“Change the world!” “Dream big dreams!” “Don’t settle for the status quo – transform the culture!” On many occasions these axioms have run through my mind and come out of my mouth. I meant them. I’m sure that I will continue to say and think similar things, because I do believe in the missio Dei and the call on the Christian’s life to participate in it. Lately however, I’ve had a stronger pull towards a particular aspect of this mission. That is, the call to ordinariness – and I’m struggling with it.
Confession. I’m recovering from prideful ambitions because I struggle with the need to feel deep significance in the endeavors to which I put my hands. I battle with my desire to do something unique for the Kingdom of God, to be someone unique, and be recognized for it. Often my longing to glorify the Creator morphs into a sinful desire to glorify myself. With the best of intentions I set to work with thy Kingdom come thy will be done on my lips, only to find that when the whispers of temptation come, I begin working on some aspect of my own little kingdom while glancing around to see if others are impressed.
Why is this so difficult for me to overcome? Where does this incessant drive and need for recognition come from? I don’t know its exact source and herein lies the struggle. My guess is that everyone has a complex set of factors that contribute to the struggle. While I don’t want to present a cookie cutter answer, let me make two brief observations why we have a difficult time resisting these urges.
We live in a celebrity culture. We are immersed through the television shows we watch, the sports teams that we support, the schools our kids attend, and even some of the churches we attend. It has become more than keeping up with the Joneses, it’s being better than the Joneses – and getting recognized for it. Our culture attributes a great amount of social capital to those with name recognition, and we want in.
The second observation is a little more straightforward, but more deeply set within us. Put simply, our hearts just desire it. St. Augustine knew first-hand of the destruction that our hearts were capable of accomplishing. He wrote at length about the desires of his own heart and about how our loves are directed, or more often misdirected. He himself even struggled with the vanity of recognition, “[I]…pursed the empty glory of popularity ambitions for the applause of the audience.” Our hearts are tricky. Rightly ordering our loves, our heart’s direction, can be even more so.
When I teach my students about leadership I continually, and intentionally, keep returning their attention to faithfulness. It is an inescapable calling for each of us. I talk about faithfulness in all that we do – faithfulness even in the smallest details of our lives. We discuss long obedience in the same direction and sincerity through faithful presence. Yet I often fail at all of these things. It’s not that I don’t see faithfulness as extremely important, or that I don’t have a desire to be faithful in my life. It’s that I desire to be faithful with big things, things that people can see – and admire me for these things, and of course admire my faithfulness (and somewhere Luke 16:10 is echoing faintly in my brain. No, no, no Brian, you’ve got this backwards – faithful with little…).
Time for another confession. I really enjoy watching the sitcom television show The Office. Over the years I’ve come to love how it epitomizes the everyday American workplace. So many times I’ve caught myself thinking no way would that ever happen in real life. Or could it… And then, yeah, it probably has. This is why the writing for this show is so brilliant. It brings to light those moments of everyday life – capturing deeply insightful life lessons through the mundaneness of a paper company. Recently, my wife and I excitedly watched the series finale. I enjoyed it, laughed, and then the last two and a half minutes completely captured me. Jim, looking straight at the camera in the documentary-style of the show, reflects on his 12 years working at a boring, wonderful job selling paper—something that in the end meant so much to who he has become. This is followed by Pam reflecting on the initial weirdness of a documentary crew following an ordinary paper company, but now in hindsight believes that it was a great idea. The entire show ends with Pam making one last simple insight, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?” Yes, there certainly is.
Grandiose visions for the Kingdom of God are a good thing, and I hope that I never lose my dissatisfaction with the status quo. God accomplishes His great mission through His people, and sometimes people who are recognized throughout the world contribute. And this is good. I do not want to downplay the marvelous things that God accomplishes through His people for His ultimate glory. What I am doing is wrestling with my own sin that lures me into thinking that if my work and daily life isn’t considered amazing, or isn’t recognized, then it isn’t important.
And so I’m learning to practice the beauty of ordinariness through things like patiently brushing my daughter’s hair, thoughtfully completing a year-end report that no one may read, responding to emails that may not necessitate a response, holding a sick child, weeding my garden, listening – really listening – to a colleague, and working through spelling words with my first grader. These are ordinary things that I feel a deep sense of calling to, a calling that necessitates faithfulness to each and every one of them.
G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.” I long to make peace with my beautiful ordinariness. I’m learning to practice faithfulness in the midst of the mundane, believing that it is pleasing and significant to God and His Kingdom. It’s an ongoing process. In a recent commencement address to college graduates, Dr. James K.A. Smith stated, “Dreaming big is easy. The bigger challenge is to dream small… to deepen your embeddedness in the gritty realities of everyday life.” May we step willingly into the beauty of the ordinary – because, isn’t that kind of the point?
Brian Jensen lives in Beaver Falls, PA with his wife Sara and their three kids, Toby, Zoe, and Levi. He serves as the Director of Student Leadership Development at Geneva College.