From the days of Plutarch all the way to our modern world we tell stories about people who have the most extraordinary accomplishments. And once anyone’s story is told they move from wherever they were on the scale of accomplishments to the upper echelon. We don’t talk about the fella’s book that sold 2500 copies but the one who sold 5 million, even if the former fella’s book is actually much better. For some reason we are all tempted to be sucked into the vortex of fame and celebrity, so I really like the title and the theme of Michael Horton’s new book, Ordinary.
Fact check: one famous study said a study of high school students discovered 90% thought they were above average. That tells us more about our culture than those students, God bless ’em.
Fact check: most of us are ordinary, and ordinary is OK. When everyone is extraordinary no one is, which means most of us — the vast majority — are ordinaries. Day in and day out, ordinaries. There is no other option.
In our culture, ordinary means mediocre or below average and average means below average so that anyone who really matters must be above average and that means we all want to see ourselves as above average. But only 49% can be above average, and that means at best one of two of us.
Here’s a taste of what Horton’s up to:
“Ordinary” has to be one of the loneliest words in our vocabulary today. Who wants a bumper sticker that announces to the neighborhood, “My child is an ordinary student at Bubbling Brook Elementary”? Who wants to be that ordinary person who lives in an ordinary town, is a member of an ordinary church, and has ordinary friends and works an ordinary job? Our life has to count! We have to leave our mark, have a legacy, and make a difference. And all this should be something that can be managed, measured, and maintained. We have to live up to our Facebook profile. It’s one of the newer versions of salvation by works (11-12).
He doesn’t say so, but it seems to me he’s after those who think the Christian life has to be radical and sold out and totally devoted and surrendered, which language seems possibly useful — until the model being used is way outside the ordinary possibilities of ordinary people. Niggle, it ought to be recalled, painted leaves in an ordinary parish in an ordinary place. What was extraordinary was that Niggle discovered the leaves he was painted fit into the big plan of God in the kingdom of God. (I’m referring to JRR Tolkien’s wonderful short story, Leaf by Niggle.)
He will struggle and we will all struggle if we start advocating the ordinary.
Horton drills down with this:
The real problem is that our values are changing and the new ones are wearing us out. But they’re also keeping us from forming genuine, long-term, and meaningful commitments that actually contribute to the lives of others. Over time, the hype of living a new life, taking up a radical calling, and changing the world can creep into every area of our life. And it can make us tired, depressed, and mean (13-14).
Ordinary Christians are marked by one thing: faithfulness. They do the right thing over and over. It doesn’t make them heroes except to their spouses and children and parents, who alone experience that kind of faithfulness in the ordinary days of life.
As Michael Horton confesses it,
Even more than I’m afraid of failure, I’m terrified by boredom. Facing another day, with ordinary callings to ordinary people all around us is much more difficult than chasing my own dreams that I have envisioned for the grand story of my life (15).
I’ll tell you want I like about an ordinary Sunday in our church: we’re going to sing songs of praise and worship, and we’re going to listen to ordinary texts in the Bible (what the lectionary tells, which is often not the famous ones), and we’re going to have our pastors (Jay and Amanda, and sometimes another among us) talk about these ordinary texts and speak words to ordinary Christians who want to live Christian lives and our preaching tends to help us in the ordinariness of life, and then we’re going to do very ordinary things: we pray, and we confess, and we pass the peace to one another, and take the Lord’s Supper because we’re ordinary sinners seeking God’s grace and forgiveness because we are so ordinary in our sinfulness, and then we’re going to throw all our problems toward Christ and set our hopes on Christ, and then we mix with one another in fellowship hall and talk about how incredibly ordinary we really are, and then we return to our ordinary lives. And the kids run off to their classes — our two grandkids amongst them — making friends and having fun under the wise direction of Stephanie.
God bless you Michael Horton because Ordinary is OK.
To be clear, it’s not as if all of the values being promoted today by calls to be “radical” or invitations to change the world are wrongheaded or unbiblical. Taking a summer to build wells in Africa is, for some, a genuine calling. But so is fixing a neighbor’s plumbing, feeding one’s family, and sharing in the burdens and joys of a local church. What we are called to do every day, right where God has placed us, is rich and rewarding (19).
He picks a few examples, including the new craze for Calvinism (and he’s a strong Reformed guy, this Michael Horton is), and sees in each the seeds of seeking The Next Big Thing and the extraordinary.