Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Finding The Sacred In The Commonplace: An Interview With Tish Harrison Warren

As an avid reader, nothing excites me more than discovering a new author whose work resonates deeply within myself. Some I read their books and wish that I knew them personally so I could call them up and ask them to go for coffee and really great conversation. Tish Harrison Warren was one of those authors. When I got to read an advanced copy of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, I connected with her honesty, intelligence, wit and vulnerability. Reading her book made me wish that I lived in Austin, Texas (well, it's one of many reasons I wish I lived in Austin) so that I could talk with Tish about her amazing new book, which comes out in December.  I was, however, fortunate enough to get to interview her about her book, writing, authors who have impacted her, her life, her faith and taking the time to see the holy in the commonplace. 

What was the genesis for Liturgy of the Ordinary?

Tish: I struggle a lot with living the Christian life, day by day, in quotidian everydayness. I increasingly realized that I felt a lot more fear and anxiety entering an average day than when I did things that outwardly looked more risky. Out of my own wrestling with that, I wrote “Courage in the Ordinary,” and it seemed to really hit on something that a lot of people resonated with--I got emails and messages from so many people telling me how they wrestled with mundane-ness and feeling like a failure for being "average." I knew then I wanted to write more about the everyday. But I didn't want to simply write a book about the fact that our ordinary lives mattered to God, but how and why they matter. Then, I came across James KA Smith's writings on formation and cultural "liturgies." His work gave me a lens through which to understand how treasures can be found in a plain ole day. And that lens was the idea of formation. I wanted to wrestle with how our daily life forms us.

One of the things I liked about your book was that you constructed the chapters as an average day. What inspired you to use that type of format?

TishThank you! I had the idea about making the whole book centered on one day and, at first, I just wanted to do it because it made me smile. I liked the idea of having a whole book about a single, totally boring day, so some of it was sheerly a creative choice, for the fun of it. But as I began pressing into the idea, I realized I needed to keep that format because specificity was really important to me as I approached the subject. I didn't want to say generally, "Daily life matters." I wanted to speak about formation and worship as specifically as possible - in the most concrete way I could. I felt like I wanted the reader to come over to my house and for us to have a day long conversation where we could stop and say, "Okay, this moment. This dish. This tree. This fight with a spouse. This frustration. This toothbrush. How do these specific things have to do with God's work in the world and in our lives?" Since I couldn't spend one day with everyone, I made the book about one day. 

You are an Anglican priest, a wife, and a mother, as well as a friend, and neighbor. With those roles come all the responsibilities that come with them and being pulled in a million different directions at one time in a day. So how do you create space and time in your life for reflection and contemplation of the sacred in the ordinary? 

TishWell, it's hard, to be honest. A huge part of this for me is corporate worship. The Anglican liturgy shapes my imagination so water is never "just" water, a meal is never "just" a meal. The symbols of our worship sort of haunt me so I bring them into the day with me. I also think learning silence and contemplation is a discipline I'm constantly called to. It is often a painful lesson because my natural inclination is to be plugged in constantly, but, for me, even the small discipline of turning off screens to spend an empty half hour in silence before bed is really important (and a huge challenge!) I'll also add that writing this book was part of making space for reflection. As a writer, I've found I think with my hands more than my head, I type things and then go, "Oh yeah, that's actually what I think." I started the book with a rough sketch of the activities I'd write about in a day, but writing on them unveiled new facets of mercy in them to me. This was an exploration for me. 

One of the things I most took away from this book that many might simply overlook is the line, "If Christ spent time in obscurity, then there is infinite worth in obscurity." That's a profound thought that most people don't even stop to consider. Christ spent thirty years of his life in obscurity as a "tekton" or "carpenter" and only three years of his life in public ministry. Why do you think most of  us don't even see this as God's way of emphasizing the holiness of ordinary days?

TishThat's a great question. I'm not sure. But I think, in general, Western protestants and evangelicals don't reflect enough on the key place of the incarnation in our understanding of humanity and in our redemption. We tend to celebrate Christmas and skip right to Jesus's miracles, teaching, death, and resurrection, but Christ's radical self-emptying, taking the place of an average guy, is not often seen as a vital part of our redemption story. In many ways, the church fathers, particularly in Eastern Christianity do a better job at marveling at the incarnation. There's something so incredibly beautiful about the belief that Christ redeems by becoming--what he became, he redeemed. Because of that, when we spend time thinking about his incarnation and what he took on, we see what he redeems. 

One of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, wrote a poem entitled "The Want of Peace," in which he said these words, "I lack the peace of simple things." Do you see this inability to see the sacred in the ordinary (or find "peace" in "simple things") as a serious spiritual problem in our modern culture?

TishYes, very much. And love that line by Berry also! 

In Liturgy of the Ordinary, you find beauty even in the frustrations and struggles, was it important for you to balance the daily problems you wrestle with and yet still find hope?

TishI wanted the book to approach a totally average day. Part of that, for me, is dealing with conflict and sin and frustrations and failures, so I knew exploring the “daily” meant exploring brokenness in me and also just the mundane annoyances of life. Exploring brokenness and sin as a Christian, if you go deep enough and spend enough time in the frustration and grief, always ends up a place of grace and mercy. Hope emerged somewhat naturally as I tried to hold struggles in one hand and the gospel in the other. 

You quote one of my favorites by Annie Dillard, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." The power of habits is something that runs throughout your book and in another writer whose work I love to read, James KA Smith, especially in his last work You Are What You Love. In what ways do you think the reader can begin cultivating the habit for the appreciation of everydayness?

TishStart by noticing what your habits are. For me, I live most of my life with my eyes half-closed. When I’ve spoken publicly about my book, the feedback I get most is, “I really have no idea how I even spend my day most days.” I think stepping back and noticing what we walk through and what we do in an average day and the formation and worship in that experience is key. So begin by observation. Then, as we walk toward counter-formation, start small, concrete, and, if possible, with others. Acts of counter-formation in our Christian life emerge from immersing ourselves in the scriptures and in the church, so a place to start is to begin asking how we can immerse our imaginations in the scriptures and in the worship of the church.

And how did writing this book help to reframe how you viewed your own daily habits?

TishWell, it made me notice my own patterns and liturgies more. It made me notice how saying, “Oh I’ll just stay up late to watch this random you tube video” was actually a pretty significant ritual that shaped me and a lot of my life and time. It also helped me see the formation and places of worship in my everyday. I think it made me a little more skeptical of the large, the grandiose, the promises of being “zapped” by some kind of spiritual revolution (whether that be an internal revolution of the heart or an external revolution of society). I know, in a deeper way, how all revolutions are actually really slow, small, and quiet and take time and discipline. God is very patient. More so than I am.

Something I picked up from reading the bio on your website was that you live in a house "chock full of books." As a bibliophile, mine is the same way, so much so that people would rather move my furniture than my books. Let's switch gears a moment, so that I can ask you what writers helped form the theology of Liturgy of the Ordinary?

TishWow! That’s a great question. Obviously, James KA Smith’s work makes a big impact on this book and I quote him often. A conversation about Courage in the Ordinary that I had on White Horse Inn with Michael Horton was also great fodder for this future book. I also think Eugene Peterson and his work were a big force in this book (and my life). I discovered Michael Ramsey’s work while writing this book and the way he can write so powerfully with deep orthodoxy while still maintaining gorgeous prose was inspiring. I also am really shaped by William Cavanaugh and I think his kind of grass-roots political ecclesiology made an impact on the book. There are others who I turn to for beauty, not so much theology (if it’s even fair to separate them).  Madeleine L’Engle is one of my favorites as is Annie Dillard. They ask me to slow down and value the small and worthwhile beauty in something like a weasel’s skull (as Dillard does) or a turn of a phrase (like L’Engle). 

And what writers do you turn to for inspiration when you feel frazzled by the frenetic pace of a busy life?

TishI named a few above. But, additionally, poetry is important to me and my favorites that I go to often are Wendell Berry, Rainer Maria Rilke, Scott Cairns, and Czeslaw Milosz. I think this goes for music too…I think the musicians I like count as poets that I go back to. I have said (and stand by this) that when I doubt the resurrection, I go read Christian apologetics, but if I still doubt after that, I read Scott Cairns. I also love memoir and history and am starting to explore (but am a total novice here!) the Church Fathers.  I’m slowly reading Olivier Clement’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism, which is kind of mind-blowing.  And I always feel cliché saying this, but CS Lewis is a touchstone for me. I read something by him most every year. 

A question I like to ask people is: What works of fiction have expanded your theology and why?

TishSpeaking of Lewis, I go back to his Till We Have Faces again and again. It’s really influenced my view of God, of worship, and of struggle. The line at the end of that book is one of the most beautiful, painful, true, and brutal theodicies I’ve seen: “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words.”  

Also, I’m a big Flannery O’Connor fan (I named my daughter after her). Her very real, gritty view of sin and grace is deeply formative to me. 

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead may have influenced this book in particular because it is an up close view of the average, small local life of a pastor and of slow redemption. 

Lastly, what is your hope that the reader takes away from your book?

TishI want readers to approach their own days with a new kind of attention and insight about the sacred holiness in each of their days. And I want us to think about how we are formed (or malformed) by the way we rub against time, day in and day out. I hope readers will be able to receive a day in gratitude and meet Jesus in it.

Her official website:

My review of Liturgy of the Ordinary:

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