Such a day of small things, still, but on God’s terms, and that is enough. 1 January 1902
The last day of January and only now am I penning my new year thoughts. I love a new year, ripe with new opportunity and fresh starts. Yet I have long abandoned new year resolutions, knowing I might as well copy/paste the same from years – decades – past. Nothing changes much. Still want to lose 20 pounds, exercise daily and achieve balance in my schizophrenic life of action/reflection. Still have closets to clean, files (no, piles!) to sort and a mountain of written work to attend.
Clearly I’m already hopelessly behind on January. Where did the month go, this supposed new start to a brand new year?! Keeping Christmas decorations up through Epiphany got January off to a late start. Tasks, events, visits, visitors dot the calendar filling up the days. Still I’m determined not to allow January to slip past me without taking stock of the year past and, in light of that, consider the year to come.
So . . . no more “resolutions,” rather a time to reflect on: “What’s next?” “What do I want this year to look like?” “What have I learned from last year?” “How can I correct the imbalances in my life style?” And a time to lay my soul bare before God asking, “What do You want for me this year? What do You want from me?”
The lead quote from Lilias is one I have reflected on many times but this time for a different reason. I note this journal entry was made the first day of the year – 1902 – adding to it the weight of a new start. The previous year had been a difficult year for Lilias and her team. Hightened political unrest resulted in severely curtailed itineration in places where people had received the Gospel gladly. Even so she saw some rays of light as she entered the new year with the opening of a mission station in the nearby village of Blida and the recruitment of some French-speaking workers who could reach places from which the English workers had been restricted. She rejoiced in the possibilities of the year to come while acknowledging the challenges past and present. The backward/forward assessment of life and ministry was standard annual procedure for Lilias and from these reflections invariably evolved a “theme” for the year to follow.
As I reflect on the past year I identify high points that mark the calendar: family visits and our annual beach vacation, wonderful opportunities to introduce the legacy of Lilias to a broader audience, happy moments with friends, some serendipitous getaways for Dave and me. There were challenging times as well. Low points. Yet, in reality, most of the days of my year were ordinary days – just as are most of the days of the liturgical year. And I can assume the same for this new year. The high points are to be savored; the low points to be survived. The true challenge – perhaps the goal for this year – is to live out the practices and duties of the ordinary days with grace, beauty, and joy.
Christianity Today published their pick of the top 100 books for 2018. At the top of the list was, Liturgy of the Ordinary, by Tish Harrison Warren. I loved the title before I read the book. I loved the book! Warren’s thesis supported my reality and framed the evolving focus for my new year: “In overlooked moments and routines, we can become aware of God’s presence in surprising ways.” She goes on to explore, chapter by chapter, how we can embrace the “sacred in the ordinary and the ordinary in the sacred.” Beginning with “waking” and ending with “sleeping” each chapter begins with the simple daily functions of the particular then explores the deeper significance and potential splendor of these homely, yes, ordinary functions and routines.
A commencement address at the University of Texas, by Navy SEAL Admiral William McRaven, “Change your World by Making Your Bed,” went viral with its down to earth practical perspective. “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day,” he said. “It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another, and another. And by the end of the day that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed.” Simplistic as it may sound, coming from the Commander of the Special Forces that organized the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, adds considerable heft to his insight: the significance of performing well the little duties in ones daily routine – in war or peace!
Fact is, most of what we do in a given day is ordinary. Our days are comprised of countless “little things” yet it is the seemingly trivial functions and duties that create the context for the extra-ordinary. Dr. Samuel Johnson, 18th century literary figure, wrote: “It must be remembered that life consists not of a series of illustrious actions, or elegant enjoyments; the greater part of our time passed in compliance with necessities, in the performance of daily duties, in the removal of small inconveniences, in the procurement of petty pleasures.”
Ms. Warren lifts Johnson’s observation to an even higher level noting that it is in the ordinary practices of daily living – making the bed, brushing ones teeth, losing keys, eating left overs, fighting with a spouse, checking emails, sitting in traffic, calling a friend, drinking tea – that we “experience God’s presence.” It is in all the actions of the hours of the day that the profane can be transformed to the sacred – depending on the spirit in which they are attended. Many are familiar with the “apron pocket prayers” of Brother Lawrence who, assigned dreaded (by him) kitchen duty, resolved to “do the little things for the love of God.”
Lilias sums her new year’s thoughts about “small things” with a Biblical perspective, casting them in the context of “God’s terms” adding “and that is enough.” It is enough to be faithful in the little things assigned us in the course of an ordinary day – of which most years hold in plenty. But what elevates those “small things” above the ordinary is that we approach them“on God’s terms.”
There will be highlights and low points in the new year. That is a given. I have not abandoned my goals, my lists. I will drag out my stationary bike and write up my objectives for this year. But my challenge – the “theme” – of this new year (the eleven months left of it) – is to intentionally embrace the ordinary of each new day . . to lay my soul open before God to ascertain His terms . . . to be obedient and faithful to what I know is my duty and to what He reveals . . . and to be fully open to the surprise of God’s Presence in the ordinary – and the extraordinary!
Painting from Parables of the Christ-life