Extraordinarily Ordinary

When my friend Ray was diagnosed with cancer, he started reading obituaries. He found comfort in the newspaper’s daily litany of the departed. Somehow it made him feel less alone. Like a pilgrim who is traveling in company, instead of someone who stumbles along a difficult path by himself. It was the ordinariness of the thing that helped him the most.

I feel something similar whenever I thumb through the old yearbooks in the faculty lounge. Their faces framed in horn-rimmed and cat-eye glasses, the images of former faculty gaze back at me with pursed lips or shy smiles. I do not recognize any of their names. They are long forgotten by the school they once served. Along with them are rank upon rank of students who are also long gone. They are not remembered either. Indeed, most of them were hardly known when they were here. Like the majority of us, they were just ordinary people.

It is hard to be ordinary. Especially in a culture which worships the heroic. This is particularly true of the Christian world. Wendell Berry observes that the Judeo-Christian tradition favors the heroic. “The poets and storytellers in this tradition have tended to be interested in the extraordinary actions of ‘great men’–actions unique in grandeur, such as may occur only once in the world” he explains. This is a standard that is impossible for ordinary people to live up to.

As a young Christian, I remember being captivated by the story of Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries who lost their lives when they attempted to bring the gospel to the Huaorani people of Ecuador. When I was finished I got down on my knees and prayed that God would make me a martyr too. It was a foolish prayer, prompted more by romanticism than by devotion. It was a request born of youthful impatience and a rash hunger for glory. Not at all like the real martyrs, most of whom stumbled into their unique calling.

It takes another kind of courage and a different skill set to follow the path assigned to the majority. “The drama of ordinary or daily behavior also raises the issue of courage, but it raises at the same time the issue of skill; and, because ordinary behavior lasts so much longer than heroic action, it raises in a more complex and difficult way the issue of perseverance” Berry observes. “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife day after day for fifty years.”

On some days we feel like we are only going through the motions, merely shuffling along as we pass into oblivion. Instead, we are traveling in company. We are upholding the world with hundreds of small and ordinary efforts. We make the bed. We drive the kids to school and worry about the kind of day they will have. We go to work. We clean the bathroom. We wait for the end of the world and the dawning of the age to come. It is a kind of liturgy.

The world needs its heroes. It may be true that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Yet both the church and the world at large are vastly more dependent for their daily functioning on the common efforts of those who are extraordinarily ordinary. The writer George Eliot observed, “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

6 thoughts on “Extraordinarily Ordinary

  1. I was very moved by this piece. I will use it in the future when I teach T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party which examines two ways of showing conversion: “making the best of a bad job” in ordinary life or a martyr’s death. I would probably never be brave enough to be a martyr; I hope to keep plodding along with more grace.

  2. Your posts are so extraordinary in your ability to share your thoughts so simply on such deep subject matter. I find them to be succinct in theological thought and poetic at the same time. This one, is so lovely to reflect upon. As I age I am becoming more confident and settled in my ordinarily given placement in our Lord. And as this continues to unfold, I’m finding myself amazed at the expanse of the peace the Lord is extending within me. Thank you for this lastest insight of clarity written in 7 perfect paragraphs.

  3. Thank you for your encouraging word! It caused me to remember a conversation I had with my Dad years ago. I had been accepted as a student at Moody but was so anxious about going because I didn’t feel spiritual enough. My Dad, who had also attended a Bible school said, “Honey, I was an average Christian when I went to Bible school, and I was an average Christian when I left Bible school.” You won’t read about my Dad in any articles or hear about him on the news, but like so many, he has been faithful in the ordinary, I’d do well to continue in his footsteps! Thanks again for your encouragement.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.