April 18, 2021 – “Traditionalists: Loving God through Ritual and Symbol”

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First Reading = Genesis 12:7-8; 13:18

  7Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill  country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the  west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 18So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord.

Introduction

We are still in our series looking at the spiritual pathways – the nine different ways that people have been designed to walk toward God. You won’t resonate with all of them, but we’re trying to help you find your top two or three so you know how to walk toward God on your own spiritual journey. Once again, this is based on the book Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas – pick it up if you are a reader. It’s really good. And we have a full discussion guide for each of the nine pathways on the Spiritual Journey tab of our website.

Over the last two weeks we have talked about the enthusiast spiritual pathway – loving God with mystery and celebration and experience. And we’ve talked about the naturalist spiritual pathway – loving God in nature. This week we are looking at the traditionalist spiritual pathway – loving God through ritual and symbol.

At the beginning of COVID, I shared that I didn’t think we are in the same boat together. We’re in the same storm, but we’re in different boats because it affects us all differently. These different spiritual pathways have been affected very differently over the past year, too. Like the ascetic who thrives on alone time? They’re good! The naturalist? The sun and the moon and the mountains didn’t take a COVID break. The intellectual? They probably got extra alone time to study! All of that’s a little tongue in cheek, but you get the idea.

But the traditionalist? To the traditionalist, COVID has been like an atomic bomb obliterating everything that brings them closer to God. The religious rituals and symbols and shared practices that define the rhythms of faith for the traditionalist pathway have been dramatically affected by the last year, so I want to take a moment. I want to take a moment to pause and recognize the damage that has been done to the faith walk of the traditionalists in our church.

If you are a traditionalist who loves God through ritual and symbol and tradition, your path to God might look like a tornado tore through town. I want you to know that you are seen. You are heard. We feel for you. And let’s see if we can clear off some of that debris and get your pathway to God restored.

Our text today is from the book of Revelation. This is a scene of heaven. And for our purposes today, don’t try to understand what’s going on. Just listen for their acts of worship. Listen for their acts of devotion. Listen for their rituals. Got it? We’re not trying to understand the book of Revelation today. We’re just asking, what are the angels doing up in heaven?

Sermon Reading = Revelation 5:9-14

  9They sing a new song: “You are worthy to  take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by  your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and  people and nation; 10you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” 11Then I looked, and I heard the voice of  many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the  elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12singing with full voice, “Worthy is the  Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and  might and honor and glory and blessing!” 13Then I heard every creature in heaven  and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in  them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be  blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” 14And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.

Spiritual Touchstones

As you know, there are many different English translations of the Bible. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. If you’re looking for a Bible that’s easy to understand while also sticking pretty close to versions you’ve heard before, I recommend the New Living Translation.

If you’re stuck in a rut and need a creative interpretation to help you see God’s Word from new perspectives, I recommend The Message or The Voice. The Message really makes the Psalms and Proverbs come to life.

When I’m studying, I usually use the English Standard Version because it sticks really close to the underlying Greek and Hebrew texts, so it helps me spot the interesting linguistic challenges.

Our pew Bibles are the New Revised Standard Version, which is a pretty good all-around translation. New International Version is good all-around, too.

But let’s talk about Psalm 23, and let’s be real, now. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” That’s some powerful imagery, right? The King James makes that turn of poetry come alive!

Here’s how the New Revised Standard Version puts it: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me.” Man, after growing up on “valley of the shadow of death,” I can’t read “darkest valley” with a straight face! In fact, when I read Psalm 23 aloud, I use the New Revised version for everything else, but I say “valley of the shadow of death” instead of “darkest valley” while I’m reading it. Darkest valley just ain’t the same! It doesn’t move me!

We have heard “valley of the shadow of death” so many times, it’s like a ritual. It’s a religious mile marker. It’s like one of those stone altars we heard Abram made everywhere he went in our first text today. Those meaningful words are a ritual. And I mean those exact meaningful words. Darkest valley doesn’t do it. Really dark place doesn’t do it. Even the Message’s version, “Even when the way goes through Death Valley” – that still doesn’t do it! Give me “valley of the shadow of death” every time and twice on Tuesdays! Those exact words are the meaningful phrase. Those exact words move me toward God.

That’s an example of the traditionalist spiritual pathway. When something meaningful is repeated over and over again, and instead of becoming boring it becomes a spiritual touchstone that draws you into the presence of God. For the traditionalist, a ritual is like the smell of your mother’s kitchen growing up – that smell isn’t just about the moment, because it brings back a flood of memories. And that meaningful connection, that spiritual response, is what distinguishes spiritual ritual from empty ritual.

In our text from Revelation – you didn’t try to understand it, did you? I warned you about that! In our text from Revelation, the heavenly beings were enjoying some rituals. They sang with “full voice” that Jesus was worthy. They fell down and worshiped God. They gathered in worship with “myriad and myriad thousands and thousands.” They shouted “Amen!” together! These are some similar patterns to our earthly worship, but from this description in Revelation, I’m guessing it’s qualitatively different in heaven.

So what are some of those spiritual touchstones for you? Are there any songs or hymns that bring up loads of spiritual memories? Amazing Grace? Joy to the World? Handel’s Messiah?

For me, Be Thou My Vision has always been one of the most important hymns. I am constantly seeking the vision and wisdom and direction of God. My mom bursts into tears every time a church plays “Hear I Am Lord.” These are spiritual touchstones.

Are there any Scriptures that have been spiritual touchstones for you? Any verses from the Bible that still bring up memories and experiences and emotions?

I have many important Scriptures, but this one stands out as one that touches off memories from my spiritual journey. Romans 8:38-39 – “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

That’s a spiritual touchstone for me. Hearing it is as comforting as a meaningful ritual to me. Are there any Bible verses that are as comforting and familiar to you as the smell of your mother’s kitchen growing up? Those special Scriptures are spiritual touchstones.

Are there any symbols or works of art that have been spiritual touchstones for you? For some it’s the crucifix – Jesus suffering on the cross. For some it’s prayer beads. For some it’s a ring or a bracelet. For some it’s a great work of art. Symbols and art can be spiritual touchstones.

What are some songs or Scriptures or symbols or works of art that have been spiritual touchstones throughout your life?

Pitfalls

Now, as with every spiritual pathway, there are some common pitfalls. I want to highlight two.

The first common pitfall for those who walk toward God through ritual, symbol, and tradition is to just go through the motions. The difference between a meaningful ritual and an empty ritual is the meaning you bring to it.

The words aren’t magical. The songs aren’t magical. The symbols aren’t magical. It’s the intersection of your memories or your thoughts or your experiences or your emotions with the words or songs or symbols that creates a meaningful traditionalist experience.

So if the same old habits and Scriptures and songs and practices aren’t moving you anymore, I would recommend one of two things. Either rekindle the original meaning that so moved you, or try to develop some new rituals. In our text today from Revelation, they also sang one new song! So if you’re falling into the pitfall of just going through the motions, either rekindle the original meaning or try something new.

For the second pitfall, let me tell you about streamers. You know, those flow-y, wavy, wispy things. Streamers. Let me tell you about streamers.

One of the churches I attended in my 20’s had a hint of Pentecostal experience in its worship. And one group of congregants up front worshiped God with their streamers. They would move and dance and sway with their arms in the air, streamers tracing patterns all around them.

You could not pay me to do that! OK, I probably can be bought on that, but the number has a lot of zeroes on it! And I guarantee you’ll have buyer’s remorse after watching me. Streamers do nothing for me. Actually, they kind of distract me. If you give me the choice, I’m going “no streamers.”

But for these people, it was the primary way they expressed their worship of the Living God. They were moving and dancing and swaying to their soul’s fullest extent. The streamers were their spiritual touchstone. You couldn’t pay me to do it, but you couldn’t pay them to stop it.

Or maybe an example that hits a little closer to home. Do you know when the music we now call contemporary Christian music started to be featured in some churches? In the 1970’s. To put it another way, the first babies that were baptized in some of those early churches with contemporary Christian worship music are now pushing 50-years-old.

When those men and women think about the Christian music of their childhood, there isn’t an organ. There’s an electric guitar and a keyboard and a drum kit. There are people who hear Michael W Smith’s “Our God is an Awesome God” with the same childhood reverence that others ascribe to “Hear I Am Lord.”

That’s not the music that speaks to the people of this church, but that’s what speaks to people in other churches. I tell you these two examples to highlight that we do not all connect with the same rituals or traditions or music or symbols. So the pitfall, the temptation, is to see your own rituals and symbols and traditions as somehow intrinsically superior to someone else’s.

And of course the irony is that there’s someone on the other side of that divide thinking they’re superior to you! Just remember that when Jesus’ disciples were debating about who was the greatest, Jesus shut them down and said that the one who has child-like faith and the one who serves are the greatest. Not the smartest. Not the best singer. Not the best organ player. Not the best streamer dancer. Not the best-dressed or the most “real.”

If you have traditions and rituals and symbols that draw you closer to Jesus, fabulous! But not everyone is going to connect that way. As a church, we try to find some kind of sweet spot that gives as many of our congregation the opportunity to connect with Jesus on Sunday together, but our sweet spot is not intrinsically better than some other church’s sweet spot.

So two of the most common pitfalls of the traditionalist spiritual pathway are going through the motions or thinking your traditions are intrinsically superior or somehow more Godly than someone else’s traditions.

Spiritual Practices

So to recap, the traditionalist spiritual pathway walks toward and loves God through ritual, symbol, and traditions. At its best, the traditionalist spiritual pathway finds deep meaning in the familiar acts of our faith. At its worst, the traditionalist spiritual pathway goes through the motions or judges other people’s traditions as intrinsically inferior or somehow less Godly than their own.

So that’s the overview, but how can those who walk the traditionalist spiritual pathway intentionally deepen and strengthen their walk toward God? Again, we have several spiritual practices listed on the back of your bulletin. Each week we’re putting practices that go along with that week’s spiritual pathway. So you can take a look at that, but we’re going to focus on a couple of them.

The basic idea for all of the spiritual practices for traditionalists is to mine for meaning within the classics of our faith. Find things within our faith that you believe are worth repeating, and dive into them so you can find the absolute best personal connection and meaning from them.

Our classic rituals and symbols and traditions are like a giant mountain of potential. Your spiritual practice is to mine them for the spiritual gold that is within them. Find the meaning. Deepen your personal connection to the meaning of the tradition.

So here are a few tangible ideas.

If you connect deeply with our worship service, take the bulletin home. Look through it. Pray through it. Reflect on the parts of worship that were most meaningful to you. We’re posting video of the whole service now, so you can go back and re-watch any part you want. I recommend re-watching the sermon six or seven times…just to pick something at random.

Or, did you know that the bulletin is actually posted by the end of the day on Friday? You can meditate ahead of time on the worship service and come spiritually prepared.

Meditating or reviewing the worship service is a way to mine for meaning and walk toward God within the traditionalist spiritual pathway.

Another way to walk toward God with the traditionalist spiritual pathway is to write down those songs or classic prayers or Scripture verses that have been extremely meaningful to you over the course of your life. I encourage you to actually write or type it down instead of just keeping it in your head. The act of getting the words out of your head usually triggers thoughts and memories and ideas that would otherwise stay locked away.

So write down some meaningful songs, prayers, or Scripture verses. And then spend some time meditating and exploring the meaning behind them. If it’s a song, maybe search for the history of how that song was written. If it’s a classic prayer, maybe think about which words or phrases are particularly meaningful to you and why that is. If it’s some Bible verses, maybe go through the verses really, really slowly to mine for meaning. On the back of your bulletin we have a link to a method of doing this called lectio divina.

Spending extra time with meaningful songs, prayers or Bible verses is another way to mine for meaning and walk toward God within the traditionalist spiritual pathway.

Summary

Sisters and brothers, the traditionalist spiritual pathway loves and walks toward God through ritual, symbol, and traditions. At its best, the traditionalist spiritual pathway finds deep meaning in the familiar acts of our faith.

You can deepen your spiritual walk by reflecting on the worship service beyond the sermon. You can deepen your spiritual walk by writing down the songs, prayers, and Bible verses that have been meaningful to you and then spending extra time with them. And there are a few more ideas on the back of your bulletin.

Some of the traditions and rituals we know and love are being sung by the angels in the book of Revelation. I guess that means they must have some pretty deep meaning to be practiced in eternity. We can find that kind of deep meaning here on earth, too. Amen.