spiritual awakening :: sarah bessey

One of my major spiritual awakenings happened because of Rice Krispies.

It’s true. During my second maternity leave when I was a fairly new mum with only two tinies under the age of two, we were eating breakfast when the inevitable occurred: one of those tinies knocked an entire bowl of Rice Krispies off the table and sent it sailing to the floor. It was a tremendous crash.

I was already tired because I had been up nursing during the night, Brian was off at work already, I simply wanted a quiet morning with my coffee because there was so much mundane work ahead on this day – cleaning bathrooms, doing laundry – but instead the Rice Krispies multiplied to biblical proportions while they flew through the air and one small cereal bowl became a nuclear wasteland scattered into seemingly every corner of the kitchen while milk streamed off the edge of the table puddling into the carnage and the bowl continued to spin.

After cleaning up the babies and restoring them to their places with a fresh breakfast – toast instead of cereal this time, never let it be said that I don’t learn from my mistakes – I found myself on my hands and knees in my nightie under the kitchen table, picking up soggy cereal.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever had the misfortune to have to clean up wet Rice Krispies but if not, I’ll offer this piece of advice: you cannot sweep them up, you cannot vacuum them up, you cannot wipe them up. No, Rice Krispies turn to a gluey substance which adheres to whatever surface it finds and instead of cleaning them up by those attempts, you only smear them. Ask me how I know. No, no, instead, you must pick them up one at a time, bit by bit, and only then can you wash the floor properly. Unless you want your feet to stick to the floor or you wish to burn the house down (which I considered for a moment), you must pick up every single Rice Krispie individually and only then wash the floor.

I began to get angry as I picked up those Rice Krispies. Oh, properly angry! Not at the tinies who created the mess – those messes can’t be helped when one is tiny, they’re part of the deal – but rather at the fact that this was my life. This was just one more daily indignity to the joyous and difficult and yet sometimes monotonous unending routine of caring for small children.

I muttered to myself under that kitchen table about how I was too smart for this. Oh, I did: I was too special for this! Surely someone else could do this work, someone else should be doing this work! After all, I was creative and capable! I was well educated! I used to manage budgets of $14 million dollars! I used to wear high heels and create marketing campaigns! Then my repressed struggling artist side entered the dialogue and ranted quietly about how I was meant to be writing! I was meant to have creative space to, well, create! Who could create anything or write anything while in the middle of diapers and bath times and housework? I am too creative for this! I am meant to be a writer not a maid! I bet C.S. Lewis never had to clean up cereal. And then that little evangelical hero complex in me joined the chorus: I was meant to change the world! I was meant to be someone! To lead! To be set apart! To tell people about Jesus, right? To be a hero in the kingdom of God! And instead here I was doing menial work that was contributing nothing to the world.

It would be funny if I hadn’t actually believed the lie that I was too special, too holy, too smart, too good, too much altogether, to pick up Rice Krispies in my own kitchen.

My husband went through similar feelings when he left full-time vocational ministry and then found himself driving a white work van with a phone number on the side, doing physical labour to pay our bills, saving for one Tim Horton’s coffee (double-double) a week. In addition to the actual difficulty of the work itself, there was his ongoing internal monologue about how this wasn’t good enough. This wasn’t special enough. How he was supposed to be more or better, how this kind of work wasn’t really contributing to the Kingdom of God, how he was failing because he was here.

Perhaps it isn’t any wonder why we struggled. We had been fed a steady diet for years that we were meant to change the world, to be heroes, to be different than the rest of the world, to be radical, to prepare only for the mountaintop! Exclamation points!

And when we found ourselves in adulthood with the truth that there are diapers to change and bills to pay, toilets to clean and laundry to fold, time cards to punch and late nights to work, it felt too humble and too altogether ordinary to possibly be God’s will for us.

As I was picking up those Rice Krispies, I had a sudden thought that came zinging into my self-important rant, so unlooked-for that it must only have been the Spirit of God breaking through.

Do you think God is also too good for the ordinary work?

I rocked back onto my bum and sat down. What.

Do you think you are somehow above living your own life?

Um. Apparently?

Do you think God is not present in this honourable work?

What kind of work matters to God?

All of a sudden, I was flooded with conviction under the kitchen table. It’s true: I believed I was good or too whatever to live my own ordinary life. I thought God was only “out there” – in the important work of the Kingdom which I had somehow come to believe was only visible or important or famous or set-apart. I had divided us into a system of castes – the full-time vocational ministry people who pastored or wrote books or preached or taught with eponymous organizations called “My Own Name Ministries” and missionaries and countercultural ones in tropical climates were at the tippity-top. The rest of us simply were pew-fodder, financiers for the “real” work of the ministry.

Which of us when presented with “ordinary” vs. “radical” wouldn’t choose the latter? Wouldn’t choose wanting to be special and different?

Like the rest of the radical youth in arenas being called world-changers, I had assumed that being a world-changer or a leader or even just a disciple of Jesus meant that I would not have an ordinary life. Surely discipleship isn’t so slow and it isn’t so ordinary and it doesn’t look so small to outside eyes.

This was not exactly the kind of spiritual awakening I expected.

Nope, surely we would quit our jobs and go on a trip around the world. Isn’t that the kind of “and then” that people want to hear?We make celebrities out of other disciples and long to be important like them. We want to be better than everyone else and do it differently and be the hero. We want “six steps to being radical for Jesus” and we want to turn our lives upside down because that must be more satisfying than what we actually did after that day.

No, we didn’t turn our lives upside down and throw those two babies into backpacks and set out to get a new fix of heroism to satiate our discomfort with ordinary. We didn’t send out support letters asking for other people to send us their money so that we could start a new ministry. We didn’t move to communal housing and we didn’t move to the downtown eastside. We didn’t write a blog or a book or start a podcast about how this was our wake-up call to not settle and to get out here and be hero and be amazing.

Instead: we got to work in our ordinary lives.

And we expected God to show up in that ordinary.

That was the revelation for us. It was working hard at regular jobs and sticking to the budget. It was saying no to special beach holidays in warm climates and it was thrift shops. It was showing up on time and climbing the ladder steadily. It was folding baby clothes and clipping baby fingernails and valuing early bedtimes. It was cooking supper instead of going out to eat and it was an afternoon walk before naptime. It was practicing the radical spiritual discipline of staying put. It was more babies and it was preschool permission slips and making lunches and bedtime reading sessions and saving for the university dreams of no-longer-quite-tiny tinies. It was choosing each other over ministry and learning to find our identity in something other than full-time vocational ministry. It was showing up at a local church to belong somewhere and volunteering in the nursery and making meals for others. It was reading good books and going for walks and planting gardens. It was giving away our money and opening up our home and listening carefully to make sure anything we now did was actually born of following God and not out of our weird need to be a hero or to be different or to be radical for its own sake. We learned to be suspicious of our own motives, to question our own selves, and to cease striving.

Work is honourable and life is good and this is a gift from God, no matter what. God is present in the ordinary and the regular and the uncelebrated in a way that I never could have fathomed when I thought God’s best was only either on stage or in a pulpit or a mountaintop or an arena or far away.

We would have missed it. If we had tried to run away from the discomfort of not-being-radical, we would have missed the gift of ordinary, the gift of our own lives and the people around us.

We would not have been present to the people right here around us and the ministry that happens in kitchens and church aisles and backyards. We would have missed the beauty of daily following Jesus into a whole life redemption.

We would have missed the truth that God loves the world, that our ordinary every day walking around lives are rich with meaning, that there is value in picking up Rice Krispies and typing in a cubicle from 8-5 and driving a work van and cooking supper and picking kids up from daycare. That there is creativity and leadership and holiness in the very common places.

Because here’s the secret behind it all: part of the reason why we want to be radical is because we believe that it’s better.

Ouch, that one stings, eh? We believe that we are better for it, we believe it makes us better than everyone else, we believe it makes us better than our own old self, we even believe God loves us better for it. Will God love me if I’m ordinary?

And when your standing before God is stripped of being interesting or powerful or obvious or better-than, when your place in the Kingdom of God becomes ordinary and pedestrian, that’s when you begin to finally receive the love of Christ as the free and wild and generous gift of abundance that it has been all along and then you begin to see that Love showing up in the craziest and most ordinary of places.

It was only when my obvious productivity was separated from my spirituality that I was able to see that Love infused all of it.

I didn’t need this weird demarcation between “sacred work” and “secular work” – rather all of my life, seen and unseen, celebrated and uncelebrated, radical and utterly ordinary – all of it was a place to meet with God and to be transformed.

In fact, I have found that the greatest transformations of my life, the moments or disciplines that most transformed me into being more loving, more joyous, more patient, more gentle, more kind, more faithful, more disciplined, more peaceful were far away from the radical moments or the mountaintop experiences or the typical “sacred” or celebrated stuff.

All of our lives are a proclamation and an encounter. 

In the years since that day, our lives have grown to include some of the very things that used to look heroic to us on the outside: preaching, writing books, community development, social justice work, teaching, leading, stages, travel.

And yet those things are simply an overflow of the company we’re keeping with Jesus. They arose not because we chased them or yearned for them but because we simply were following Jesus and that’s where we have been lead and we might very well be lead out of them in another season. That would be okay. My life is not summed up in those things: my life is also still cleaning toilets and making supper, showing up at church and going for walks, texting how-are-you-really to friends and sitting in my husband’s lap at the table, praying with now preposterously tall children at bedtime and making sure everyone brushed their teeth, for heaven’s sake. There has to be a seamlessness to our lives, a oneness so that there isn’t ordinary work vs. holy work: it’s all together beautiful.

The point isn’t being radical or a world-changer: the point is following Jesus.

God wasn’t waiting for me in Thailand or in an orphanage or a book deal or on a stage or in a position of power and influence: God was always under the kitchen table cleaning up Rice Krispies.

 

P.S. I wrote an entire chapter in my latest book about the evangelical hero complex and our complicated relationship with our mutual callings and vocations and regular work, if you’d like to read more about this very thing.

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