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The Disappearance of Rituals

Updated: Sep 21, 2023

Last year, I went RV camping with some friends in the Olympics (we’re all in our 40s, well past the age where we felt we had to be in a tent away from running water to be truly “camping”). During our trip, the Mariners were in the midst of a 14-game winning streak, the mark of a resurgence for a long-frustrated franchise. Since we are all M’s fans, we decided to hike and fish in the mornings, and then head to a local tavern to watch the ballgames in the afternoons.

Since the tavern had Irish Death (my favorite beer) on tap, it didn’t take long for me to decide what drink I wanted. My friends followed suit. Then, I noticed they had Screwball peanut butter whiskey as well, and so I asked my friends if they had ever had an Irish Death with a shot of Screwball in it. (It’s amazing.) They hadn’t, so we all ordered a shot and sat there together watching Julio and the boys continue their epic win streak.

It was glorious.

I’ve known these guys for 17 years. We’ve raised our kids together. We’ve experienced loss together. We’ve experienced rebirth together. I don’t hang out with them all the time, but at least once per year, for at least two days, we leave the responsibilities of middle-aged work and parenting and head to the woods to recharge. Each time we do, I am reminded that I am rooted. I belong. I am a key character in the story of a place.

This year, as we were working out the details of what to pack for our annual trip, someone said “Last year Matt introduced us to Irish Death, and so I am bringing some this year.”

I love that. In that suggestion, there was the recognition that our time watching the Mariners together last summer was a grounding moment. It was a reminder to us all that we belong. In a way, the repeated drinking of Irish Death would be a ritual to recapture the magic.

In The Disappearance of Rituals, Byung-Chul Han laments the modern west’s loss of such rituals. We are no longer able to slow down and enjoy moments, having instead become preoccupied with production. But rituals are the acts that tie communities together (think of the effect it has on you to hear your college’s fight song). Our loss of rituals has cost us a feeling of belonging.

This book gave me a lot to consider. Each week, I administer a ritual--we take the bread and the cup in remembrance of the body and blood of Christ. From a sociological (not theological) perspective, the signifier (bread and cup) is more important than the signified (body and blood). The act of taking the bread and sharing the cup unites the congregation and gives us a sense of belonging. Outsiders who do not understand the ritual see it and feel estranged; insiders are grounded through enacting the ritual.

I have a heart for people who have moved around a lot and who feel displaced or estranged. Everyone needs to feel like they have a home, like they are an important character in the story of a place. They need to feel that if they were gone that they would be missed.

I agree with Han that rituals can give us this sense of rootedness. Rituals get a bad rap in evangelicalism. They are often called “empty.” But perhaps one of the reasons they feel empty is because we often observe them as outsiders. As insiders, rituals can be beautiful. I cannot hear they hymn “All Hail the Power of Jesus’s Name” without getting teary-eyed. It was my seminary’s song, and every time I hear it, I am transported back to Dallas Theological Seminary's chapel with a lifetime of serving God ahead of me. A part of me will always be rooted at DTS and I am reminded of this through ritual.

In the same way, I wonder how we can use ritual to remind people that they belong, that their church needs them, and that they would be missed if they were gone. I would love it if when our kids came home from college, the rituals of our church gave them a sense that they were home.

What rituals make you feel rooted to a friend group, community, or church?

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