Cleaning Dishes as a Revolutionary Act

"Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes."—P.J. O'Rourke
Appears in Winter 2016 Issue: Cultural Jigs
December 1st, 2016
Liturgy of the OrdinaryIntervarsity Press, 2016. 192 pp.


As our elementary school kids marched in the local high school's homecoming parade one crisp fall evening recently, my friend Kate described the meal she'd thrown together for her family out of items she happened to have in her pantry: "Oh, it was just taco soup.""No, no," I thought to myself. "I now know that there's no such thing as just taco soup."

I knew this because I had just finished reading "Eating Leftovers," a chapter of Tish Harrison Warren's Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practice in Everyday Life. The book is a walk through an ordinary day in her ordinary life, from the moment she wakes up until the moment she heads to bed. "Eating Leftovers" occurs about halfway through the book, which means we're at lunchtime. And what is the lunch she has us ponder as a window into the sacred? You guessed it. Taco soup.

Warren reminds us of the importance of receiving what is set before us each day as a gift from God.

Through this simple soup, made from canned vegetables, Warren reminds us of the importance of receiving what is set before us each day as a gift from God. By this she means both the food we eat and the life circumstances we face. She points out that most of our meals are utterly forgettable; yet such unremarkable fare sustains us throughout our lives. So it is, she says, with worship. We have a penchant for passionate, memorable worship experiences, but Warren reminds us that Word and sacrament sustain us even when unremarkable. What we receive from the hand of God in worship is consistent nourishment. We do not always need exciting, extraordinary spiritual ecstasy, but daily bread.

A simple, quotidian habit of eating lunch, leftovers or otherwise, can serve as a daily prompt to consider our identity in Christ, our relationship with God's creation and God's vulnerable people, our posture toward daily life. Leftovers are not, Warren writes convincingly, "theologically neutral." We do not eat this soup primarily as individualistic consumers, but as beloved children of God. And this God, who has drawn us into his family, is a God who knows each harvester by name and who cares about the land he created and redeemed. This is a God who calls us into relationship with himself not merely to consume for our own satisfaction but "to cultivate, steward, and bless." But how is it that we move from wiling away the lunch hour to seeing it with the eyes Warren describes?

This is where she points to another simple, consistent habit: the Eucharist. Like opening and closing the refrigerator, we can begin to take for granted the wonder of opening our hands to receive the bread and closing our mouths on the Communion cup. And yet whether it "feels" like an extraordinary moment or not, the Holy Spirit feeds and shapes us through this grace-infused practice. We are knit together as God's family in and through Jesus Christ, "so that we are no longer people marked by scarcity, jockeying for our own good, but are new people, truly nourished, and therefore able to extend nourishment to others."

We need this communal nourishment because on a daily basis, we are consistently shaped by other forces that reduce our identity to that of individualistic consumer. As Warren points out, the desire for a profound spiritual experience and the desire for cheap canned goods share something in common: a consumer mentality that forms people to look out for what's best for them, personally, privately.

We do not always need exciting, extraordinary spiritual ecstasy, but daily bread.

Church Shopping

This consumerist approach to life and faith not only keeps us from attending to the invisible workers who make our consumption possible but also, as Paul Louis Metzger argues in Consuming Jesus, contributes to the perpetuation of a very visible problem in our churches: racial and economic division. As Christians unwittingly approach church looking for what will suit their needs and tastes, and as church leaders seek to offer what will most make attendees comfortable, they are perpetuating a consumer mentality shaped by forces that are often at odds with the gospel.

Like Warren, Metzger is hopeful that coming together as a family around the Lord's Table can "change our appetites and eating habits: we need to leave the segregated table and its consumerist bacchanalia and gather at the table of repentance and reconciliation." Over time, by the grace of God, instead of being consumed by our own self-seeking consumerism, "Jesus' allconsuming vision and prayer to remove divisions and make us all one, as he and the Father are one, should consume us."

Eating lunch is but one of the pieces of the daily liturgy that Warren explores, rooted in the underlying conviction that our everyday habits are in truth formative practices ("liturgies") that both reveal and shape what we love and worship. Being attentive to these daily practices serves at least two functions. One is to invite reflection on those practices that are being used by God to further shape us into God's people who love and seek the things God loves. The other is to bring to light practices that are malforming us, shaping our desires away from God and his kingdom. For these, we need to consider new habits that God can use to form us into more faithful disciples.

So the boring, daily repetitive stuff of life, like making the bed in the morning, which in Warren's life replaced her daily habit of grabbing her smartphone first thing, can form us to remember that we are co-labourers with God in this world. Brushing our teeth can point us to the reality that we are embodied creatures who inhabit an embodied faith made possible by a God who became so thoroughly human that he himself may have had bad breath. Looking in the mirror can become a practice of seeing the truth of who we are in Christ—beloved children of God whose bodies are a gift from God—rather than the usual stocktaking of our flaws and imperfections.

We need this communal nourishment because on a daily basis, we are consistently shaped by other forces that reduce our identity to that of individualistic consumer.

And so Warren moves through the day, inviting us—no, more strongly—calling us to see how even things like losing our keys and checking our email and getting stuck in traffic can be occasions for confessing how angry we become when we lose control, and for joining God in the work he is doing in this world through our vocations, and for acknowledging that we are supposed to be a people marked by patience as we wait and hope for Christ's return.

We cannot, Warren maintains, be Christians who seek kingdom revolution in the big things without allowing God to shape us through the small things of daily life. Reading these convictions, I think of the witness of Corrie Ten Boom. For the first five decades of her life, no one would have seemed a more unlikely revolutionary. But soon after the Nazi regime took over her city in the 1940s, she moved from a quiet, behind-the-scenes kind of person to a ringleader in the Dutch underground. Some of my students read her memoir, The Hiding Place, earlier this semester. They were struck by the ways the Ten Boom family's simple, daily, repetitive rhythms of church, prayer, Bible study, work, and hospitality shaped Corrie and her family into people who were willing to risk their lives as they opened their home to be a hiding place for persecuted Jews.

What will it take for us today to be like the Ten Boom family, shaped by God through consistent, small habits and attentive to God in the quotidian rhythms of life? And what is lost when we lose the importance of the ordinary and the repetitive in favour of the revolutionary and the novel? The concern here is not, What are we missing out on? but, What are the ways we are unable to seek God's kingdom, justice, and righteousness because we have not been shaped into people with roots deep enough to sustain us in hard kingdom work?

Give us this day

More concisely, as Warren writes, "You can't get to the revolution without learning to do the dishes." And yet she confesses, "I often want to skip the boring, daily stuff to get to the thrill of an edgy faith. But it's in the dailyness of the Christian faith—the making the bed, the doing the dishes, the praying for our enemies, the reading the Bible, the quiet, the small—that God's transformation takes root and out of which it grows."

Our everyday habits are in truth formative practices ("liturgies") that both reveal and shape what we love and worship.

This conviction is in fact far more revolutionary than Warren acknowledges because it requires rejecting not only our identity as consumers but also an economic value system that has invisibly but consistently shaped us to believe that our productivity is what matters most. As David Matzko McCarthy reminds us in Sex and Love in the Home, the market economy officially acknowledges only that which has monetary value. Activities that are not monetarily productive, such as housekeeping, caregiving, church involvement, and civic service, are not recognized within current economic measures.

The effect of this institutional reality, according to McCarthy, is that the items Warren calls us to reclaim as important are devalued very intentionally by a market economy that is voraciously competing for our time. Many of us either outsource our housework or get it done as quickly as possible because we are shaped by market forces which suggest that the behind-the-scenes menial labour of the home is unimportant. In Keeping House, Margaret Kim Peterson points to a cultural irony here. While many of us have come to minimize the importance of attending to basic material needs, at the same time we have been shaped by commercially established standards of housekeeping and hospitality that are almost impossible to attain. This makes it difficult both to cherish the little things of housekeeping and to open our homes to others even when the dishes are not done and all we have to offer is leftover taco soup.

Indeed, if McCarthy is right, the private home as a place through which we might shape the public good is not acknowledged. In our dominant cultural models, home is a private, internally focused refuge that we inhabit at an intentional remove from the public world of work out there, not an open space that consistently invites others in, depends on others (without paying them), and forms those who come in and go out to seek social transformation.

To live into the vision that Warren is offering— to find sacredness in the everyday practices of life—will require that we engage with these and other institutional realities in our midst. The small stuff, the daily habits—yes. And we must allow these small, daily habits to help us reimagine some of the big stuff—otherwise it will just be small enclaves of quotidian mysterylovers within larger structures that inhibit us from receiving the gift of the ordinary from God's hand and being shaped to seek the good of others in this world.

 

Kristen Deede Johnson is Associate Professor of Theology and Christian Formation at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. She and Bethany Hanke Hoang wrote the award-winning The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance (Brazos Press, 2016). Previous publications include Theology, Political Theory, and Pluralism: Beyond Tolerance and Difference (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and an array of articles and books chapters related to theology, culture, and political theory. She is married to Trygve Johnson, the Dean of the Chapel at Hope College. Together they have a son, age eight, and a daughter, age five.

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