Ritual, Religion, and Relationship

Photo credit: www.janebaileybain.com Thanksgiving in America has rich traditions and a significant history. The origin for this American holiday reaches back to the legendary Thanksgiving feast of the Pilgrims and Native Americans in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621.

It was made a federal holiday in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, but the holiday had earlier observances under Presidents Washington and Adams. Its current observance was set in 1941, during President Franklin Roosevelt's tenure.

Celebrating Thanksgiving incorporates many rituals and traditions, and carries some religious significance, as well. But for most of us, it centers around family and friends gathering together—relationships.


Rituals can range from routine habits, to religious observances and rites of worship, to obsessive, compulsive habits. For example, I have a morning ritual that includes early morning prayer, coffee and toast, and reading God's Word. It is not a rigid ritual I must perform in a certain way, but a common routine.

Washing your hands excessively and in a certain way, well, that's healthy in one way, I guess, but not in another. Rituals are not wrong, nor necessarily unhealthy, especially when they have value to us and serve a purpose. (Click to Tweet)


My recollection of an Intro to Theology course brings to mind the definition of religion taken from the Latin– "to bind together." Religion binds people together because of common beliefs and practices. (Click to Tweet) The practices can be ritualistic and rigid, or simple expressions of worship. The beliefs may be commonly held doctrines connected to common practices, or dogmatic theological stances that exclude and isolate people.

Religion, in and of itself, is not a wrong thing. Consider these words from Jesus' brother, James—

If a person thinks that he is religious but can’t control his tongue, he is fooling himself. That person’s religion is worthless. Pure, unstained religion, according to God our Father, is to take care of orphans and widows when they suffer and to remain uncorrupted by this world. [James 1:26-27 GW]

Even non-denominational groups are religious, as much as they may try not to be. (Click to Tweet) Each group has its own beliefs and practices that hold them together as a distinct group.

So, it's whatever holds them together that makes them religious. Consider the familiar and traditional hymn, "Blest Be the Tie That Binds?" Even if it's not your style of music, it has a great message.

The reality of rituals and religion

We all have certain rituals we practice with varying degrees of value and rigidity. (Click to Tweet) This includes how we celebrate holidays, or even go through a daily routine. Both my mom and dad (when he was alive) liked to go to Starbucks for a latte. It was special to them, and still is to my mom.

There's nothing wrong with rituals unless they lose their meaning or value. Or, unless rituals become priorities of their own and exclude things of greater importance in the process, especially people.

This is where religious beliefs and practices can become a problem. When they begin to exclude people, and become more important than people themselves, then they are suspect.

Here's what Jesus has to say about that—

[The Pharisees] asked, “Why do your disciples break the traditions of our ancestors? They do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “Why do you break the commandment of God because of your traditions? You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is pointless, because their teachings are rules made by humans.’ ” [Matt 15:1-3, 7-9 GW]

Ouch! Pretty strong language from Jesus, but it's true. When our own rituals and religious beliefs or practices collide with God's truth, we have a problem. (Click to Tweet)

"It's not about religion, but relationship"

A common expression during the Jesus People Movement of the seventies was, "It's not about religion, but relationship." Variations of it abound, and opinions to go with it. As with so many things, it's as if we need to choose one or the other.

My take on it then, and now, is that being a follower of Jesus isn't about following certain religious rules, but having a relationship with Jesus. But one does not need to be in opposition to the other.

I do believe the relationship with Jesus is of first importance, but, as said above, even those who are non-denominational have religious beliefs.


Jesus said two relationships were most important and summarized the old covenant—our relationship with God and others (Matt 22:37-40). (Click to Tweet) One relationship can't be held at the expense of the other (1 John 4:19-21 GW). So, whatever ritual or religion we hold special, relationships are always more important. (Click to Tweet)

Speaking of relationships, who are you thankful for? It's good to be thankful for all we might have, but people ought to be more important to us than what we possess. (Click to Tweet)

As we head farther into the holiday season, let's keep our priorities in right order. What's that order? For me, it's God, then people, then whatever else holds value. What about you?

Photo credit: Bill Welsh

Speaking of the holidays...

Here's a new Christmas song written by my close friend, Bill Welsh.