Attending to Ordinary Stuff
It is sometimes good to focus directly upon the near-sacredness of our daily moments.
As I write, we are in the Christmas season, and the phrase "comfort and joy" comes to mind as I think about this regular feature of Comment—"delights and comforts." Unlike some publications designed to equip Christians to involve themselves with the issues of the day, Comment not only challenges us to think Christianly—probing the deepest ideas and practices that shape contemporary culture and how we might be God's agents of societal reformation—but it also reminds us, with each Delights & Comforts column, that we are to reflect God's image as embodied people, taking joy (and comfort, when necessary) in the quotidian. As the Apostle Paul reminds us more than once, we are to do all things to God's glory, and that surely involves attending to ordinary stuff: eating and drinking and working, as he puts it.
Yes, the season's glad tidings are of comfort and joy. In Christ there is hope and renewal, from the largest matters of policy to the seemingly insignificant matters of daily pleasures. God cares about it all.
Of course, Comment's neocalvinist worldview tradition insists that since God made the world good—and Christ's Word upholds it all, still—his redemptive work throughout all the cosmos forms the basis for our affirmation of creational comfort and joys, good human experiences that are ordinary, down-to-earth, and real. We don't necessarily need to find a "spiritual epiphany" while enjoying the beauty of a red sunrise or a red wine; God made these things as gifts, and that is enough. We don't have to "do evangelism" at work in order to affirm that our work is deeply meaningful and relevant. We don't need to cite a Bible verse to affirm an insightful movie or enjoyable pop song. We can apply, to an array of comforts and joys, the simple truth stated in a book title by Dutch Reformed scholar Hans Rookmaaker more than 30 years ago: Art Needs No Justification (InterVarsity Press, 1978).
Yet, it is sometimes good to focus directly upon the relationship between God and ordinary life. I take great, great pleasure from a genre of writing that might be called the occasional essay, especially those that tend to honour the near-sacredness of our daily moments. It is fabulous when a fine writer can hold up the ways (as an old hymn put it) "where cross the crowded ways of life . . . we hear Your voice, O Son of Man." Our dull hearts sometimes need reminding that this world's structure and beauty manifests "God's glossolalia," as Calvin Seerveld says in a reflection on Psalm 19, in Rainbows for the Fallen World (Toronto Tuppence Press, 1980).
Here, then, for your comfort and delight: a few titles that have provided pleasure to me for their lovely writing, their devotional assurances and their helpful reminders that, indeed, this world is the theatre of the Divine.
Spotting the Sacred: Noticing God in the Most Unlikely Places, by Bruce Main (Baker Books). Main is a solid writer, a good preacher, a master storyteller and an urban activist in Camden, New Jersey, where he directs UrbanPromise. Here he helps us see the little signs of God's presence and activity around us, even in surprising settings. As Richard Mouw writes, "Main has learned to look beyond the sacred page to discover what God is doing in the world around him. And what he has found in his looking is very exciting stuff."
The Play of Light: Observations and Epiphanies in the Everyday World, by Louis Masson (Cowley Publications). The author is a literature professor, a devout Catholic and a spectacular writer. As one of our finest essayists, Brian Doyle, says, "Dry-witted, sharp-eyed, large-hearted, absorbed by water and courage and children, a poet of the miracle of the moment, and an essayist of startling lyricism, grace, and mercy."
The Quantity of a Hazelnut, by Fae Malania (Seabury Books). What a beautiful little volume, a compact paperback, now re-issued after being out of print for decades. Born in 1919, Ms Malania was a staff writer for Mademoiselle and a serious Episcopalian thinker and writer. Books & Culture editor John Wilson calls it "a very good book indeed . . . quietly unforgettable." I truly love this book, and it is a great example of what Lauren Winner calls "musings on the everyday." It draws its title from one of the mystical visions of Julian of Norwich, where she sees the meaning of all creation in a small hazelnut in her hand. As Winner notes in her eloquent foreword, this small book is like that. It can unlock a world, helping us see how sin and the brokenness of creation are vanquished by Christ's blood and the gentle implications for daily life.
The Sacred Ordinary: Embracing the Holy in the Everyday, by Leigh McLeroy (Revell). McLeroy has written several good devotional works for evangelical women, and the soft cover here may suggest it is mostly written for ladies. I rather like the look—a sensuous green pear on the cover—and greatly appreciated these 112 daily meditations. (She had me on the first one, about the odd contents of a junk drawer near her kitchen.) I read through a bunch in one sitting, but it is designed to be read and prayerfully considered in a daily quiet time. The reflections are arranged under categories of ordinary people, places, things, moments and words.
Harbors of Heaven: Bethlehem and the Places We Love, by Jeffrey Johnson (Cowley Publications). I first came across Johnson, a Lutheran pastor, as a poet in a Christian literary journal. Here, he does Bible study, personal reflection, memoir and literary criticism to ponder the meaning of topophilia—a love of place. As creatures of the earth, we belong to, and feel at home in, rooms, homes, gardens, landscapes, countries. How do these places orient us to time and eternity? Why do they provide rest and renewal, even vistas for inspiration?
By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer, by Cindy Crosby (Paraclete Press). While this book has more of a narrative structure, instead of randomly selected essays, it is all about the author practicing prayerfulness while involved in a rather mundane conservationist effort: replanting grass on a Kansas prairie. Prairie and prayer—yes! Her studies of her exterior and interior landscapes is beautifully rendered, deep and solid, helpful and a comforting delight. This small hardback is a great, great treasure, helping us attend to creation and Creator.
Soul Moments: Times When Heaven Touches Earth, by Isabel Anders (Cowley Publications). This is a very nice example of this genre of short meditations on the everyday, reflecting on God's presence being disclosed "here and now, in the thick of things, sometimes occurring as we are most aware of our human limitations and confusion. They encircle us, and, for their moment, name us: loved, beloved, cherished, chosen. The experience passes, but the soul bears its indelible mark." Madeleine L'Engle says it is "a beautiful, encouraging, hopeful book."
God Hides in Plain Sight: How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World, by Dean Nelson (Brazos Press). I have, on occasion, read out loud a portion of his great opening chapter, about "practicing the presence of God" while rude and eccentric and apparently incompetent workers in his home destroyed his solitude and mood, and the audience inevitably responds with knowing laughter. We have been there, trying to be conscious of our contemplative centre, honouring God in all things, living as Spirit-empowered people of depth and character, and then bam, we are knocked into immaturity and grumpiness and meanness, just like that. This is a spectacular book, wise and interesting and mature and very well written. Eugene Peterson gives a rousing endorsement of the writing, saying that it is "better than a spy novel" and that in his search for God in places we don't usually look, Nelson "doesn't miss much." Esteemed writer Frederick Buechner does not "blurb" many books, but his ringing endorsement graces the front cover.
The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram (Vintage). I hesitate to list this, but it has given me delight and provoked ponderings around these themes of the "re-enchantment of nature." Abram has studied shamans and mystics from Bali and other non-Western cultures, which has led him to a deep and serious consideration of the ways in which humans perceive and encounter the natural world. This is more than nature writing, although it is gloriously that—on the first page he playfully calls winged creatures "flapping forms." It is also a study of "the violent disconnection of the body from the natural world and what this means about how we live and die in it." Bill McKibben called it a "landmark book . . ." for becoming fully human in our world. From Merleau-Ponty's study on the character of perception to Native American storytelling, this lyrical argument makes a large case about our relationship to the voices of creation—weather patterns, animals, plants and what we've come to term "inanimate" objects. Serious-minded Christians will take pleasure—and perhaps some discomfort—from Abram's audacious conclusions, but it is an important book about how we indwell our surroundings.
The Comfort of Things, by Daniel Miller (Polity Press). This is a new kind of scholarship—micro-ethnography, it might be called. Miller writes with great care about the stuff with which we surround ourselves and which, in many ways, affects the way we experience our days. He interviewed folk in a working-class London neighbourhood and listened to the meaning ascribed to what is often called "material culture." That is, he recounts the stories he heard of furniture, photographs, CD collections, Christmas decorations, clothing, pets and much, much more. This "shoe-leather field work" has generated a series of vignettes that are lively portraits of people—their homes, relationships and stuff. Some, it seems, have a normative framework for thinking about their things, and most are pretty self-aware of what matters most to them. Others, though, just walk through a world of objects, drawing little comfort from their built-environment or accumulated living spaces. It is a collection of portraits from which many of us could take comfort; we are not alone in having a sense that our accoutrements matter. Comfort? Delight? Indeed.Subscribe