Why Some Of Us Find Community Almost Everywhere but Church

A Caveat

 

I know at the outset, the words in the title above before good and noble churchmen and practitioners teeter-totter on the precipice of sacrilege. In fact, if you have spent more than a day exposed to your version of Christendom, a sort of immediate gag reflex kicks in based either on what we’ve heard in those circles; what we’ve been taught; or even more subtly, what we have come to fervently believe and teach ourselves. But what of experience of the “some of us” in my title we might ask? What of the pew jumpers, church hoppers and those who choose to do some form of church almost anywhere but the building on main or church street in your given town or city square? Does that count for something to get at a broader picture of the truth? Or, is their experience totally suspect here, and more akin to some sort of blasphemy worthy of contemptible discounting, or perhaps just shy of inquisition-like reactions?

 

Now before I attempt to explain briefly what I mean by my subject this morning, let me also blurt out an agreed upon qualification to those well-meaning keepers of the magisterium who stoically and eternally disagree, or who would claim to have the opposite experience, and of course a church or two to in their experience toolbox to prove it. And to that I would say, “I understand”. I also appreciate the disclaimer and the modicum of truth that it has to add to this discussion. There is no argument here, except to say that perhaps our disagreement, belief, or experience is well known only to us: the faithful; the paid players; or those who tend to have learned to sort of…fall in line with it. However, equally plausibly perchance to everyone else outside the fold, is that it is not that cut and dry, and also to an increasing amount of church ragamuffins like me who would wish they were found holding different cards.

 

In fact, there has not a day gone by in the last 20 years of my life that I have not wished to become permanently apart of a communal sheep fold that I could bring my Socratic inquiries and still graze in, only to have been increasingly set out like a goat on my own often lonely path–just left of the right side of the Lord to many I’m sure. And though I’ve longed to bring my honest questions and concerns to the Eucharistic table, and to the potluck or small group meeting, I’ve mostly been met with those who would simply wish that I would finally get the memo, kiss the ring, and drop my 10% premium in the offering plate and shuffle along. Well perhaps more later. For now, let me share just a couple of reasons why goats like me with sheep-like dreams never find that sheep-connection that they long for, but who are still very much trying.

 

Some Reasons Why

 

            The Church with a Big C Instead of a Little c

The first reason that I have observed, is not only why I and countless others find it hard to uncover real community in the church, but also relates to why it is no surprise that I also hold to a much looser view as to the scope of the church’s authority in my life–which has to do with the church’s continual bargaining to the broader culture for it’s importance as a Big C instead of a little one. Again, I can feel the knee-jerk reaction to that statement; and to many, they would surmise it is due to my left over 60’s rebellion, or the spirit of the narcissistic cultural age of which we are all immersed in. But please hear me out, and for a moment, I’ll let someone like Paul F.M. Zahl with church “street creds” add to my introductory commentary, and to what many other beleaguered Christian nomads along the church path have felt for sometime now where he writes:

 

 

“Ecclesiology (the study of the church) is an actual ill! By definition it places the church in some kind of special zone—somehow distinct from real life—that appears to be worthy of study and attention. The underlying idea is that the church is in a zone that is free, or at least more free from original sin and total depravity than the rest of the world, but the facts prove otherwise. The facts of history run counter to ecclesiology. They reveal a grim ersatz thing carrying the image of Christ but projected onto human nature and therefore intrinsically self-deceived. The gospel of grace, based on relational love that is entirely one-way, is at odds with ecclesiology…Because we believe in the depth of sin and in the impossibility until death, of any “original sin-free zone” in the world, we are skeptical of any church idea that ascribes to church a distinctive authority that it must be obeyed. A systematic theology of grace is, in respect to the church, irreducibly Protestant. The Protestantism of grace’s church idea, which is church by negation and church from suspicion, is important for all Christians to come up against, because it delivers them from the skepticism and finally the voluntary abandonment to which all church fealty finally leads when the lights go on…I can write this in my own blood. Disenchantment with my own branch of the institution has not affected my conviction that Christ is the light of the world and that God’s grace is the way of human freedom. Had the ecclesiology of grace been higher than the anthropology of original sin and totally depravity permitted it to be, the result of the loss would have been a loss of a hope in God. The negation of Ecclesiology from grace permits the survival of faith in Christ as the Wound of the World to heal the wounds of the world”[1].

 

In essence, Zahl reminds us that to not have an ecclesiology is actually to have one, but it’s not what we expect, or perhaps want to hear. Yet our new ecclesiology puts first things first.  In other words,

 

“It puts Christ over the human church. It puts what Christ taught and said over the church. It puts grace over the church. It puts Christ’s saving work and the acute drama of the human predicament over the church. It puts the human hope of change over the church. It places the Holy Spirit over the church”[2].

 

These are words of fresh air for both weary church neophytes and aficionados alike who are constantly on probation in their mind, and perhaps in the minds of other good church goers pertaining to the fact that the church struggle is real–particularly evidenced by a theologian and churchmen of high rank who has also experienced the struggle acutely on the inside. It is at least one of the reasons, that though we know we are to be with the people of God regularly somewhere, we hold up a Great Wall to block us from conceding to a popular view of church (Protestant or Catholic) that shuns or disregards our voice and questions as valid to the church conversation and participation, without it being a mere apostate affront to the institution itself.

 

            A Lack of Grace That is Palpable, Yet Also Underground

 

The second reason most find community almost everywhere but church is because grace, the thought that changed the world (Bono), is oftentimes the missing ingredient in a church service setting, the potluck or the small group—and it doesn’t really matter which. For instance, as soon as a question is asked; a taboo broken; a snotty nose kid goes unattended; or a pregnant teen emerges, all bets are off! We drop what we were doing to answer; to repair; to wipe; and instead are more prone to pass judgment before offering graceful love. I can’t explain it in others and much less myself, but it is further proof that though the church is comprised of good that we all need to be apart of, it also; when it begins to see itself beyond the humble and broken stewards and faithful sowers of it’s gospel truth, to instead titles of spiritual fathers who know best–it oftentimes throws the possibility of real community amongst the broken and spiritual misfits out the door. This is especially so for those who not only do not know what a good Father is, or a family; but who come from a lineage and a past or present for whom life may have dealt very different cards—or for whom there are no simplistic answers for the realties that are their constant companion. The church often cannot make room for unsuccessful Christians for whom the victorious Christian life constantly escapes them, even though they follow silently, yet unwaveringly—and often even more so than the ones with standing white-picket fences.

 

I can remember years ago the theme song from the hit TV show Cheers, whose line added, “everyone wants to go where everyone knows your name”. I thought it ironic then that the bar behaved much like a family–a dysfunctional one, but a family nonetheless. Fast-forward many years later, I too more often found solace in a bottle or possibly a friend (Indigo Girls) at the local saloon than anywhere else. The truth is, community is difficult in an age when individualism runs amuck, and “me, my and I” have taken precedence over the others found in community, and to be sure I can be part of the problem. But it should also then be no surprise that we reproduce that spirit in the church when it engulfs the broader culture of which we are also many times brazenly apart of as well. For just as the church affects culture, it is also affected by it; much as we would like to think we are exempt from the disease our culture oozes in flickering pixels across our screens of various shapes and sizes.

 

The truth is that we cannot have real community until grace takes precedence over spiritual, political or social correctness that seems to be endemic among us all. For unless we are led by a starkly different kingdom value-set, we are prone to wander, and the non-going church culture feels it! In fact, we can tell a lot about who we have true community with by who we can’t wait to hang around with on the weekend, rather than who we sit behind every brisk Sunday morning. The bottom line is: We love being around people who love us back, just the way we are (Billy Joel).  And to those who expect or exact nothing from us other than our company, our being, and our mutual offertory cleansing of shared successes and failures walking along the narrow path–albeit with a distinct and communal limp. This kind of community is perhaps better shared with the real life of bread and wine, or beer and hamburgers on the grill, rather than the manufactured world of quick Sunday morning coffee and doughnuts, with three worship songs, an offering plate and an altar call–with an ensemble conclusion of “yall come back real soon ya hear”. And though I am not necessarily advocating we replace the coffee pots with cabernet or Stella on Sunday morning, what I am advocating is the necessity for church to go beyond the common call for meeting in small groups, to a more human call to living real life together in and out of the context of Bible study and prayer, yet also not to their exclusion. This will take risqué thinking that will no doubt be met by good churchmen, yet who may also look at us with frog-eyes and begin looking for new lily pads down the road. Nonetheless, it is a journey worth taking; especially as the “rise of the nones[3]” are increasingly comprised of the “Christian dones[4]”.  They are those who would rather stay at home alone rather than subject themselves to the same graceless, monotonous, and artificial activity; and yet that still expects different results from parishioners who have long shown signs of Rigor Mortis.

 

At least some of this decay in our parishioners is due to being constantly oppressed by the preaching of a law or spiritual prescriptions no one can ever keep or fill, but who get it handed to them sanctimoniously on any given Sunday. Dr. Zahl again adds keen insight here where he writes,

 

“Preachers require a history of grace in relation to their own personal sin and sorrows. Unless preachers have individual knowledge of their own form of original sin and total depravity, they have nothing to offer to which anyone else can relate. Grace has to be the core of a preacher’s own story in order for their sermons to carry any impact. If this is not so, they will preach the law and exhort. Then they will become angry at their dispirited and paralyzed listeners. Ministers who start to despise their own congregations—and many do—do so because ‘their’ people are not doing what the minister is telling them to do. The minister assumes they have ‘free will’ because he thinks he does. Therefore, when they exercise their ‘freedom’ in not doing what he preaches he starts to dislike them”[5].

 

I learned this the hard way from my own experience as a former preacher who held the law up every Sunday, although I would have prided myself as a graceful person in most other aspects of my life. I never understood why, that though people liked my sermons because of their bible saturation, three logical points and eloquent delivery; yet they also seemed to be shaking my hand every Sunday, ever so quietly whispering in my ear “Great sermon Mark, but I’m going back to sin now”. And they were, and so was I. Not always consciously, yet sometimes very much so–simply because we really can’t help ourselves without daily divine intervention.

 

I finally realized grace was the answer to all of life’s problems years ago when by happenstance I picked up the book What’s So Amazing About Grace by Phillip Yancey, and then overdosed on a follow up called The Ragamuffin Gospel, by the late Brennan Manning. Through those pages, I finally realized most find community everywhere but church and determined to change my tune and course. At that time, I never realized the cost of Zahl’s advice for a spiritual misfit like me: that of being transparent and preaching grace to religious people. Jesus results should have been a case in point! What I found out the hard way was that the Bible belt likes pastors as church mascots more than someone with a holy calling, yet who also sits on the sidelines with the rest of the sinners and shuns sitting in the “Holy man” chairs. Good churchmen also prefer being told what to do sometimes even more than being freely given the scandalous license that grace appears to provide: for others to simply be who they are–sinners, saved by the matchless grace of Jesus, and those who rest and walk in that awareness each and every day. No instead, I found that we like our preachers on pedestals rather than like the most prolific writer of the New Testament; the Apostle Paul, who said, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness”.  For me, this proved to be rather risky behavior for the frozen chosen, but I discovered that the broken and bruised couldn’t get enough.

 

A Humble but Familiar Reminder

 

I realize that my brief musings have opened up some “cans of worms” and left some questions unanswered. And to that I would say, “This is a blog, and I don’t want to keep you too long, and I’ll be back”. And perhaps I would also say, “it’s also a lot like life, and also unavoidable in meditations about the deity”. Nonetheless, I believe these two things I have outlined this morning should be a clarion call to church leaders and good churchmen alike to take a look around and pause for reflection and introspection. It’s not because I have said it to be sure, and it’s certainly not because they are new admonitions. But rather its because it’s actually being said and has been said all around them, much like leftover landmines from a previous war that they seem to strategically still avoid. Landmines that have now erupted, resulting in an exodus from church–whose results are still mostly brushed off as a cultural problem (the world), rather than an actual subcultural one (the church). All the while, the flames and broken bodies are all around with their own fate still off in the smoky distance.

 

And yet meanwhile…the broken and spiritual misfits are still dying to get in.

 

Selah

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Zahl, P. F. (2007). Grace in practice: A theology of everyday life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

[2] Zahl, P. F. (2007). Grace in practice: A theology of everyday life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

[3] White, J. E. (2014). The rise of the Nones: Understanding and reaching the religiously unaffiliated. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

 

[4] Packard, J., & Hope, A. (2015). Church refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are done with the church but not their faith. Loveland, CO: Group.

 

[5] Zahl, P. F. (2007). Grace in practice: A theology of everyday life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

Broken Into Disbelief

A Revelation

 

As I was reading through the book of Exodus the other morning, though not my run of the mill experience, I came upon a verse that literally stopped me in my tracks. Like a hungry man in clear view of something simmering on the stove, I sniffed further to see what awaited me. Yet at further glance, it’s promise of immediate gratification of my appetite for what God had to say was instead struck with an illumination to be sure, but one that would be of a much more somber bite—even bitter at first, and one which all at once brought sadness and profound understanding. Understanding into something that many of us on the other side of salvation have forgotten about. It’s called true brokenness, and it often times stifles permanently any craving and invitation for many to walk with God on a new path of hope after so much disappointment and disillusionment. I then leaned in further.

 

The backdrop is this. We all know the story. Moses has been told to rescue the people of Israel from their enslavement to the Egyptian people. He is at first continually reluctant, and retorts to God both reasonable and unreasonable excuse after excuse. God then tells him in chapter 6 that with a strong hand He will deliver the people of Israel, and he will use Moses and Aaron to do it. Moses is not convinced himself, but he listens on. After all, it is a daunting task he has been given. God then assures Moses that just like he walked with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and was in a covenant relationship with them–promising that they would be much more than sojourners in Canaan as before, that they would now truly have a land of their own. God declares to Moses that the time is indeed at hand, and he needs to strap his seatbelt on for what Moses knows will be the ride of his life. God then goes on to pledge to Moses that the people will be delivered from their slavery, and he makes the additional promise that He will be their God, and they will be His people, and that better days are just upon the horizon for this 400-year long, oppressed people. The curtain closes for a moment, and then reopens again for scene 2, and the people’s reaction to Moses “word from the Lord” is not what we expect. Yet maybe it actually is, that is, if we’re listening and still leaning in. And then there it is, like grannies vittles on God’s revelatory grill, it hit me where vs. 9 tells us:

 

“Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery[1].

 

As I read that, and I looked twice to make sure there was no ground about to open up to have them for lunch, or any snakes poised and ready to strike, not only do I see their true plight, but I also sense at this point that God does as well. And after all, why wouldn’t he, and why, as God’s very own people, wouldn’t we also understand?

 

The Problem

 

You know brokenness has become a chic word in the church in recent years. It’s now popular and trendy to say that we’re all broken, and to be sure, it is also a truism that the denial of, will in a new york minute prove its axiom to any watchful eye. Yet also, this side of heaven, we dance back and forth between being theologians of glory (hope for consistent and evolving virtue towards the divine in this life) and theologians of the cross (the reality that too much hope in this will meet with continuing failures that will leave us exhausted and even more broken). But back to our story for a moment. When I read that verse of scripture, without any need of a commentary or outside help, all at once it came to me what all of us should already know, but perhaps have now forgotten. You see the people that we would reach with God’s hope, and many times ourselves, have been broken so much that quite frankly, we have lost our ability to believe anymore. Or, for purposes of this blog, many are I believe “Broken into Disbelief”.

 

Imagine if you will 400 years of now generational slavery. Its’ all we know, it’s all our kids’ know, it’s all the grandchildren know, and books on our shelves speak of the permanent reality that is our existence that our forefathers (you guessed it) also knew. Perhaps its what I like to call “stinking thinking”, or a sort of caste system built now into our DNA fabric of our lives that says whatever we are, we shall always be. In short, there is no hope. In fact, any quick jolt out of our reality to chase a pipe dream such as Moses was selling was quickly met with the deer in the headlights look of “What you talking about Willis”? Nobody’s buying, and to be sure nobody’s selling. The words from the people should not surprise us however, because they are oftentimes our own—even very consistently my own. So I have no stones here.

 

But first about people who don’t know God at all. We often wonder why they teeter totter back and forth as to whether there is any need for Him in their lives. We marvel why the truly lost are not knocking down our church doors to get in. We speculate and ruminate about their rejection as mere rebellion, lack of commitment, and the fact that they’re all pagans after all, and settle down into smug acceptance of the impenetrable wall of the unbeliever as the rise of the none’s (no affiliation to God or church) that we evidently think we have (none)thing to do with–or rather, we have simply grown too insular inside the cocoon of safe Christianity to remember when we ourselves were as the Apostle Paul reminds the Ephesians:

 

“For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light”[2].

 

But what I really saw as I was pondering these words was the understanding of the true raddled state of people that can’t quite make the leap with God yet because brokenness and slavery is all that they know. Their brokenness has become like a comfortable salve to a consistent wound that though not alleviating the pain has taken them into a place that is “comfortably numb”. Like the woman who has for far too many times gone down the path of loneliness in search of a knight in shining armor to be kissed and then crowned queen, only to be left with crying babies, welfare lines and sneers from those who have either forgotten or will never know what it’s like. And then as to the junkie’s “needle and the damage done” (Neil Young), hers is a that of being caught up in a system for which she finds no escape, and the news of a pilgrim traveler that tells her “God wants to save you” sounds an awful lot like blah, blah, blah mixed with a heavy dose of smoke and mirrors, or better yet–a path that will get a whole lot tougher before they see any hope of any promised land. Thanks, but no thanks Moses, or whoever you are!

 

But wait a moment. Before we are too quick to escape the easy task of associating the lost, or the “riff-raff” of single mothers, junkies and hoods of generational poverty in any given city center on our main street, the truth is that it happens to us all even within our white picket fences, dogs named blue, apple pie and a Chevrolet or two. For you see, we are all prone to brokenness and enslavement, most of which is our own continual making as Bob Dylan once eloquently crooned:

 

“You’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”[3]

 

That’s right.   It’s you and I. It’s either the Lord of right beliefs or the devil of wrong ones. It’s what separates the wheat from the chaff, the goats from the sheep, the enslaved from the free, and the lost from the found. Oh our enslavement varies, but it comes with the beliefs or non-beliefs we give voice to everyday, and then let them have their permanent podium in our lives. And the microphone is always on in our head. I know it all too well.

 

For instance, as a man who after years of trying to climb my own version of a corporate ladder of some sort that continually escaped me, I’m often then left only with the Jones I’ve been subconsciously trying to keep up with, who stare back in unison contemptuously at my lack of a stable economic portfolio. Thus the ability to find community in my current state becomes problematic among those who have forgotten their own version of brokenness and enslavement. Or then there are those of us who resign to the belief that any word of God’s goodness and his desire to give us a future and a hope sound an awful lot like Moses going off at the mouth with this “God wants to deliver you” bit, and because of our brokenness, we find it hard to believe anymore–in fact we haven’t the ability to as I said earlier. In fact, we let it sink in and take root, and even coddle and nurse it like a baby.

 

And there are also those who have enslavement to a belief that a marriage is what it is, and happiness and fulfillment in it has become a joke told by “college buddy” to remind us what fools we were for believing in such an institution. So we don’t strive anymore with it, and like brothers on a hotel bed (Death Cab for Cutie), we settle for the fatalism of things and try to simply cope with the settled nihilism. Or, for the children who’ve been raised by absentee parents, or abusive parents, who continue to believe the comfortable slavery that no one can be trusted, and who are afraid they are now genetically predisposed to merely rinsing and repeating the sins of the fathers and mothers–and for whom there is no love for them truly to be found. It’s a gaping hole in their life that only God can fill.  As a result, the drinking never stops because the drinks absolve their victimization and quietly numbs the pain.

 

Or perhaps it is the daily beliefs we accept each day that we’ve have all too acceptingly come to regard as our lot, with no desire to even think contrarily anymore. Fill in the blank with your numbness, your disbelief, your enslavement, and your perpetual hopelessness. You get the picture. We are all broken into disbelief. We’re not in Kansas, or Disneyworld, and we’re not sure dreams of any shape or size come true anymore.

 

A Grasping Of Hope in God’s Goodness

 

I want to conclude my thoughts today with an invitation for you to go on a journey I have now hesitantly taken as a result of my own battle with enslavement and brokenness, which many times, even today, has kept me from believing my hope of a promised land. It is a journey into the goodness of God as his primary modus operandi. It’s a shift to the belief that when God says: Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen”[4], that he really means it, and he means it for you and me that He calls his very own.

 

You see my friends, it is so easy to resign to this belief, which is actually unbelief, and thus the acceptance of our enslavement to things that are contrary to God’s word and good intention for us. Instead, we would rather resign to the belief which comes from the castles of impenetrable walls we’ve built with our slavery bricks and straw. Oh I get that your bondage is like a 400-year old zit with hair on it! I’ve got two or three. And I get that slavery has taken up residence in the broken dreams that are now stacked up like dominoes in a free fall all around you. And I get that we can never know a man or a woman until we walk a mile in their worn out shoes. Catharsis accomplished! However, what I’m really trying to say today as a former and recovering enslaved person myself, is that God is calling, and he’s heard your cry, and his desire is to deliver you, and He desires to be your God and for you to be His people! It’s time for the renewing of our mind to transform the way we think, that has within it the very real power for you and I to believe again, and that God is indeed calling us into His goodness, and into a land of peace and blessing, even while sometimes in the midst of life’s many storms. We must fight for it, we must believe it is possible again, and we must let hope always have the last word in our lives. Your parting of the Red Sea awaits you!

 

Selah

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Exodus 6:9 ESV

[2] Ephesians 5:8 ESV

3 Dylan, B. (n.d.). You Gonna Have To Serve Somebody. Retrieved from https://www.bing.com/search?q=you+gonna+have+to+serve+somebody+lyrics&form=APMCS1&PC=APMC

4 Ephesians 3:20-21 ESV

 

 

The Pain, and Yet Consequent Freedom of Being Ordinary

The Narrow Path

I can remember, every since I was a very young lad indeed, this idea that would often well up inside me and overtake my thoughts regardless of what activity I partook in. Whether it was playing with my friends atop their tree house fort, stuck at a purgatory-like family reunion lunch, asleep inside my favorite math class, or while I watched Pastor Bob say “thus saith the Lord” every Sunday and Wednesday; I couldn’t escape this overpowering dream, that somehow one day I was “gonna be somebody”. And I believed it truly.

This thought continued with me through my adolescent and teen years in between zits, botched up haircuts and high-water jeans, and equally through the turbulent 70’s and early 80’s romp through sex, drugs and rock n roll; though not necessarily in that order. In fact, even when I failed to impress too many with my everyday life, the…

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The Pain, and Yet Consequent Freedom of Being Ordinary

I can remember, every since I was a very young lad indeed, this idea that would often well up inside me and overtake my thoughts regardless of what activity I partook in. Whether it was playing with my friends atop their tree house fort, stuck at a purgatory-like family reunion lunch, asleep inside my favorite math class, or while I watched Pastor Bob say “thus saith the Lord” every Sunday and Wednesday; I couldn’t escape this overpowering dream, that somehow one day I was “gonna be somebody”. And I believed it truly.

 

This thought continued with me through my adolescent and teen years in between zits, botched up haircuts and high-water jeans, and equally through the turbulent 70’s and early 80’s romp through sex, drugs and rock n roll; though not necessarily in that order. In fact, even when I failed to impress too many with my everyday life, the two of us (me and my recurring dream) knew that it was just a matter of time when we would show everyone our stuff, and that everyone would take a look at us and say, “Wow, look at him now”! That guy right there used to be Mark Prince who lived on Wilson Street, and now, last I heard, he lives just off Rodeo drive in a mansion somewhere—moment of silence everyone please!

 

And I must say it didn’t stop there either, but would continue on into my responsible years of holy matrimony, diaper changing, and my part in the daily grind that we call this American life. I continued to believe I was bound for greatness, and would show occasional actions beyond my mere words and dreams into a new business venture, a network marketing product that was going to take off, a mission to help hurricane victims get water and supplies they needed, and other grandiose ideas of how I could make my dream come true. My poor wife of course always believed in me, and never stopped me from sticking my neck out there to try and do something I honestly believed in. She rooted for me all the way, though I’m sure at times she wondered when I might at least settle on something.
It was then late into my 20’s, that the God I had continually run from my entire life found me and captured me, as I gladly acquiesced my “sick and tired of being sick and tired” life over to him once and for all. There have been rocky paths along the way, but the constant desire to follow him has been there ever since, which to this day brings me the most profound joy I have found outside of my the precious family He helped me create. Nonetheless, at the time of my entrance into the Kingdom, the dream I had caught some new spiritual winds and resurfaced in the shape of someone who would be great in the kingdom of God. Oh I knew the verses of scripture that said:

 

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28 ESV)

Oh yea, I knew them well, and very much believed that the only way to get to greatness was to go down that upside-down kingdom path to be sure. In fact, that was part of my problem—perhaps I believed it too much and others didn’t. It seemed the more I tried to simply allow God to place me where he wanted me, others were pushing and clawing to get their way in or up the ecclesiastical ladder, and being much more successful than I. It seemed after all that much of the church had adopted its own form of a gentile leadership philosophy after all, and if I wanted to get in, I needed to “kiss the ring” too, and fall in line under a certain system, until at last I would get my chance to do what God had called me to do, and achieve my ever illusive, but now God-shaped “dreams”. Now of course that journey and part of my life in ministry is much too long to talk about right now, and therefore it’s not the time and place for any further explanation here, except to say this, “My life otherwise now at 52 years of age, has become shall we say, too ordinary for me to live with”.

 

Now of course part of this problem has to do with my own culture. As the last of the baby boomers (1964), we were the first to be told by our great generation parents that we could be anybody we wanted if we just put the time in and believed it in our hearts. And that’s certainly partially a true American reality (though it’s possibly waning before our eyes), and not a bad philosophy per say; nor is it one I’m trying to kick to the curb today. However, like many philosophies, or assertions of some factualness, there are the “disclaimers” one should also read. And basically, those disclaimers are nothing more than the equal fact that there’s not enough room for everyone to have their own reality TV show, speaking tour, or become a part of their very own Rock and Roll fantasy. And the equal truth is, someone has to work at McDonalds, empty the trash at the church, drop the kids off safely after school, and rake the darn leaves! You get my drift! In other words, some of us, and perhaps more than we would want to admit, need to be comfortable with that nasty word…here it goes: ordinariness. Michael Horton helps us understand the problem when he states:

 

Ordinary has to be one of the loneliest words in our vocabulary today. Who wants a bumper sticker that announces to the neighborhood, “My child is an ordinary student at Bubbling Brook Elementary”? Who wants to be that ordinary person who lives in an                            ordinary town, is a member of an ordinary church, and has ordinary friends and works an ordinary job? Our life has to count! We have to leave our mark, have a legacy, and make a difference. And all of this should be something that can be managed, measured, and maintained.  We have to live up to our Facebook profile. It’s one of the newer versions of salvation by works.[1]

 

As I read those words, I realized that this is something that has far deeper implications into the life of the church in America as well, and that also has become a disease of sorts among us as individuals who have this fear and loathing of the apparent sin of that ugly word: ordinariness. But I think more importantly, for many of us, or at least for me, it is the realization that many times, “the hype of living a new life, taking up a radical calling, and changing the world can creep into every area of our life. And it can make us tired, depressed, and mean”[2].

And as I read that, I see this lopsidedness away from some accepted ordinariness as the cause of much of my own unhappiness in my later years now, wondering if somehow I will measure up, or if like Achilles, becoming very afraid “that no-one will remember your name”[3] in a way that more correctly measures the true value of a man. In other words, and I think here Horton has sounded the gong appropriately and awoken me from my dream rhapsody for at least a true awakened thought, where he writes:

 

Changing the world can be a way of actually avoiding the opportunities we have every day, right where God has placed us, to glorify and enjoy him and to enrich the lives of others. It is all too easy to turn other people in our lives into a supporting cast for our life movie. The problem is that they don’t follow the role or the lines we’ve given them. They are actual people with actual needs that get in the way of our plot, especially if they’re as ambitious as we are. Sometimes, chasing your dreams can be “easier” than just being who we are, where God has placed you, with the gifts he has given to you[4].

 

As those words washed over my soul, I recognized that for many years now, I have been caught in that fear of being ordinary web, coupled with dread that somehow society will finally exercise it’s verdict into my life and say, “you’re toast”, or it will be evident in the fact that I can no longer get a job in my 50’s to make ends meet, because I’m not as “cute and cuddly” as I once was—an increasing American reality for men my age. Or rather, that somehow God will say, “Mark, your dreams really don’t matter”, so just except it and move on into this ordinary path I have chosen for you, and I say, “Yes, Lord”.

 

I’m here today to say that both of these extremes: to loathe ordinariness, and to equally give up on some sort of dream that is truly defined by who we are as a human being, are both equally wrong. There is for sure indeed a truism that when a man’s dream dies, a little more of him or her dies each day as well. I’ve heard that often enough-ad nauseum in fact. The real problem comes in where the dream itself defines us, rather than the fact that God has placed us in his kingdom here and not yet to be ordinary fruit bearers, all the while never giving up the idea of being extraordinary in His kingdom, his way, in his time; and in being true to who we are rather than someone the world is trying feverishly to get us to become. I for one have found it to be a sell-out in the grandest of proportions, and I have many times bought and sold it!

 

But you see the caveat should be this. While we are still dreamers everyday of our lives until the curtain calls, there must also be a holy contentment with life that comes to some acceptance of the circumstances in which God has placed me for such as time as this, or until it should pass, or, even decide to stay. This also means being content if necessary “with my place as an average middle-class guy in an American suburb with a wife and four children — someone with various callings to my family, church, and neighborhood”[5].  This is something too often I have forgotten, and I’m afraid it has brought much sadness of missing the forest of ordinariness for the trees of chasing after the wind many times.

 

What I have come to realize after all of this pondering, is that my life really does matter, unless I choose to let the un-realization of my current dream to continually incapacitate me, and cause me to somehow “disengage”. You see my life, and how I live it each day, matters greatly to my wife; it matters to my dear sons; and it matters to the many lives I have been able to touch throughout my lifetime with a cup of cold water, a blanket, some food, a place to stay, or simply an encouraging word; as well as many lives I still have the opportunity to touch. It also matters when I spend time with my 86 year old neighbor and listen to him, and we share bread and wine and laughs together, for it is then that I become the kind of ordinary that the world has just too little of.  It is I believe, something many of us have sorely missed.   And I believe that is truly the “great” in the kingdom of God.

 

Yet it also means that the Mark Prince, who besides being a salesman, is in fact a writer and a preacher in my soul and in reality, and is someone who’s life will not be determined by whether his writing leads to a book millions or anyone reads for that matter, though it still possibly could. Nor is it determined by a sermon that is piped across the airwaves through a big church that is changing the world, though it also still could—even as I continue to give my free time to endeavoring to do both. And I do so with the same fervor that is mustered within me that I have let for too long keep me from continuing to try, all the while being content with being ordinary, and shucking off the chains of a world’s ethos, who seeks to suck me in to who it wants me to be out of necessity, or survival of the fittest.

 

I pray that my rumination is food for your own thought and contemplation this morning. And though there is an initial pain in the acceptance of the new found beauty of ordinariness, my prayer is that the freedom you find will be the kind of release that causes you and I to say with the apostle Paul:

 

“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. (Philippians 1:21-22a ESV)

 

Selah

 

References:

 

 

[1] Horton, M. S. (2014). Ordinary: Sustainable faith in a radical, restless world [Kindle].

 

[2] Horton, M. S. (2014). Ordinary: Sustainable faith in a radical, restless world [Kindle].

 

[3] Quotes. (2004). Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0332452/quotes

 

[4] Horton, M. S. (2014). Ordinary: Sustainable faith in a radical, restless world [Kindle].

 

[5] Horton, M. S. (2014). Ordinary: Sustainable faith in a radical, restless world [Kindle].