- Confused moral reasoning
- Routine intoxication
- Materialistic life goals
- Regrettable sexual experiences
- Disengagement from civic and political life.
Smith attributes the pain and confusion many emerging adults experience, not to their poor decisions, but to the older adults who have created a society based on materialism, hyper-individualism and the ever growing acceptance of moral relativism. The 1960’s term, if it feels good do it, sums these philosophies up quite succinctly.
The 1960’s also gave us the phrase, “Just go with the flow.” As we trivialize things we used to formalize, it says something about what is, or isn’t, important to us. As we leave formality behind, we might very well be setting future generations adrift. In essence telling them that rudders are old school, just “go with the flow.” And what a tragedy that would be.
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