The Rhythm of Routine
We mark transitions in our lives one way or another, usually by big events like graduation, careers, marriage, children, and retirement. It was the same for Jacob — except a little more dramatic. Jacob’s mostly routine life was marked by four different encounters with God.
The storyteller in the Bible compresses time and especially highlights the moments when something unusual happens to Jacob. Reading the story, it sounds like “and then…and then…and then…” but of course his life wasn’t that way. Think about your own life and how the story would read if it was covered day by day for your entire adult life.
One of the unfortunate effects of abbreviating his story is getting the sense that something is always happening in the life of Jacob. A chapter ends and the next begins with another story, and we are tempted to think Jacob’s life was one interesting moment after another with hardly a pause in between.
Although he seems to be hearing from God all the time, nothing could be further from the truth, I suspect. Yes, there are stories of problems with his family, his unruly children and the neighbors, but it was not the exhilarating life of nonstop revelation we sometimes imagine.
In Jacob’s life, there is a great deal of time — decades — between visions with nothing rousing or even memorable happening. He was a shepherd, and shepherds don’t typically lead exciting lives. They take care of sheep and my guess is that it is mostly routine work built around the animals’ predictable needs — not the serene pastoral image you see in much of European art. Or as Wendell Berry points out, there is a big difference between working farmers and well-intentioned people romanticizing a return to farm life.
We distort Jacob’s life when we try to make it more than it was —a day-to-day unremarkable pattern of the ordinary. Our modern notion of God showing up everywhere we turn and, in every circumstance, to inspire us is not the way Jacob’s life played out. He went for years at a time simply going to work every day.
I like what Oswald Chambers says about the mundane: “Drudgery is one of the finest tests to determine the genuineness of our character. Drudgery is work that is far removed from anything we think of as ideal work. It is utterly hard, menial, tiresome and dirty work. And when we experience it, our spirituality is instantly tested, and we will know whether or not we are spiritually genuine.”
If you look at Scripture, you’ll see that many, many people are only mentioned as part of a list — and we skip over those to get to the lives that we think really matter. We want a life that means something, and often we define that as a life of tangible accomplishment and affirmation from God. We want a long obituary — not to be part of a list of people who lived and died without further comment. We want a life that is more than tending sheep for years on end with little change.
Annie Dillard wrote: “There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet.”
We need the example of Jacob to understand and be grateful that the routine of life is as much a part of God’s rhythm in the world as the transcendent.