A Public Ritual

Friends, what a week! What a month. Puh! Who am I kidding? What a year!

I don’t need to list all the events that are weighing me down. It is sufficient to note that President Obama has ordered national flags be flown at half-mast more times than any other President in history. If you factor in the number of times governors have ordered flags be lowered, we have been in official, public mourning for 328 of the past 365 days. (Slate)

I don’t know about you, but I am tired. My soul is weary and my heart is saturated. Angry left town a long time ago. I don’t feel like my life has prepared me for what time, tide, and history are washing up on this shore. My small town upbringing and white bread life haven’t built the kinds of knowledge I need to salvage even a single treasure from the wreckage.

As I scroll a newsfeed full of compassionate faith professionals and all they truly say is “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer,” I get the impression that they, like me, are waving their arms as they pace the living room wondering what they can do. Meanwhile, the religious power mongers flood the public discourse with distrust, apocalypse, despair, and fear. Is it any wonder that The Walking Dead is one of the most popular shows on television?

As I sit and watch another movie where God fails to show up and the religious leader’s response to horror, tragedy and evil is to lose his* mind and point a finger, I see American culture reflecting back to those of us in helping professions, in the humanities, in religious communities, not contempt, but a plea: “Help us! Help us respond! Help us recover! Help us feel better! Help us fix this!”

We United Methodists have a ritual we do for Communion. In that ritual, the group shares a confession of sin. I used to hate this time in worship. I felt like it was coercing me to say that I had done things I had not. I thought it was a way for the holier-than-thou jackass in the pulpit to feel big by making us people in the pews feel like we were somehow small, petty, dirty criminals. What I know now that I didn’t know then is that the world is the kind of place that makes too many of us small, petty, dirty criminals. That confession time is not about me and my individual meanness. It is about how those meannesses added together with his and hers and theirs and yours somehow become the crimes that bury us.

In that ritual, there is also an assurance of pardon. That is the moment where the officiant reminds us that God has already seen and endured the worst things our tortured imaginations can conjure; not just the horrors of our daily headlines, but the whole of human history and cosmic story, forwards and backwards until the end of time. We are reminded that in the face of all that, God has let go of pride, power, grudge, weapons, and righteousness and offered us peace if we choose to take it.

After the assurance, we are invited to share that peace with those around us. In the truest sense, this is the moment where and when we are supposed to seek out the people who have harmed us and those we have harmed. If we are not right with one another, this is the time when we are supposed to let go of pride, power, grudge, weapons, and righteousness to extend a sign of peace.

If that peace is accepted, then we are ready to sit together and the whole relationship is consummated in a meal.

Isn’t that a beautiful ritual? Isn’t that a beautiful dream? Isn’t that the kind of thing a grieving and aching and angry and hopeless people need? An opportunity to put all the hurting they’ve witnessed and perpetrated and experienced out on the table, and simply own their own part in the misery-making? To have that stuff witnessed and then loved into oblivion? To then turn to one another and transact forgiveness-to negotiate with the other what it will take to make things right between them? To sit down in peace and share a meal?

I wonder, what would it mean to offer such a ritual in some kind of public way; in some kind of shared artwork way; side by side with the rituals of peacemaking and love that other traditions and other specializations provide? What might it look like? Who might be involved? Where would it happen? Who would come?

And then I worry that something like that isn’t possible. I worry that it’s a stupid idea and that it couldn’t possibly work. I start thinking about insurance and the separation of church and state and offending my atheist colleagues and friends. And then I look around and listen close, and I feel my heart heaving in my chest and I ask myself, “Really, what would it cost to try?”

* I use the male pronoun not as a default but because I cannot remember the last time I saw a religious leader in a movie portrayed by a woman.