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Liturgy of the Ordinary

What if I told you I just read a book that made brushing my teeth feel like a holy act? I actually got all weepy over them. My teeth, I mean.

But to explain why, I need to back up about eight years.

When I moved to Nashville, I felt like a spiritual vagabond. For years I’d drifted from church to church, denomination to denomination, unable to find a place I belonged. I struggled with intellectual doubts, inner inertia, and the deadening of my feelings of worship. I could barely sing along with hymns anymore. I simply stood mute, waiting for them to end. Four years of editing a magazine in the Chicago suburbs had left me feeling marooned—as a single professional woman in a sea of families, and as a misfit believer in a Christian subculture I didn’t often like and certainly didn’t feel at home in anymore.

But soon after moving here, I joined a group of women who met regularly to talk about our passions—whether art, dance, film, social justice, food, or simple living. The first night, a young woman named Tish Warren, with a scarf around her tousled hair and a playful intensity in her face, plopped into a chair beside mine and said, “You were the editor of Christian History magazine? I have such a crush on you.” As it turned out, Tish and her husband and I had all gone to the same college and seminary—so we had plenty to talk about. I learned she attended an Anglican church in town, and weary of all my years of church hopping, I went to their service the following Sunday.

I never left.

It wasn’t that I considered myself an Anglican—theologically, I have my differences. I stayed because of the liturgy.

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. Frederick Buechner

Liturgy, literally “the work of the people,” typically refers to the pattern and rituals of worship. In some churches, this pattern is fairly simple (singing, prayer, sermon, offering, prayer), while in others it’s more elaborate. In the Anglican church in which I now found myself—at least compared to what I’d been used to in the past—it was downright gymnastic. Up, down, kneel, pray, up, down, read, turn, bow, sing, shout, throw your hand out, kneel again, up, down . . . . Every Sunday morning, I arrived (like I had for so many years) empty, dry, cynical, incapable of worshiping on my own. And every Sunday morning, the liturgy took me by the hand—physically, it seemed—and led me through the motions of worship, put into my mouth words that I couldn’t pray alone. Here was a service in which I was less a spectator than an actor in a drama, constantly moving, constantly speaking the lines of a beautiful script that had been spoken for hundreds of years. I was no longer mute.

Every Sunday I knelt on a bench beside strangers, bowed my head, and held my cupped hands out to receive communion, and I felt as if I was receiving my dose of grace to get me through the coming week. That ritual, that posture, taught my heart what it had forgotten. It was the actual bodily kneeling and holding out of my hands, again and again and again, that reawakened the desire for something to fill those empty palms.

I realized that, underneath my messy, disordered artistic personality, I’ve been a liturgical being my whole life. Concrete acts of tradition and ritual—habits of family holidays or childhood actions repeated so many times that memories and meanings were rolled up in them like snowballs—have always been precious to me. I’m an undisciplined scatterbrain who needs a liturgy to take me by the hand and lead me through the motions of a life well-lived, form me into the postures that will give my heart a healthy shape, turn my longings towards what is good rather than what depletes and wastes me. My journals for decades have been full of ill-fated attempts to fit my daily life into a pattern, an order, that is not merely productive but meaningful, beautiful, touching something transcendent. Throw in a good dose of 41-year-old mid-life angst and there’s been a choir of accusatory voices in my head lately:

I’m letting life slip through my undisciplined fingers like water.

I must be a constant disappointment to God.

What is the purpose of my days? What am I doing with my life, anyway?

When my friend Tish’s book—her first, I hope, of many—arrived in the mail, I couldn’t wait to read it simply because Tish had written it. What I didn’t know was how deeply I needed her words, in much the same way as I needed her church eight years ago.

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren (InterVarsity Press, 2016) is, in simplest terms, a meditation upon a single ordinary day, from waking to sleeping. (In fact, if you have time, I recommend reading it straight through in one day.) With gentle hospitality and humility, Tish welcomes us into her own mundane moments and through them points us to a deeper understanding of the holy humdrum of being human beings in the world. “We tend to want a Christian life with the dull bits cut out,” she says. But what if the dull bits are precisely the places where the light shines through? “What if all these boring parts matter to God? What if days passed in ways that seem small and insignificant to us are weighty with meaning and part of the abundant life that God has for us?”

There are so many ways in which such a book could be written badly. In the hands of a less theologically and historically sensitive author, it could have been a vague rumination about all of life being “spiritual” and God being in the details and how we can meet Jesus wherever we are. But in Tish’s hands the subject feels as solid and rooted as an ancient oak tree. In the years since I met her, Tish and her husband (both church history aficionados) have become ordained Anglican priests, and though this is certainly not an Anglican book—it is accessible to anyone, no matter what denomination—I believe Tish’s deep embeddedness in a church tradition is what sets this book apart and gives it a depth that I often find lacking in Christian books aimed at my generation.

“If I am to spend my whole life being transformed by the good news of Jesus,” she explains, “I must learn how grand, sweeping truths—doctrine, theology, ecclesiology, Christology—rub against the texture of an ordinary day.” The word texture is perfectly chosen here, because it is precisely in the gritty, knobbly, chapped, and rumpled earthiness of our lives that these grand truths embody themselves each day. Tish expresses big ideas in simple, winsome language, wearing both her hats of seminary-trained theologian and sticky-peanut-butter-fingered mom of two young children, effortlessly flowing between the transcendent and the tongue-in-cheek. “Teeth. So needy,” she jokes in one breath, while in the next she’s pointing us (and those minty molars) towards the hope of resurrected glory.

Liturgy of the Ordinary reminds me that the unflashy routines I do unthinkingly every day are—or could be, if only I paid attention—pregnant with spiritual meaning. Making the bed (forming chaos into order), brushing my teeth (proclaiming that my body will be redeemed), eating leftovers (thanking God for his abundant and often overlooked provision), answering my email (participating, even through the tedious tasks of my own small vocation, in the mission Dei, the mission of God to redeem every part of creation), pausing for a cup of tea (embracing beauty in adoration of the One who gave me senses to enjoy it)—these habits can, if I let them, become a liturgy leading me through the day, turning my heart slowly, by practice and repetition, into healthy paths of desire and contentment and hope. “There is no task too small or too routine to reflect God’s glory and worth,” Tish writes.

But she pushes us even deeper still. In each chapter she connects an ordinary, habitual moment in her own day with a particular aspect of corporate worship: Baptism, Word and Sacrament, confession, the passing of the peace, “smells and bells,” etc. This was what most surprised me in the book, and it was a little revelation to me, or maybe a reminder of what was always obvious under the surface. Oh, yeah. What I do in church on Sunday, the motions I go through in The Liturgy, is practice for the little liturgies—the habits and rituals that collect memory and meaning like snowballs—throughout the daily grind of my week. And those ordinary rituals of my week are little pictures of what the pattern of Sunday worship ultimately points to.

Our waking moment each morning is a reenactment and remembrance of the baptismal proclamation that “before you know it, before you doubt it, before you confess it, before you can sing it yourself, you are beloved by God, not by your effort but because of what Christ has done on your behalf.” We rise into an identity given to us, not earned, donning it like the clothes we put on. We rise as bodies, messy and blessed, and when we stare bleary-eyed into the mirror we are staring at a work of art far more stunning and sacred than the Sistine Chapel. There is a sense in which every meal is a little Eucharist, every passing encounter a chance to pass the peace. The calendar of the Christian year—the rhythm of waiting and hoping patiently in the in-between time, preparing for the celebration to come—is prefigured in the most mundane and irritating of situations, sitting in a car stuck in traffic: on the way, but not there yet.

For years I have felt as if the posture of kneeling and cupping my hands for the communion bread has been forming, physically kneading, my heart into a posture of submission and desire for grace. But I needed Tish’s reminder that when I leave that sanctuary to go out into the world, I am not bereft of liturgies to take me by the hand and guide me through the daily drama of a faith I feel unable to sustain on my own. Nor is anything radically monastic required of me—only a submission to my own creatureliness, and a recognition of its God-given beauty. When I wake, I wake already beloved. And when I lie down to sleep, I rest in trust.

“Listen to your life,” writes Frederick Buechner. “See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

In her chapter, “Calling a Friend,” Tish likens Christian friendship to the antiphonal back-and-forth of congregational prayers, responsive Psalm readings, sermons interlaced with Amens. Call and response. We speak truth to each other and with each other, again and again.

So, in case you’re wondering, this isn’t a review of Tish’s book. Not really. After all, she is my friend—my co-communicant. How could I write a review? No, I’m just here in the congregation answering back, Yes. Say it, sister. I hear you. Amen. What a joy it is to me that God has given me so many friends who are writers, artists, singers, actors, pastors—with whom I get to live out this continual antiphon. Even when we differ. Even when we acknowledge our own and each other’s incompleteness, the muteness of our hearts as we kneel for communion together. Call and response.

Peace of Christ to you, Tish. Thank you for making me cry over my toothbrush.


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