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I was watching some lifesavers practice recently on the beach at Cronulla. They were doing a reel-drill, and they were “poetry in motion” – the marching, the synchronisation, the classic overhead line-feed, the swim into the frisky waves and the mock rescue. All very impressive. And they were good. But no one was actually in danger. No one was going down for the third time. In fact, it was not even a practice for the real thing of saving a drowning person, but a practice for a competition with rival surf clubs in the reel event.
Without kicking sand in their faces, and without being unmindful of the element of genuine rehearsal, the episode reminded me of the vanity of mere ceremony, where the goal of some activity is one step removed from its primary function. In other words, where life-saving is replaced by point-scoring, and kicking urgently in the swim with pointing one’s toes in the march.
Surf clubs, where the bistro has become more important than the beach, have long served as cautionary tales for many church communities, for not infrequently is the church at large in danger of being caught in the rip of “mere form” and of drowning in its own ceremony.
Like a name-tag without a handshake, or a hymn without a heart, mere ceremony has been the plague of many a community and the cause of death for many a poor sinner. The apostle Paul indeed encouraged the church leaders at Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:12) to go for gold, but what he had in mind was not awarding a golden pencil to the bible student with the most aesthetically-pleasing page of Scripture, but actually saving people and maturing them in Christ.
DM 13th February 2013