My typical response to the monotony of life–that is, to the humdrum, seemingly-insignificant, mundane, day-in and day-out routines that so often bore me (and perhaps all of us) to bits–has been to disregard it as anything good, just, or holy. When a person lives in a field that is sprinkled with the less-than-desirable blooms of regularity and monotony, the grass always appears greener on the other side. Find something more exciting, more entertaining, we think, something that has the lure of a deeper and more flashy spirituality. Much of American spirituality is indeed built upon the enticement of change and spontaneity. And, oftentimes, these are incorporated into the church and its services and, from there, labeled and understood by the church as “holy.” It is true that, for much of us worshipping from within Western church culture, we have come to view monotony as “unspiritual” and have, as a result, traded it out for spontaneity as the only “spiritual” alternative.
But, in defense of what I might term holy monotony, let me demur a bit in what follows.
I have kids.
Three of them. And because of these three blessings, our house is full of happiness–it is a cradle of fun, excitement, laughs, astronauts, princesses, baby dolls, lightsabers, as well as, to be sure, the regular flow of tears and fears (from both kids and parents alike).
Ray Romano was correct when he said that having children is a lot like living in a frat house: nobody sleeps, everything’s broken, and there’s a lot of throwing up. His point, I think, is so humorous because it can be universally validated by parents everywhere. He hits on something all parents experience, namely, the messiness of parenting. And it is a monotonous messiness: We are constantly finding toys and trinkets in the couch–along with candy, gum, and other sticky (messy) stuff. When kids are young, there is no let up. Monotony. But it is a holy monotony. Every loving parent will readily tell you that, despite the (constant) chaos and the (regular) hardships that come with parenting, they would not trade it for anything else. Give them the world, and they would throw it back. We parents love our kids. We parents love our work. Few would put it exactly this way, but every parent would agree with its basic sentiment: parenting, even with the monotony and mundane nature of the work itself, is nonetheless holy work.
In the course of learning what it means to raise kids, as well as becoming the parent I want to be (as opposed to, at times, being the parent I actually am!), I have learned much about the significant role prayer plays in the process. As a result, I have come to develop a habit, one that I carry out without fail, every night before I go to bed. Each night, once the kids are fast asleep, I walk into their room, give them a brief passing gaze and then bow my head to pray. The prayers vary, though they are always built upon one thing: gratitude to God. I pray with a sincere thankfulness for the gift they are. I am undeserving, and I know it. Yet God is scandalously giving, and I will know that too. I pray without fail. Regularly. Monotonously. Their bedroom, littered with dolls and lightsabers, is holy ground for me. With the same reverence and regularity as the high priest who would do his holy work in the Holy of Holies, I do my holy work–every night, in the same way, around the same time, in an ever-sacred monotonous sort of way.
All of this has taught me something special about the reality of worshipful monotony–both individually as a Christian and corporately as a member of the Body of Christ, not least as a shepherd of a local congregation.
Let me speak as a pastor, then.
There is a tendency to divide churches as being either “liturgical” or “non-liturgical.” These are helpful descriptions, I suppose. Some churches are less-inclined to follow a set and established and traditioned pattern of worship than others. For some within the so-called “free church movement” (speaking quite broadly and generally), liturgy is not adhered to all that much. It is, after all, considered to be too mechanical and formulaic, and hence, unspiritual. Such churches value spontaneity over and against regularity. And those who worship from within this tradition do so at times from the mindset that to diverge from a spontaneous-centered pattern of worship is to somehow “quench the Spirit.” I often hear that, “If we do things too regularly in our services, then those things (communion, for instance) will lose value and meaning; we must never cement ourselves, then, into a regular pattern worship–we must avoid such unspiritual, liturgical structures.”
I once thought this way, too. But then I heard a pastor (a Baptist at that!) say one time, “The Spirit can be just as much in the planning as he can be in the spontaneity.” With those words, I was awakened to a fresh understanding of worship. Could non-spontaneous and patterned worship be holy? I definitely think so.
I have come to believe that there are at least two problems with the idea that a regular, liturgical pattern of worship is bad. First, every church has a liturgy. I always chuckle when I hear non-liturgical believers bemoan and deride their liturgical brothers and sisters. After all, and ironically, even non-liturgical churches themselves have a regular pattern of spontaneous worship. Theirs is simply a liturgy of irregularity. It is not that they do not have a liturgy; they do. It is just that they have not yet come to recognize it.
Moreover, in my days of looking down on those who would, say, choose to pray pre-written prayers (as opposed to the more “spiritual” act of spontaneously making it up on the spot), I now, looking back, discover my past self to have been in a bit of hypocrisy: for even I, when asked to pray publicly over a meal, would mutter the same exact phrases and words each time. How many times, over and over again, have we heard our non-liturgical Christian brothers and sisters pray prayers like, “Father, bless this food to our body, and our body to your service. Amen.” If you ask them to pray over the next meal the next day, the prayer will usually take the same form.
In similar ways, even in the free churches, liturgy exists (however unnoticed). To say nothing in regard to their sincerity, even those more independent spirits who bemoan and eschew patterned and tradition-based worship cannot escape the fact that they, too, have their own preferred pattern of worship and are likewise part of a tradition. Even if their tradition is a tradition-less one, they are still part of a continuous fabric of effective-history–what the Germans call Wirkungsgeschichte. One’s history and tradition are operative and effective in how one goes about life, interpretation, and even worship patterns. In the end, much grace needs to be extended to all worshippers in various Christian traditions without the boast of having supposedly risen above being in a tradition. A person can no more ignore the fact of their embeddedness within a tradition than one can separate being wet from wetness.
Second, the argument against liturgy as being “non-spiritual” because it becomes too regular assumes, at its core, that all monotony is necessarily unholy. Prayer times with my kids have taught me differently. My own pattern of worship at home is built upon the opposite assumption. That is to say, I believe that the regular, monotonous, and seemingly “mundane” repetition of the same prayers each night for my children give witness to the fact that, truly, there is nothing unspiritual about routine and, by extension, liturgy itself. Just because liturgy and monotony can be (and has been) abused in the past does not mean it is inherently bad in the present. I look forward to my monotonous prayers each night, for they are holy prayers to God on behalf of my kids. Holy prayers. Holy monotony.
So what does all of this mean? I am barely in my thirties, and yet the longer I live, and the longer I (as a pastor) guide people to recognize the grace of God operating in their everyday lives, the more I have come to realize that true spirituality is not about evading the monotonous character of life, the mundane nature of living, or the humdrum patterns of parenting, working, or worshipping. We cannot escape liturgy, for it is who we are. It is better, I think, to embrace and worship in the mundane than it is to attempt to escape it. It might be wise to look at the ancients on this one. For in our modern world where life takes place in such rapid, ever-changing fashion–in a time when speed is considered a virtue, spontaneity a spiritual idol, and the mundane holy work of parenting robbed of its inherent holy status–it might be relevant to recall the ancient poets, especially when they speak of how God remains “the same” and how his “years have no end” (Psalm 102:27).
They remind us that God is the constant in an unconstant world, that he is the Unchanging One in a world so obsessed with the next best thing. God is the steady (monotonous!) Rock of Ages. The poets’ words might prove to be a needed shock to a world full of unsteady people who have lost their ability to perceive the holiness of their mundane and monotonous work.
Perhaps our individual and corporate worship patterns could stand to be re-shaped to better, and more accurately, reflect God’s own unchanging, constant, and steady character?