Holy Ordinary

We often measure the depth of our spiritual lives by how we feel or the experiences we have had. I think that metric is born out of the way we structure our church calendars. We set aside Sunday as “the Lord’s day” in which we assemble to worship, and we orient the entire time together toward creating an experience of growth, excitement, and learning. Or we call people to go on spiritual retreats, getting away from their daily lives in order to truly draw close to God. We focus on intense Bible study, worship, and prayer, all with the intent purpose of creating an atmosphere in which people can deepen their connection with God. The same holds true for summer camp, Winterfest, and mission trips. None of these things are bad; indeed, they can be life-changing. But they also help create and perpetuate the “myth of the mountaintop”: that God can only be found in the larger-than-life moments that occur, times and places in which we expect God to show up. It is the belief that spiritual growth and deepening relationship are things that happen “out there,” away from the ordinary experiences of life.

That myth is more damaging than we might think. At least it was for me. There have been numerous times in my life in which I wondered why I wasn’t feeling close to God, and I thought the only way to fix it was to retreat and be with God, whether alone or in a group. But even if we get away we eventually have to return to our everyday existence of work, school, life, and the daily grind. If we believe that God can only be found in mountaintops and solitary places, then we might feel that God is absent in the everyday, ordinary events of our lives.

Most of life is ordinary, plain, and mundane. We get up, we eat breakfast, we go about our daily tasks. We work, study, cook, and clean. We spend time with friends and family. We work out or work around the house. We rest and relax. We sleep … and we do it all again the next day. Those are the wholly ordinary events of our days.

So, how can we make those wholly ordinary tasks moments of holiness? How can we make the wholly ordinary a holy ordinary?

I have learned a lot about that from a guy by the name of Nicolas. Nicolas Herman was born into poverty in France in the early 17th century. As a young man Nicolas joined the army because it was the only way to help his family make ends meet. It was during his time in the army that he was converted to Christ. His career ended, however, when he was injured in the midst of battle. After he was discharged from the military he decided he wanted to dedicate his life to Christian ministry, so he joined a Discalced monastery near Paris.

Nicolas was seen as too ordinary: he wasn’t educated enough to become a monk or a cleric. Instead, he was made a lay brother, one of the members of the monastery who would serve through manual labor to free the monks for service to the Lord. He was promptly put to work in the kitchens as a cook and dishwasher. Nicolas decided to use that time for his own spiritual growth. He began practicing “presence,” trying to use every moment of the day to remind himself that God was with him and God loved him. As he scrubbed dishes, he also prayed. As he cooked, he also conversed with God. As he washed floors, he also contemplated the love of God. He developed a personal spirituality of work, because he used each moment to also remind himself of the presence of God. Over time it became second nature to him; he stopped having to remind himself to practice the presence of God. Instead, he dwelled in the knowledge that God was always with him.

Nicolas believed that God could be found in the common business of life. He stated,

Men invent means and methods of coming at God’s love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God’s presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?… We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work. [1]

Nicolas had learned how to live out Paul’s words to the Colossians: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord” (3:23).

Indeed, this Parisian monastery became a place of pilgrimage for many during the 17th century. But these pilgrims did not come to study in the library, or worship with the monks, or spend time in silence and solitude, or solicit the abbot. They came to wash dishes with Nicolas and learn how to focus on God in every moment of life. [2]

He had learned how to live the holy ordinary.

So, how can you do the same? How can you use the mundane tasks of life to draw closer to God?

For me, cutting the grass is a holy moment. I am alone, just me and my thoughts and the hum of the lawnmower’s engine. I am out in nature, working hard, and I have about an hour of solitude. I spend that time in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is talking with God. Other times I am thinking about Scripture. Sometimes I am asking him questions or wrestling with life issues. Sometimes I am just silently being in his presence. Although I come in sweaty and dirty from my work, I also come in spiritually refreshed.

What might that ordinary moment be for you? Because I am convinced that our spiritual lives aren’t defined by the mountaintop experiences but, instead, by the ways in which we utilize and redeem the wholly ordinary moments of our daily lives.

[1] Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
[2] He was born Nicolas Herman, but he is better known by his assigned name “Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection,” and his life and story are found in the treatise Practicing the Presence of God.

Daniel McGraw is the senior minister of the West University Church of Christ in Houston, Texas. He is married to Megan and has two daughters, Hannah and Lydia, who teach him more about the love of God than any of his theology degrees ever has. He is a passionate, but wholly average, runner.

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Author:  Publish Date: December 23, 2016

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The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @ acu.edu.

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