Ritual vs Repetition… Advent 2019

Jennifer sent me today’s scripture last Sunday … the first day of December… on the advent of, well advent! Arguably the most spiritually significant month of the year — and smack in the middle of the most commercialized week.

Yes, the holiday season is again amongst us. Are you excited?

Regardless of what faith tradition you claim (or don’t claim,) the weeks between thanksgiving and Christmas (all 12 days of it) are rich in ritual — whether contemplative or celebratory, spiritual or secular, self or social, classical or contemporary… Ritual remains the common thread of each.

As the term advent alludes, this a month of anticipation and whether you are a Christian counting down till Christmas, Hanukkah for those of Hebrew heritage, Kwanzaa for our African American affinity, prepping for Pancha Ganapati if praising Ganesha, or atheist who support each as a chance to drink eggnog and get presents. 

Heck, even if none of those aforementioned faith traditions fit your fancy there is always festivus for the rest of us thanks to Jerry Seinfeld and gang!

Yes, regardless of your religious affiliation, this is a season rich in ritual, tradition… and celebration!  Earlier we read a ‘traditional’ passage about ‘celebration:’

Isaiah 49:13: Shout for joy, you heavens; rejoice, you earth; burst into song, you mountains! For the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.

I love that passage balances excited joy with comfort… it mimics the holiday’s mixture of newness and nostalgia:

Anyone partake in a thanksgiving tradition to kick the season off?

Remember ritual and tradition don’t have to be very traditional… in fact most ‘traditional’ traditions would seem pretty strange to an outsider…

For example, take Thanksgiving for example: Anyone ever wonder who first made a traditional side-dish by stuffing bread into the buttocks of a dead turkey?

Who has a strange family tradition for the holiday season?
Things kicked into gear at the grocery store on Wednesday and the supper scramble carried right into thanksgiving on Thursday..

Or some of Thursday I should say given the Black Friday frenzy to follow failed to give us a full evening to gratitude!
Many see this is a sad statement of a materialistic society, but we all know it is really a covert excuse to escape in-laws and awkward dinner table conversations with extended family.

Hopefully you thanked Walmart for that during checkout on Friday, because the latest Holiday tradition, shop local Saturday, kept us away from corporate chains for the weekend.

That of course ends tomorrow with the new tradition of cyber Monday monopolizing macbooks all over the world.
Finally, if we still have something in our savings accounts, we can balance a week’s worth of mealtime and mallshopping gluttony with Giving Tuesday.

Yes, the season of peaceful reflection, religious ritual and relationship is upon us. In theory more than practice sometimes.

Amazingly, in this week of daily department store deemed holidays; today — Sunday — has remained prefix free. Whether thats due to the separation of church and state, or spirituality and shopping, Sunday has gone unclaimed and remains our safe refuge— our sanctuary, both literally and figuratively.

But how do we find balance between safety and stagnicity?
As we dance into this season of Advent, are we called into the excitement of advent-ure or the ambiance of observance.

Seated here this Sunday morning we have those who came seeking spiritual transformation and those who came to find solace in a safe sanctuary.

That may be easy to discern based on which side of the sanctuary you felt called to sit this morning! Did the routine found in rows guide you to the right or did you careen left in curiosity of the curve?

Both approaches to this space are beautiful and appropriate… if authentic!
Thus the real question is whether we engage in ritual as a way to revive the spirit and recharge the soul or in passive observance?Ritual and repetition are similar in sound but very different in definition and result.

With that in mind, I thought we would take today as an opportunity to acknowledge two approaches to Sunday morning — in and beyond the Holiday season!

To do so I turn to Unitarian Universalist minister, Galen Guengerich, for our reading:

“Sometimes its’ right to move on and try something new, but we also need to learn the virtue of staying put and staying true. Of choosing again what we chose before. In my view that is one of the main reasons we come to church.

We are here to remind ourselves of values that unite us and the commitments that keep us heading in the right direction. We are here to choose again what we chose before.”


Back at the church I started in Louisville, WE MADE it our tradition to lock the front door after service started so that the congregation had to leave through the sides of the building.

It was a symbolic showing that Sunday was a time of spiritual progress…
A demonstration that we never left worship the same way we entered…

and throughout my time with that church I tried to make each Sunday new and exciting to keep the group on their toes.

However, as I have reflected over the decade since, I am starting to appreciate more and more the other side of Sunday morning – not always an experience of transformation, but as Rev Guengerich alludes,

a time of safe sanctuary and needed sameness where we are able to recharge through ritual so that we can dive back into a changing world with firm footing.

Before going any further, I want to address a common personal mis-perception that might help

Maybe it’s my lacking a shirt with a top button or the obnoxious ‘don’t worry be happy’ hairstyle, but for whatever reason, the world likes to see me as some free-spirited adventure seeking spirit.

Well… that or some homeless and disheveled drug-dealer. (If your up for a fun social experiment, grow some dreadlocks, get a tattoo or 10 and watch how the world responds!)

Perceptions and labels — Sometimes they are true.

For example, on many days — or parts of days — I fit the adventure-seeking role well.These are times of which I would sit on the curved side of the sanctuary…

and the whole homeless label isn’t too far flung either, after all I did live in my van all last year…

Sometimes perceptions are false:

For one, I’d be the only dreadlocked drug dealer I know that manages a sobriety home …and of more relevance today, my dually- diagnosed bipolarity and Obsessive

Compulsive Disorder are a bit antithetical to the classifications of free-spirit and adventure seeker…

I know what your thinking… what does that have to do with church Ryan? Actually, what your probably thinking is who invited a Mentally Ill man into the pulpit?

Though I try not to pay much attention to labels, upon better understanding my ‘mental illness,’ Rev Galen’s reflection on Sunday Sanctuaries bore particular significance.(Mental illness is but an unfortunate term society uses to define personality by the way)

As we step out of the seasonally popular Christian definition of advent as the coming of Christ (complete with its 4 weeks of candles, carols and wreaths,) and into a broader understanding of advent as a time of anticipation and excitement; my personal

compulsivity has been a consistent reminder of the importance of balance.

Much like our teeter-totter approach to the Advent season as ‘a time of excited anticipation or ritualistic observance’, or to Sunday morning in general as a time of safe sanctuary or spiritual transformation…

my life is a constant balancing act between structured routine or worry-free adventure.

But balance occurs when the ‘or’s’ become ‘ands!’

I did a little research upon being diagnosed with OCD and one thing that stood out was the difference in definition between a compulsion and ritual.

A compulsion is an empty routine… something I can, and often do, without thinking. Compulsions actually cause anxiety and strip meaning out of life’s engagements.

Think compulsive gambler, compulsive eater, compulsive ____fill in the blank_____

Rituals add significance to otherwise routine elements and reduce anxiety by engaging the mind, body, and spirit. I have certain rituals that I participate in daily in order to be flexible and open to transformation.

It is this difference between ritual and routine C.S. Lewis references in writing,
“The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility,” Rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.”

Blindly or Unceremoniously going through the motion of ceremonious rituals, steals their significance and squelches their excitement. Not just for you, but for others!

It is the inherent danger of ritual’s being reduced to repetition:

I didn’t have a religious upbringing; however, we would go through the seasonal rituals as Christmas tree Christians just the same.
One of my favorite being that of the chocolate advent calendar!

So confession time… one year I figured out how to open the calendar from the back and proceeded to steal all the chocolate out of my sister’s.

After dinner, my mom brought out each of our calendars and I watched my sister’s excitement in opening the little door dwindle to disappointment upon finding she had been deserted by her dessert.

In CS Lewis terms, my seeing a ceremonious activity unceremoniously spoiled the ‘proper pleasure’ of the ritual for my sister…

Maybe CS was on to something because to this day my sister remains a devout atheist!!!!

In order to embrace the fullness of a ritual it is important to understand and participate in its meaning…

It is easy to approach ceremony unceremoniously if we fail to understand its reasoning or resonate with the fullness of ritual.
Take communion for example… without embracing the spiritual significance, what should be a beautiful sacred sacrament is reduced to a minuscule snack… or the act of baptism, unceremoneous, it is just a strange public bath.

It means finding the sacred in the sacrament and as I alluded many a Sunday ago, there are two definitions to for the original Latin word, Sacar, or sacred. That of Holy and that of Taboo…

The difference lies not in the ritual, but how we chose to participate in the it…

“A ritual is the enactment of a myth,” writes Joseph Campbell.
“And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth. And since myth is a projection of the depth wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being re-minded of the wisdom of your own life. I think ritual is terribly important.”

The danger lies in one’s means of participation in the ritual. Campbell wasn’t talking about wandering in 5 minutes late and napping through a sermon on Sunday as ‘participating’ in the ritual of worship

nor reading another’s words out of a bulletin or off a screen as gaining wisdom. Thats taboo…

as its been said, you may become knowledgable through another’s knowing but never wise with another’s wisdom… or holy with another’s faith

No, the existentialist, Joseph Campbell, referenced our need to ‘participate’ in the ritual in order to grow from it.

What Campbell was getting at is that rituals are the remembrances of other’s ecstatic experiences of the past (and our own)…Whether its a singing a song, lighting a candle or the like— we are called to find the sacred, holy not taboo, in all we do — in and outside the sanctuary and season.

This may mean adding ritualistic elements to your mealtime in order to grow in gratitude…

it may mean helping a child learn about liberty so that they feel the Pledge of Allegiance instead of parrot it at school…
it may mean creating rituals around daily routines so to make mystical the mundane.

It means exploring the roots of the rituals others have created and passed down so that you may grow in wisdom through your participation in them.

And if we embrace the energy and ecstasy in each facet of our Sunday morning routines, we will truly be filled by the excitement of transformation regardless of whether we approach this time together in hope of spiritual progress or in need of comfort in consistency.

And we call it fellowship because so much of the wealth and wisdom at the heart of ritual likes in our embracing it as one diversity unified community… with ritual remaining our common unity.