ordinary… mostly

"We have nothing to offer each other, except a haven." — K. Nafziger


On the nightstand

An argument for ordinary

Seven years ago when I started my blog, I dubbed it ‘ordinary (mostly)’. It was supposed to be a self-deprecating name. I described myself as a “run-of-the-mill blogger”—which, of course, was entirely true… maybe even generous.

But the truth is that I wanted to be a little bit better than run-of-the-mill. I wanted people to like what I wrote. So it was a false humility.

I just finished reading Richard Beck’s latest book, Reviving Old Scratch. If you’ve been reading my blog for seven years (an audience of two: my mom and my wife), you’ll know that I love Beck’s writing and thinking. This latest book is no exception. His audience is doubting Christians… people like me who have a hard time believing in God sometimes, let alone the devil (“Old Scratch”). Yet Beck argues that even doubters “need to reclaim spiritual warfare… but not in the way you think.”

So—I highly recommend the book. But that’s an aside, because all I really wanted to share here was an insight from Henri Nouwen that Beck highlights in the book…

In The Selfless Way of Christ, Nouwen says…

Three temptations by which we are confronted again and again are the temptation to be relevant, the temptation to be spectacular, and the temptation to be powerful.

Think about the temptations of Christ:

  1. “Turn these stones to bread” – be relevant
  2. “Throw yourself down” – be spectacular
  3. Accept all the kingdoms – be powerful

Beck observes…

Nobody wants to be ordinary. Or average. Nobody wants to be the last one picked for the kickball game. Nobody wants to be the failure or the loser. And so we push to stand out from the crowd. We crave success, applause, and attention. We want to have influence, a platform, a voice.

But Jesus calls his followers to something else…

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

Be ordinary.


What is resonating now…

Some things I’m reading that make me say ‘yes’:

From Richard Beck:

Edging Toward Enchantment: From Deconstruction to Reconstruction

…but you can’t go back. I often tell my students that there is a threshold of doubt, that once you start asking certain sorts of questions there is no going back. When it comes to faith there is a class of questions that, once you get to them, just don’t have any answers. When you reach these questions you’ll live with them for the rest of your life…

Something has to give. If you want to maintain a hold on faith the season of deconstruction has to be followed by a season of reconstruction. But a lot of doubting and disenchanted Christians never make the decision–and it is a decision–to commence with the work of reconstruction…

Edging back toward enchantment is practicing faith. Not practicing as faith. But just what I said: practicing faith.

And from Hugh Hollowell:

Why I am a Christian Humanist:

…if there is a God, either that God is way more loving and accepting than I am, or that God can give my spot in eternity to someone else. Because while I do not get to decide what God is like, I do get to decide what sort of God I deem worthy of worship. And if that God isn’t more loving than me, more generous than me, more open than me, more accepting than me, then that God isn’t worth my time or my devotion.

And also from Hugh: today’s thoughts on “Bonds and Betrayal“.

Glad to be a part

Five years ago, my sister suggested that our family start a book club. At Christmas, one of us would pick a book for the family to read during the coming year. At the following Christmas gathering, we’d discuss it.

I wasn’t too sure about the idea, although I’m not exactly sure why at this point. Maybe I thought it would take too much time, but that seems ridiculous now. Who can’t finish a book in a year? Maybe I thought I already had too many books. That may be true. But if I’m already reading ten at a time, what would it hurt to make it eleven?

Anyway, after five years, the book club is going strong. When next Christmas rolls around, all of the adults will have chosen a book, and I have the sense that Oldest Daughter may join in soon, as well. So far, we’ve read:

A nice diversity, I’d say.

This year’s selection of A Part may have created the liveliest discussion yet. I think we all identified with Berry’s agrarian sensibilities, and we appreciated how wise and insightful, yet succinct, his poetry is. My sister encouraged us each to share one of our favorites. As an introvert, I appreciated this one:

“Except” by Wendell Berry

Now that you have gone
and I am alone and quiet,
my contentment would be
complete, if I did not wish
you were here so I could say,
“How good it is, Tanya,
to be alone and quiet.”

My sister also suggested that we try writing our own poetry. The day before the book club, I was re-reading the book (since I had read it much earlier in the year) and was reflecting on how poems, like Christmas cookies, are most enjoyable when consumed in small portions. One should not eat too many cookies, nor read too many poems, all at once. And so, I wrote this:


One should not indiscriminately consume poetry,
As if it were a tray of Christmas cookies,
Left on the counter, picked over between meals.
Poetic gluttony, the mind feeling bloated.

Instead, lines should be savored,
Enjoyed slowly, one poem or perhaps two.
A proper dessert, followed by the traditional walk,
Clearing the mind and aiding the digestion.

Nevertheless, the family has gathered,
The cookie tray beckons, and the book club approaches.
I eat too many, too quickly.
Time for a nap.

As the keeper of our family traditions, I declare our book club to be a good one. I’m glad to be a part.

And this picture has nothing to do with the book club, except that this is the next generation of book club participants in our family. But it’s a cute picture. And they’re keeping alive another family tradition, the Christmas pageant.

Merry Christmas!

The Christmas pageant
The Ordinary Cousins sharing the traditional Christmas pageant.

Storing up treasures

Lent began this past week with Ash Wednesday lectionary readings coming from Matthew (among other places):

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6.19-21

And on Wednesday, I also happened to read Wendell Berry’s thoughts on storing up treasures. I’m often concerned by Christianity’s impulse to leave this world behind, so I appreciated his words:


It’s the immemorial feelings
I like the best: hunger, thirst,
their satisfaction; work-weariness,
earned rest; the falling again
from loneliness to love;
the green growth the mind takes
from the pastures in March;
the gayety in the stride
of a good team of Belgian mares
that seems to shudder from me
through all my ancestry.

(from A Part by Wendell Berry. San Francisco: North Point, 1980.)

(Incidentally, my sister has chosen A Part as our family’s book of the year. I’m going to enjoy this one. Also, you can hear Garrison Keillor read Goods on the “Writer’s Almanac” podcast for March 18, 2012.)

The practice of encountering others (“An Altar in the World”, Chapter 6)

The wisdom of the Desert Fathers [and Mothers] includes the wisdom that the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self…

It may be the only real spiritual discipline there is.

– Barbara Brown Taylor

"An Altar in the World" by Barbara Brown TaylorAs I re-read An Altar in the World, I’m reminded that this chapter is one of my favorites. It is heavy on the theme of hospitality – a theme which has been formational in my life recently. Hospitality is the reason we moved to Laurelville in June; it is the reason I love my job; it is the natural result of working out my faith, based on a theology of Matthew 25.

I’m also reminded I’m not very skilled in this practice of encountering others. As Taylor notes, it demands action, not just thought. Which is to say, it requires me to see myself in someone else at the precise moment when I’d rather not be around that someone else. Or is it that they don’t want to be around me? Sometimes both.

One of the challenges I face at Laurelville is the wide diversity of people we welcome to the camp. It is our mission to offer “Christ-like hospitality with welcome and safety for all“, and ‘all’ tends to encompass quite a few people. Of course, many of our guests either don’t know about this little phrase, or they don’t quite grasp ‘all’, or they fail to realize that it’s hard to extend this hospitality if one harbors prejudice.

In any case, they’ll strike up a conversation regarding politics or hot-button issues in the Church and society, and assume that I must be in agreement with them, since I work at church camp. (It’s funny how one can hear such a variety of “biblical” opinions that are in complete disagreement with one another.) Anyway, it is easy enough to welcome people who see things as I do, but much more difficult when it’s clear that my conversation partner isn’t on the same page. Sometimes the best I can do is to simply listen and then try to change the topic. I’d like to do better, though. I’d like to learn to affirm the beauty and truth in each person. I’m still learning.*

* I’ve tried to do some learning by watching our director, John Denlinger, who is gifted in this practice of encountering others. I am sad that John will soon be leaving Laurelville, but am thankful that one of his legacies at Laurelville is a rich and broad vision of hospitality.

My goal is to begin each day by asking…

Lord, when will I see you hungry and give you food, or thirsty and give you something to drink? And when will I see you a stranger and welcome you…?

And then to close the day by reflecting back and asking the same thing. Eventually, I may learn the answer…

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

The practice of getting lost (“An Altar in the World”, chapter 5)

"An Altar in the World" by Barbara Brown TaylorThroughout this year, I’ve been reflecting on how I experience the practices Barbara Brown Taylor outlines in her book, An Altar in the World. Since my family moved to Laurelville in May, this has felt very natural to me. It’s easy to forget that I chose the book for my family’s book club before our new life at Laurelville was even on the radar screen.

In chapter five, Taylor describes the practice of being disoriented or getting lost… or (if one takes the idea to the extreme) failing. She asserts…

Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure.

There were a quite a few points of connection for me in this chapter. I immediately recalled how my father and I enjoy hopping in his truck and trying to get lost. We grab a Gazetteer and set off to explore new roads…

Somewhere in Garrett County

We still tell the story of the wrong turn – the downhill gravel road, that turned to a dirt road, that gradually became too washed out and narrow to continue on. We didn’t have room to turn around, so we had to back up. But in the process, we managed to poke a stick into the side of one of the tires. Luckily, we had a spare. Too bad one of the bolts was rusted tight. Luckily, we were able to shear it off. Too bad we were out of gas. Luckily we could make it to the nearest station on fumes. Too bad the owner only accepted cash. Luckily Dad had $2. We eventually made it home.

Taylor also relates how a medical emergency can be a type of “getting lost” – a time when you have to rely on someone else to provide your care. In that regard, I recall my two DVT hospitalizations. Like Taylor, I always felt safe and loved. Maybe it was divine; maybe it was youthful delusions of invulnerability. Whatever it was, it continues to shape me.

Perhaps the most tangible example of “lost” in my mind now is our move to Laurelville. It is not entirely clear to me: Was I lost in Chicago suburbs, trying to fit into a life that didn’t quite work out for me? Or is this new life in the Laurel Highlands an attempt to get lost, to break out of an area of comfort? I don’t know the answer to this, but I value the sense of being “vulnerable to this moment”, as the book describes it.

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in Taylor’s stories that I have trouble explaining the bigger picture. While I might agree that a certain practice is valuable, I’ll have trouble saying why. So I’ve been reflecting a bit on “getting lost”…

I’ve already mentioned the idea of being “vulnerable to [the] moment”. While it isn’t quite the same as valuing the moment, it is a step in that direction. Learning to value time and place is an (the?) underlying theme of the entire book.

“Getting lost” also reminds us that we aren’t in charge here. We aren’t God. A healthy dose of humility is a good thing.

And “getting lost” helps orient us throughout life. Hebrews 11 talks about lost people in this way…

They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

We can (and will) debate what a “heavenly country” might look like, but it is clear that there is searching to be done. The practice of getting lost reminds us of this.

One final thought: “lost” may be a matter of perspective. A recent post by Trevor Scott Barton in the God’s Politics blog touched on this:

Human eccentrics move in a seemingly aimless way… Their movements make them seem like wanderers to other human beings with finite views. They don’t wander aimlessly, though. They revolve around a different center.

And in the Beatitudes, Jesus demonstrates that things in the Kingdom of Heaven are not judged in the usual way:

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

Go get yourself lost.

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