Sacred and Fractured Days

The Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, author of The Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life.

By Elizabeth Glass Turner –

We live in fractured days. Life seems fractious (“irritable; quarrelsome”). We have pieces, slivers that don’t seem to fit well into a whole. Sunday school classes are tense and subjects begin to veer toward anything slightly controversial, and a sigh of relief is breathed as the topic shifts without explicit naming of the disagreeable. Pastors decide whether to weigh in on current events or keep silent – and how those courses of action might be interpreted by their church members. We run a series of shibboleths on authors before using their materials in our churches. There is suspicion of friends and neighbors, much less anyone we might broadly characterize as an enemy. No one knows what to believe; our thoughts are restless, our emotions strained.

These days are not new on the scene of global history. Consider comments such as “the whole city was in an uproar” found in Acts 16, 19, and 21.

Into our own fractured, fractious days enters The Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest. It was received well upon its 2016 publication, eventually being awarded Christianity Today’s Book of the Year, selected as the title that best embodies the “pursuit of Beautiful Orthodoxy.” Yet somehow it seems even more authoritatively steady as we round the bend of autumn in 2018, like a voice commanding stillness on angry waves – or ruptured sibling interactions in the enclosed space of a minivan. To anoint someone’s head with oil, they must first stay quite still and submit to your presence and movement. And if readers are willing to close screens and put away electronics and sit still, Warren stands in ready clarity to apply a much-needed touch of oil.

Anyone who can weave high church Anglican liturgy with the front cover image of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is likely to cast a compelling net, and Warren does. Reminiscent of Ann Voskamp’s writing on a one-piece life, Warren quietly demolishes our selfish motives for attempting to separate the sacred from the secular. There is no Sunday morning me and rest of the week me: there is me. There is no Bible teacher me and waiting at the gas station me: there is me. Her Christocentric point of reference for what it means for us to be human and holy is simply and frustratingly the Incarnation.

As Andy Crouch notes on the Incarnation in the Foreword, “The Word became flesh. The Word went fishing. The Word slept. The Word woke up with morning breath … this uniquely Christian belief is amazing, faintly horrifying, and life-changing.” So we do not get to outsource our holiness to monasteries, nor do we sink into the tricky sand of election and predestination. God became human; we humans now must work out the graces God has given us to become Godly.

The chapters tie together the process of moving through a single day with the rites, rituals, and liturgical calendar of the church universal. It’s an inspired move: as Warren begins the volume with a chapter on Waking Up, she reflects on the significance of waking up as baptized believers.

“As Christians, we wake each morning as those who are baptized. We are united with Christ and the approval of the Father is spoken over us,” she writes. “We are marked from our first waking moment by an identity that is given to us by grace: an identity that is deeper and more real than any other identity we will don that day. And before we begin the liturgies of our day – the cooking, sitting in traffic, emailing, accomplishing, working, resting – we begin beloved.”

Warren continues to knot tightly the realities of Sunday morning and Monday morning by dwelling on the value of remembering our baptism as we slowly become conscious upon waking in the morning: we remember we are recipients of undeserved grace, beloved as we are, “with messy hair and bad breath, unproductive, groping toward the day.” Before we make ourselves presentable, we receive grace. Before we accomplish anything, our identity is rooted in being beloved.

Right off the bat, then, as Warren continues her reflection just on something as ordinary and unexamined as waking up in the morning, she is reordering our priorities and tying us firmly to Christ. Jesus saw us as helpless babies, Jesus sees us in our greasy-haired, grumpy, ungroomed state, and proactively sends grace to chase us down, and we receive it in baptism.

That most Christians do not wake up alert and thankful to remember their baptism is something Warren seems highly aware of, with poignant illustrations from her own life of shortcoming, anxiety, and defensiveness. Yet she pushes the reader with authoritative insistence that we can develop habits that will remind us of just how potent the sacred is in everyday living, which usually means spiraling back, always and keenly, onto Christ:

“Christ’s ordinary years are part of our redemption story. Because of the incarnation and those long, unrecorded years of Jesus’ life, our small, normal lives matter,” Warren writes. “If Christ was a carpenter, all of us who are in Christ find that our work is sanctified and made holy. If Christ spent time in obscurity, then there is infinite worth found in obscurity. There is no task too small or too routine to reflect God’s glory and worth.”

Warren continues to celebrate the magnificence of the small as she travels through the reader’s day: making the bed opens up space to contemplate the value, for good or ill, of ritual. After removing her smartphone from her bedroom for Lent and spending the first few moments of her day quietly sitting on her tidily made bed instead of scrolling through social media, she notes, “I began to notice, very subtly, that my day was imprinted differently. The first activity of my day, the first move I made, was not that of a consumer, but that of a colaborer with God.”

The following chapters – touching on Brushing Teeth: Standing, Kneeling, Bowing, and Living in a Body, or Eating Leftovers: Word, Sacrament, and Overlooked Nourishment, or Fighting with My Husband: Passing the Peace and the Everyday Work of Shalom, to name a few – continue to press relentlessly into our normal, average days. With wry self-awareness of her own shortcomings, she tracks down the overlooked moments of our lives with fastidious care, illustrating their ability to make or break us – and those around us – depending on our posture toward each moment and toward Jesus. If most authors make the mistake of painting in broad strokes, allowing readers wiggle room to justify and brush off, Warren pins down and tightens loopholes so that our sly, dodgeful selves can’t successfully escape the daily call of Christ.

If it sounds domestic, it is – yet it never belittles the domestic. However, the domestic is not left as a boring battleground of attempting to keep our temper while looking for lost keys. Every time Warren parses out the symbolism of liturgy, the reader is reminded that the domestic is valuable in itself; yet it also takes part in a sweeping epic of the church universal and God’s redeeming work in the cosmos. In the chapter Sitting in Traffic – Liturgical Time and an Unhurried God, Warren remembers her move from casual Protestant life to the discovery of the liturgical calendar:

“Discovering the liturgical calendar felt like discovering real time. It gave transcendent shape to my life,” she confesses. “Time was no longer arbitrary – an academic calendar, a marketing ploy, a back to school sale, a Labor Day blowout, a national holiday, a sports season. Now time was sacred. It was structured by worship. It marked the church as a global, alternative people. Time had shape and meaning. All of a sudden, time was a story. And I could live in a story.”

And this is part of how Warren successfully drives the liturgy of the church straight into the heart of our days: as she digs into the humdrum elements of life, she cites confessions and prayers; she calls out voices like Brother Lawrence, C.S. Lewis, Dom Gregory Dix, Madeleine L’Engle, G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, B.B. Warfield, and Dostoevsky. Together with these and others, she hones in the value of being embodied; of living in time and space. She never wanders far from thoughts of the Incarnation of Jesus, and sees even mind-numbing paperwork as an anvil on which to work out our salvation. Sanctification is not packaged into once a year altar calls: it is relentlessly, decisively daily, as we sit in the car wash or browse Hulu.

We live in fractured days. We ourselves confess that we are fractious: irritable, quarrelsome. And even the most devout among us might not intuitively step where Warren leads: the patterns of liturgy, the demands of the liturgical calendar. But it is a good step toward our own wholeness, and the wholeness of our loved ones, our congregations, and our world. In our restless tension, it can seem satisfying to gorge on the news or stay frantically alert for the newest update or development. In our suspicion and wariness, it can seem tempting to appoint ourselves arbiter of every dispute. Yet Warren does what is needed: she gently untangles our sense of urgency and anxiety, and ties us snugly to the rituals and liturgy that can reorder our days if only we allow them to. Because rituals and liturgy are both practiced in time yet timeless, the promise of Liturgy of the Ordinary is that it will remain a classic because we will always need it to reorder fracture into wholeness.

Elizabeth Glass Turner is a frequent and beloved contributor to Good News. In addition to being a writer and speaker, she is Managing Editor of WesleyanAccent.com.

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