My dad and I arrive for lunch at the café in his continuing care community. My father eats there every day, most of the time riding his bike from his “cottage” or taking the shuttle bus if the weather is bad. Sometimes it’s the only time of day he gets out. “One Gerry Special!” the cashier shouts to the short order cook. “Make that two Gerry Specials,” I say.
My father Gerry has ordered the same lunch every day for the past three years, ever since my mother died: a grilled tomato and cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee. Once in a great while, the cashier says, my father will order grilled ham and cheese, but it’s always on Sunday. Go figure.
Because my father has dementia, familiar patterns are comforting, reassuring and essential for navigating everyday life. Routine helps him cope with the fog of daily decision-making. When my father awakes in the morning, he gets dressed, eats a breakfast of yogurt, fruit and cereal and then turns on CNN for the rest of the day. Lunch is at the café, and my three siblings each have a day to take my father out for dinner. The other evenings a “helper” drives him to another dining room in the facility for supper, gives him his meds, does some housekeeping, then brings him back home.
In each restaurant my father knows what he likes and always orders the same thing. Reading a menu no longer works for him. On Saturday mornings he loves to order baked oatmeal at a local Mennonite retirement home. Everyone knows my father, so he no longer even has to bother ordering. Everywhere he goes, he receives the “Gerry Special.”
Whenever I visit, I have to remember that my father may be startled to discover me sleeping on the fold-out couch in the study, and he may even balk at me for disturbing his routines. But sometimes a vacation from routine is just what is needed, especially when it is something my father has always loved, like an orchestra concert or a movie. Measuring the benefit of breaking the routine is always a balancing act.
It prompts me to wonder about the routines that bring order, balance and even wholeness to my own life. No matter when I get to bed, I always seem to wake up at the same time. It’s my internal clock at work. Every morning I eat the same breakfast: cottage cheese and red grapes. It’s my version of the “Gerry Special.” I always exercise early in the morning and take a prayer walk in the late afternoon. I also try to practice the routine of “eating the frog”; that is, tackling the most challenging task of the day first when I am fresh.
Since my birth the Sunday routine has been to attend church. There are never any questions asked, no agonizing about what to do. Sunday is church day. In the same way, our family practice of tithing as our base level of charitable giving saves us the trouble of always asking, “Now what should we put in the offering plate today?”
So many routines, many of them spiritual disciplines, bless my life and provide the opportunity to focus my energy on other decisions. On the other hand, when I become enslaved to routine, I run the risk of getting stuck in ruts and never questioning why I do what I do. In fact, the “Gerry Special,” so essential for my father’s well being, will not cut it in most of today’s life, including the church. The “Gerry Special” is code for “We’ve always done it this way.”
As my brother, father and I stop at the same Mennonite grocery store where we’ve shopped for decades, my brother says, “Did you know that Landis’ is now open on Sunday?”
“Yes, after so many years of resistance, the owners realized that they cannot survive economically unless they open on Sunday. Competing with Walmart and Costco is almost impossible.” The routine, although perhaps justified in religious terms, was no longer sustainable as society and the needs of customers have changed over the years.
One day we drive past the printing/manufacturing factory that was started by my grandfather in 1908, was led by my father for many years, closed fifteen years ago and now houses a new church start! My father says, “We used to serve the mom and pop stores around the country by selling them postcards, calendars, toys, novelties and school supplies. We also served their printing needs with business cards, stationery, envelopes and invoices.
“I imagine all of those stores are closed now because no one is a generalist anymore. The old ways are forever gone. People go to big box stores to buy toys and school supplies, and they can take care of their printing needs right at home! I always tried to do my best to stay ahead of the game, to anticipate the needs of my customers and continually reinvent my business. I’m glad I’m retired because the world is changing too fast for me to keep up.”
Then we drive to my home church so I can check out the new addition. The current facility was built in 1968, and I can still remember the day our entire congregation walked the mile from the old to the new church. My father, who was on the building committee, says, “We employed Ed Sovik, a Lutheran architect from Minnesota who specialized in churches. This was unheard of in Mennonite circles. We took the time to figure out with the architect what we wanted, then we just went out and did it. The building turned out to be a lot bigger than we anticipated, but everyone was on the same page.”
What vision the building committee had! No Gerry Special here. Nothing was routine. Every item in the sanctuary, from the stained glass, to the cross, to the baptismal font, to the pipe organ, to the classrooms, had theological significance. For many years the church building anticipated and accommodated a vital congregation. In recent years routine began to stifle growth, but expanding the kitchen (used extensively for outreach), restrooms and parking is a sign of hope for the future.
Although the routine of the Gerry Special helps my father stay in his comfort zone, routine can be a curse as well as a blessing. One of my favorite definitions of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” President Obama’s State of the Union address last Tuesday included a few new initiatives, but the reality is that not much will be accomplished in the next two years because partisan politics will continue to institutionalize the “same old, same old.” Routine shrinks our country when Democrats and Republicans alike refuse compromise for fear of losing power.
In the same way the church too often lags behind our culture instead of leading the way. The routine of faith is that when we are uncertain, afraid or don’t agree, we resort to our default mode, which is inertia. Everyone has to have their say, no one wants to leave behind the nay-sayers, and failure is unthinkable, so we wait and wait and wait until the opportunity has passed. Meanwhile, the children, youth and young families who are looking or something more relevant to their spiritual needs move on to another faith community that is willing to break the mold.
How do we move beyond the Gerry Special?
- Be willing to look at challenges with new eyes and a blank slate.
- Rethink assumptions: is it possible to turn a profit in 2015 by closing a grocery store on Sunday?
- Select leaders who are willing to move beyond routine to risk.
- Mix it up. Try new approaches; experiment with different methodologies; do new drills; exercise different muscles; try a different musical articulation; find a new location to study; take your walk in the opposite direction.
- Be a student of the culture, make a new friend and enlarge your borders.
Imagine what could be rather than simply accept what is – and then try it!
What might happen if you asked yourself what delicacies could lie beyond a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich? I’m not about to try it with my father because good routines do keep us grounded. John Wesley called them the means of grace, which include works of piety (spiritual disciplines) and works of mercy (outreach and mission). At the same time Wesley moved far beyond the “routine” of the Anglican church to meet people where they were: in the slums, prisons, mines and fields. And by sending some of his preachers to America, the Methodist movement grew like wildfire because of the evangelical fervor of the circuit-riders.
How is God calling you to move beyond the Gerry Special?