Practicing the Present: The Courage of the 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’s hard to be ordinary. Especially in a culture which worships the heroic. This is particularly true of the Christian world. Author Wendell Berry writes 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.

Practicing the present requires that we reclaim a sense of the eternal significance of the mundane spaces in our lives. We don’t do this by trying to change the quality of our experience in those areas. The mundane will still involve the mundane but by accepting the ordinary as a context in which God is present. The ordinary tasks assigned to us by our calling and life situation are no less meaningful to God than those that are extraordinary. We don’t need to be attempting great things all the time. We don’t need to make a name for ourselves. As far as we know from Scripture, Jesus spent most of the first thirty years of His earthly life doing very little that was worth writing about. He lived in Nazareth and worked an ordinary job. To the people in His hometown there didn’t seem to be anything particularly special about Jesus. He was “the carpenter,” just somebody from the village (Mark 6:3).  

We do not need to resort to extraordinary acts of devotion to experience the reality of God’s presence. Nor does the reality of God’s nearness evaporate when we grow busy or our circumstances become difficult. During those times when we find it difficult to sense the nearness of God, He is as present as ever. From the highest heavens to the lowest depths, whatever situation we may find ourselves in is one in which God is already there (Ps. 139:8).

Although we always inhabit the present, we often feel as if it is moving past us. Try as we might to seize upon the moment and hold it fast, it still slips from our grasp. That good feeling we have passes or the season changes. The song that moved us so deeply comes to an end and somehow replaying it over again does not quite have the same effect. It is easy to think that we are standing fast as time marches past us and fades in the distance. We are caught in time’s irresistible current and swept into the future. As much as we might want to revisit the past, we can do so only in our minds. We have moved beyond the past and cannot return to it, no matter what the science-fiction writers say. The future is as removed from us as the past. We may be moving inexorably toward it, but the future will always remain in front of us. We can only imagine or speculate what will take place there.

But God is the master of time. It serves God’s purpose. The same God who established the regular cycle of day and night, summer and winter, seedtime and harvest also orders the seasons of our lives (Gen. 8:22). Our times are in His hand (Ps. 31:15). God always acts on our behalf at the “right time” (Rom. 5:6). This was true of the birth of Jesus Christ, which occurred “when the time had fully come” (Gal. 4:4). It is just as true in the commonplace things that concern us every day. Why do we brood about the past and fret over the future? According to Jesus, it is because we have lost sight of God. God gives meaning to the present.  His presence sanctifies our boredom and redeems our discomfort. The present is more than a place where the past comes to rest. It is more than a staging ground for the future. The present is where God shows up.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now: will be released by Moody Publishers in June and is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.