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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Danger of Ordinary

Do you ever find yourself doing essentially the same thing day after day, year after year, and wondering if this is all there is to the Christian life? Sure, you pray, you read your Bible, you spend time with other believers and with the Lord. Most of us look for and find a way to serve God at various times in our lives and plug away at it, sometimes for years. There are precious, encouraging and sometimes exciting moments; there are answers to prayer and things for which we may be very grateful indeed.

But the rest of it? We have to admit it’s usually pretty ordinary.

The Sun Rises …

For the middle-aged Christian in the Western world today, life comparatively mundane. You live in a house like your unsaved neighbours. You go to work like your unsaved neighbours. You struggle with how to raise your children. Sometimes they cooperate, sometimes not. You disagree with your wife from time to time like your unsaved neighbours, though hopefully without breaking furniture. Your car breaks down just like your neighbour’s does, sometimes more often. You look at your bank balance and wonder if you have enough to get to the next direct deposit just like your co-workers. You get sick periodically and then get better. Your parents age and struggle, and you have to make decisions about how to help them cope. You get audited by the CRA, or the IRS, or whatever the corresponding entity may be in your country. Maybe you have a little more money, maybe you have a little less, but the essential pattern remains more or less constant.

Ordinary.

The Sun Sets …

Oh, I know I’m describing a cliché, a totally stereotypical situation. There are many, many exceptions, of course. Lots of us don’t ever marry. Or we find ourselves diagnosed with cancer, or we have serious car accidents, or we encounter other life-changing events that set us on a different track than most of our fellow believers.

But the exceptions prove the rule. It’s all still very ordinary. No matter how unusual our circumstances, there are always thousands of people in our society going through the same thing at the same time, even if we don’t see or speak to most of them. When you arrive at the oncologist’s office or the lawyer’s office, someone else with the same problem is leaving. When you leave, someone else is arriving.

It’s ordinary, even when it’s not.

You might say, “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises”.

You might conclude there is nothing new under the sun.

Abraham and Ordinary

Abraham was a patriarch, the father of the nation of Israel, a man who had multiple direct and personal dealings with God.

He left his home and traveled hundreds of miles at God’s command, living in tents in the land of promise. He saw miracles; his son Isaac was one of them. He spoke to God like you or I would speak to a friend. Or perhaps a little more cautiously.

But other than that, he lived an ordinary life just like you and me.

Extraordinary Abraham

Hard to believe, isn’t it? But it’s true. All we really read about Abraham’s life is its major events:
  1. about Abram being called in Ur of the Chaldeans and being told to leave his home and go to the land God would show him, about the promise of becoming a great nation and a blessing to the world;
  2. about God’s reappearance to him at Shechem years later;
  3. about the confirmation of God’s promise in Canaan after his separation from Lot;
  4. about the vision promising Isaac and innumerable descendants, the prophecy of Egyptian slavery and God’s covenant rite;
  5. about the covenant of circumcision;
  6. about Abraham’s intervention on behalf of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and finally
  7. about the testing by God concerning Isaac at Moriah.
That’s a lot of direct involvement with God, probably more than anyone else in history, depending on how you measure it.

Ordinary Abraham

But let’s put it in perspective.

The Beginning:  The events for which we remember Abraham were in many cases years apart. Abram’s real dealings with God begin at age 75 when, to be blunt, many of us have already packed it in. His first three-quarters of a century? Probably pretty ordinary.

The End:  After the direct and personal dealings with God spelled out in our Bibles were complete, Abraham lived approximately 60 more years, a period about which scripture tells us little. There was a new wife after Sarah died and more children, but none of these are of great consequence in the plans and purposes of God. Those years were, in all probability, ordinary too.

The Middle:  In the intervening 40 years or so, Abraham had his seven major experiences of God (with the occasional direct instruction here and there to set him on the right track), but in between these events of almost hallucinatory spiritual brilliance, life went on for days and years at a time with no angels, no dreams, no visions, no miraculous signs and no unexpected dinner guests.

The sun rose, and Abraham had his daily routine, whatever that might have been. He met with his servants, took their reports, gave them instructions, day after day and month after month. He ate meals prepared by Sarah or Sarah’s servants (and you can bet that in 175 years of living many of those meals were the same as many others, even though he was a rich man). Ordinary stuff. His clothes wore out and more had to be made or bought from passing traders. His donkeys and camels gave birth, did their jobs and died. His sheep got mange or mites, needed more water than was easily available, or grazed out an area of land and made it necessary to move down the road a way. The help probably needed discipline from time to time. As time went by, he or Sarah or other members of their household probably had the occasional health issue too, though they didn’t have a drug plan or medical coverage.

These things are not recorded in scripture, understandably, but our guesses about them are probably not too far off the mark.

Abraham would have made decision after decision, day after day, about all the ordinary matters of life without any helpful appearances from God or angels to clarify his thinking for him. Sometimes those decisions were good ones, and sometimes they were poor ones. He lived with the happy consequences of his sensible choices and the sad consequences of his blunders.

The Life of Faith

In a very practical way, this is what the life of faith boils down to, isn’t it? Days, weeks, months and years with no gigantic, unmistakable spiritual indicators to point to what we ought to be doing or to confirm that we are on the right path.

What is remarkable about Abraham is not the things he did when he’d just seen or heard from God moments or days before. What’s remarkable is the things he did when years had passed since his most recent experience of God. What’s remarkable is that, for the most part, he didn’t forget; he didn’t reinterpret his earlier experiences with God as hallucinations or figments of his imagination when five, ten or fifteen very ordinary years had gone by.

When someone says the cheque is in the mail and a week goes by, it’s no big deal. When someone tells you the cheque is in the mail and 25 years pass, it’s another thing entirely, even if they make the occasional phone call or drop by the office to tell you it’s still on the way. But the promises of God are true all the same.

For me, the biggest challenge to my faith is not the concept of heaven, the idea of angels, demons, principalities and powers, the challenge of science, the ubiquity of sin, the size of God’s promises, the failure of others to live out the Christian life or any of the usual culprits.

It’s the ordinariness of life, and the passage of time.

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