Worship in the Everyday: An Interview with Tish Harrison Warren

Interviewed by Anna Moseley Gissing

Tish Harrison Warren is a writer, an Anglican priest, and a mother. She’s also an InterVarsity colleague and a friend. Her first book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, has just been released — we’re happy to share an excerpt from her chapter called “Brushing Teeth.”

Tish weaves together theology, personal narrative, humor, and wisdom in her book, which is shaped around the practices of one ordinary day. I’m glad to hear more from Tish about her book and how it has shaped her. — Anna

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What motivated you to write this book?

Like a lot of writers, my motivation came from my own struggles — in this case, my struggle with everydayness. I have a hard time with the relentlessness of life. I'm one of those people that looks at life stretching before me and thinks, “What's it all mean?” I wrestle with wanting encounters with God to be big, and some of this, honestly, is the Evangelical subculture that I grew up in — encounters with God were seen as large, emotional experiences, life-changing experiences, walk-the-aisle conversion sorts of experiences. I was also part of a movement that cared a lot about social justice and wanted to see the world changed.

But so much of life is the daily. It's mundane, it's quotidian, and it can be boring. There were vast swaths of my life where I wondered, “What does it mean to follow God in this?”

One day, when I had a newborn and a two-year-old, I was home and really struggling with anxiety, and I realized that there is more fear in my everyday life here as a mom in America than in some of the things I've done in the past that looked more risky, like going overseas, working among the poor, living in intentional community. Things that seemed more edgy actually felt much safer to me than what I was doing.

Out of that realization, I wrote a piece for The Well called "Courage in the Ordinary," about everydayness and fearing the ordinary and learning how to embrace God's work in average people that live in beautiful ways.

Four or five months after it was published, it went viral. People started sharing it and talking to me about it. I got emails from people saying, this resonates so deeply, this changed my life, this is my exact story. I realized that this isn't something only I struggle with — a lot of us do. We are struggling with this as an Evangelical subculture and, more generally, as Christians. That planted the seed for a book. I kicked the ideas around for about six months and couldn't stop thinking about the way liturgy and formation connect with our daily life and what it means to worship in ordinary ways. Eventually, I had to start writing about it.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to The Well and its readership that this book is happening because some of the initial ideas for the book came from pieces that I've written for The Well, especially “Courage in the Ordinary,” but also from a piece that I wrote called “Spiritual Direction: Get More Sleep.” So, thank you to The Well editors, supporters, and readers.

Thank you for writing for us and for helping us to see God more clearly in the ordinary. When you were struggling with this idea of the everyday being sacred, how did you get from that struggle to the specific everyday practices that you write about in the book?

Around the same time I was wrestling with this, a lot of articles and books were coming out about ordinary life. They were really helpful to me. But I was still uncertain about how the daily mattered. I thought, “Okay, is this a mantra that I'm supposed to go around saying? As I'm driving my car and stuck in traffic, do I need to be telling myself, ‘This matters to the kingdom’?” It's one thing to say ordinary life matters, but I wanted to talk about how it matters. In wrestling with that, I came across James K.A. Smith's ideas of cultural liturgies and formative practices and that was my lens to look at our daily life.

Smith examines going to the mall as a sort of liturgy and something that is revealing what we worship and shaping us as people. That was a helpful lens for me because it allowed me to think about how ordinary life matters. I would argue that a big part of the reason that ordinary life matters is that's the only place to meet Jesus. We don't meet Jesus in abstraction, which is always a temptation for people like me. We meet him in our actual lived lives. We meet him today in our messy houses, in our broken relationships, in our disappointments.

Second, our daily life is the place of formation. Who we are is formed in our daily living and in our habits, more than by the theology we profess. A lot of what makes us who we are is what we do everyday. Looking at daily life through the lens of formation was really key to me because I didn't want to write a book about the fact that ordinary life matters — I wanted to look at how ordinary life matters.

I want to read a quote from your chapter called "Making the Bed":

Daily life, dishes in the sink, children that ask the same questions and want the same stories again and again and again, the long doldrums of the afternoon. These things are filled with repetition and much of the Christian life is returning over and over to the same work and the same habits of worship. We must contend with the same spiritual struggles again and again. The work of repentance and faith is daily and repetitive. Again and again, we repent and believe.

Can you talk a little bit about this repetition and how repetition builds faith? That is something that I really struggle with — the repetition — all of the things that we do over and over again. Talk a little bit about how that repetition is important in our faith-building.

I struggle with that a lot, too. I have had to learn to think about repentance differently. I think the term “repentance” can be thought of as this really dramatic event, like an altar call, you repent once and then your life is supposed to be different from then on. I've come to see repentance and faith as breathing out and breathing in, as I say in the book, or your left foot and right foot. We're constantly walking in repentance and constantly walking in faith. I need to understand repentance and faith not as things that happen to us in dramatic moments but as the daily rhythm of life. Kathleen Norris makes the connection in her book The Quotidian Mysteries between repetitive practices in liturgy and repetitive practices in things like laundry — repetitive practices in daily life. That was really helpful to me.

There seem to be two different struggles that we have with repetition. One is for those folks like me that really crave novelty and new experiences. Having to do something every day — like make the bed every day when you know that it's going to be unmade again — is really discouraging. Some of it is personality. I need ritual and routine so badly, but I reject it at the same time. To some extent, repetition is completely impossible to avoid. We just are — neuroscience is showing this more and more — people that live in patterns. It's not the patterns themselves that are the enemy. It's what those patterns are doing to us. Are we entering into patterns that are diminishing us?

Can we enter our daily lives and the work we have to do in a way that doesn't diminish us but teaches us the beauty of repetition or teaches us how to serve people? I think Evangelicals love novelty and Americans in general love novelty, but novelty exhausts us. We cannot base our faith on it. Repetitive practices are what we actually need to sustain the marathon of our life in Christ, this long obedience in the same direction, as Eugene Peterson would say. I also think there is some Evangelical bias against so-called “vain repetition.” I actually sometimes wrestle with that, but I think that I've come to see repetition as completely unavoidable. Even in churches that claim no liturgy at all or have set themselves up against liturgy, it's fairly predictable what each Sunday will look like.

I've just gotten to the point where I think this is how humans are made. We will be unhealthy people if we try to reject all repetition. We need to think well about how this repetition is forming us and what kinds of people it's making us.

I want to talk about your chapter on work, called “Checking Email.” You talk about ways of working and you mention frantic activity, escape, and a third way. Could you explain these different ways of working for our readers?

It was as I was exploring the practice of email that I came to think about work in this way. I talk in the book about being people who are “blessed and sent.” There's a benediction at the end of worship; we are blessed and sent out. That's part of the worship service that people can overlook, but it's not just saying, “It's over, time to go!” It's not like the dismissal bell. The fact that we are being blessed is really significant, and also the fact that we are being sent into our daily life — we're sent as people that are loved and blessed by God. We embody this work we are sent into differently because we've been blessed by the Father. This idea of being blessed and sent has become really important to me.

One of the reasons that digital work is hard — whether it’s email, writing a dissertation, or other academic work — is that it could theoretically have no limit. We could work 24 hours a day. There is this temptation towards frantic activity, towards working non-stop. Workaholism is one side of the continuum. The other side of the continuum is to say that all of this “secular work” doesn't really matter. What really matters are those beautiful moments of retreat and prayer, so we're doing our email or our academic work or whatever we're doing, but we think that what really counts in our lives are these quiet moments in the morning or the times we get to go out to the lake and spend hours in silence — which doesn't actually happen in my life very often. I go back and forth between these sides of the continuum, of being too much of a workaholic and then wanting to just escape — to be a monk in a cell by myself praying.

For me, thinking about a third way had a lot to do with being blessed and sent, because if we go into the world and we don't really know that we're loved by God, then we're going to be working frantically to take care of ourselves, to make ourselves safe, to make ourselves successful, to make ourselves loved or worthy of love. Work is going to take on this unhealthy quality because we're using it to make ourselves okay in a way that it wasn't meant for. What makes us okay is benediction — blessing from the Father. But, on the other hand, if we don't know we're sent, we may think that the way of benediction is a way of retreat, and I don't think that's true. I think God sends us to do work. We are deeply, deeply loved, and out of that we can go do good work. At its best, if that really got into our souls, I think we would be able to approach work in a different kind of way, so that's what I meant.

After doing all this intentional thinking and writing, do you find that as you're going through your daily life, this kind of thinking and this kind of worship comes more naturally to you now than it did before?

Yes, but also conviction over my failure to do it comes much more quickly.

If we start really thinking about how we're living in our daily lives, and try to live our lives around sacred practices, the liturgy of ordinary life, can we get to a point by habit where we do start to think of these things as worship?

I think we can. I think I do more than I used to. I quote Brother Lawrence who said more or less that some of these habits that we pick up, they seem difficult at first, but we embody them in a way that becomes part of our practice so we catch ourselves worshiping. Our bodies are leading us into kinds of worship that we may not always be conscious of and then we're sort of caught up in it. I think that's beautiful.

Every Saturday now, we have this family ritual of getting up and going hiking. We hike, and there's this part where you have to step from rock to rock over a stream, and the rocks are just a little bit far apart. We let our six-year-old do it, but she has to hold our hands. One day, I put out my hand and, completely as a surprise to me, she grabbed both of my hands and just jumped into the air. In her mind, she was going to jump from rock to rock, which is impossible unless you're a really good jumper. She grabbed my hands, jumped, fell backwards, and then I fell off the rock on top of her in the water. It's not deep. We both got up, soaking wet. I came up out of the water yelling at her, "What were you thinking?"

As I got up out of the water, I realized that my first reaction in that moment wasn't, "Are you okay?” I wasn't asking if she was okay and then secondly saying, “That was really stupid, let's talk about why you don't jump off of rocks without telling people.” Once I calmed down, I acted out of concern and compassion for my child and asked if she was okay. But my gut was blame and anger.

When I realized that, I started thinking about the rest of my life and I thought — I do this all the time. Whenever I feel stressed or in crisis, my first response is blame and anger and then, later, compassion.  

Thinking about daily liturgies and habits allows me to think more about how I have habituated or shaped my own practices in ways that I haven't considered before and then to think about what counter-formation may look like. What practices in my life will help me, when things go wrong, to respond with compassion first, and then, if need be, to talk about blame? I want to first respond with compassion and concern. It's given me a lens to think about my daily life and behavior in a new way.

That makes a lot of sense. Your book weaves together everyday life and habits with worship and theology. There are a lot of different themes that connect beautifully. That being said, what is your hope that readers will take away from reading your book?

I really want readers to think more about how their corporate worship practices are shaping them and the way that their daily activities are shaping them. I joked that I hoped that no one could read this book and ever brush their teeth the same way again. I didn't mean that every time people brush their teeth they would be singing the doxology or something; I meant that daily life would take on the texture of worship in a new kind of way. I want people to be able to approach their ordinary life with a new level of respect and to recognize the way God is working and shaping them.

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