God of the Chaos and the Mundane
Some verses from the book of Ecclesiastes:
Seize life! Eat bread with gusto,
Drink wine with a robust heart.
Oh yes - God takes pleasure in your pleasure!
Dress festively every morning.
Don't skimp on colours and scarves.
Relish life with the spouse you love [or the friends, or the family]
Each and every day of your precarious life.
Each day is God's gift. It's all you get in exchange
For the hard work of staying alive.
Make the most of each one!
Whatever turns up, grab it and do it. And heartily!
This is your last and only chance at it.
For there's neither work to do nor thoughts to think
In the company of the dead, where you're most certainly headed.
(Ecclesiastes 9: 7-10)
Throughout Lent, I've been talking a bit about practices for a simple life - practices of solitude, of asceticism, of right livelihood, of confidence. Many of us in Lent chose to take up a habit that was related to prayer, desiring to build into our lives the spaces for contemplation and stillness that we know will centre and ground us in the busyness of our days. And many of us struggled with maintaining that practice, with finding the time to connect with ourselves and God in the rush of things.
I have a star chart on my fridge. It's my way of encouraging myself to do the things I have chosen...not just for Lent, but in an ongoing way. I get one star each day I do my 20 minute Centering Prayer practice. I get a red heart sticker each day if during the day I take at least one restorative half hour to do something for my soul and body together - whether that's a walk, or yoga, or sitting under a tree, or being still and listening to music.
If, out of a possible 14 stickers, I get 10 in a week, then I get a reward. Last week I got three stickers in total. The week before I didn't reach 10 either. But I'll keep going, because these are things that I know I need, and if bribery and manipulation of my self are the only way of making them happen, then so be it.
At the same time as focusing on these things, I'm also starting to read this book: In the Midst of Chaos - Care of Children as Spiritual Practice. And this book is affirming the ways in which we can practice knowing God right in the midst of activity and mess and preoccupation. In some ways, it's the opposite of the Holy Way, our Lenten book. In the Midst of Chaos affirms that there are times in our lives where it is simply impossible to engage in the kind of spiritual practices that involve removing ourselves from others for any length of time, and being still and silent. There are seasons in our life when we need to learn that our activity can also be a spiritual practice, that spirituality isn't put 'on hold' while we get through the busyness. That isn't just a message for parents, it could apply variously to people whose ministry in the world is structured in such a way as to make contemplation very difficult.
It is for these people that the words of Ecclesiastes I read earlier are a great affirmation. 'Whatever turns up, grab it and do it, and heartily!' They talk about seizing life, making the most of work and activity, taking opportunity as God's gift, enjoying food and wine and love. These words affirm that God enjoys our enjoyment, and does not wish us to be constantly in a phase of self-denial or solitude. In fact, these words from Ecclesiastes seem linked to that famous phrase from Irenaeus: 'the glory of God is a person fully alive.' As we seek to live in ways that relish the gift of each day, appreciating and responding to the good things of life, we give glory to God, and God is made present through our everyday living.
I think it's important not to have the mindset that in order to 'be Christians' in the midst of everyday life, that we have to somehow force ourselves to remember God explicitly all the time, or to 'bring God into' our work or our play. That makes God one more thing on the to-do list, one more ball to keep juggling in the air along with everything else. It puts God on a leash, like a recalcitrant puppy that we have to drag along with us wherever we go. The idea that the only way to practice the presence of God is by constantly thinking about God is similar to the mentality that a conversation with another person is only spiritually significant if we've mentioned Jesus by name, or that 'Christian' music needs to have overtly religious lyrics.
It is good to take specific times to recognise and give thanks to God for the gift of life and provision - such as meals. And from time to time it is good to bring our concerns and stresses to God throughout the day. But the rest of the time, I think that we can trust that we are 'in' God as we go about all our tasks, and that our job is to be fully present, mindful, and alive to each moment - alive to what the day has to teach us, and what we have to give in it.
The author of In the Midst of Chaos describes finding the balance between contemplation on the one hand, and knowing God in the midst of activity on the other, as a tightrope. She isn't validating one over the other, but seeking to find ways of enabling both, while recognising that some periods in life will tend us more to one than the other.
When I imagine these different approaches, I see them as a kind of vortex, like a spinning top where two colours whirl together, and blend and separate. As individuals, and together as a church community, I think it's our role to acknowledge both, and to resource both, to seek to sustain both and encourage both in each other's lives. Practices of withdrawal and simplicity create in us the character and the centred-ness to be able to engage with the world with joy and love, rather than out of our habits and egos. And practices of work and family life and the service of others are ways of knowing God, and seeing God, and giving expression to the God who gifts us with the time and the energy to live well and fully.
Discernment is necessary to know what we most need at any given point. For the person whose busyness is driven or unhealthy, and who fears silence, it may be convenient, but not helpful, to focus only on seeking God in ordinary activity. And for the person who shuns 'worldliness', and who secretly finds engagement with the world stressful, it is convenient, but perhaps foolish, for them to insist that their true spirituality lies with their retreat from the world.
I think that this discernment comes from keeping ourselves in the rhythm of Christian worship and community...as much as is possible given the other demands on our time. While we acknowledge that spirituality is possible in the midst of things, not just in withdrawal from activity, it takes moments of re-orientation, or deliberate engagement with Christian ritual, to determine what that needs to look like for us.
Rhythms and patterns help us to organise our time so as to give shape to the chaos. With rhythms and patterns of ritual and community life, we regularly remind ourselves of our values and our identity. You can't go out and run a marathon without doing a training programme of regular running. In the same way, regularly remembering who we are as Christians develops the internal muscle we need to be able to respond to the busyness of the everyday as people of faith, not just people of whim or necessity. The messy busyness of life is only infused with God for us if we have some traction on who God is, and who we are in God. Otherwise, we may well be deluding ourselves that our personal shambles is a life fully lived!
These rhythms and patterns include observing the church year - the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Creationtide...
They can include weekly Sabbath, which might include community worship.
They include things like our monthly communion, or annual community events like feasts or festivals.
Our rhythms of remembrance can happen in the home, including daily things like meals, or prayer, or family time.
I personally enjoy linking the rhythm of the Christian year up with the seasons of the natural year - spring, summer, autumn, winter, and the solstices and equinoxes.
In these ways, we remind ourselves that we belong to God, and we restore the plumb line that we'll use to measure our choices and priorities in the days and weeks ahead. That way, we can immerse ourselves fully into the flux and crisis and busyness of life, knowing that we have a way of recalling ourselves to our best selves with the rhythms we've established along the way.
This idea is beautifully expressed in a poem by Joy Cowley, called 'Hands'. She writes:
This morning, Lord,
these hands planted silver beet,
fed chooks, children, cat, sparrows,
and skimmed pips off a batch of plum jam.
This morning, like any other day,
there were beds to make, washing to be done,
and a patch sown on the knee of a child's jeans.
This afternoon, Lord,
one of these hands got a blister from the axe handle
and the other, a splinter from kindling wood,
but the afternoon brought deeper pain
when my hands closed tight to hide anxiety
then later opened to brush away tears
before anyone could notice.
It's been a day of ups and downs
with not much quiet in between.
Now, this evening, Lord,
I come forward to receive you
and hold out these hands like a cup
for the bread of your sacred body.
And I discover
that as you bless my hands with your presence,
so do you bless all their efforts.
All the planting, baking, cleaning, mending,
everything touched, everything tended,
all my fears and tears, my loving, my hurting,
the whole-up-and-down day, Lord,
is suddenly Eucharist.
The way I read this poem, I see someone who is active, with many tasks, and probably many interruptions, some of them good, and some of them painful. In this day, there has been 'not much quiet'. This is not the life of the hermit. But at the end of the day, there's a sacrament. A moment of receiving God's gift of the Eucharist. And in the moment of that gift, all of the busyness and the toil is transformed - it is remembered and blessed, and recognised as time where God has been present.
I invite you to take a moment now, to take a pen or pencil and make a list of all the things you have done with your hands in the past few days - your work tasks, the emails you've typed, the cups of coffee you've poured, the nappies you've changed, the nails you've hammered...your tasks in the home...the dishes washed, the gardening, the laundry, the bathing of a child, your voluntary acts and the things you have done grudgingly...things that have blessed, things that have built, things that have hurt. Use Joy Cowley's poem as inspiration.
And now, if you want to, cup your hands in front of you. Look at them carefully. Bless them for their usefulness, for their contribution to your life. If you want, close your eyes. Then, with whatever visual image seems helpful to you, imagine God also blessing your hands. And know that through your hands, God is also blessing and renewing that list of things that your hands have done in the last week. Stay with that experience for a moment. Then open your eyes.