Laundry as a spiritual practice

The following is an extract from the book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life. At the conclusion of a chapter on home, I offer this reflection on doing the laundry as a spiritually formative practice. OK, so it might be a stretch for most of us, but it’s worth a thought!

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The laundry is never done. A laundry basket never empties completely. No matter how many loads we do, done is not a laundry word. There are some things in life that are done. Mostly they are big, momentous things: my work here is done; my schooling is done; our relationship is done. While there are things less momentous—a book can be done; so can a jig­saw—when it comes to life at home, done is only ever a provisional word. Done things at home are never really done: taking out the trash, mopping the floor, doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, cleaning the toilet, watering the plants, feeding the fish, or shopping for groceries. Things like these are only ever done for now, until they need doing again.

There is something about a good spiritual practice that defies done with the same persistence. I pray today and I will pray tomorrow. To­day I confess my sin; tomorrow I will need to confess again. Like the disciplines of frugality and chastity, there is no end to the obligations of laundry. The average household generates eight to ten loads every week. Laundry is not something we get to do once and then move on, as though graduating to a laundry-less existence. Clothes get dirty, socks get smelly, sheets need changing. Laundry is one of the certainties of life. As with all spiritual practices worth their salt, laundry is our work today as it will be tomorrow.

That said, embracing laundry as a practice of spirituality takes some work. Getting beyond the novelty of the idea can be the biggest hurdle. The laundry is simply not where the mind naturally goes in pursuit of God. After all, holy places gleam, like the front rooms of our homes made ready for guests. The laundry is kept behind closed doors. It’s the place we hope they don’t see. The most profitable spiritual practices, however, are those that throw open the closed doors of our lives and allow light to shine where it’s most needed.

The laundry door is one that deserves to be opened, and the practice of washing taken more seriously. There are significant things going on in the laundry; it’s a place charged with spiritual possibility. The opportu­nity to name those things, to bring them to the surface, and to embrace them with intention is ours for the taking. Here are some places to begin.

Laundry as a Formative Act

It is the routine of laundry that is likely its greatest gift. According to Kathleen Norris, worship and laundry are the work given for us to do by God. Both are repetitive, she says, mundane, even menial. Lest you think worship is nothing of the sort, take note the next time you are in church. Think first of the great and eternal God to whom this worship is offered, and then of the stilting, off-key and sometimes humorous forms in which it comes. You would think after centuries of rehearsal we would finally have it right. Not so, for it is a work never done. Yet through our regular investment in it, we are nurtured in God’s image. Week by week, year after year, we are formed by it. So, too, with laundry.

As a truly menial task—a word derived from the Latin “manor” meaning “to dwell in a household”—laundry is a task of connections and household ties. It’s an act of stability, a mark of loyalty, the most basic pro­vision of kindness and service. I wash your feet; I wash your underwear. I serve you and honor you. I will do it today and again tomorrow, load after load. In the process I am formed. My servant spirit, however reluctantly and at times resentfully, is gradually deepened by the doing. I have often noticed that in meetings where refreshments are served, it is the same people over and over who instinctively move to the kitchen sink once the meeting is done. Equally, it is the same people who don’t. Domestic acts of service shape our instincts. We are formed in the doing.

It is because we are human, Norris says, that we must find our way to God through the mundane and the daily acts of our lives. “In our life of faith as well as in our most intimate relationships with other people,” she writes, “our task is to transform the high romance of conversion, the fervor of religious call, into daily commitment.” In this, laundry and worship are one of a kind.

Laundry as a Sacramental Act

A sacrament is most broadly defined as an outward sign of an inward grace, like the elements of bread and wine on the church’s communion table. Through the ordinariness of wheat and grape, we encounter love in its most extraordinary form. While the officially sanctioned sacraments of the church are a gift to the people of God, the possibility of the sacra­mental does not end at the church doors. The world is shot through with grace. In acts large and small, we have opportunity to sign that grace for others. Laundry can be one of those: a demonstration of unearned favor. We don’t deserve to have our laundry done. There is no universal right to clean laundry enshrined in a code of what it means to be human. It is either done for us as an act of grace, or it’s an act of grace we gift to others. Either way, Ernest Boyer calls it “a sacrament of care.”

When I stand behind the communion table in our sanctuary, I han­dle things that are, in and of themselves, unremarkable: a loaf of bread; a goblet of grape juice. When we gather as the people of God around that table, we name these elements together as the signs of God’s redeeming presence with us. It is in the naming that the unremarkable becomes the ineffable and grace is enfleshed. As you stand over the washing—whether it’s in a state-of-the-art machine with multiple cycle options or a plastic tub filled with hot water and soap—you stand before ordinary, soiled ele­ments. Each one has its own story to tell, though perhaps most should be left untold. Each sock, each blouse or shirt is known and submerged. Sometimes there may be words you say:

Lord God,
I offer to you the work of my hands,
and the soiled garments of our lives.
May those who receive them washed clean
know the cleansing of your grace.
Amen.

Your congregation is made up of those who will take and wear them. Occasionally they do so with gratitude, an awareness of the gift that is theirs. Mostly they don’t. It’s a routine they take for granted as much as you do. It is mystery and it is laundry; not all that different to the com­munion table really.

Laundry as a Prayerful Act

“Sometimes when people ask me about my prayer life,” says the writer Barbara Brown Taylor, “I describe hanging laundry on the line.” For Tay­lor, each item of clothing she hangs in the sun is like a prayer flag pegged in the open breeze.

“Since I am a compulsive person, I go to some trouble to impose order on the lines of laundry: handkerchiefs first, then jockey shorts, then T-shirts, then jeans. If I sang these clothes, the musical notes they made would lead me in a staccato, down­ward scale. The socks go all in a row at the end like exclamation points. All day long, as I watch the breeze toss these clothes in the wind, I imagine my prayers spinning away over the tops of the trees. This is good work, this prayer. This is good prayer, this work.”

Taylor’s practice has in mind the pictures we see from Nepal: small pieces of colored cloth strung in their hundreds along mountain ridges high in the Himalayas. Though the practice has its origins elsewhere, Ti­betan Buddhists have made it their own in a particular way. The tradition is that these flags come in sets of five colors arranged from left to right: the blue of sky and space; the white of air and wind; the red of fire; the green of water; and the yellow of earth. Together they call for peace, com­passion, strength, and wisdom through all creation. For those who hang them, there is not a strong sense that these prayers are carried to God but are blown by the wind, filling the air with all they hope for.

As Christians, our faith centers more deeply in a particular encoun­ter with God through Jesus Christ, but the longings embodied by these flags resonate. It is an ancient practice of prayer that we name our long­ings before God, that in time those longings are shaped by God, and in turn, those longings shape our lives and relationships. If a practice like hanging laundry can give form and structure to such prayers, and our prayers be gathered up in our daily work, both are enriched.

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Depending on where you are, you can purchase the book in a number for places.

If you are in Australia, the best place to go is the local distributor Morning Star Publishing. You can also order it through Book Depository.

If you are in the US, you can order directly through Wipf & Stock, Amazon or ChristianBooks.

Living in the moment

It’s more than twenty years since I last saw him, but I remember him as if it was yesterday. Covered head to toe in fuzzy blue fur, he hung from a plastic perch, swinging back and forth like a daring, pudgy trapeze. His little red shorts, his ear-to-ear grin and trademark googly eyes never changed. What holds my memory of him, though, has less to do with his fury self and more with my infant daughter’s delight in his company.

At three and four months old, Ali would lay on her back with an A-frame plastic ‘play gym’ propped over her. Dangling from the bar above was a collection of colourful objects. I don’t recall what the others were, only that for Ali, it was Cookie Monster who stole the show. My daughter had eyes for no one else. Her little legs and arms would thrust back and forth as she thrilled to his antics, gasped at his daring, and giggled in delight at his perpetual smile.

All these years later the joy of those moments stays with me. At the time of Ali’s birth, I was a PhD candidate living in far-away California. I remember spending so much of my time either longing for home or anxious about our future. It was as I lay on the living room floor alongside my new-born daughter, watching her unbridled delight in a little blue monster, that I was reminded of a truth as simple as it is profound: the present moment is a gift.

I know little about child psychology, but it seems to me that an infant has limited conscious memory of yesterday and no developed capacity to anticipate tomorrow. A child of this age lives in the moment, and lives it fully. Whatever is felt in the present — be it joy, hunger, pain or delight — is all consuming. What’s more, a devoted parent is pulled into that moment with equal force. It is what counts. Right now is what matters most.

As an adult, I am glad for the ability to remember — to hold, cherish and learn from the memories of yesterday. Even more, I am glad for the gift of anticipation — the ability to envision and plan for tomorrow. Indeed, today is not the full story; the past and future are gifts of their own. But what I am conscious of is my natural propensity to be so consumed with yesterday and tomorrow that I forget the gift of now. When I look at my daughter today, anticipating her 23rd birthday, I am reminded of how quickly time passes. She will never be three months old again. That said, she will never be twenty two again either. Today will not return. It is the gift I have now, mine to brush past as if it is nothing or to embrace as if it counts.

The same is true in our spiritual journeys. The God of yesterday and tomorrow is also the God of today, one whose truth and presence is as much within reach in the ordinariness of this moment and this place as in times past or in places yet to come. The 18th century French Jesuit Jean Pierre de Caussade once wrote, “To discover God in the smallest and most ordinary things, as well as in the greatest, is to possess a rare and sublime faith.” It is rare indeed that we would look for what is sacred in the unremarkable moments of today, yet these moments may turn out to be as sublime as any other.

Heaven All Around Us

PrintThe book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life has been a work in progress for a few years now. To see it finally in print is heartening. The book arises out of my own struggle to discern and respond to God’s presence in the most immediate aspects of life. In that sense, it’s a very personal book, but one I hope will be an encouragement to others.

Here’s a short extract from the opening of the second chapter.

“Moments of epiphany are rare for me. Mostly I notice the profound only in retrospect. That said, there have been encounters with truth stark enough to feel like a thump in the chest. One of those thumps came twenty years ago. I sat alone in a café in Pasadena, California, having recently enrolled in a doctoral program in theology. I had just come off a decade of pastoral ministry. It was not an easy ride and I was bone weary. By way of introduction, my supervisor recommended I read Dale Allison’s book ‘The Silence of Angels.’ I approached it with only mild enthusiasm, glad for the refuge of words but more committed to my coffee. Just pages in, the thump took my breath away.

Truth be told, this thud to my spirit was not the consequence of a direct hit from author to reader. It came in from the side. Allison’s book is a fine read and his central thesis a good one. But his book managed to prod at an intuitive sense of something already festering within—a truth I had struggled to find words for. In fact, it was that unnamed intuition that led me across the Pacific.

I came to California to study spirituality, to better understand the experience of God and the ways that experience is impacted by culture and environment. As a pastor, I felt as though I had been a witness to and participant in a church in spiritual retreat. Perhaps we were overwhelmed by the relentless progress of scientific discovery and science’s propensity to explain everything in non-religious terms. Our territory of confidence was diminished. At the same time we were increasingly enamored by mystical, out-of-body, and private expressions of spirituality. It seemed to me we Christians had so narrowed our concerns, we had released a large part of life to the secular realm while retreating into our sacred spaces and experiences. In so doing we narrowed our horizon and averted our eyes from the chaotic and compromised world under our noses. In my view, talk of spirituality had become insipid and self-obsessed.

Though I felt all of these things, and often deeply, I was unable to name them coherently. Allison helped push them to the surface. In words better than my own, he grieved our loss of wonder in a world shot through with a holiness so confronting and demanding there was nothing outside of its impact. The long-standing chasm between the sacred and the secular was deepening by the hour, or so it seemed, and had a lot to answer for. The need to address this divide was urgent.

Today the dysfunction of this sacred/secular chasm is old news. Indeed, it was probably old news twenty years ago; it just took me a while to catch on. Today we are certainly onto it and the church has done much to address it. Though we still value our sacred sites and rituals, we’ve long buried the notion that the presence of God is contained by them. No matter what our tradition, we affirm today a more porous boundary between heaven and earth and celebrate the presence of God in all of life. Our theology has shifted. It’s our spiritual practice that has struggled to keep up.”

With a focus on spiritual practices that are embedded in the routines of daily life, I go in search of God’s presence in homes and neighborhoods, supermarkets and sporting arenas, workplaces and weekends. Along the way I look for practices that can lead us more deeply into the way of God: activities like cooking and laundry, walking and sleeping, shopping and conversation with friends. Throughout, I want to better understand how to hear Jesus’ call to “follow me” more readily in the world around us.

Depending on where you are, you can purchase the book in a number for places.

If you are in Australia, the best place to go is the local distributor Morning Star Publishing. You can also order it through Book Depository.

If you are in the US, you can order directly through Wipf & Stock, Amazon or ChristianBooks.

And if you are in Melbourne, there’s a launch on Thursday April 19, 6.30pm at Collins Street Baptist Church, 174 Collins Street, Melbourne. I would love to see you there.

On change

“There are times where change is calculated and pursued with drive and intent. At other times, it comes on like a blustery wind, sweeping you up, promising to lead you to places you might never have envisaged … if you allow it to.”

Pippa Campbell, “Apron Strings: Uncut.” In Bread, Wine & Thou, Issue 2, 2016, 9-15.

Finding meaning in chaos

I saw it on Buzzfeed: 27 ways to get your sh*t together. Who knew there were so many. Or that my sh*t was so deep. According to the Urban Dictionary, when our lives are ‘together’, our thoughts are straight and our futures under control. We’re living life with purpose and conviction. It sounds good to me.

I don’t like mess. I don’t like things out of control. Chaos drives me mad. I prefer life that’s ordered. I like to know where I’m going and to move there with purpose. The trouble is, sh*t happens. I’ve learned the hard way that chaos is as much part of life as order is. No matter how careful the plans, things go awry—aspirations fizzle, relationships break, and schedules overheat. Regardless of how together we are, our daily lives are ordered and random, fortuitous and unfortunate, and often all in the same hour.

When it comes to the language of spirituality, chaos gets a bad rap. It’s assumed that a centred life is one that moves progressively away from chaos: the journey to meaning is a journey to serenity. While it sounds great, it’s rarely true. In fact, I suspect more and more, a good dose of chaos is par for the course in a meaningful life. Even more, the disordered sh*t is as spiritually formative as the together kind.

In my experience, the demonisation of chaos has at least three side effects worth naming. First, it can leave us feeling like failures. If we constantly assume chaos to be a sign of dysfunction, we become blind to moments of beauty that are part of our daily, disordered lives. The fact is, it’s often in chaos that we laugh most heartily, feel most deeply, and reach out most readily for the help of others. Second, it can deny us genuine opportunities for growth. The hard truth for me is this: things flourish in the midst of chaos that die on the ordered vine. Chaos begets life and wisdom; chaos begets patience, humility, forbearance, and dependence. As much as I hate to admit it, I grow as much in chaos as I do by quiet streams. Third, it can stultify creativity. It’s a fact of nature that in the midst of chaos the dynamism of growth flourishes. Some of the most astounding beauty in the world flows naturally from bedlam.

Certainly, for a religious bloke like me, there is one more affirmation of chaos that is the most startling of all. The sacred text of my faith makes an unavoidable point: chaos can be the power, the wisdom and the freedom of God in our midst. An element of chaos, it seems, is the stuff of life with God. Apparently, I can’t live without it.

To soar or to plod

I am often troubled at the disparity between aspiration and reality. In heart and mind I aspire to noble things. I close my eyes and soar on unseen currents of possibility, the plains of mediocrity a distant speck. But in body I tread those plains every day, and often at a snail’s pace. “The mind wants to live forever,” Annie Dillard writes. “The mind wants to know the world, and all eternity, even God. The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy. The dear stupid body is as easily satisfied as a spaniel.”

That’s harsh judgement of the body, and one Dillard doesn’t own. But I feel it. The trivial concerns of now distract while higher things float by. Perhaps a more generous confession is the struggle to hold in tension two inclinations: to lift my vision to what can be and to embrace what is with gratitude. Resolve verses presence, aspiration verses contentment. Who will win today?

My better inclination rejects such competition: aspiration does not discount the gift of now. No doubt, the distractions in life are numerous. I can Facebook my way to nothing of consequence and barely know the loss. That said, I can also soar while plodding. Today can be imbued with a holding sense of hope, for now and eternity are one. After all, the plains are where I live and those eggs are my sustenance.

“I press on toward the goal,” the apostle Paul says, “for the prize of the heavenly call of God.” And then he returns to the dishes. That’s good news for me. Perhaps my spaniel-like traits are not so bad after all. I press on. I aspire. I hope. And yet I do it here, in this place, and now, in this moment.

 

 

Faith & God

Faith is a fickle thing. There are moments in our dealings with God that the conversation is fertile and believing instinctive; and others when the seed of faith shrivels in the hand. There are moments when intimate language flows and seasons when it feels like heaven’s doors are bolted — ‘the Great Wizard’ is out.

Experience tells me that such fickleness is standard. It’s par for the course in believing. Yet reading through the psalms this past month, I come away with this sense: while faith may be capricious, God is not.

I cannot claim to understand this God. But in both the acclamations and accusations of the psalmists, there is something consistent about God’s being that holds when life, and even faith, fails.

In preparing prayers yesterday for another occasion, I came across these familiar words from Frederick Ohler. Aspirational perhaps. Regardless, there is something about them that resonates today.

AWE – FUL

Great and holy God
awe and reverence
fear and trembling
do not come easily to us
for we are not
Old Testament Jews
or Moses
or mystics
or sensitive enough.

Forgive us
for slouching in Your presence
with little expectation
and less awe
than we would eagerly give a visiting dignitary.

We need
neither Jehovah nor a buddy—
neither “the Great and Powerful Oz”
nor “the man upstairs.”
Help us
to want what we need …
You God
and may the altar of our hearts tremble with delight at
Your visitation

amen.

Frederick Ohler, Better Than Nice and Other Unconventional Prayers, Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989.

I’m certain … sort of

I like certainty. When it comes to life’s detail, I don’t care for the open-ended. I prefer decisions made and plans settled. What’s more, I’m a sucker for those who speak with clarity and conviction. Why, then, do I react so strongly to a particular certainty in belief? Why do I resist those who claim a singular authority in religious faith or political ideology?

Late last year I sat with a small group of Christian leaders. Our task was to share the ‘values’ that undergird our ministry and the nature of our ‘authority’ in leadership. When my turn came, I said something about my values including room for conversation, difference and doubt. As for my authority, I thought it came from my ability to listen for the questions that life presents and to discern the truth amidst them. As I spoke, the man next to me shifted in his seat. Clearly he was agitated. Before I could finish, he blurted, “What a load of tosh!” The group flinched. Tosh? It was so long since I’d heard the word, I was more baffled by it than I was by the force of his voice. “What your people need from you, brother, is a man who knows what he believes.” He leaned forward. “All this talk about doubt and difference and discerning truth …. we have the truth. For God’s sake, preach it!”

All tosh aside, he had a point. The truth of God in Christ is not up for grabs, not for me anyway. There is a certainty in the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” that sits beneath me in ministry. But this certainty is never one that precludes the possibility of questions left hanging or of truth discerned in unexpected places.

There is a brand of certainty alive today that renders everything black or white. It’s a certainty that repels doubt and, most tragically, refuses to listen. It’s as though all questions have simple answers and, once answered, cease to be questions. In my experience, though, there are questions of faith that never get answered, not completely. Besides, I’ve always thought questions worth having are worth keeping.

An unflinching certainty can be harsh, even ugly. At its worst it’s demonising, excluding, superior and humourless. I remember when living in the States reading the words of a retiring Baptist journalist who said this: “One of the most frightening things about the so-called new right and, for that matter, the new left is … the absolute humorlessness of their crusade. There is something scary about the crusader who is never for a moment aware of his shortcomings, the partiality of his insights, the finitudes of his being, the actual narrowness of his angle of vision.”

I feel the same. When there’s no place for the possibility of error, negotiation or compromise, what’s left is scary: I know and you don’t; I’m right and you’re wrong.

I must be what Patrick Henry labels an ironic Christian; one who has an “abiding suspicion of no-loose-ends answers.” I do have this instinctive sense, and a lifetime’s experience to back it up, that life is always more complex than straightforward, more nuanced than obvious, more fraught than simple. What’s more, there is something compelling about the virtues of gentleness and humility that speak with a certainty all their own.

“To be both ironic and Christian,” Henry says, “is to know, with a knowing deeper than doctrine, the simple, unnerving truth that the visage of faith is not the happy face but the masks of comedy and tragedy, alternating, unpredictably, between laughter and tears, sometimes crying and laughing at the same time, or even, on occasion, crying because it’s so funny and laughing because it hurts so much.”

 

51OJ6Ye4YkL._SX341_BO1,204,203,200_Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Finding the Marks of God’s Grace in the World, Riverhead Books, 1999.

 

 

 

Enlightenment

‘Where shall I look for Enlightenment?’ the disciple asked.
‘Here,’ the elder said.
‘When will it happen?’ the disciple asked.
‘It is happening right now,’ the elder answered.
‘Then why don’t I experience it?’ the disciple persisted.
‘Because you do not look,’ the elder said.
‘But what should I look for?’ the disciple continued.
‘Nothing. Just look,’ the elder said.
‘But at what?’ the disciple asked again.
‘At anything your eyes alight upon,’ the elder answered.
‘But must I look in a special kind of way?’ the disciple went on.
‘No. The ordinary way will do,’ the elder said.
‘But don’t I always look the ordinary way?’ the disciple said.
‘No, you don’t,’ the elder said.
‘But why ever not?’ the disciple asked.
‘Because to look you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else,’ the elder said.

61AXC0291ZL._SX359_BO1,204,203,200_Joan Chittister, There is a Season, Orbis Books, 1995.

Image: 5 o’clock rush by Dave Carswell, Melbourne Street Photography