I recently read Tish Harrison Warren’s wonderful little book Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. For her, the regular, mundane events of our daily lives are practices that shape our souls. She finds the spiritual significance of such apparently unpromising candidates as making the bed, brushing teeth, and getting stuck in traffic. In a previous post, I wrote about her experience with losing keys. In this post I’ll reflect on one of these familiar events pregnant with meaning, namely eating leftovers.

Most of us, I would venture to say, have more unremarkable than memorable meals. We eat the same thing again and again. Sometimes, as with Warren, it’s reheated from the night before. Her taco soup was just a quick and easy way to feed the family, and reheating some of it for lunch was particularly uninspiring. Yet such humdrum meals are important. Warren says,

“Thousands of forgotten meals have brought me to today. They’ve sustained my life. They were my daily bread.” p. 65

I, too, mostly eat what’s unremarkable. My diet is rather monotonous–usually oatmeal and boxed cereal for breakfast; fruits and veggies, yogurt, and bread for lunch; and soup and a salad for dinner. It doesn’t take much preparation, is cost-effective, and is environmentally friendly. It’s simple but nutritious. Yet I’d be hard-pressed to remember the specifics of any of those meals eaten more than just a few days ago.

Warren pauses to pray before she eats, offering thanks to God. This reminds her that everything we have is a gift from him. Such gratitude for things large and small is in fact a spiritual practice, one that gradually replaces the grasping hands of self-sufficiency with the open hands of receptivity to what God supplies. It’s easy to undervalue the foods we eat and the large and complex system that delivers them to us:

“This abundance, the sheer amount and variety of food and the ability to keep it for days, would astound much of the world and most people throughout history. But I have been dulled to the wonders before me. I take this nourishment for granted.” p. 68

Once in a while, when shopping at the local supermarket, I’m struck by the abundance and variety of what is there. Within those four walls is a veritable horn of plenty–foods from across the world, fresh, frozen, baked, cooked, pickled, butchered, roasted, juiced, homogenized, pasteurized, dried, or prepared in countless other ways, transported here by boat, train, plane, or truck, all available for a fraction of the money in my wallet. Most of the time, I am, like Warren, “dulled to the wonders before me.” I do a little better at the local farmers market, where much of the bounty on display was grown within a fifty-mile radius, often by those there selling it to me. Somehow, it’s easier to direct gratitude locally. especially when I receive the food from the grower’s hand. There is of course just as much reason to be thankful for food from far-away fields tended by farmers I’ll never meet.

We do not live by bread alone. As Warren notes, the central acts of Christian worship, Word and Sacrament, are comparable to the food we eat each day. “Both are necessary because both, together, are our nourishment.” (p. 63) And, like our meals, the Word of God in Scripture sometimes seems mundane or tasteless:

“There are times we approach Scripture, whether in private study or gathered worship, and find it powerful and memorable–sermons we quote and carry around with us, stories we tell of being impacted and changed. There are other times when the Scriptures seem as unappetizing as stale bread. I’m bored or confused or skeptical or repulsed.” p. 67

What to do when the Word is dry or tasteless?

“We keep eating. We receive nourishment. We keep listening and learning and taking our daily bread. We wait on God to give us what we need to sustain us one more day.” p. 67

There were times in my life when I didn’t seem to get much out of reading Scripture. For the most part, I managed to follow Warren’s advice: I continued to go to it for sustenance, just as I continued to eat foods that didn’t seem particularly appealing. And, just as food does nourish me in ways I don’t understand, the Word somehow nourishes me. Some portion of it has become a part of me, just as molecules from meals I’ve eaten have been incorporated into my cells. I’m a different person than I would have been had I not regularly chewed on Scripture–less egotistical, braver, more at peace. Both physically and spiritually, I’m sustained by God’s good gifts. Some of those gifts seem mundane, some extraordinary, but each is remarkable in its own way.

I’m interested in life story—the story that each of us constructs out of the circumstances and events of our life and that reveals who we are—or at least who we think we are. Psychologist Dan McAdams claims that we each develop a coherent life story in late adolescence or early adulthood and that story provides us with a sense of identity. In my life story, I am the protagonist. As with any story, each person’s life story has a setting, a plot, themes, and character development. The story we construct is selective: we don’t try to include everything we’ve done or experienced, but instead select carefully those that we think open a window on who we are (or imagine ourselves to be).

Life stories aren’t static, of course. The person I thought I was at age 20 is not the person I now think I am. That means that I tell a much different story about myself now than I did then. Of course, we experience our lives as continuous, and thus tend to think we are the same persons we were decades ago, though on reflection it is evident that we’ve changed a lot.

This is a picture of me taken sometime in the late '60s.

This is a picture of me taken sometime in the late ’60s.

In thinking about how life stories change over the decades, I decided to try to reconstruct what I would have said about my life around the time I became a novice adult. Here’s how I think I would have told my life story the summer of 1968, when I was 20.

“I grew up in the west side of Grand Rapids, Michigan. My parents are Dutch American, though there wasn’t much emphasis on our Dutch heritage, except in the area of religion. The Dutch immigrants to West Michigan were part of the Reformed tradition, and I was sent to Christian schools that taught Bible and religion along with more traditional academic subjects. I think I received a much better education than I would have had I gone to public schools. As a result I think of myself as better able than the average adult to analyze and contribute to understanding and solving important societal problems.

“I’m the oldest of three children in my family. My dad is an accountant and my mom is a housewife. Though I think my mom is too controlling sometimes and my dad can be wishy-washy, on the whole I have no complaints. My parents aren’t wealthy, but seem to be a little better off than the parents of most of the other kids I know. A big part of our family history is the swimming pool my parents had built in their backyard about ten years ago. I love swimming, and have been on high school or college swim teams for most of the last five years. It’s been good discipline for me, and has given me a place to belong.

“My parents have been able to pay private college tuition for me. I attend Calvin College, the college associated with the denomination that my parents belong to. I don’t belong to the denomination, since I’m rather skeptical about its teachings. For a while I doubted there was a God. I’ve decided that there must be one; it seems to me that human nature could only be as it is if there were some sort of divinity that made us. Still, I don’t think that anybody has a handle on who God is. Last semester I wrote a paper about the inadequacy of the Reformed views of free will and election. My prof commented that I was a real skeptic, which I took as a compliment. I do go to church services and find some sermons to be interesting, so I haven’t given up completely on religion.

“My parents and their friends are pretty conservative politically, and I started out that way. In junior high, one of my favorite teachers talked a lot about the danger of Communism. I became quite concerned about the Communist menace, and, under the influence of that teacher, was persuaded for a time that the John Birch Society had the right idea about defending our country. By the end of high school, I had changed my mind, and am now much more liberal than anybody in my family. The Viet Nam war had quite a bit to do with my changed perspective. I just don’t believe that it matters all that much to us if a little country far away is democratic or Communist. I think that the counter-culture provides a good critique of American pride, greed, and the like. Hopefully, the society will change as we young people get older and start having more influence! I’m rather proud of myself for thinking independently about social issues.

“Though I feel pretty good about my intelligence and capacity to think, I am not very confident socially. I have some good friends, but lots of people my age won’t have anything to do with me. Unfortunately, most females are included in that category! I do understand their reactions; I’m just too awkward and uncomfortable socially. Sometimes I walk in a room of people, sit down, and say nothing, knowing full well that I should say something but not knowing what to say. It’s a real problem. I’m getting better, though. I plan to live in the dorms rather than in my parents’ house next semester, and I think that will help. One of the benefits of being an introvert is that I am quite comfortable with my own company. I read a lot, and enjoy the world that I enter when I am immersed  in a book.

“As for the future, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m majoring in history, which I really enjoy, but I don’t know what I want to do with it. I’ve got a while to decide, though. On the whole, life is good and I’m proud of myself for what I’ve accomplished so far. I work hard at my studies and have worked part-time and summer jobs, so I’m not just letting my parents take care of me. Working at a produce warehouse weekends and summers has taught me a lot about how working class adults live, and that’s broadened my perspective.”

That’s who I was the summer before my junior year in college, as best as I can reconstruct it. It’s remarkable how I changed in the years that followed. Within two years, I was a Christian convert; within three, I was married; and within four I entered graduate school in psychology. A few months ago, I wrote a  five sentence life story as a way of trying to conceptualize my identity as concisely as I could. That story looks a lot different from the one above. At the same time, there are several areas of continuity—my introversion, interest in reading, and politics, for example.

Over the past few years I retired from full-time work and am spending most of my time staying with my parents, helping them. Thus, as in early adulthood, I’m currently in a period of accelerated change. As I see it, I am not so much remaking myself as being remade. I view this process as redemptive, as the work of God. That’s a view that the 20-year-old me would never have held. I’m grateful for who I was; more, for who I am; still more, for who I will be.