Ordinary

ordinaryOrdinary
Sustainable Faith in a Restless World
by Michael Horton

At a dinner party recently, I was asked by the man on my right, ‘What do you do?’ I breathed in and answered with as much conviction as I could muster, ‘I’m a housewife and mother.’  ‘Oh good for you’ he replied, which was generous, I thought!   Turning to my left, I just couldn’t quite believe I’d be so lucky a second time and so waffled on about looking for a job as obviously being at home was a mind-numbingly tedious, insignificant and pointless existence which anyone with at least an iota of intelligence, (which I was eager to claim) would eagerly want to escape.

What is at the heart of this inability to answer honestly?  Fear? pride?   I was afraid that each of my companions that evening would make a judgement about me based on what I do and I wanted to be thought well of.  I wanted to be thought interesting and very definitely didn’t want to be thought ‘boring’.  Aren’t many of us guilty of the same?  I just can’t admit that I haven’t done anything of particular note, my achievements count for very little and are largely unknown, and the impact of my life extends only to very few people, mainly my husband and children and church and hey, let’s face it, I’d have liked to have been a little less ordinary.

‘Ordinary’ – a dirty word?  Not an adjective you want to be used to describe your daughter or your looks or your cooking or your holiday.  Here is a book, however, that has brought the extraordinary back into ordinary as Mark Galli, Editor of Christianity Today has put it.  In essence Michael Horton shouts from the rooftops of this 211 page book – ‘Ordinary isn’t mediocre!’  but not only this, it is God’s very means of working in this world to bring a people to Himself.

Starting his book with a six chapter outline of the ‘radical and restless’ world in which we live, he pierces the heart of western culture’s lust for the new, the sensational, the life-changing and gently invites the evangelical world to recognise its own desire for ‘The Next Big Thing’.  We run after novelties  out of a right desire for excellence but Horton reminds us that ‘Excellence is [only] a virtue when it has God’s glory and our neighbour’s good in view’.  Unfortunately we turn this virtue into a vice by using our service as a ‘stage for my performance’ rather than for the good of others.  The illusion of self-justification has crept in.

It can become a terrible drug.  Rather than placing our trust in God, we learn to trust in our own piety and devotion.  Our tireless service is driven more by a desire for self-justification and self-acclaim than by being secure in Christ enough to tend now to the actual needs of others.

The alternative presented to us in the second half of the book is to be ‘ordinary and content’.  We are to resolutely re-place our trust, our justification, our significance  in Christ alone which will free us to serve others in ‘ordinary and unheralded ways’.  Rather like George Elliott’s Dorothea Brooke whose example Horton cites and who cropped up in a previous post, we are free to live ‘faithfully a hidden life’ serving others because they need it not in order to curry favour with God or enhance our reputation as ‘keen’ and ‘really going for it’.

Michael Horton is an incredibly honest writer confessing that he has himself fallen into the trap of making others the ‘supporting cast’ in his own ‘life movie’ rather than serving them out of love for Christ and for their good.   Having read this book, those who have fallen into the mirky bogs of egocentricity will find themselves liberated to pursue unashamed ‘a patient commitment to daily routines, routines that to the outside observer seem dull, trivial, worthless.’  With renewed confidence in God’s chosen means of grace, namely weekly church gatherings, preaching, prayer, baptism and The Lord’s Supper, we can allow Him to quieten our hearts and avoid the exhaustion and burnout that is worryingly prevalent in some churches.

I’ll still have to work on my dinner party answers but in the meantime, since reading this book, I am a little less perturbed by the ordinariness of my existence and have a renewed respect for other non-celebrities out there who cheerfully and without ego follow their callings under God whether noticed or not by those around them.

 

A Praying Life

A Praying Life by Paul Miller

A Praying Life
by Paul Miller

For those who find themselves driven by the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ of daily living, Paul Miller’s ‘A Praying Life’ is a welcome invitation to stop striving and be yourself.

In his introduction, the author writes, ‘I wrote for Christians, for those struggling to do life, who pray badly yet long to connect with their heavenly Father’.  What child of God does not identify with such a description?

A someone who loves books, reading and stories, but who has sometimes thought of them as a bit of an indulgence, I was excited to discover a writer who wove the concept of story into the fabric of the Christian walk.  ‘When we have a praying life,’ writes Miller, ‘we become aware of and enter into the story God is weaving in our lives.’

Jesus knew that stories appeal to the human mind.  He also loved children.  Miller suggests to us that we need to recapture the joy of both these ideas.  We need to relearn how to relate to God as our Father, as a child relates to his parent, and we need to be reminded of the wonder of being part of a story.  This means letting go of our cynicism and refusing to ‘dull our souls with the narcotic of activity’; it also requires humility.  The humility to trust God like a child and the humility to recognise that we are, as in a Dickensian cast list, only one character in a grand drama at the centre of which reigns a far more glorious Hero than we, in our self-absorption, may recognise.

I’ve sometimes found it helpful to think of life in literary terms.  Just as one might argue that the character development of any given protagonist in a story is at least as important as the meandering motions of the plot, so too is God more concerned with His children’s growth in Christlikeness than with the events of daily life.  This helps me to make sense of those perplexing experiences where the story isn’t going as I’d hoped it would were I the author.

Miller adopts a similar idea calling us to ‘become aware of the story’.  He writes, ‘If God is sovereign, then he is in control of all the details of my life…[We] are actors in his drama, listening for our lines, quieting our hearts so we can hear the voice of the Playwright.’

Another striking feature of this challenging and liberating book is that it dares to acknowledge that ‘private, personal prayer is one of the last great bastions of legalism.  In order to pray like a child, you might need to unlearn the non-personal, non-real praying that you’ve been taught’.  No one intends to teach us to pray like a fake but perhaps  we unintentionally impose burdens on other souls when we tell them that the best prayers echo Pauline phraseology, need to focus outward and should be Audible, Brief and Clear.  These are excellent guidelines for public praying and of course there is a danger of naval gazing behind closed doors,  but let’s join Miller in resurrecting the genuine cry of the child to his Parent in times of joy, in times of pain, in times of boredom, frustration, elation – at all times remembering that ‘apart from me you can do nothing.’ (John 15:5).

Books to help you pray

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If you are someone who prays, you may find, as I do, that prayer is not easy.

If you are someone who reads, you may find, as I do that my gut reaction when faced with something difficult is to read a book about it.

So as someone who likes reading and tries to pray, I’ve resorted in the past to a number of books to help me.  Andrew Case’s recently published ‘trilogy’ on prayer and Stormie O’Martian’s ‘Power of a praying husband/wife/parent’ series are worth comparing having a similar audience in mind but approaching the subject rather differently.  Having benefitted from the help of Case and O’Martian (I need a lot of help) I can say that there are good reasons and seasons for using both, if used discerningly.

Somewhere along the line I got it into my head that praying, I mean really praying, means using my own words; that uttering the words of another is somehow a form of pious plagiarism.  I’ve since realised that where others have served the church by writing down their prayers (the Pslamist included) then it is churlish and proud to toss them aside and battle on alone.

Andrew Case has written three books of biblical prayers that provide a rich and God-honouring resource for husbands, wives and parents as follows:

Water of the Word – Intercession for Her
Prayers of An Excellent Wife – Intercession for Him
Setting Their Hope in God – Biblical Intercession for Your Children

The prayers are saturated with scripture and focus on the spiritual blessings we have in Christ.  The reader is challenged to fix his attention on his spiritual welfare rather than just the physical and material.  I want to pray that my son gets into the B team for cricket.  Case wants us to pray that our children prize knowing Jesus above all that the world has to offer.  As such, these books keep us mindful of what really matters.  Case gets straight to the point.  Every page is a prayer except for the occasional quotation at the bottom of the page from a saint of old.

Here is a taster from his book of prayers for children:

O Father of my dearest Lord Jesus,

May my children hate the double-minded, but love Your law.  Be their hiding place, and their shield; make them hope in Your word.  Cause evildoers to depart from them, that they may keep the commandments of their God…

You get the idea.  Sadly, you get the same idea in each book as, except for the change in pronouns, the content of the books is almost identical.

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