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The glory of the ordinary

My school told me I was special, I watch programmes celebrating the exceptional, I listen to counsellors telling me to follow my dreams and deep down I want to believe them. It’s nicer that way. I like to read biographies – especially the early chapters where no-one recognised glory of the protagonist – because I like to think my life is at exactly the same stage. I’m not recognised. Yet. But as surely as the early chapters give way to the later ones where the protagonist makes it ‘big,’ so will my early years give way to the later ones where I will surely also follow suit. It’s just a matter of time. Isn’t it?

Such an outlook crushes us and deadens us to the glory of the ordinary.

First it crushes us. Rod Dreher writes: “Everydayness is my problem. It’s easy to think what you would do in wartime, or if a hurricane blows through, or if you spent a month in Paris, or if your guy wins the election, or if you won the lottery or bought that thing you really wanted. It’s a lot more difficult to figure out how you’re going to get through today without despair.”

I meet too many parents around our part of London who feed their children on this oppressive narrative of normative exceptionalism; that their child will be stand-out and different. They know that is rare, hence the depth of their joy at their realisation that their child has this most precious of golden tickets. Their child. I mean, imagine that! But it’s crushing the teenagers. Their teachers, peers and parents all expect so much of them. The fear of getting bad exam grades is not – when one drills down – a fear of not getting into the uni of choice, but a fear of letting others down, and of not keeping up with appearances. And it’s a fear which sticks with us well past the acne and awkwardness of those early years. So many of my peers have taken jobs which they hate. Why? Precisely because they felt that was what was expected of them. They force themselves into this narrative of expected success, no matter how ill the glass slipper fits still they cram themselves in, not thinking to wonder whether they may not be the celebrated Cinderella so championed at school and home.

Second, it deadens us to the glory of the ordinary. In his excellent Screwtape Letters CS Lewis has his demons comment “the horror of the same old thing” is “one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart.” It is a peculiar passion in as much as it never satisfies. Of course it doesn’t. The constant quest for the novel, by very definition cannot yield a lasting contentment, for as soon as the novel is owned it has become the passé, and ‘old hat.’ It is a tiring thing to have a thirst for the new and different. We’re fed this lie from a plethora of sources. Our consumer society feeds off this desire. Cycles of clothing and car fashion are carefully gauged to breed a discontent in the old type. Are the new versions materially better? No, but they are new. Our social media garrisons us to post, not what is ordinary but what is outstanding and what will get the likes and retweets. The images we want to project of ourselves have no place for the mundane.

But – here’s the thing – God. The God of miracles. The God who can do more than we ask or imagine. The exceptional, abnormal, one-of-a-kind God, normally chooses to pour out his lavish grace on us by means of the ordinary. He has so structured the life of discipleship that we will be sustained and will grow through the daily, week-in, week-out routines of reading a book (I mean, come on!), going to join an assembly of (normal) people to sing, pray, listen and talk over a cup of average coffee, receiving (normal) bread and (normal) wine in communion, seeing others get baptised in (normal) water. Amongst others these are what theologians call his means of grace to us. The means he has chosen by which we will thrive and be transformed from glory into glory in our Christian lives. God has endowed the habitual ordinary with glory, and we eschew it at our very real peril.

John Ash

 

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