Liturgy of the Ordinary:
Sacred Practices in Everyday Life
Tish Harrison Warren
in our Lent 2017 print magazine…
Annie Dillard has (famously) said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” This is a cautionary saying for those of us who live our days as the sandwich-makers, the sock sorters, and the finders of misplaced library books. Therefore, Liturgy of the Ordinary has landed upon my reading list like a benediction, for in Tish Harrison Warren’s words, I hear the husky contralto sound track of Peggy Lee’s musical question “Is That All There Is?” Thanks be to God, Tish arrives at a resounding “No!” The daily, mundane tasks that comprise civilization and self-maintenance on this planet are clearly not “all there is.” On the contrary, they are shot through with the sacred — even all the repetitive and seemingly Sisyphean tasks that, while admittedly are sacrificial, seem hardly to be sacramental.
Liturgy of the Ordinary pushes back against the dualism that differentiates between answering emails and writing sermons, between talking theology over coffee and talking science fair project over milk and cookies because, for believers, ministry and everyday life are “intrinsically part of one another,” (89).
Tish celebrates the reality that the spiritual disciplines that sustain the following life are quiet, reflective, and homely. The trappings of devotion, even the elements of the Eucharist, can be found in any North American kitchen, and the inhale and exhale of communion with God around a verse of Scripture can, literally, be done with one’s eyes closed.
Since liturgy is, by definition, “the work of the people,” the faithful have been commissioned to do whatever is needful in the name of Christ. Tish’s liberating thesis works itself out in the unfolding of the ordinary day of a wife, mum, ministry professional, and friend, a woman who chafes against the routine, who longs for a good night’s sleep, and who delights in the simple beauty of a vanilla steamer alongside a great novel.
The Glory of the Embodied Life
When we wake, no matter how we wake (instantly bolt upright or groping toward consciousness), we begin our day beloved by God, and the staggering truth is that nothing we do in the course of each day will either magnify or diminish that standing. Beginning each new day echoes that “first gleam of dawn” which characterizes “the path of the righteous” (Proverbs 4:18) at the outset of the Christian life.
Careening toward the age when it takes twice as long in front of a mirror to look half as good, it is a joyful thing to be reminded that “what we do with our bodies and what we do with our souls are always entwined,” (39). In taking on flesh, Christ decimated the false notion that the body is an evil burden and not worthy of respectful treatment and conscientious care:
Because of the embodied work of Jesus, my body is destined for redemption and for eternal worship – for eternal skipping and jumping and twirling and handraising and kneeling and dancing and singing and chewing and tasting, (48).
Let There Be Peace on Earth
Living as redeemed and God-breathed dust on a fallen planet is not without its vexing moments in which the self is uncovered in an unflattering light, particularly when lost keys and broken appliances hook faithless ponderings around theodicy faster than the gripping news feed from Aleppo. Repentance like “a steady drumbeat” (57) is the posture that counteracts brokenness, and it is also true that a life of wholeness is sustained by proper nourishment. The preparation and consumption of a humble meal points the heart toward God’s abundant provision in the Word, the true Bread of Life, while also serving as a pale adumbration of the gathering and gratitude that happen around the cup and the simple loaf.
There is paradox in the truth that the soft answer to my husband or children that turns away wrath in my home is inextricably linked to the larger mission of peace that embodies the believer’s “everyday work of shalom,” (74), and becomes an integral component of the larger work of reconciliation that Paul outlines in II Corinthians 5.
The Third Way
As a gardener, I delight in the cooperation with God that is crucial to success. I weed; God waters. God provides a bountiful crop; I harvest and preserve it. Down in the dirt picking green beans or uprooting pesky cow vetch from the tomato patch, I believe that I am doing holy work, and 14th century monk Walter Hilton would agree with me. He would have described my Mary-like approach to Martha-work as a “third way,” a mindset that infuses the daily round with meaning and points to a future day in a millennial kingdom where we will “long enjoy the work of our hands,” (Isaiah 65:22).
This opens the way for a truce in my on-going battle against the clock. As a “do-er,” a three on the Enneagram, I share Tish’s need to see things happen in a “timely manner,” and this question is a howl that put words around the frustration of my own heart:
How can I live as one who watches and waits for the coming kingdom when I can barely wait for water to boil? (104)
For those of us who struggle to find our way into the “alternative chronology” of the Christian life, the liturgical calendar provides much-needed hand holds, guidance in the disciplines of preparation and waiting, training wheels for the cycles of mourning and celebration. Tish’s reminder that “we are a people in training, together learning to wait” (109), gives me permission to enter into worship for its own sake as part of my learning process for living in the present while also waiting for the ultimate redemption of all things.
The Ministry of Friendship, the Sacrament of Coffee, and the Gift of Rest
The call and response of worship shows up in Christian friendship, particularly in Tish’s “friends of the right hand,” for we tell each other the truth:
Who we are;
Who God is;
How this impacts on good times and bad.
When we sow this practical Gospel into each other’s lives, we become community because we have communed. As the entity that first invented coffee (Ethiopian monks? Who knew? 131), the church is uniquely positioned to lead the way in the art of enjoyment and pleasure.
All good things are a gift from God’s hand, and one of those very good things is rest. Tish turns the lens of liturgy last on sleeping, for “both gathered worship and our sleep habits profess our loves, our trusts, and our limits,” (141). I will sacrifice sleep for those I love and to pursue what I consider a worthy goal. I will neglect my body and skew my priorities to pursue a misplaced affection for work or entertainment. However, if I truly believe that “the Lord watches over the city,” or, in my case, the country hill (Psalm 127:1), I will savor His good gift of rest and trust God with my “[my] sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life,” (Romans 12:1, 2 MSG).
Truly “plac[ing] it before God as an offering,” brings the sacred close, and with remarkable steadiness of attention, Tish Harrison Warren draws a clear line of connection between the activities of her daily routine and the pursuit of holiness. Liturgy of the Ordinary is an invitation to bring belief and praxis into alignment around the daily work of sanctification and the never-ending duties that will become, after all, the way we spend our lives.