At a church retreat recently, I was asked to speak on the question “What are the sacramental moments in your life?” I somewhat messed it up. Should have written it down, I guess. But I was forgiven by the smiles and forward leaning support of my church friends, by their thanks, and by the fresh mountain air. The advantage of a blog like this is you get a chance to redeem yourself and say what you wish you had said.
What I meant to say was how much I have come to appreciate the mundane cycles of life.
When I was unmarried and had no kids, I never had a five-year plan, always looking for something new and adventurous. Now I’m on a family tenure track that will take me at least 15 years into the future. Maybe it’s the artist in me craving structure, but somehow I'm finding satisfaction in the everyday hum drum. Life’s regular patterns seem more acute than they used to. I feel more attuned to the rhythms of the day, the month, the year. Instead of making me restless for change, these rhythms put me at rest like the hum of a familiar lullaby.
One way I see these rhythms is in the church calendar, a cycle that could be considered a prototype for all others. I used to view the church calendar as simply a convenient contrivance to give the pastors something if they didn’t know what to talk about. Looking at it more closely, I found the church calendar takes us through an experience of the gospel narrative: the anticipation and birth of Christ in Advent and Christmas; the revelation of Christ in his life and words in Epiphany; Christ’s suffering and death in Lent and Good Friday; the resurrection in Easter; and new life and restoration in Pentecost. It is an annual re-enactment of the gospel with Jesus and us as the players. And this play has no closing night. You repeat the story every year and it's a new experience every time. It's sometimes a mess and sometimes a feast. If you screw up your lines, you always get another chance.
We can find this “gospel cycle” – birth, death, redemption and restoration - repeated in our daily lives. I see it in my girl’s initial excitement about learning to ride a bicycle and minutes later the cries from her first fall, and then her struggle to get back on her bike again. I see it in my wife’s bringing to life a new recipe she’s wanted to try and the subsequent joy, sometimes disappointment, over the dinner table. I see the gospel narrative relived in family conflicts that need daily resolution and forgiveness. And I see restoration in a simple family outing.
On any day, you may find yourself at any given point in this gospel narrative. It's easy to become myopic, focused only on our personal situation. But the church calendar reminds us of the bigger picture, of the grand narrative arch, and the end of the story is quite sweet.
The gospel story is full of dramatic events, which to most of us seem fairly rare. But looking for the spectacular, we sometimes miss the very down to earth, ordinary qualities of the gospel. Most of our lives are lived by rather mundane rhythms. I wake up, take the dog out, look at the weather, go to work, pick up the kids from school, play, have dinner, put the kids to bed, take in the news, crawl into bed, try not to wake up Diane, think, pray, and sleep. Repeat. But in these ordinary rhythms, I'm caught in a cycle of quotidian love.
Even at work I can see the gospel cycle. Each new semester I walk my students through a progression of activities that will hopefully, eventually bring them to being better users of the English language. I tell them something as seemingly mundane as punctuation helps you feel the rhythm of language and brings understanding of the text. Interestingly, I notice I’ve come to prefer periods over semi-colons because periods offer a longer pause for rest between thoughts. They’re like a “language Sabbath.”
Walking around the retreat grounds, I was taken up by the mountain air slowly warming in the spring sun. Kids and adults played in an open field. The peaks struggled to shake off clingy clouds, and down below a breeze shook poplars into holograms of translucent greens. It seems the more we persist in our efforts to destroy our planet, spring is even more irrepressible and resplendent. The natural world repeats God's story "in ten thousand places," as G. M. Hopkins puts it.
Everywhere, the gospel echoes through the years, the months, days and hours. Surrendering to these ordinary rhythms, I feel more deeply grateful. I am at rest. I am cared for. I am cradled and rocked to a familiar divine rhythm.