On the Shelf

Sanctity in the Ordinary

A new book encourages us to recognize the holiness in our day-to-day routines.

During my first year in campus ministry, I found myself being regaled with stories from a chapel speaker who was doing incredible work in the name of Jesus. His stories were centered on global reconciliation work in situations where he could have easily lost his life. Finding myself simultaneously stunned and skeptical, a flurry of questions began coursing through my mind and heart: How might I boldly serve the Lord in exotic locales? What in the world am I still doing in Newberg, Oregon? Why is my life so boring? What’s the cafeteria serving for lunch today?

My work in college ministry often includes this very dance with undergraduates who are looking to change the world while struggling with the monotony of classes, homework, and part-time jobs.

In Liturgy of the Ordinary, author Tish Warren provides numerous examples of how the ordinariness of our lives can be viewed as sacramental. In viewing the tedium of our day (bed-making, teeth-brushing, tea-drinking, email-checking, etc.) as holy moments, we see “spiritual formation in its molecular form – not because this is all that matters, but because the only life any of us live is in daily, pedestrian humanity.”

Warren begins by explaining how she took up the habit of making her bed as her Lenten practice. The action was antithetical to the important work of her day, and so instead of diving into email, reading the news, or making a to-do list, she made her bed and sat on it engaged in prayer. She writes, “In making my bed I reflected (God’s) creative act in the tiniest, most ordinary way. In my small chaos, I made order.”

This beginning sets the stage for other small daily tasks dripping with theological richness. Her premise is that if we can be people who see the minutiae of our day as liturgical acts of worship being done with God, we will derive deep meaning in the very things we believe are keeping us from serving God.

For instance, Warren’s connects dental hygiene to worship, reorienting us to remember that all of life is imbued with meaning because we serve an incarnate God. She writes, “When I brush my teeth I am pushing back, in the smallest of ways, the death and chaos that will inevitably overtake my body … [because] my body is sacred and caring for it (and for the other bodies around me) is a holy act.”

Within the context of Christian higher education, particularly through the lens of student development (and in my case, campus ministry), I believe two chapters should catch our attention: “Sitting in Traffic,” and “Sleeping.”

“Sitting in Traffic” explores the moments of our day where we have to unexpectedly wait. We are familiar with these moments – the ones that throw our schedule out of whack, that cause us to be late to an appointment, to spend less time with people we cherish or with projects we must complete. But for our students, I think this is perhaps one of the greatest spiritual disciplines needed today.

I hear my students frequently utter the desire to know – right this minute – what their major should be, what career they should pursue, who they should marry, and so on. As Warren mentions, we are conditioned by culture to be instantly gratified, and when something takes longer than we think it should, we either give up on it, try to solve the problem ourselves, or assume that God is leading in a different direction. Developing the discipline of waiting “allows us to live in the present as an alternative people, patiently waiting for what is to come, but never giving up on our telos. We are never quite comfortable. We seek justice, practice mercy, and herald the kingdom to come.”

In “Sleeping,” Warren suggests that how we treat sleep and our Sabbath rest indicates what we value most in life. Our very “need for sleep reveals that we have limits,” but we are taught – and perhaps even conditioned as college students – that being able to function with little rest is something to celebrate. But Warren says this lack of rest is “indicative of a spiritual crisis – a culture of disordered love and disordered worship.” As professionals dedicated to the holistic development of our students, Warren reminds us that, “embracing sleep is not only a confession of our limits; it is also a joyful confession of God’s limitless care for us. For Christians, the act of ceasing and relaxing into sleep is an act of reliance on God.”

Warren’s book is a wonderful call to consider the mundane aspects of life as a call to worship; to recognize our holy calling is found not only in the spectacular, but most often in the ordinariness of life, or, as poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only those who see take off their shoes,
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.

Jamie R. Johnson is the associate university pastor at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon.

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