Ordinary Lives Can Be Holy

We are bombarded by images of glory and fame. If we buy this product, we’ll be more beautiful and satisfied with our body image. If we get this car, we’ll be cruising without a care in the world. If we get this drug, all that ails us will go away… never mind that long list of side effects.

If we just organize enough. If we lived in a house that was just like the one on HGTV, we’d be happy. Why can’t my house look like that? What’s wrong with me?

It’s fake. You don’t have a full team of designers, architects, and builders behind the scene to make everything look good. Also the builds don’t last 30 minutes, that’s called editing. It’s an image. It’s not real.

Why can’t my life be like that family on my favorite sitcom? Because that’s also fake. They have Pulitzer Prize winners writing those perfect monologues delivered by professional actors who pretend for a living. They also can film over days and days until they get the right shot, the right delivery, the right lighting. Like in one of my favorite shows This Is Us… notice how they never really talk on the phone. They just show up to one another’s houses all the time. That’s not real. They are walking from one set to another, there’s no traffic when one does that. No church meetings, PTA, or kids vocal/dance/sports practices. It is fake. Manufactured.

All we have is our ordinary lives to give witness to the sacramental nature of God’s action here and now.Real life is much more mundane, and it’s also more holy. All we have is the ordinary stuff of life to point toward the Divine presence. That’s all Jesus uses. Jesus tells stories of dirt, seeds, birds in a mustard bush, lilies of the field being clothed better than a king. He talks about shepherds running after sheep, a woman searching for a lost coin, a son returning home after wishing his father dead. He talks about yeast in bread and baking.  Ordinary images.

All we have is our ordinary lives to give witness to the sacramental nature of God’s action here and now. While we are waiting for something “spectacular” to happen like turning stones into bread, a million likes on social media, angels swooping down to catch us when we slip on some black ice, we might just miss the real inbreaking of God in real time. If life is feeling like a wilderness wandering of ordinariness, we are in good company with the Israelites and Jesus who encountered the inbreaking of God in just such conditions.

It’s amazing the lives that we think are higher up the ladder. We think if we just get up there, we’ll have it all. Amy Cuddy talks about something called the imposter syndrome.[1] It’s the idea that if people figured out that we actually have no talent, then they’d throw us out. They’d quit paying us. They wouldn’t be friends with us. It is surprising who has this feeling.

Neil Gaiman is featured in Cuddy’s book. He’s one of my favorite authors. He felt like all his awards and praise were an accident. That folks were somehow being duped. Once, he felt like he was onto something, and he spoke to his mentor and friend, Terry Pratchett a fellow author. Neil said, “I finally figured out how to write a book!” To which, Terry replied, “You figured out how to write THIS book. Each book is different.”

Despite Neil’s fame and piles of awards and books made into TV shows and movies, he still feels like he’s just a weird guy from England.

J.J. Abrams feels the same. J.J. is a writer and director of TV shows like Lost and Cloverfield, and he was picked to direct the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens. People asked him, “Wow! What does it feel like to reach your dreams? You did it! You’re directing a film in the series that inspired you to start into films.” J.J. said that this didn’t change how he felt about himself. He’s still trying to figure it out.[2]

Maybe those are the people to listen to. Not those who act like they have it all figured out and that they are some alpha boss. I think that’s an act. That’s what Caesar and Herod did. It’s not how Jesus walked around on the earth. That’s what the Tempter tries to get at Jesus with, but Jesus knows how hollow those temptations truly are.

There is a miracle you can witness at least two times a day: sun rise and sun set. When the sky is often painted in amazing colors. I love on a particularly good day when folks flood their social media with pictures of the sky. It’s like there is something within us that knows this. We just need a reminder. WOW! Did you see that sky?! Isn’t it great to be alive?! And that’s not even the first rung of the ladder, that’s the bottom! Everyone gets this. And everyone gets these reminders…

The miracle of birds at your feeder. Of deer walking through the backyard. Of seeing friends in the hall or at the store. Of a particularly good meal. An ordinary life can be holy. In fact, ordinary lives are all we have. Even those with amazing spectacular lives feel ordinary. Like Neil and J.J. Like Maya Angelou, that great poet, a wizard with words, Noble Peace Prize Winner. She once said, “I have written eleven books but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”

Or how Mother Teresa said she never truly understood what the big deal was with her ministry. She held the hands of folks who were dying. She fed the hungry. Isn’t that what Jesus told us to do? What’s so special about me? Well… no one else did what she did. No one in all of Calcutta.

I see a lot of folks these days demanding things. Like if there were a Calcutta Mom’s Discuss It, they’d be demanding more things of Mother Teresa. Like they’re demanding, “Why aren’t we having a daddy-daughter dance at school? Why isn’t this thing that I want to happen, happening?” Have you signed up for it? Are you willing to volunteer to make it happen? Or are you just demanding someone else do it for you? That’s a losing game.

Often the response to such questions is silence. Or it’s some reason why they can’t do it. “Well, I’m not good at organizing” or “It’d be better if someone else did it.” Wrong and wrong. That’s falling prey to the Tempter. It feels like this line of thinking is this: if I can’t be Michael Jordan, then why pick up a basketball? Well, someone must PASS the ball to Jordan, might as well be you. You might not be the best organizer, but something is better than nothing. And you’ll learn along the way. And yes, people will complain about you. No good deed goes unpunished. They’ll say how it can be better. Sure. Ask them to help. Those are the folks to ask. And if they say no, then you don’t need to take their complaints seriously at all because they’re not invested. It’s just noise. What they say says more about them than it does about what you’re trying to do.

Even Neil Gaiman, J.J. Abrams, Maya Angelou, Mother Teresa and Michael Jordan have their critics. Jesus had a whole host of critics, what makes us think that we’d be different?

Ordinary lives are extraordinary. They are God blessed. When God came to us, God could have chosen any way to be born. God could have lined things up perfectly… but how did God choose to be born and revealed? Through an unwed, teenage mother. Born in a barn in a backwater town. Visited by foreigners and low wage workers. Ordinary. Save for the occasional angelic host, there’s not a whole lot of pomp and circumstance. No royal coronation. Just a baptism in a river. Not even an impressive river. The Jordan River was more like a creek.

Jesus blesses and hangs out with ordinary lives. That hasn’t changed. There’s nothing you need to do for Jesus to hang out with you. Jesus is already present. You’re good enough. You and your ordinary life which may never be featured on HGTV or have a This Is Us series tear-jerking moment. I guarantee we each have had moments in our lives that would blow those right out of the water. Just think back to the last spectacular sunrise or sunset. That feeling? When your chest expanded and your cares dropped away and all you could think of and say was, “Would you look at that?!” That’s the good stuff. You know this. You just needed a reminder.

Mary Oliver has a wonderfully ordinary poem entitled The Summer Day.[3]

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper I mean—
The one who has flung herself out of the grass,
The one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
Who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
Who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearm and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass,
How to kneel down in the grass,
How to be idle and blessed,
How to stroll through the fields,
Which is what I’ve been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

That last question. We might be tempted to answer it with “write the great American novel, or become a millionaire, or be rich and famous with people analyzing my every word.”

Just look at how Mary Oliver answers it. Strolling idly through a field, being curious, and feeding a bug and watching it fly away. Ordinary. Absolutely ordinary. And absolutely a holy act of prayer and gratitude for the life that we have been given, in this creation and from a loving Creator. It was created and called good. If it’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Works Cited

[1]Amy Cuddy, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges (New York, NY: Back Bay Books, 2018).

[2] Scott Erickson, Say Yes: Discover the surprising life beyond the death of a dream (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI: 2022).

[3] Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Volume One (Beacon Press, Boston, MA: 1992).

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