“Finding the Sacred in the Ordinary”

Is life as futile as it sometimes seems? The writer of Ecclesiastes laments that all is vanity and the only rational reaction is to eat, drink, and be merry. (Ecclesiastes 8:12) In Greek mythology, King Sisyphus is made to endlessly roll a huge boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll down, over and over again. When life is beginning to feel like that, I need to take a deep breath, pray the Serenity Prayer, then challenge my limited perception and open myself to the biblical witness of the presence of God and the sacred in every moment, and maybe especially in the most ordinary and mundane. How do I receive this day as a gift and live it courageously?

Alfred Hitchcock said movies are “life with the dull bits cut out”. Yep. That’s what I want—or do I? Tish Harrison Warren writes: Yet God made us to spend our days in rest, work, and play, taking care of our bodies, our families, our neighbors, our homes. What if all these boring parts matter to God? What if days passed in ways that feel small and insignificant to us are weighty with meaning and part of the abundant life that God has for us? Indeed. What if?

A few months ago, my granddaughter Cecily was helping me in the yard, and I heard her say as she carried a water bucket; “Chop wood…carry water.” Somewhere along the way she’d heard the heart of the ancient Zen saying: “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” Life is not lived on the mountaintop, but in the ordinary tasks of everyday life. The redemptive biblical message, exemplified in Jesus, is that faithfulness is the essential core of the life God created us to live. Faithfulness in the everyday little things of life, matter to God and ultimately add up to who we are. Anne Dillard is right: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

“Whoever is faithful in small matters will be faithful in large ones; whoever is dishonest in small matters will be dishonest in large ones.”  (Luke 16:10) Jesus was talking specifically about money, but the principle is applicable to all of life. When the disciples were arguing about fame and fortune in the kingdom they were sure Jesus was launching, Jesus talked about the faithfulness of service. (Mark 10:35-45) And when he was gathered with his disciples in the upper room for the Passover meal on the eve of Good Friday, he was the one who washed their feet. Then he told them to do the same for each other, and that love, in the midst of what was an ordinary task in every household in Jerusalem at that time, would be the defining quality of his followers. (John 13)

Every new day dawns as a gift from God. This is the day the LORD has made; We will rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24) I’ll be the first to confess that joy isn’t one of the first adjectives I’d pick for my reaction to the new day, especially when the gift of this day is the myriad of daily tasks that you and I have done hundreds, or perhaps thousands of times: Cooking; washing dishes; tubs of laundry; work; kids here; kids there; homework; bills. Oops…I forgot…starting the day by making the bed is an occasion for joy? Yet the Bible tells us over and over again that God is present in each and every moment. The Psalmist was filled with wonder at God’s presence and knowledge:  LORD, you have examined me and you know me. You know everything I do; from far away you understand all my thoughts. You see me, whether I am working or resting; you know all my actions. (Psalm 139:1-3)

Day after day, we build and live our lives moment by moment, one small action at a time. Stefani Rossi offered this observation: I hazard a guess that very few people strive to be ordinary. We have learned that ordinary is synonymous with some sort of lack—lack of talent or ambition, lack of opportunity or education, lack of effort, lack of relevance or significance. But the lineage of the word suggests that it originally connoted regular order. To be ordinary was not initially to want for some version of uniqueness, but rather to exist in a state of ordered living—of making your bed daily, turning the compost at regular intervals, and gathering with people even when there is no great reason for celebration.

To the Colossians, the Apostle Paul wrote: Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as though you were working for the Lord and not for people. Remember that the Lord will give you as a reward what he has kept for his people. For Christ is the real Master you serve.(Colossians 3:23-24)  He was celebrating the sacred in the ordinary day-to-day faithfulness. I’m reminded of Jesus telling the parable of the sheep and goats when he praised those who served the people at the margins. The punch line was, “When you’ve done it for the least of these, you’re done it for me.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

As we gather for a celebration of the Lord’s Supper this Sunday, we celebrate God’s presence in the ordinary bread and juice. We do the same for our lives. As our Confession of 1967 declared: Life is a gift to be received with gratitude and a task to be pursued with courage.