The Liturgy of Dishes

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A pile of dirty dishes covers the counter and fills my sink to the point that I can’t even see it anymore. All I can see is the mound of precariously stacked plates halfway scraped clean, bowls with dried yogurt at the bottom, brightly colored sippy cups, a few mixing bowls, my coffee pot, and the pan I used to make eggs this morning. The floor I just swept and mopped is littered with clumps of drying out scrambled egg, bread crumbs, splatters of yogurt, and dropped strawberry chunks radiating out from my one year old’s chair to the rest of the dining area. If a stranger came over right now and walked into my kitchen I’m sure that person would assume I have not touched my kitchen in days. I stare at the mess before me and think, “Wait. Didn’t I JUST do the dishes???” Sometimes I bitterly wonder, what’s the point?

Every evening, my son “helps” clean up his toys. We call it “putting the cars to bed.” Every morning, he wakes up excited to “wake up my cars,” and proceeds to pull them out one by one or completely dump over the entire bin, depending on how he feels that morning. “Why clean them up if he’s just going to dump them out the next day?” my husband asks.

Life is built on rhythms and cycles, patterns that continually repeat themselves over and over again. Every year, the seasons repeat themselves. Winter, spring, summer, fall. Winter, spring, summer, fall. Each week, the days come and go in the same order, Sunday through Saturday. Without fail, the sun will rise in the east in the morning, flooding my kitchen with glorious light, and it will set in the west, painting the sky in deep oranges and pinks. Science itself and everything we know about nature follows distinct patterns and rhythms. This is one of the foundational steps of the scientific method, isn’t it? Your results must be repeatable. As my daughter has so keenly discovered, she can drop her spoon or unwanted food and, thanks to gravity, ten thousand times later it will still fall to the ground . Even my body functions in rhythms. I wake up, I sleep. I get hungry, eat until I’m satisfied, then get hungry eat again. Without thinking, my heart beats without stopping, steadily filling, emptying, pumping the blood throughout my body. My lungs fill with air and empty. Fill and empty.

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Liturgy is a fancy word for a ritual that is performed as part of religious worship. In a church context, liturgy encompasses the way church services are ordered, the practice of communion, or the pattern of call and response followed by clergy and congregation. In the book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, author and Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren examines our daily habits and routines as liturgy. As a mom, I am very familiar with routines. My days are constantly punctuated with repetitive tasks. Sometimes I repeat the same task so many times throughout a day, I am not even sure what I have accomplished by the time I lay my head on my pillow.

In the chaos of a day, my routines certainly don’t feel like liturgy. Every evening, I help my children follow the same bedtime routine, sung to the tune from that Daniel Tiger ‘Good Morning/Good Night’ episode (Parents, you know what I’m talking about). “Put on jammies, brush teeth, read books, say a prayer and off to sleep.” And every night, my children put up some sort of grand resistance, especially between “put on jammies” and “brush teeth”.

I finally get my son to the bathroom after asking, reminding, and commanding him to go brush his teeth.

“I don’t like brushing my teeth,” he says.

“Well, sometimes we have to do things we don’t like to do.”

“But why?” he asks, as toddlers love to do.

I give him some answer about taking care of our teeth and preventing cavities, and he continues to ask why about three more times.

I get it, son. I often find myself asking the same question of my own daily tasks.

Even though I explain why, I know my three-year old doesn’t fully understand the reason brushing his teeth every day is important. And in the day-to-day grind I too often fail to see the long-term benefits of the insignificant, mundane tasks that fill my minutes and hours. As the small, repetitive strikes of a hammer on chisel or the back and forth strokes of a paintbrush make up the foundation of a great work of art, in the same way, it is the moments of ordinary repetition that make a life. Tish Harrison Warren says it this way: “The crucible of our formation is in the anonymous monotony of our daily routines.” The thought that the smallness in my life can actually be something significant, like a spiritual practice, comforts me as I take in the pile of dishes in my sink, pick up the baby to change another diaper, and tell my son to please go get his socks for the twentieth time.

If my everyday-ness is a type of liturgy, then perhaps the discarded food scraps all over my just mopped floor, the next meal I have to prep for, the piles of books and toys I have to put away again, and that endless laundry pile can serve to remind me that in my own personal walk of faith, I must intentionally return to the rhythms of prayer and repentance and grace day after day, moment by moment. Perhaps, by simply showing up and being willing to do the same thing over and over again, I become a reminder to myself and those around me of the faithfulness of the God who will never stop pursuing, forgiving, and loving us no matter how many times we wander.

Unlike the sun and our beating hearts, we may tire of repetitive tasks and the seeming never ending-ness of it all.With a shift of perspective, even the most mundane daily rhythms can become beautiful acts of worship.

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I roll up my sleeves, dip my hands into the warm, sudsy water, and begin to wash dish after dish. The plate, the fork, the cup become tiny, whispered, repeated prayers as my hands briefly meet around each one. Though it certainly doesn’t always feel like it, here, standing at the sink, this is my spiritual practice. This is my liturgy.

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