Very few books have ever moved me to tears. When I say very few, I actually mean none. No work of fiction has ever saddened me enough to trigger so much as a hair of a reflex from my tear ducts. And even true stories which evoke downcast emotions usually don’t result in a sudden watering of my eyes.
Yet as I was finishing the book, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, my emotions got the best of me.
In case you can’t tell by the straightforward title, the book is indeed about an ordinary pastor, namely, Tom Carson. Tom Carson was a man who, if not for prodigious influence and writing of his son, would have lived and died unknown but to a small group of people.
He was a man burdened with many challenges and trials. As best as I can estimate, all of the churches he was the senior pastor of never averaged more than fifty people in attendance. Although he was a faithful evangelist and discipler, he saw very little visible fruit. This was in large part due to the challenging nature of the context in which he did ministry–Quebec, Canada, largely in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, Roman Catholicism carried considerable influence in both public and private life and took a very active stance against protestantism.
Yet he was also man blessed with a great family. He had a loving wife with whom he experienced fifty-one years of marriage. He also had three children, one of whom is among the most significant and influential New Testament scholars within evangelicalism’s history.
Perhaps his son’s commemoration best sums up how extraordinarily ordinary Tom's life was:
- “Tom Carson never rose very far in denominational structures, but hundreds of people in the Outaouais and beyond testify how much he loved them. He never wrote a book, but he loved the Book. He was never wealthy or powerful, but he kept growing as a Christian: yesterday’s grace was never enough. He was not a far sighted visionary, but he looked forward to eternity. He was not a gifted administrator, but there is no text that says, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you are good administrators.” His journals have many, many entries bathed in tears of contrition, but his children and grandchildren remember his laughter. Only rarely did he break through his pattern of reserve and speak deeply and intimately with his children, but he modeled Christian virtues to them. He much preferred to avoid controversy than to stir things up, but his own commitments to historic confessionalism were unyielding, and in ethics he was a man of principle. His own ecclesiastical circles were rather small and narrow, but his reading was correspondingly large and expansive. He was not very good at putting people down, except on his prayer lists.
- When he died, there were no crowds outside the hospital, no editorial comments in the papers, no announcements on television, no mention in Parliament, no attention paid by the nation. In his hospital room there was no one by his bedside. There was only the quiet hiss of oxygen, vainly venting because he had stopped breathing and would never need it again. But on the other side all the trumpets sounded. Dad won entrance to the only throne room that matters, not because he was a good man or a great man—he was, after all, a most ordinary pastor—but because he was a forgiven man. And he he heard the voice of him whom he longed to hear saying, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Lord.’”1
That book, along with a number of other items, speaks of a theme which God has been bringing to my attention recently–ordinary life. Along with the book, I recently read through an article from my good friend Kevin Emmert entitled, “You Need a More Ordinary Jesus.” There, my friend recalls his days in youth group (the same one in which I spent my high school years) and hearing regularly how God had an amazing, extraordinary plan for his life. Having been there as well, I can attest to hearing such messages. The song “History Maker” by the band Delirious was a favorite anthem.
And such teaching is all over the place even today. The idea of having an important destiny to fulfill, of God having an amazing plan that’s tailor-made just for you, and other such thoughts have dominated sermons, books, and other forms of teaching and media for years.
An Ordinary Response to My Own Desires
What Kevin didn’t hit on in his article was how such ideas often play right into our natural desires…or at least, my natural desires. I’ve always enjoyed stories about heroes…particularly epic, larger than life stories. Although I’d hardly consider myself a comic book nerd, I always enjoyed watching cartoons and live-action films based on comic book characters as well as movies like the Start Wars franchise. I still generally prefer larger, more epic forms of music as opposed to quieter and more acoustic forms.
Really, I think those items are minor expressions of an inner desire to be somebody…to be something great. To be something extraordinary. To go beyond the norm. Many times, I've even envisioned a certain narrative of my life.
Something I've never had an ambition to be was "ordinary." The idea of being ordinary was something to be tolerated at best, and loathed at worst. Either way, it’s something that was to be avoided at all costs.
I think I (and probably others) have felt this way because of the negative connotations the word “ordinary” often presents. We might not explicitly say things like what follows, but in the back of our minds our thinking would often look something like this list:
-ordinary = normal
-ordinary = boring
-ordinary = mundane
-ordinary = fitting in
-ordinary = average
-ordinary = insignificant
But although we may be tempted to see it this way, and even though ordinary can certainly be synonymous with the above terms at times, ordinary can actually be linked with much more positive images. My own life, from the views of most spectators, would be categorically ordinary. At 30 years old, I’ve got a wife and two kids and in terms of standards of measurement and church size, I'm a decidedly ordinary pastor. But I can assure you from personal experience, there is no adventure, experience, or role for which I would trade my “ordinary” family or ministry. And there is also another ordinary that needs consideration here.
An Ordinary Means of Grace
Another facet of being ordinary is the means of grace within the church. What I mean by “means of grace” is the mediums and methods by which God communicates Himself and His gifts to us. And those mediums and methods, with very few exceptions today, are oftentimes ordinary.
Although we read of great miracles and larger-than-life events whereby God revealed Himself to people within the Scriptures, by and large, the Scriptures themselves are the means by which He reveals Himself to us today. Rather using the Bible as a “trampoline” to jump to a spiritual experience with God, reading the Word itself is the means by which God wants us to experience Himself. Along with this are the ordinances of Baptism and the LORD’s supper. These three items, along with praise through song and prayer, are the basic ways through which we experience and grow in God’s grace.
An Ordinary Commendation
The apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, urged the inhabitants of Thessalonica “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:11b-12, ESV). Although Paul’s emphasis here seemed to be on work ethic and having right priorities, it still has implications on how we view everyday life. More than this, it commends simply doing one’s work well and not getting too caught up in things that go beyond this.
An Ordinary Conclusion
While there is more that could be said and explored, I’ll simply wrap this up by looking to be faithful in the ordinary. Are there days I still long for the extraordinary? Absolutely, and that’s just fine. But in the mean time, I thank God for the ways He works in my “ordinary,” day-to-day life. The ordinary is not something to loathe or fear. It's something to praise God in and for.
1 D. A. Carson. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), Kindle Electronic Edition: Chapter 10, Locations 2319-2333.