A Life-giving, Transformative Ordinary
BY: Denis Haack
What does God want
with so many stars
and black holes
in infinite space?
What is God’s plan
on rainy nights
when the wind blows
and topples the flowers?...
Unless we are blind to reality—from disbelief or busyness, distraction or addiction—if we stop and look, and then look some more, we will see that the ordinary is charged with hints of glory. And catching sight of glory always gives birth to a sense of wonder.
On most days this month a wild turkey walks warily out of the woods behind our home and makes his way across a bit of lawn to the spot directly under the bird feeders that hang off our deck. It is a male turkey, a tom as they are called (I looked it up) though earlier this summer a hen came by with four lovely chicks (called poults). We only saw her a couple of times, and last week a hen also appeared but she had only two chicks. Birds are messy eaters, so there is always plenty of feed on the ground for the turkey to find. The chickadees, woodpeckers, and finches that flock to the feeders toss rejected seeds into the air and the beat of their wings throw clouds of feed around as they land, take off and squabble. It seems a neat arrangement.
The tom is not, to my eyes at least, a very handsome creature. It’s featherless neck and head shows skin that’s blue, mottled, lumpy and hangs off in flaps over and under its beak. The small naked head on such a huge body seems disproportionate. The mating display in the spring when toms strut and show off their tails like peacocks is remarkable, but their feathers, though with a lovely iridescence, are not colorful—probably good for blending into the shadows and bushes in the woods. Still, compared to the little birds feeding above them—yellow goldfinches, orange orioles, blue jays, and red cardinals—the tom stands out only in size.
All of this, ordinary though it may be, fills me with wonder. I wonder how a wild bird so large can adapt to life next to an urban setting, coming up out of woods to scavenge food right next to our house. I wonder why creation is so richly diverse, with such beauty and fine detail so that it forms a ecological tapestry so complex that all our learning about it only reveals how little we actually know. And I wonder how so many can see what I see and yet believe it exists in an impersonal universe in which meaning and purpose are nothing more than constructs arising from the random firing of synapses in human brains. I wonder whether human beings can retain their humanity if they truly believe that all wonder is finally meaningless. My wonder over a tom turkey pecking at seed scattered on the ground at the edge of my yard may not seem like much in the cosmic scheme of things, but I resist the notion that my wonder is ultimately insignificant for if it is, the wonder of wonder shrinks away into a dark sea of meaninglessness.
We cannot escape the deep yearning for meaning because meaning is essential to our personhood, to our humanity and in our experience of life. It echoes with poignancy in the protests, filled with lament, against the killing of unarmed blacks in urban settings. It is at the heart of the search for justice in the face of judicial inequality. Meaningfulness is evident in the faces of refugees fleeing the violence and destruction of any of the wars raging across the face of God’s good world. It can be heard in the sweet questions of children and the doubts of young adults as both wonder about so many things in a world chock full of wonders beyond our imagining. The yearning for meaning is heard even in the stories of people whose view of things seems to discount meaning as really possible. We may not have words sufficient to express our yearning for meaning but the human soul becomes restless when the cold conviction of being insignificant overtakes our consciousness.
As part of a plenary lecture at the 2016 Rochester L’Abri Conference, Andrew Fellows identified what he called five key questions of the heart. Together they provide some shape to the yearning for meaning we share, and when we discover some partial fulfillment—it’s always partial in this broken world—some partial fulfillment for our yearning a sense of wonder bubbles up in relief and gratitude. Each of the five questions of the heart, he said, was part of a project, a project of significance each person is embarked on over the course of their life.
Why? This is the personal meaning project, the deep and unrelenting desire each person feels for a measure of personal significance. We find ourselves embedded in a life that is rich in detail, crowded with creatures and persons and events in a cosmos of amazing complexity. If we have no sense of why we exist, or discover that perhaps there actually is no reason for existence then it can be hard to want to continue to exist at all. At the very least something simply won’t seem right.
What for? The purpose project, the quest to make sense of our life and our work, and how we use up ourselves in the tasks that fill our days. All labor is tainted with toil, and no one is immune from boredom and the fear that what we do is simply striving after wind, a small cog in a massive effort going nowhere and signifying nothing. This is why expressions of gratitude can mean so much while having all we do be ignored or dismissed can feel like being smothered in the dust of death.
Who am I? The hero project, not that we each imagine we are some heroic figure astride history but the tiny hope that in the final analysis I stand out somehow in the endless crowd. This is why superhero stories and mythic tales of rescue and redemption are so appealing. I suspect this deep yearning of the heart is why young men and women are drawn to warfare, virtual and real, the one environment in which we each can give our all for another or for some cause.
How should we then live? This is the good life project—the quest to find some measure of fulfillment for a life well lived. I may not be able to change the world or even be able to change much in the lives in my closest friends but still I yearn to feel a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day, and more importantly at the end of my life. This yearning gives birth to a restlessness that dogs us, a willingness to make changes, to dig deeper. It’s why so many of us are constantly scanning the horizon looking for a better job, a better relationship, and a better place.
How can I be saved? In the face of death no one is content, and so we look for rescue or a way out. The salvation project is not religious for many. It is seen in the quest for youthfulness, fitness and longevity that so many obsess over, and in the myriad forms of distraction and addiction that numb so many. The first is active, the second passive, a fact the devotees of the first trumpet to celebrate their superiority but in the end both are equally pathetic.
What maladapted creatures we are if all these yearnings are for naught. How we answer each question is of importance because though many answers can be given not all fit with what it means to be a person. Every answer does not necessarily mesh with reality and so we are used to making allowances. This is not merely or even primarily a strictly cognitive exercise. True, it is important to think about the answers, but in practice we tend to live into the answers rather than reasoning them out in an abstract way and then shifting gears to put our ideas into practice.
As I listened to Andrew’s lecture I thought his list a good one, something that provided clarity in understanding the human condition, clarity in understanding my own heart. And a few other questions come to mind as well.
Am I loved? The relationship project in which we need so desperately to know there is someone who loves us, accepts us, and will not leave. It is why heartbreak is so painful, and why even in situations where it is sadly the best and necessary option divorce is always wrenching and sends ripples of disappointment and hurt across generations. To feel unloved and unlovable is to sever the chords of friendship and community, and to threaten an unrelieved loneliness. The desire to be loved is at the root of our yearning for meaning, and as all the best stories assure us, when we fall in love, the wonder of it all can take our breath away. In the creation narrative God proclaimed all things good, except for one thing, that the man was alone. Not until woman was present was art made (Genesis 2:23), and in describing what it means to be made in God’s image, the Creator spoke of them not individualistically but in relationship. “So God created humankind in his image, / in the image of God he created them; / male and female he created them” (1:27). The need to be loved and to love is a yearning we cannot escape, and it can be argued that this quest is at the root of all the deepest human desires and needs.
Where is home? The opening stories in scripture capture so much of the essence of what it means to be human. It is significant that when our first parents determined to live not by God’s word but by their own ideas the first result was the loss of home (Genesis 3:23-24). Choosing to go one’s own way meant that the place that had been prepared for them was lost to them, and the wandering we all know began. The place to rest project had been launched. When the first murder occurred, there was further separation, and Cain lamented his lot. “My punishment is greater than I can bear,” he cried (4:13), and all those without home have shared that grief ever since. Singer songwriter Karen Choi knows the yearning well:
I want somebody who will know my name
Know where I’m going know the places I have been
‘Cuz I been up and down
I am looking for something to own
For a place to belong for a house I can call my own
‘Cuz I’ve been up and down
Even nomads bring home with them as they travel. Those that suggest that homelessness is merely or primarily a financial issue, have not reflected on the problem in sufficient depth.
Can justice be achieved? We listen to the news, look at the pictures and videos coming from war zones and terrorist attacks, and wish that justice could occur in the real world. It’s why so many movies tell stories of heroism, even though in many it is vengeance rather than justice that is sought and achieved. “Let righteousness cover the earth,” Bob Marley and the Wailers sang, “Like the water cover the sea,” giving voice to the justice project. The lyrics reflect expressions used by the ancient Hebrew prophets Isaiah and Habakkuk and so have a long history in the hopes of mankind. This yearning for justice seems to be instinctive, innate in people, showing up even in small children who feel slighted by playmates and parents.
What is that? The creature project, where we wonder, as creatures, what our fellow creatures are and how they fit into things. This afternoon I stepped out on our deck to record a reading on our rain gauge. I am a volunteer for the Minnesota State Climatology Office. It isn’t much of a task, since I’ve always tried to keep track of rainfall. Living this far north means weather is a ubiquitous topic of conversation, because we get extremes that are memorable. So, since I checked rainfall amounts anyway, I figured I should do it in a way that helps climatologists in their research. I signed up, received an official rain gauge, and record the amount of precipitation every day on a chart that I send in at the end of each month. We had a series of thunderstorms roll through last night—rainfall: 3.71 inches.
As I walked across the deck to the gauge, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. The tom turkey stepped away to the edge of the woods and stood watching me. So I watched him, and for a few minutes we eyeballed each other until he slipped away in the bushes. My spiritual mentor, Francis Schaeffer used to say that when we stand with our fellow creatures before the creator there are two things we must remember. On the one hand, we are different from the rest of the creatures because we bear God’s likeness. On the other, we are no different from the rest of the creatures because like them we are creatures. That tom’s life is dependent upon God just as mine is, and one important difference between us is that the tom is content to be the turkey he was created to be, while I and all my kind have refused to accept God’s word concerning how we are to be and to live.
Cranes know when it’s time
to move south for winter.
And robins, warblers, and bluebirds
know when it’s time to come back again.
But my people? My people know nothing,
not the first thing of God and his rule. (Jeremiah 8:7)
Under the influence of modernity many believed all these great yearnings could be fully met in this life. Even today politicians speak as if justice can be achieved as long as their particular agenda for change is instituted and funded. Christians testify to having met God in such a way that these questions cease to be questions for them, and the impression is given that if the answers are not fully settled for you, you aren’t as spiritual as they are. Yet, because we see only in part, no one can ever claim to have all the answers fully settled. Broken people in a broken world will always yearn for answers because even if we are convinced that God’s kingdom will come, we still live before its final consummation. Even if we have developed a cognitive answer that satisfies us (as we should), we are still on a pilgrimage working out that answer in life. Things are not yet fully complete.
As a Christian I find the answers to these human yearnings that my faith—the worldview provided in scripture as an unfolding story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration—to be so satisfying that I want to share them with others. The fact that things are not yet fully complete means there can be no hubris, no triumphalism in my sharing. I too am a fellow pilgrim. The fact that Christianity provides answers that are intellectually rigorous, historically plausible, and practically nourishing means that discussing them is not a duty but a joy. The conversation helps me think through my own position, helps identify areas in which I need more reflection and deeper understanding, defines questions to which I have no sufficient answer, and prompts me to find ways to express my faith in terms that non-Christians can understand and appreciate. In the process I hear alternative answers given by various religious traditions and ideologies, and can honestly assess them, where I would agree and where I find I need to disagree, and why. Such conversations are life giving, demonstrating by listening that we care for people, and by asking questions that we take their ideas seriously.
None of this requires me to be a philosopher or theologian. It requires understanding and a willingness to learn, but that is part of ordinary Christian discipleship. I need not try to be an expert in world religions but be willing to ask questions and listen to the religious convictions of my friends and neighbors. I need not read great tomes by philosophers but be willing to read the things that my friends and neighbors find helpful. This is the ordinary in my life and it is to that I am called.
I want to be faithful as a Christian in this world, now, in this time of yearning. I am not part of the powerful, influential cultural elite whose decisions can alter the flow of history or affect the shape of the culture. I am an ordinary person who knows ordinary people, and who sometimes feels the ordinary is so ordinary as to be insignificant.
That is a mistake: thinking the ordinary is insignificant. It is anything but insignificant. It is where the extraordinary occurs.
The story of scripture is the story of ordinary bread becoming the broken body of our Lord, ordinary wine becoming his blood shed for us, and ordinary water through which we pass to take our place as a member of Christ’s body. In the ordinary elements of the sacraments an extraordinary thing occurs, a mystery that can only be described as an exercise of divine grace in the gospel. These rites of the church, essential to Christian faith, capture the Christian perspective on life in a broken finite world. As God’s people live faithfully in the ordinary of our days God does extraordinary things.
My ordinary is not your ordinary, and certainly is not the ordinary of a professional philosopher or professor of comparative religion, but it is where God has called me to be faithful. So, I can be content to steep myself in the truth of God’s word and find creative ways to talk about and live out that truth in daily life.
It can be hard to be content with being faithful in the ordinary. We dream about being a hero, and want to part of something that is big. It’s not a new desire. One evening, early in his public ministry St Mark records that Jesus ministered grace to hurting people late into the night (Mark 1). They found healing, freedom from oppression, and met the truth. It must have been impressive—“the whole city was gathered together at the door,” he says (1:33). The next morning Jesus was gone, having gotten up before dawn to go out alone to pray, so the disciples set off to find him. Now, I want to be careful here because St Mark gives little detail and it is easy to read into scripture what is not actually there. But notice what occurs when the disciples find Jesus. “Everyone is looking for you.” And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (1:37-38). An entire city is stirred up about Jesus, they all gather early in the morning to experience more of him, and Jesus is off in a lonely place praying and then, upon hearing that a crowd is waiting for him says let’s go somewhere else. Our Lord’s calling defined his ordinary, and that meant leaving a receptive crowd behind. I don’t want to read into scripture but I can’t help wondering if the disciples found all this rather baffling.
As I am faithful in ordinary things pursuing my calling, and you do the same, we can trust that God can use the faithfulness of his people to change lives, change cultures, and change the world. We may not see how he is at work—he has not promised that we will always be able to see what he is doing—but we can trust him to love his world and us and our neighbor.
The great themes expressed in these yearnings are the themes that appear in the best stories. We can see them, if we have eyes to see, in the best novels and children’s books, in poetry, in music and in films. In fact, it is usually through story that most of us wrestle with these things rather than in some abstract, academic philosophical or theological setting. They are also heard in the stories that people tell of their lives, and that come up in conversations when people feel safe enough to reveal something of their dreams and fears.
This is why some of the simplest gifts are so profoundly human, and why people starved of them feel so lost. Gifts like unhurried conversation—not unlimited conversation, mind you, but unhurried. Conversations where cell phones are ignored, and where attention is paid and proved by asking questions and by careful listening.
Sociologists have discovered that we all need the third place. The first place is home, and the second is the workplace—both needed and enjoyed and in which family and work occurs, both central to human existence. The third place, however, is a safe spot where relationships are nurtured and community is developed and deepened. It is a place outside the home and place of work where friends meet to talk, to care for one another, to argue and debate, to laugh, and to explore the deeper things of life. In some societies the third place might be a sidewalk café, or a pub, or a coffee shop, or a park—wherever friends can be together to really talk. American society, built around the automobile, busy urban centers, and distant suburbs by and large is devoid of the third place, though some hopeful signs of its recovery is occurring as Millennials transform urban spaces into more humane living centers. Finding ways to provide a third place for our friends and neighbors can be a simple yet radical gift in a society of too-busy living.
Hospitality needs only warm welcome and a safe place for conversation to be a life-giving gift. A simple unhurried meal of soup and bread shared on a card table in a cramped apartment can make friends feel cared for and noticed. Afterwards a short story can be read aloud, or a movie watched, or a new album played, and the discussion can be allowed to flow naturally, with no agenda except listening, asking questions and listening some more.
The turkey—I have been thinking of it, foolishly, as my turkey—is back scratching for seed under the feeders on my deck. The earth is the Lord’s, and that tom is under his gracious and watchful care. Jesus was warmly expressive in describing how his Father cares for his creation. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” he asked. “And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matthew 10:29). Sparrows then, as now, are not an exotic species but a common, prolific bird found everywhere and from a human perspective, worth very little. St Luke records Jesus’ statement a little differently. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God” (Luke 12:6). What we should notice is not that then, like now, they are eaten, but the care extended to them by God. He remembers each one, and forgets them not. If this is not a divine blessing of the ordinary I cannot imagine what would be.
The ancient biblical writers, free of the mechanistic reductionism that so encumbers our thinking today, saw birds properly within an enchanted universe. We get to listen in as the Creator addresses Job so many millennia ago:
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads his wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes his nest on high?
On the rock he dwells and makes his home
in the fastness of the rocky crag.
Thence he spies out the prey;
his eyes behold it afar off. (Job 39:26-29)
In adapting to life on the edge of an urban center my tom is not cast adrift but has instincts honed by keen eyesight, an omnivorous diet, the ability to hide in the shadows, and the very wisdom of the Almighty. Here if we have eyes to see, the ordinary becomes quite extraordinary, and something so routine it often goes unnoticed is charged with mystery.
As we listen and talk we can use the simple process of discernment to shape the conversation. What’s being said or communicated? What is made attractive and appealing? With what do you agree? What would you challenge? Why? And what difference does it make in life?
Christians can and should meet together prayerfully to work through some answers to the great yearnings and questions. We need one another’s help in thinking things through, and others can help me see when my answers are too glib or weak. One necessary part of this exercise should be to explore how to frame our Christian answers creatively in ways our non-Christian friends might be able to understand and appreciate. Jesus used stories, metaphors, answered questions with questions, left things hanging—whereas today most Christians speak as if they are perpetually in a Sunday school class. No wonder so many unchurched people are unimpressed by us.
We live in the in-between time, after the establishment of God’s kingdom but before its consummation. God’s revelation of himself in creation, scripture and Christ provides answers for the deepest yearnings of our hearts, and yet we still yearn for the answer to appear in its fullness. It is a very good time to be alive, because it is the time my Lord has ordained for me. My sworn enemies, the flesh, the world and the devil are always discreet but unrelenting in finding ways to subtly make me discontented with being faithful in the ordinary. Of keeping me too busy or too stressed to have time to nurture wonder in the extraordinary things the Creator has built into the ordinary things he has made. Of slowly increasing religious activities until I have no meaningful relationships with non-Christians. Of convincing me I am not creative or intelligent enough to speak and live out the Christian answers in appealing ways before a watching world. Of making me think that faithfulness in the ordinary is too small to count in the coming kingdom.
The only real issue before me is whether I will be content—as my tom turkey is—to live as my Lord intends in his call to me. Once again, Karen Choi gets it right:
Sometimes I feel a pull, is it only me?
I wonder how to live life well, I wonder how to fully see
As the earth waits for her glory, as human hearts wait to be free
I will wait for you, oh Lord, oh Lord out on that road to Tennessee
Call my name won’t you give me something good
something good to do
May my days unfold like an old back road
ever lovely ever true
Excerpt from “The Clearing” by Lêdo Ivo, a poem published in Image (Summer 2016 #89) p. 29. Karen Choi in song “Older” and “Road to Tennessee” on Through Our Veins (2016). Bob Marley in song “Revolution” on Natty Dread (1974)
Denis is the author of The Rest of Success: What the World Didn’t Tell You About Having It All and has written articles for such journals as Reformation & Revival Journal, Eternity, Covenant, and World. He holds a Master of Arts in Theological Studies degree from Covenant Seminary in St. Louis.
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