Holy Ordinary Things
How we handle the tiny morsels of life is how we handle the holy mouthfuls.
Wendy is the person in our church who takes care of the details. She is the one who sorts through the candles after the Christmas Eve service, taking out the ones that burned too low, cleaning the ones that are discolored from the smoke. Wendy irons the drapes we hang on the front wall. She brings flowers from her home for our tables. Wendy is the one always ready to volunteer her home, her food, her capable hands.
One Sunday Wendy did something that caught me off guard. As we sat down after singing, with the scrapes of chairs filling the room, Wendy got up to arrange a long cloth across the arms the cross. She spent time moving the folds of the cloth, pulling them one way, then back again, so that the fabric would sit well. She did not rush even though we were all waiting. And it was her unhurried care for the cross that caught me. This small detail of intentional touch was as much a gift as was the big joy of announcing that we are resurrection people after all.
This was because, in that moment, Wendy affirmed that this incredibly ordinary detail was worth the time it took. In the simplest way, her care for this detail affirmed that this resurrected life is an incarnated, fleshed-out life. And that no matter how small, the tangibles of our life together deserve to be handled with the utmost of care.
Attention is our witness
I learned this when I led my first retreat. At the end of the weekend, we were expected to clean our rooms for the next guest. Now, I’m embarrassed to admit this, but as I was walking to my room I thought, “I shouldn’t have to do this. I’ve just led a whole weekend and I’m tired.” Then I passed by the room of a friend in her 70s; the door was open. I watched as she was worked the heavy vacuum around the room, stooping to pick up objects in the way, moving furniture, taking care and time to do the job well.
This woman, ordained, with a doctorate, accomplished and known, was physically attending to the ground she had been walking on. And I understood something then.
I understood that the work we are called by God to do is not separate from the ground we work on. That no idea about God or work we do for God is above the ordinary work and the ordinary details of daily life. This kind of attention to the everyday is not about being fussy or abstractedly reverential about the wrong things. It’s about how we handle God’s matter – the real stuff of God-life. Our understanding of the holy has to include the ordinary life it redeems or else it is nullified into just another idea. How we attend to the incarnate reality – the God-charged reality of our lives – will be how we witness to the redeeming presence of God in our lives.
This Christmas season, after so much virtual living within a culture of cynical efficiency mixed with “bigger is always better” paradigms, I wonder if a Christmas re-orienting to the holy ordinary things of life could offer real solace for our weary souls. Could generous and slow attention to the details of our gathering, the details of our food, our homes, our bodies and emotions be a life-giving way to worship our incarnate God? Might noticing God’s love and saving grace, fleshed out in the small ordinary moments, build the muscle of faith as the evidence of things unseen? Might we notice more, appreciate what is more? Might we love more skillfully? In our own souls, might handling the holy ordinary with loving-kindness affirm the deep groaning for the redemption of all things – down to all the details of our humanness, and the humanness of our neighbours?
In my teen years I was in churches where the “holy things” were done on stage. And what happened on the stage was the entire celebrated goal of the gathering. I never saw who worked in the kitchen making coffee. I never saw who cleaned up, who emptied the garbage, who collected the candles on Christmas Eve and sorted through them painstakingly. I never once saw the people who handled the things we used so that we could have our great and holy experiences. I never saw how real people touched those things or how they themselves were treated in those spaces. I never knew their stories, their experiences and I wasn’t looking to know. But I wish I had, because I needed desperately to know that this life with all its details was worth the love being offered to it. The truth we all long for is an incarnated truth and attending to the incarnated tasks, the earthen vessels, and embodied stories of others is a necessary discipline if we are going to say anything about truth.
How we handle the tiny morsels of life is how we handle the holy mouthfuls. The way Wendy, and those like her, handle the holy calls me to slow down, build more margin for tasks like moving the folds of cloth. Wendy calls me to attend to this holy existence I’ve been given. In this season of celebrating God-With-Us, I hope we see the Wendy’s in our lives and their grand affirmation that the ground we live on matters. Because matter itself matters to God. And if you are one of the Wendy’s, I hope you know that you lead us to real Jesus-life with every cup washed, candle cleaned and cloth folded.
And for this we give thanks.