“Baby, please go get Papaw.”

I can’t begin to count how many times I heard that simple command and ventured out to find my grandfather, who was working somewhere around the house. He was a man who was happy performing the most menial tasks. Washing cars. Painting trim. Cleaning the gutters. Spraying for weeds. But the chore I most often found him at was sweeping—and singing. My, how that man loved a clean sidewalk.

“When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more. And the morning breaks eternal, bright and fair . . .” He sang each word of the hymn in a clear baritone, accompanied by short, percussive whisks of the broom. Before I clapped eyes on the back of his seersucker shirt, I knew where he was. All I had to do was follow the cheerful sound to its source.

As a child, I thought he was singing simply to pass the time, the way he did when he picked cotton for hours on end as a boy in the hot Arkansas summer. But now, a year after his passing, I’ve come to realize the chores Papaw did—and the way he went about them—were so much more than labor. They were liturgy.

It’s a concept Tish Harrison Warren understands well. As an Anglican priest and writer who also happens to be a wife and mother of two girls, she wakes up each morning facing a formidable to-do list. How does one find time to pursue holiness amid the rush of responsibilities?

The answer comes in Warren’s first book, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (InterVarsity Press). Chapter by chapter, she explains how the most routine tasks, if done with an eye on the eternal, become extraordinary. “We are shaped every day, whether we know it or not, by practices—rituals and liturgies that make us who we are,” she writes. And that makes the “small bits of our day . . . profoundly meaningful because they are the site of our worship. The crucible of our formation is in the anonymous monotony of our daily routines.”

Warren’s message flies in the face of our culture’s love of distraction and pursuit of extreme sensation. We would do well to slow down for a bit and hear her out.

Vanilla Days

The book’s most compelling and effective feature is its structure. Beginning, appropriately enough, with a chapter titled “Waking,” Warren moves through the offices of a typical day—simple tasks such as making the bed, brushing her teeth, checking email, sitting in traffic, and calling a friend—and ends by exploring the value and purpose of rest. It’s a deceptively simple setup—so simple, in fact, that readers might be tempted to select a chapter at random, pocket a spiritual takeaway or quick fix, and resume business as usual. But this approach loses sight of the book’s main purpose: demonstrating in its very form that everything in life is touched with holiness.

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That understanding starts, according to Warren, when we open our eyes each morning and realize that we are “marked from our first waking moment by an identity that is given to us by grace.” Before we rise and make ourselves presentable; before we don the things that supply a sense of self; before we begin our ceaseless strivings for wealth or power or happiness, we are God’s “smelly, sleepy beloved.” And if that revolutionary thought is our first, every moment of an ordinary day takes on new meaning. Hence, making the bed isn’t just an impulse of Type-A tidiness; it’s a small sign that we are co-laborers with God, charged with making order out of chaos in countless small ways.

If we bear in mind that our daily doings can “aim our love and desire toward God,” our labor ceases being drudgery. It is the way “we join God in the work he is already doing in and through our vocational lives.” Eating a meal becomes so much more than consuming food; it is a chance to recognize the many ways our Father nourishes us. Likewise, forgiving those who have hurt us—and asking forgiveness when we have inflicted the wounds—is a small but essential way to cultivate the peace our world desperately needs. And checking email, the bane of many an office dweller’s existence, is no longer a necessary evil, but one more way our “identity as those blessed and sent . . . work[s] itself out in the small routines of our daily work.”

From this perspective, even sitting in traffic can be life-giving. According to Warren, being stuck on the road reminds us that “Christians are people who wait” and who “live in liminal time, in the ‘already and not yet.’ ” Believe me, as a denizen of Atlanta—one of the worst US cities for commuters—I’ve had plenty of time to consider her words on the subject. Being forced to wait is a gift, for it reminds us we are “an alternative people, patiently waiting for what is to come, but never giving up on our telos—God’s kingdom of justice and peace.” I try telling myself this as I travel I-285 at a frustratingly slow pace, and I can honestly say I’m starting to believe it—though I still honk on occasion. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is saintly forbearance.

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Ecclesiastes tells us, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9). This verse is often invoked as a bit of pessimistic realism, a scriptural “So what?” What’s the point of striving, after all, if everything we do is basically a “cover song” of what came before? Our victories, our griefs, our joys—they’re far from novel. Each one has been felt and will be felt again. But here’s the kicker: That’s not cause for despair. Considered in light of Warren’s book, the prosaic character of much of our lives is actually good news.

It’s in the sameness of what my family calls “vanilla days” that a metamorphosis takes place. Warren describes it this way:

When I get caught up in pettiness and exhaustion, I need to be reminded that my family and community are part of a larger mission. And yet I also need to remember that my small sphere, my ordinary day, matters to the mission—that the ordinary and unnoticed passing of the peace each day is part of what God is growing in and through me. It will bring a harvest, in good time.

Solomon was right. Our days are not filled with earthshaking, paradigm-shattering newness. They were never meant to be. But we do serve the one who makes all things new (Rev. 21:5). Revolution is God’s business; regularity is ours.

Routine, Small, and Average

There are three words to which Warren returns time and again: routine, small, and average.

As a soon-to-be-40 working woman, wife, and adoptive mother of two boys, those three words epitomize my life. And on the surface, none of them sound appealing. After all, who wants routine when there’s so much novelty to be had? Do you know anyone who boasts, “I’m totally average!”? Me neither.

Sometimes, I’m tempted to think I’m wasting the life God has given me, that I’m missing out on a spiritual quest because my nose is too close to the grindstone. However, by returning to these three words repeatedly, Warren showed me that they symbolize not frustrated dreams but abundant blessings.

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Grace comes in many nondescript ways. As Warren affirms, “He can make revolution stories out of smallness.” Cleaning the cat box, making another pot of spaghetti and meatballs, washing and drying a never-ending pile of laundry, reading Dragons Love Tacos for what seems like the millionth time—these tasks are the tools God uses to shape me. Every day—every hour—he gives me the high honor of ministering to some tiny corner of his world.

But wait, there’s more. Dwelling in the routine, small, and average allows us to dive deeper into God’s goodness and respond with adoration. Warren illustrates this with a one-two punch of Britishness: by describing a good cup of tea and quoting C. S. Lewis.

Think of it this way: When we’re living big lives, sprinting from task to task while focusing on nothing in particular, tea is little more than a shot of caffeine. But if we’re in tune with God and living at the slower pace required for worship, teatime takes on added dimensions, becoming a “wonder of hot water and dried leaves” that provides sanctuary.

Lewis describes the difference using an apple. For the Christian who understands God as the source of all pleasure, it is never an average piece of fruit; “it is a message.” And when we experience it through taste and smell, “We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore. . . . To experience the tiny theophany itself is to adore.”

Liturgy of the Ordinary isn’t the first book written in praise of prosaic moments, and Warren’s isn’t the first voice to counsel slowing down. But Warren admirably explores these themes from both a theological and practical perspective. Her words can help us grasp what my grandfather learned through a lifetime of commonsense faith—and a lot of sweeping: The “new life into which we’re being baptized is lived out in days, hours, and minutes. God is forming us into a new people. And the place of that formation is in the small moments of today.”

Jamie A. Hughes is managing editor of In Touch Magazine. She blogs at tousledapostle.com.

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Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Book Title
Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life
Release Date
November 1, 2016
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