Everydayness is my problem. It’s easy to think about what you would do in wartime, or if a hurricane blows through, or if you spent a month in Paris, or if your guy wins the election, or if you won the lottery or bought that thing you really wanted. It’s a lot more difficult to figure out how you’re going to get through today without despair. —Rod Dreher
I was nearly 22 years old and had just returned to my college town from a part of Africa that had missed the last three centuries. As I walked to church in my weathered, worn-in Chaco’s, I bumped into our new associate pastor and introduced myself. He smiled warmly and said, “Oh, you. I’ve heard about you. You’re the radical who wants to give your life away for Jesus.” It was meant as a compliment and I took it as one, but it also felt like a lot of pressure because, in a new way, I was torturously uncertain about what being a radical and living for Jesus was supposed to mean for me. Here I was, back in America, needing a job and health insurance, toying with dating this law student intellectual (who wasn’t all that radical), and unsure about how to be faithful to Jesus in an ordinary life. I’m not sure I even knew if that was possible.
I am from the Shane Claiborne generation and my story is that of many young evangelicals. I grew up relatively wealthy in a relatively wealthy evangelical church. Jesus captured my heart and my imagination when I was a kid. I was the girl wearing WWJD bracelets and praying with her friends before theater rehearsal. It did not take long before I began asking questions about how the gospel impacted racial reconciliation and poverty. I began to yearn for something more than a comfortable Christianity focused on saving souls and being generally respectable Republican Texans.
I entered college restless with questions and spent my twenties reading Marx and St. Francis, being discipled in the work of Rich Mullins, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo, learning about New Monasticism (though it wasn’t named that yet), and falling in love with Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day. My senior year of college, I invited everyone at our big student evangelical gathering to join me in protesting the School of the Americas.
I spent a little while in two different intentional Christian communities, hanging out with homeless teenagers, and going to a church called “Scum of the Earth” (really). I gave away a bunch of clothes, went barefoot, and wanted to be among the “least of these.” At a gathering of Christian communities, I slept in a cornfield and spent a week using composting toilets, learning to make my own cleaning supplies, and discussing Christian anarchy while listening to mewithoutyou. I went to Christian Community Development Association conferences, headed up a tutoring program for impoverished, immigrant children, and interned at some churches trying to bridge the gap between wealthier evangelicals and the poor. I was certainly not as radical as many Christian radicals — a lot of folks are doing more good than I could ever hope to and, besides, I’ve never had dreadlocks — but I did have some “ordinary radical” street cred.
Now, I’m a thirty-something with two kids living a more or less ordinary life. And what I’m slowly realizing is that, for me, being in the house all day with a baby and a two-year-old is a lot more scary and a lot harder than being in a war-torn African village. What I need courage for is the ordinary, the daily every-dayness of life. Caring for a homeless kid is a lot more thrilling to me than listening well to the people in my home. Giving away clothes and seeking out edgy Christian communities requires less of me than being kind to my husband on an average Wednesday morning or calling my mother back when I don’t feel like it.
Soon after college, one of my best friends who is brilliant and brave and godly had a nervous breakdown. He was passionate about the poor and wanted to change at least a little bit of the world. He was trained as an educator and intentionally went to one of the poorest, most crime-ridden schools in our state and worked every day trying to make a difference in the lives of students who had been failed by nearly everyone and everything — from their parents to the educational system. After his “episode,” he had to go back to his hometown and live a small, ordinary life as he recovered, working as a waiter living in an upper-middle class neighborhood. When he’d landed back home, weary and discouraged, we talked about what had gone wrong. We had gone to a top college where people achieved big things. They wrote books and started non-profits. We were told again and again that we’d be world-changers. We were part of a young, Christian movement that encouraged us to live bold, meaningful lives of discipleship, which baptized this world-changing impetus as the way to really follow after Jesus. We were challenged to impact and serve the world in radical ways, but we never learned how to be an average person living an average life in a beautiful way.
A prominent New Monasticism community house had a sign on the wall that famously read “Everyone wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes.” My life is really rich in dirty dishes (and diapers) these days and really short in revolutions. I go to a church full of older people who live pretty normal, middle-class lives in nice, middle-class houses. But I have really come to appreciate this community, to see their lifetimes of sturdy faithfulness to Jesus, their commitment to prayer, and the tangible, beautiful generosity that they show those around them in unnoticed, unimpressive, unmarketable, unrevolutionary ways. And each week, we average sinners and boring saints gather around ordinary bread and wine and Christ himself is there with us.
And here is the embarrassing truth: I still believe in and long for a revolution. I still think I can make a difference beyond just my front door. I still want to live radically for Jesus and be part of him changing the world. I still think mediocrity is dull, and I still fret about settling.
But I’ve come to the point where I’m not sure anymore just what God counts as radical. And I suspect that for me, getting up and doing the dishes when I’m short on sleep and patience is far more costly and necessitates more of a revolution in my heart than some of the more outwardly risky ways I’ve lived in the past. And so this is what I need now: the courage to face an ordinary day — an afternoon with a colicky baby where I’m probably going to snap at my two-year old and get annoyed with my noisy neighbor — without despair, the bravery it takes to believe that a small life is still a meaningful life, and the grace to know that even when I’ve done nothing that is powerful or bold or even interesting that the Lord notices me and is fond of me and that that is enough.
I’ve read a lot of really good discussions lately about the recent emphasis on "radical" Christianity (see one at an InterVarsity blog and one at Christianity Today). This Radical Christian movement is responsible for a lot of good, and I’m grateful that I’ve been irrevocably shaped by it for some fifteen years. When we fearfully cling to the status quo and the comfortable, we must be challenged by the call of a life-altering, comfort-afflicting Jesus. But for those of us — and there are a lot of us — who are drawn to an edgy, sizzling spirituality, we need to embrace radical ordinariness and to be grounded in the challenge of the stable mundaneness of the well-lived Christian life.
In our wedding ceremony, my pastor warned my husband that every so often, I would bound into the room, anxiety etched on my face, certain we’d settled for mediocrity because we weren’t “giving our lives away” living in outer Mongolia. We laughed. All my radical friends laughed. And he was right. We’ve had that conversation many, many times. But I’m starting to learn that, whether in Mongolia or Tennessee, the kind of “giving my life away” that counts starts with how I get up on a gray Tuesday morning. It never sells books. It won’t be remembered. But it’s what makes a life. And who knows? Maybe, at the end of days, a hurried prayer for an enemy, a passing kindness to a neighbor, or budget planning on a boring Thursday will be the revolution stories of God making all things new.
Tish Harrison Warren is a transitional deacon in the Anglican Church in North America. She and her husband Jonathan work with InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministries at The University of Texas at Austin and have two young daughters. Tish writes regularly for The Well. She has also written for Christianity Today’s her.meneutics and was featured on the White Horse Inn. She's newly on twitter @Tish_H_Warren.
I was at the grocery store the other day perusing the cheese cases and was excited to see they were giving away samples of gourmet cheeses. The woman handing out the samples engaged me in small talk, chatting about the delicious cheeses . . .