Book Review: Liturgy Of the Ordinary

One of my oft-expressed critiques of the faith & work movement is that it is largely a privileged conversation. This does not mean that I do not resonate with or appreciate this movement. I am very passionate about the integration of faith into every part of my life and encourage other people of faith toward the same. I do, however, feel that much of the content, conferences, and ideas are normatively directed (implicitly or explicitly) to those of privilege.

I do want to note the good work by many including David Gill and Kent Duncan to change this dynamic, so individuals from different groups, including blue-collar workers, are drawn into this conversation and provided the opportunity to have their hearts and minds changed by the reality that their work brings foretastes of the future Kingdom into this present world. May their tribe increase!
What you might ask does this have to do with Liturgy Of the Ordinary? Good question. Thank you for asking.

A foundational idea of the faith & work movement is that all work is God’s work, allowing the worker to bring shalom along with economic value into their workplace and community. Therefore, there is no sacred or secular work. I believe priest and author Tish Harrison Warren takes this idea a step further in her excellent book Liturgy Of the Ordinary when she describes the “sacred practices of everyday life.” Warren methodically takes the reader through a day in her life, viewing mundane activities through the lens of liturgy, allowing the reader to make connections between everyday activities and the pursuit of holiness and worship.

Warren’s book has caught the attention of many prominent evangelical leaders. Katelyn Beaty of Christianity Today notes, “Tish Harrison Warren has beautifully ‘enfleshed’ the concepts and doctrines of our faith into quotidian moments, showing how every hour of each day can become an occasion of grace and renewal. If you want to know how faith matters amid messy kitchens, unfinished manuscripts, marital spats, and unmade beds, Liturgy Of the Ordinary will train your eyes to see holy beauty all around.”

Jamie Smith, professor at Calvin College, states, “Sometimes the difference between drudgery and epiphany is just seeing things from the right angle, a frame that re-frames everything, even the mundane…You don’t need more to do in a day, Warren shows. Instead, re-frame the everyday as an extension of worship, and folding the laundry, washing dishes, and every commuting become habitations of the Spirit.”

As a product of a conservative Baptist church, I have a rich theological heritage, but my upbringing did not provide the occasion for learning the importance of explicit liturgy, whether corporate or personal. (I am in the midst of reading Smith’s You Are What You Love, so I will acknowledge that I have been practicing a liturgy without knowing it.) Warren, while communicating the importance of liturgical practices, underscores the reality that these do not occur exclusively within the four walls of a church, or even within a work environment. Allow me to demonstrate how she does this by quoting the chapter titles from the book: waking, making the bed, brushing teeth, losing keys, eating leftovers, fighting with my husband, checking email, sitting in traffic, calling a friend, drinking tea, and sleeping.

Andy Crouch writes in the foreword “There is our tendency to speak of the sanctuary as somehow of more importance to God than the workplace or the home, and those (like Tish) specially ordained to its work as somehow closer to God than those who work in the convenience store or the office complex.” Crouch goes on to note that in some contexts “nonprofit work is more spiritual than for-profit work; urban neighborhoods are more spiritual than suburban ones; bicycles are more spiritual than minivans.” (I believe this is the part of the book where I was hooked.)

Warren not only discusses the importance of all work, but also notes the seeming ordinary nature of worship. Again Crouch notes, “Worship itself is made up of ordinary stuff. We use plain words. Some of the most glorious words in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer are, well, common and plain enough to make you weep. . . We are baptized in plain water. We consume plain bread and wine. And it all is lifted up by plain people. Yet, all of this is far from ordinary. Our bodies, our pleasures, our fears, our fatigue, our friendships, our fights —these are in fact the stuff of our formation and transformation into the frail but infinitely dignified creatures we were meant to be and shall become.”

Are you hooked yet?

That we ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed. That we should not wonder if, in the beginning, we often failed in our endeavors, but that at last we should gain a habit, which will naturally produce its acts in us, without our care, and to our exceeding great delight. -Brother Lawrence

There are a seeming infinitude of priceless nuggets from this book. Out of respect for your time (and the sanity of my editor), I will restrain myself to a few examples.

The opening chapter is titled “Waking: Baptism and Learning To Be Beloved.” Like myself, Harrison wakes slowly. Describing her initial  moments, she writes, “We’ll spend our day conservative or liberal, rich or poor, earnest or cynical, fun-loving or serious. But as we first emerge from sleep, we are nothing but human, unimpressive, vulnerable, newly born into the day, blinking as our pupils adjust to light and our brains emerge into consciousness.”

Warren makes an astute connection between this initial state of the day and Jesus’ baptism: “Jesus emerges from the water a commoner, wet and messy haired. And suddenly the Spirit of God shows up and the deep mystery of the universe reverberates through the air: this is the Son of God, the Son of the Father loves, in whom he is pleased.” She adds, “The one who is worthy of worship, glory, and fanfare spent decades in obscurity and ordinariness. As if the incarnation itself is not mind-bending enough, the incarnate God spent his days quietly, a man who went to work, got sleepy, and lived a pedestrian life among average people.” Liturgy of the ordinary…

In the chapter titled “Eating Leftovers: Word, Sacrament, and Overlooked Nourishment,” Warren reflects on how Christian worship is arranged around word and sacrament: “[N. T.] Wright reminds us that in the upper room, right before Jesus’ death, he didn’t offer his followers theories of the atonement or recite a creed or explain precisely how his death would accomplish salvation. Instead, ‘he gave them an act to perform. Specifically, he gave them a meal to share. It is a meal that speaks more volumes than any theory.'” Reflecting an aspect from Crouch’s foreword, she goes on “Word and sacrament sustain my life, and yet they often do not seem life changing. Quietly, even forgettably, they feed me.”

And as glorious a gift it is to be created, to need, and to spring from love, the grand mystery is that family is often so unromantic, so everyday, so humble. We learn our nature not in grand gestures to save the world, but in the normal, everyday struggle to love, to encourage, to bless those beside us. -Evan Koons from For the Life of the World

This book makes a compelling case for the liturgical nature of daily activities for all people regardless of gender, class, or creed. If work is, as Lester DeKoster describes, how we make ourselves useful to others and to God, all of these mundane activities represent work and there is an inextricable link between this work and worship. Such thinking ought to connect the ideas of faith and work with audiences traditionally not included in this movement. This book also, for those in privileged situations, should expose the inherent, liturgical nature of daily life and provide an opportunity for thoughtful reflection and connection between our work and God’s work.

I heartily recommend Liturgy Of the Ordinary to your reading and study. I pray the book influences your thinking as it relates to the mundane activities of your day. Please pick up a copy from Hearts and Minds Books or your preferred book store.

 

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