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God's Politics

According to anthropologist Paul Hiebert, there are two types of spiritual rituals we all need to maintain our spiritual focus and enable us to live at a healthy and balanced pace: restorative rituals and rituals of transformation.

Restorative rituals are those activities we perform on a regular basis to renew our faith in the beliefs that order our lives and to rebuild the religious community in which these beliefs find expression. We particularly need practices that renew our faith by connecting our life to the events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrec­tion. Daily prayer times, weekly church services, and faith-focused celebrations at Christmas, Easter, and other important Christian festivals are all restorative rituals that can refocus our priorities on the values of our Christian faith. Not surprisingly, the secular culture provides an increasing array of its own rituals that compete with these. The morning news, Sunday sports, and gala seasonal sales can all drag our focus away from God’s priorities.

My husband and I have embraced the tradition of the Advent wreath with great enthusiasm. Each morning before breakfast we light the appropriate candles and read the scriptures for the day from the Book of Common Prayer. It is a wonderful way to focus our lives on the real celebration – the coming of Christ, Emmanuel – God with us, God in us, God for us. It renews and sustains me through a season that can otherwise be extremely stressful.

Rituals of transformation are the second type of practice Hiebert believes create healthy spiritual rhythms. These provide a structure that enables us to change and grow. In Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Baker Books, 1994), Hiebert explains that these rituals “cut through the established way of doing things and restore a measure of flexibility and personal intimacy.” Prayer retreats, pilgrimages, and mission trips are all transformative rituals that enable us to continue to nurture our faith and mature as Christian disciples. Because our consumer culture is so forceful in trying to get us to focus our lives on materialistic values, we need to just as intentionally focus on God’s biblical values in order to stand against these pressures.

For Tom and me, regular prayer retreats have become transformative rituals that enable us to adopt a whole new rhythm of life. Two to three times a year we get away for a couple of days to rethink our priorities and re-evaluate our use of time and resources. As a result, we are able to pace our activities more in synch with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ than with the dictates of secular culture.

In an effort to transform their lives one family we know decided to establish a rhythm of Christian service revolving around the events of the school year. In early September, when buying clothes and books for their children’s return to school, they now donate money to an organization that provides books and school supplies for inner-city kids who lack the resources to provide for their own school needs. At Thanksgiving, in gratitude for the education they are receiving, they contribute to a literacy program for young girls in Africa who would otherwise go unschooled. During the second half of the year, they tutor at-risk kids in their community who have no access to computers, and over the summer months they take some of their vacation time to go on short-term mission trips. Not only has this ritual approach changed the focus of their lives but they’ve found, too, that their children’s academic performance has improved. Teaching others has enabled them to learn, too.

Take time to think about your own values and examine your priorities. Make a list of the important events that define your faith and give meaning to your life. If possible get away for a day with your spouse or a friend and reflect on the values and faith principles you would like to see undergird your life and that of your children. How could you incorporate simple routines into your daily, weekly, and yearly routines that would enhance and reinforce these values?

We don’t have to succumb to the neurotic fads and rituals of our culture. We can all take control and work creatively to develop rituals and routines that reflect our values and strengthen our beliefs. In so doing we really will create a world that is healthy and hospitable not just for us but for others too.

Christine Sine is an Australian physician who has worked extensively in Africa, Central America, and Asia. She and her husband, Tom, are co-founders of Mustard Seed Associates – an international network that encourages Christians to live out their faith authentically. This article is adapted from her latest book, GodSpace: Time for Peace in the Rhythms of Life(Barclay Press, 2006). For more information visit the MSA Web site, http://www.msainfo.org/.

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