A Life of Liturgy How Rituals Shape Our Desires

“Savor the moment. Replay and store the memories. Then remember: your rear view mirror is much smaller than your windshield.” — Herb Melton

When springtime comes and the weather is fair enough to permit it, our ritual after dinner is to walk across the street to the park. No advanced degree needed to figure that one out—it’s warm, the kids have way too much energy to burn, we want them to actually go to sleep, and it’s good for everyone to get some fresh air. My wife and I usually talk as the three boys race down the elementary school track or cut across the freshly rain-watered grass as they make their way to the playground equipment.

Once there, my (sometimes comically) outgoing 5-year-old will introduce himself to each stranger at least two times, just to make sure they don’t forget his name. Our youngest, age 3, will yell for Mom every 20 seconds to verify that she’s watching and safely within reach, and our eldest will make sure everyone is playing by the rules of the game he’s orchestrated, likely a reenactment of a great battle from the world’s history.

On one particular day, my eldest son sulked along the track, kept to himself, and remained seated on the sidelines while the others raced to and fro. I tend to be the order-giving father who demands discipline and cheerful attitudes, or so help me God, so naturally I barked at him a few times to lift his head and go play with the others. He did, but halfheartedly.

My wife, as she does so well, put her arm around me, cuddled up close and after a momentary pause said, “Oh honey, the boy needs some affection from his Daddy.” Of course that’s not what he needs, the drill sergeant in me objected. But, knowing that the always attentive shepherd of our young boy’s days and hearts is probably right, and being softened by her tenderness, I walked over, put out my hand, lifted him to his feet and took him for a walk around the track.

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At first he didn’t say much, but after a few Lego-related questions he wouldn’t stop talking. At lap one he asked, “Daddy, can I hold your hand?” Well of course you can. At lap two he said, soft and sweet, “Daddy, my walks with you are the best. I love you.”

Those moments are both sweet and heartbreaking (in a good way). They make me realize how distracted and disengaged I can be. Always coming with a rod, but the little ones need tender arms, too.

As we walked back to the house that evening, what kept running through my mind was the boys’ baptisms. These are not ultimately my boys. Jesus says, “They belong to me. I am giving them to you for a short while, little lambs entrusted to your care.” My responsibility is to help shape their life in accord with God’s purposes for them.

“The goal of education is not information, but formation. And that formation takes place in the liturgy of our daily lives.”

Even greater, perhaps, was the reminder of this truth: We are not primarily rational creatures, mere thinking things that grow and flourish with the input of information. As a result, the way we learn and educate our children is not a matter of dispensing facts and truths in abstract form. The goal of education is not information, but formation.

And that formation takes place in the liturgy of our daily lives: feeling, touching, tasting, seeing, embracing, rejoicing, singing, kneeling, playing, praying. These daily liturgies, or routines, don’t simply provide us with information; instead, they shape our desires and teach us what to love. The goal of our education is not merely that we believe the right things, but that we become a kind of people who love the right things, who love God and others.

“You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:10)

Practically, it means that the best way to engage and shape the loves of our children’s hearts isn’t primarily through monologue, lecture or discourse. Instead, we shape passions through a liturgy or set of rituals that engage them as whole people. Discourse has a place in that daily liturgy of desire, but it’s only a part connected to a greater whole.

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Here’s an example: If you want to pass on a love for running (or hunting or horseback riding or whatever it is you’re crazy about), you won’t do that simply by talking about it. You will talk about it, of course, as a lover talks about his bride, but primarily you’ll pass on a love for running by taking someone running.

As you build a routine of habits around running with that person, more than likely in the context of that liturgy they’ll learn to love it too, whether it’s for the connectedness they feel with another soul or to be out in nature or to rejoice in physical exertion. You’re literally engaging their whole person—legs, feet, thirst, heart, mind—which is the best way to teach since we are, in fact, created to be whole persons.

So we started running together, my almost 8-year-old and I. We have a little circuit familiar to the two of us, through the park and around the pond, up under the ancient oaks and down the asphalt path. We stretch together beforehand, he mirroring my every move. He puts on his hat and laces up his shoes, exactly as I do, and secures his white sunglasses as we hit the road.

He talks and asks questions, we always stop for water at the park, and after he makes it the whole way I grant his request: a “victory lap,” which is what he calls the piggy back ride I give him as we conquer the last block before we get home. He waves to the imaginary crowds as I carry him up our overgrown lawn.

My favorite parts are the street crossings, because it’s then that he grabs my hand as we run across. It’s a tangible reminder that it’s me being formed, not mostly by a lecture or a sermon, but by incarnate things like a run shared between father and son, a hand held as the flesh-and-blood embodiment of that love.

Interestingly, when you understand the need for whole person engagement, the context for discourse becomes an organic, natural part of the process. Our runs provide a proper context to talk about the created world, to ask and answer questions about the reading from our family worship time, and to talk about pushing through tiredness and being mentally tough, all while doing just that.

Ultimately, both we and our kids learn through formative liturgy, or ritual, and not primarily through heady discourse. The discourse part of teaching is important, but only as a part of a larger whole—doing and being, loving, feasting, singing, worshipping. If we don’t engage them in the rituals and habits of life that shape and transform us both, then we’ll miss the mark of education.

What about your daily “liturgies”? Are your everyday routines intentional and thought out, or do most of your days just happen without much thought? Does your routine bring you closer to God and others, or leave you feeling disconnected, frazzled or frantic? If you could change one thing about your day, what would it be? Do your routines help you accomplish the things that mean the most to you, or do they hinder you?

Further reading:
The Lord’s Service, Jeff Meyers
Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith
The Power of Less, Leo Babauta

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