What If Having an Extraordinary Life Isn’t the Point?
October 7, 2014
“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 an ordinary job?
We think our life has to count! We have to leave our mark, have a legacy, make a difference. And all of 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.
Nevertheless, I sense a growing restlessness with this restlessness. Some have grown tired of the constant calls to radical change. They are less sure they want to jump on the next bandwagon or trail-blaze new paths. And yet, in a culture of revolutions and free choice, little trust and tradition have been preserved to give people the stability and community they desire. We have become caught between these two poles of desiring some kind of normalcy and yet desiring absolute freedom and autonomy.
In a world intoxicated by such freedom, everydayness is boring. This vision of reality affects us all. Even more than I’m afraid of failure, I’m terrified by boredom. Facing another day, with ordinary callings to ordinary people all around me is much more difficult than chasing the dreams I have envisioned for the grand story of my life. Other people—especially those close to us—can become props. “The Poor” can be instruments of our life project. Our big ideas to “change the world” can become ways of actually avoiding the opportunities we have every day, right where God has placed us, to glorify and enjoy Him and to enrich the lives of others.
Even more than I’m afraid of failure, I’m terrified by boredom.
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 wrong-headed 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.
Sometimes, the best way to change the world is to live extraordinarily in what looks like an ordinary existence—to radically love and serve those around us every day, no matter where we are.
The cure for selfish ambition and restless devotion to the “next big thing” is contentment. But like happiness, excellence and drive, contentment is not something you can just generate from within. It has to have an object. There must be someone or something so satisfying that we can sing, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.” Only the Gospel can do this work. Upon the stage of Word and sacrament, God makes room for us in His life through the drama of redemption, putting an end to the life we have in Adam by raising us to a new life in Christ. The Gospel alone moves this community from selfish vice out to each other in sacrificial virtue.
The Gospel is truly radical: “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). Through the Gospel, the Holy Spirit creates the faith to embrace Christ with all of His benefits. We are delivered from condemnation and are made part of the new creation in Christ. Filled with grateful hearts, we look for ways to glorify God and to love and serve our neighbors. We are eager to grow. Fueled by gratitude, we look for opportunities to glorify God and to love and serve others. In God’s covenant community, we hear His will for our lives, confess our sins, rest more in Christ, and seek to show God’s faithfulness to each other in our ordinary callings.
This covenantal way of thinking is an anchor in a time of frenetic revolution. In the biblical covenants, God is the sovereign Creator and Lord. We do not “own” ourselves, but we are God’s image bearers, accountable to Him not only for how we relate to Him but also for how we relate to others. God speaks, and we hear. Therefore, we never start from a position of autonomy, electing to cede some of our sovereignty to God in exchange for either security or for an “extraordinary” life.
What we are called to do every day, right where God has placed us, is rich and rewarding.
God gives us life, provides for us, commands us and makes promises that He always fulfills according to His faithfulness. From our sharing in the fellowship of the Trinity, we can face the more contingent relationships that we encounter even in the church and our families—and certainly in our worldly callings. But we are going to have to suffer.
Ironically, our desires to be significant, known and loved can only be finally attained through constant threats to many of our “felt needs,” which are often shaped by pride, ambition and avarice. By denying these desires fulfilled in God alone for the benefit of immediate gratification, we actually lose everything in the trade. In God’s covenant community, we are able to taste and see that the Lord is good and set aside this world’s fleeting pleasures, namely because we have seen something more true and more beautiful than this world can offer through false freedom and autonomy.
So it is not simply by understanding doctrine that we uproot narcissism and materialism in our lives and the lives of our children. It is by actually taking our place in a local expression of that concrete economy of grace instituted by God in Christ and sustained by His Word and Spirit. At least in its design, this economy of grace is governed by a covenantal rather than contractual logic. In the covenant of grace, God says to us, ‘I’m with you to the end, come what may.’ Only from this position of security can we say the same to our spouse, children and fellow believers. And from the deepest contentment we can fulfill our ordinary covenants in the world “as unto the Lord,” even when others break their contracts.
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