The winter season inevitably feels like a God-given opportunity to turn inward and homeward as brief sunlight and colder weather make the warmth of the home inviting rather than restrictive.
It’s a naturally built-in time for reflection and refreshment surrounded by loved ones and a few good friends. The pace of creation slows, and if we are wise, we heed its instruction. The land needs rest and we, who were formed out of it, do, too.
Everything about the season beckons us to seek comfort and renewal within: the frigid and howling temperatures without, sometimes reaching -30, and a thick, steaming pot of chili within. Ice and snow-packed roads slow the ceaseless traveler, while cozied up snuggles on the couch offer our wearied souls respite. As the pace slows, the keen enjoyment of ordinary moments grows, too.
My two older boys and I have been feeding calves for my friend Keith, and in the evenings we’ll drive the 10 minutes up valley and out of town to his property. It’s the most ordinary of tasks—tossing out hay and busting up a water tank full of ice—but it holds this simple, wonderful power to create pleasure in a bit of physical labor. It’s a daily liturgy that reshapes our hearts, makes us notice and celebrate the profound joy that lays hidden in the ordinary.
The first day we fed these 10 winterized and furry calves was like learning new steps to a dance. You could see the hesitation in the boys’ faces as we climbed into the Ranger, loaded two bales of hay, and headed out to pasture. They were a bit like high schoolers at prom, hiding in the corners and sipping punch, hoping no one would see them.
By day three, the mood had all changed. They became like wedding guests at the dance floor after copious amounts of booze started flowing through their veins. Anticipation racked their little hearts from the moment we pulled out of our own driveway in the 4Runner. The unknown had become ritual, something children make us realize we all thrive on. They actually grew quieter than usual, but their eyes glowed with hearty anticipation.
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” G.K. Chesterton
As we loaded up in the Ranger the second day, the calves met us at the corner of the field, skipping and jumping with exuberant enthusiasm. They ran along the fence line, a brown dog chasing, eager for their evening meal. Cows displaying their divinely crafted cowness, calling us to rejoice in the same ritual, pointing us to the right kind of spirit as we went about our chores.
Not dull, not dreary, but full of life. Once the bovine sacrifices of temple and altar, now in field and stable, are still pointing us to the heart of the divine ritual, my life for yours, plates overflowing. They point us to the heart of worship in this divinely appointed service of pasture and table, delight and routine.
The boys know the order of this service. They opened the gates as I roll through, a triumphal entry if ever there was one, and then jumped aboard to distribute the grain offering. We broke the ice, literally, and the furry halflings crowded around to quench their thirst, gratitude on every face, including ours.
Low gear and a slow crawl, hay flying in the wind, a train of hooves following in our wake. I climbed the side step of the OHV to snap a quick photo, and the boys faces say it all.
After we restocked the motorized sled with hay, we returned it to the warm confines of the garage. Into our own rig we climbed, homeward bound again. In the truck, the boys called out for song, the proper way to praise the excellencies of the ordinary. Lately it’s been the Avett Brothers, and the chorus of three sang along, hearts full, to “Ain’t No Man.”
Suddenly aware of the significant pleasure of that simple moment, I realized something crucial, a fact upon which a joyful life hinges: It’s not about finally chasing down what’s currently beyond your reach; it’s about enjoying what God has already given you—the ordinary, everyday stuff of life.
You’ll never be happy if you think your joy is always right around the next corner of striving and acquisition. You’ll never find joy if your joy depends on an “if only…” If only I had this promotion, a bigger or better home, a more prominent career, a better spouse, more obedient children…then I could be happy.
The truth is that this ability to rejoice in what you have—to stop and smell the serene fragrance of fresh cow pies on a mown pasture—to enjoy your divinely appointed lot in life, is a gift of God.
“What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation…There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23, 24).
It’s not about getting something different; it’s about enjoying what you’ve been given. The secret is contentment and gratitude—the ability to see and delight in the ordinary things right before your nose—not striving for more. Insanely impossible without the power from God, richly refreshing when gifted with this heart.
That afternoon of feeding came on the heels of a prayer that God would help me to enjoy my sons. And so, in proverbial fashion, God said, ‘Consider the calves of the field.’ Learn to delight in the rituals of the ordinary. Many times all we need is new eyes to see the beauty that’s already there.
It’s so easy to get exasperated by the daily cow pies of life: children ceaselessly arguing and quarreling with each other, the never-ending bleat of emails and demands and assignments, ongoing relational conflict, the daily balking from our little ones about doing homework, a spouse who can’t seem to find the laundry basket (or a kind word) if his life depended on it, and more. To this day I’m convinced that what Paul really meant to say was ‘Children do not exasperate your parents,’ because most days it’s me, not them, who’s coming apart at the seams.
But what actually needs to change? My situation, or my attitude?
When we’re striving after the wind—putting career aspirations first and doing workaholic keg stands, grasping for someone’s approval, trying to keep a home that Martha Stewart and all your girlfriends (or mother-in-law) would praise you for, or otherwise erecting our own little kingdoms in which our kids do and say exactly what we want at all times—that’s when all the little cow pies are nothing more than annoyances we keep stepping in.
But from another perspective, the one in which we rejoice in the ordinary, those cow pies are signs of life, tokens of the many blessings God has poured upon our lives. What the disciples saw as an intrusion and an annoyance, Jesus welcomed and wrapped up in his arms. Same little children, two different perspectives.
“Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox” (Proverbs 14:4).
The answer is in the ordinary. Ordinary prayers to change my heart and my children’s. Ordinary rituals like feeding animals and kneeling with your kids to pray at night, reading them books and listening to their never-ending stories with patience. Ordinary meals together. And the extraordinary power from God to enjoy it all, to see the beauty and power in what might otherwise be overlooked.