‘They say’ that people paste on a fake cheerfulness at church and hide the uglier truth of their reality beneath the ubiquitous “I’m fine, thank you,” or a plastic, “Happy Sabbath."

But it simply isn’t true. 

First, I would like to posit that smiling while you’re struggling is not a sign of being fake. Plain common sense tells us that it’s not usually the best choice of action to begin weeping in the coffee line. 

Second, some situations are better suited than others to emotional vulnerability. People carry their lives with them wherever they go and most of us are just waiting for a safe person in a safe moment to allow these things to be seen. To allow ourselves to be seen. 

Church, at its best, is a call and response between friends, a sense of belonging. That’s how Tish puts it in Chapter 9. But it can also be in community that we hurt each other. I spent a good portion of my life in an Adventist community where who I was allowed to be was often, well, squished. Smushed. Corseted and quieted. If I had questions—perhaps I just needed to listen more. If I was unsure—muster up more faith. If I needed a safe place to express pain—perhaps I wasn’t long-suffering enough. Angry? God forbid. There was little room for anger in that space. I learned that in order to be accepted, I needed to match the pleasant and subdued exteriors of the congregation around me. It didn’t take many years for me to leave those confines and swear off of church forever.

The subjects of time and patience bring to mind a great story.

Some years ago two Princeton University psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson, decided to conduct a study inspired by the biblical story of the Good Samaritan. They met with a group of Princeton seminarians individually, and asked each one to prepare a short, extemporaneous talk on a given biblical theme, then walk over to a nearby building to present it. Along the way to the presentation, each student ran into a man slumped in an ally, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning. Who would stop and help? 

For many work can be boring and mundane, a somewhat mindless punching of the clock and a never-ending set of daily tasks. For others work is engaging, fulfilling and often, all-consuming. Regardless of the level of engagement or fulfillment, work (for most of us) rarely if ever resembles our worship time or any kind of sacred practice. But the subtitle of the chapter “Checking Email” is, “Blessing and Sending.” The idea is, “We are fed in worship, blessed, and sent out to be ‘hints of hope.’ We are part of God’s big vision and mission—the redemption of all things.” 

This is a pretty significant challenge, since we tend to compartmentalize our lives. The work/vocation compartment may bear little resemblance to the church/worship compartment, and that somehow feels . . . wrong. The common denominator of the two compartments is: ME. Or, more accurately, the Kingdom of God in Me. Let me explain what I mean with a personal story.

“What does worship have to do with my everyday work?” she asks. Often our everyday work seems tiring, boring, and insignificant. The chapter points out that one of the outcomes of the Reformation was the notion of vocation. “The idea that all good work is holy work was revolutionary.” Our everyday work is indeed part of God’s kingdom mission.

The real challenge is integrating faith and the everyday work we do each day. Too often we see them as two different worlds, but the author argues that these two “are intrinsically part of one another.” 

Chapter 6 on passing the peace was written for me this week. I resonate with the feeling of losing one’s cool with a loved one, as it was something that happened with one of my siblings after church this past Sabbath. It feels odd for me to say this out loud and publicly, as I spend much of my time mentoring young families and couples to find peace in their relationships. And yet here I was on a Saturday night being unable to extend peace towards my sibling.

Ann Lamont is correct in that we have to practice reconciliation with the people closest to us before we go out into the world trying to share good news. This sounds great in theory, but the practice of it is much more difficult.

In our hurried modern life, we tend to think of a meal as a time to refuel. We try to get sufficient nourishment to get to the next pit stop, without overdoing it too much. If we get to share the meal with a friend or family, we appreciate their company, but the food takes priority. Not so in ancient times, or even in modern times for many cultures around the world, where the companionship takes first priority and nourishment is a side benefit. Even our language reflects that social aspect: the words “company” and “companion” derive from the Latin com (with) and panis (bread).

When I first read this sentence, the first thought that came to my mind was, “Girl, please, you have no idea.” Yup, that was bitter. In fact I felt so bitter that I decided not to continue reading. I made pre-conceived notions that this author (who appears to come from a privileged background and have at least “fair” health, as evidenced by her ability to have both a job and a family) would not understand people like me—that is, those of us who battle chronic pain and autoimmune illnesses everyday.  I was afraid that my hardships may be belittled unintentionally, or that, even worse, I may miss out on an uplifting message because I just wouldn’t be able to relate. But, I am happy to report, I was wrong.

“Having a body is a lot of work.” Yep, it’s right there on page 37, in case this is news to anyone. Just a body’s maintenance is a lot of work, to say nothing of those times when it doesn’t function the way we’ve grown to expect. It’s no wonder, then, that much religion and spirituality—strands of Christianity included—seek fulfillment apart from the inconveniences of having a body. Saving souls and purifying beliefs, for example, may seem attractive alternatives to the hard work of tending to bodies.

Upon reflection, I realized that at 6 a.m. my brain couldn’t process deep thoughts or concepts like ‘quotidian’ or ‘liturgy,’ not to mention any metaphors for the Christian walk. So, I decided to re-read the chapter, determined to find a way to achieve that ‘embodied liturgy’ Tish spoke about. Lo and behold, there was mention of something I completely glossed over my first time through, and ironically,  it had everything to do with what could be referred to as “liturgical prayer.”

The tragedy of legalism is that it’s a subtle-but-poisonous distortion of a truth. Our ordinary everyday habits _do_ matter, but _not_ in ways that define our worth, our acceptance, or our embrace by God—not in ways that undermine Grace. Too often, I think, our legalistic scars leave us understandably wary of letting “choices” and “habits” anywhere near our spirituality.

There’s another reason I like this book. In each chapter, the author points us to two different poles of faith and then attempts to connect them. One is the sacred truths embedded in the ordinary habits of an ordinary day. The other is a formal Christian practice, a part of traditional Christian faith. I suppose it’s a kind of “spiritual-and-religous” marriage, and that makes me happy.

In chapter 1, Tish pairs the daily experience of waking up in the morning with the Christian rite of baptism, the entry point to the communal life of faith for all Christians.

Tish’s day, like all of ours, starts with waking up. She, too, longs for more sleep.  She, too, has bleary eyes and bad breath. Actually, she says it better. (If you haven’t decided to read the book yet, maybe this will help.) "I wake slowly. Even when the day demands I rally quickly—when my kids leap on top of me with sharp elbows or my alarm blares—I lie still for the first few seconds of the day, stunned, orienting, thoughts dulled. . . ."

So here’s the invitation. For the next 40 days, in preparation for our 4 Days with Jesus (March 29 - April 1), let’s read Tish’s book together. Why? Because we all need wise guides in our journey with Jesus—and she’s one. Because compassion can’t be conjured up with some “shoulds”—it sneaks up on us, as we choose to order our living in ways more open to grace. And because reading together is better than reading alone.