Posted by: Philip Rushton | March 9, 2015

In Defense Of The “Ordinary” Life

I spent yesterday afternoon at small cemetery in the hills of Kalama, Washington. There were about 30 of us standing around the grave of a 53 year old man named David, who unexpectedly passed away last week. I did not know David, but I was asked to speak at his memorial service.

In preparation for the service I spent time talking with the family. I asked them about who David was and how they wanted to honor his life. In response to these questions David’s parents said, “he was just an ordinary guy who did what he could to help his family.” His obituary was not decorated with huge accomplishments or major successes. Like the majority of us, David lived a pretty quiet and ordinary life.

I am starting to enter that developmental stage of life where you realize that life is probably not going to be as “epic” or “spectacular” as you thought it would be. I think that those of us who are raised in the church are often shaped to believe that we are going to change the world, or do something big with our lives. We have inherited a Christianized version of the American Dream, which frames the spiritual life as a life that will involve doing “big things” for God. We quote verses that tell us how God has plans to prosper us, or that we are God’s masterpiece created to do the good works he has prepared in advance for us.

Don’t get me wrong. I still believe these promises. I believe God has created us to do good work, and I believe he has endowed us with a purpose. However, the Bible regularly redefines what success looks like. Jesus regularly confronts his disciples for their desire for upward mobility. While they are debating who is the best, he redefines success as a life of humble service that looks out for the poor and the children. The kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed. The first will be last.

Paul makes a similar point in his letter to the Corinthians. He confronts the Corinthians for their fixation on the spectacular. This congregation is enamored with big things like “rock star” preachers who can win over the masses with their rhetorical skills, and flashy gifts like speaking in tongues. Yet, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul argues that we are nothing if we do not have sacrificial love. If we speak with the tongues of angels but do not have love, we are merely a “resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” It is the little acts of love and care for those around us that have an enduring significance in this world. As Mother Theresa has famously said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

As I stood around the graveside of this “ordinary guy,” it was clear that his life had meant a great deal to those around him. Though he never made the headlines he had made an impact on his family. Tears were shed and memories were shared. This ordinary guy named Dave will be deeply missed. I was reminded again that when it is all said and done, it is usually the little things that matter.

Perhaps this redefinition of success might settle our ambitious souls. We live in a culture that pressures us to accumulate power, possessions, and prestige. If we are not careful we might miss the point and push away the people we are called to care for as we try to make a name for ourselves. Perhaps we need to be reminded of Jesus and Paul’s defense of the ordinary life. For one day we too will be buried in a small cemetery with a few people standing around our grave. Perhaps we might consider what is really going to matter then.

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Responses

  1. Phil, I identify with your message. At times I feel like I should be doing “big things” for God. I read the parable of the sower, where the seed on good soil produced a crop 30, 60 or 100 fold, and I think “I must be bad soil” cuz I’m barely producing anything at all. We compare ourselves to evangelists who have brought thousands to Jesus. I don’t think Jesus main point was the numbers as much as having good soil. I think maybe God just calls us to “do small things with great love” where he’s planted us, in our homes, work, neighborhoods etc. and not be concerned with sensational results.

    • Thanks Stan,
      I think you are right to emphasize that our focus point is to develop good soil. A fixation on results often causes us to take short cuts that ironically end up not being that fruitful. I think this is the point of the parable of the soil. We can’t make things grow by human effort – growth is miraculous and out of our control in a way. But we can create the right conditions where growth can naturally happen. Our focus should not be on success but faithfulness.

  2. Phil,
    The theme of your message about Dave was also true in your reflection at Marie Ritzenthaller’s memorial service. A simple, humble woman but a profound impact on those she met.


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