Simple Gifts: When the Ordinary Reveals the Extraordinary

The everyday moments of living in a small community may be telling us something monumental.

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My church planning calendar tells me that it is the season of Ordinary Time.  But I do not need the calendar to remember the post-holiday, wintry, ordinary gray that returns this time of year.  I am grateful for a church season that tries to make meaning of what is ordinary and even claims that the ordinary is sacred.

Andi demonstrated for me the sacred ordinary a couple of weeks ago.  Andi is a grown daughter of the church and she is home for winter break.  She is studying art in Florence, Italy for the year.  But right now, she is home with family amidst the farmers, teachers and ordinary folks of Pulaski County, Virginia.  I walked into the church kitchen to brew a cup of tea to find Andi washing the dishes.

It was a chilly late Sunday afternoon and the church had just buried Roy Cash and provided the grace of a meal and company for his family after the service.  Andi was helping clean up as she scrubbed a pot.  It brought a smile to my face and I said, “It doesn’t take long to get put back to work when you come home from Florence.”  Andi spoke eloquently of how pleased she was being back with this community.  She was perfectly in the moment and grateful to be offering a simple gesture of hospitality.

Later as I steered my car down the gravel church drive, I tried to remember a quote from the old New England Puritan writer and minister Cotton Mather.  I had to look it up when I got home.  “… if we compare worke to worke, there is a difference betwixt washing of dishes, and preaching the word of God: but as touching to please God none at all.”  I have no idea whether God is more pleased with preaching or pot scrubbing.  I just know how good it is when folks volunteer to wash the dishes after the potluck supper.

One of the great gifts of being with people in my rural part of the world is their appreciation of the very ordinary, seemingly routine aspects of life.  It is also a pastoral privilege to be able to drop by unannounced and visit with folks while they feed the horses, tend the register at the store or work wood in the shop.  People love to talk about what they are working on or tell stories about what has been happening with their families.  In this context it is the most natural thing in the world to talk with your pastor about digital chips for milking cows, family reunion menus or the Lion’s Club project.

Doug Ottati is Professor of Reformed Theology and Justice at Davidson College and in his book Reforming Protestantism he puts it this way.

The spiritual is not a life apart, but rather, a quality of all living that both forms ordinary life and comes to expression in it.  Ordinary life is not spiritually inert.  Actually, our everyday converse with others in the world draws out and forms the spiritual quality of all living.  Properly understood and properly reformed, the ordinary is spiritual and the spiritual is ordinary.  The spiritual sanctifies the ordinary and the ordinary disciplines the spiritual. ….

Genuine faithfulness and the good life, then, are not defined by an exalted occupation, office, or activity, but by the way in which one lives in any and all occupations, offices, and activities.  This really is as anti-elitist a notion of the Christian life as it first appears, one that contains the seeds for a discipleship of equals.

If you aren’t a big fan of reading theology, stories always seem to resonate.  The great parable chapter in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 13) is a collection of Jesus’ stories meant to be a lens through which we see a glimpse of God’s reign.  Here is the list of ordinary things to which he attended to describe the divine realm: sea, boats, seeds, birds, thorns, soil, nests, branches, yeast, flour, children, fields, pearls, and baskets.  The simplicity is striking and affirming of the great goodness of our ordinary lives.  There is a wonderful irony in these stories that imagines the greatest reality (the kingdom of God) through the most ordinary things.  While Jesus spoke the language of everyday life, he unleashed incredible power for personal and community change.

We are living in a season of extraordinary change in American culture right now.  Acknowledging the sacred ordinary does not mean that we should reject what is extraordinary or what is changing.  Rather being present and aware of the people and places right in front of us each day helps us to help each other through the difficulty of change.  We live most of our lives in very ordinary moments.  Each one is an opportunity for kindness, helpfulness, laughter or sadness.

My son, Nate, is home from college for winter break right now.  But this weekend, I will be driving him to Washington D.C. where he will be doing a spring internship at the U.S. State Department.  (Although he is still waiting to hear what an extended government shutdown will mean for this opportunity.)  I am thrilled for him to have what will no doubt be an extraordinary experience.  Yet at the same time, I am convinced that these winter meals together and family conversation around the table are rich and meaningful and not just wasted time until something big happens.

The gray of January will soon become the gray of February stretching into more Ordinary Time.  And if we have the eyes to see, this is an extraordinary gift.

  • “The challenge of the saints of the twenty-first century is to begin again to comprehend the sacred in the ten thousand things in our world; to reverence what we have come to view as ordinary.”      Edward Hays

Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who pastors small town and country churches. He currently serves New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Southwest Virginia. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book  Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes. 

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