Routines with a Bigger Purpose

By Stephen Andrews

Like many of you, I spend the first week of the New Year going through my diary, trying to anticipate some of the challenges and opportunities the next twelve months will bring. There’s the weekly rhythm of chapel services at the College, the regularly scheduled meetings with staff and faculty, the monthly gatherings of the Board and college committees, and the odd business trip. It’s a review I generally look forward to, especially as a remedy to the usual chaos of Christmas!

There is a kind of comfort in routine, isn’t there? Routine is soil of the familiar and predictable. It is a way of dividing time that enables us to get the measure of the tasks before us. And although the tasks may be daunting, we remain secure in the knowledge that our routines will see us through. Indeed, in periods of rapid change, a routine can help to maintain badly-needed stability. I understand that the Emperor of Japan continues manually to cultivate the palace rice paddy himself. This routine labour is for him a spiritual discipline, a tangible way of identifying with the most humble of his subjects and, perhaps, reminding him of a guiding axiom like that found in 2 Thessalonians 3.10: “Anyone who will not work shall not eat.” Healthy routines are a part of sustaining a healthy life.

But it would be foolish to deny the fact that routines are not always helpful. Frankly, they can be boring. Indeed, they can be worse. In some of their more intense forms, they can be debilitating. A friend of mine in high school got a job on the assembly line of a toy manufacturer. But the task was so monotonous and repetitive that it had cognitive consequences and she began to lose her ability to feel things with her fingers and hands.

Routine can have a similar effect on us all, though in a more subtle fashion. In doing the same things from day to day and year to year, we can be lulled into a false sense of security. We can become numb and unresponsive when new challenges present themselves. This happened to the computer giant IBM in 1992 when they haemorrhaged nearly five billion dollars. Why? A journalist for The Sunday Times wrote that “the firm’s enormous success bred arrogance, insularity and conservatism. By the mid-1980s, IBM had become so ossified, bureaucratic and inflexible that it was simply unable to rise to the competitive challenge”. Unhealthy routines can weaken us, and make us vulnerable to destructive forces.

I dwell on the matter of routine in our lives because, as I have said, this is one of the few times in the year when we are inclined to pause and take inventory. We reflect upon the successes and failures of the past year, and we try to peer into the future to see what the coming year holds in store. We seek affirmation for our strengths, and we make resolutions about how we’re going to change, or what we’re going to do differently in the year to come. We think that there may be some merit in breaking old routines and establishing new ones.

This is why it is good for us to go through the annual tallying, to ask ourselves (and maybe each other) some hard questions about our priorities and values. It is important for us as individuals and as a Church to undertake an honest review of our routines, to ask ourselves the “how” questions (how we can do things differently?, how we can improve?). But more fundamental even than this is to ask the “why” question: “why are we doing what we do?” For it is the answer to the “why” question that distinguishes between routines that are wholesome and routines that are misdirected. For Christians, the virtuous routines are those that are somehow ordered towards Jesus and his kingdom.

When I think of the routine life, I often go in my mind to the ancient Bethlehem hills. In Christmastide we read the story of shepherds “keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2.8). Shepherding was an occupation that was full of routine. Every morning, the shepherd would lead the flock to water and to pasture. In the afternoon the shepherd would direct the sheep to shelter, and when darkness fell the shepherd would be alert for predators. The job was usually unremarkable and mundane. But one night the routine was disturbed. The dark sky was transformed into a terrifying display of glory, and the shepherds were distracted from their habitual tasks by the need to discover the source of what an angel described as “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (2.9).

St Luke says that when the ordeal was over, they hurried off to the manger and marvelled at what they saw. But then St Luke reports that they returned to their shepherding. But when they did, their worldly habits were anything but “routine”. They were routines in a new context, routines with a bigger purpose, routines in a new key. For they returned “glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen” (2.20). These humble shepherds became evangelists. Now that they had witnessed the glory of God in the face of the baby Jesus Christ, they were changed: they were shepherds with a message.

It is this perspective on routines which distinguishes between a pattern which is healthy or unhealthy. Put simply, those routines which relate to the broader purposes of God’s will for us and for his world bring health to us and those around us, while those routines which do not relate to these greater purposes are ultimately unwholesome. In our annual reckonings, let this be a lesson for us. Let us be attentive to the truth that it is often in the humdrum of life that God reveals himself to us, thereby transforming the mundane and routine into vehicles for his glory, so that through us others might discover “good news of great joy to all people”. In the midst of our 2023 routines, may we all know God’s glorious riches and gracious purposes for us in Jesus Christ.