I wrote a few months back about our preoccupation with the need to be extraordinary. It’s, particularly for my generation, a problem in ministry. It can play havoc with leadership, undermine the ordinary means of grace, and mean that we miss what we’re aiming for.
To take preaching as an example, I am convinced that I haven’t ever preached an ‘excellent’ sermon, if there is such a thing. I’ve preached a few good ones and a bunch of average ones—I preach about once a month these days and have been preaching for fifteen years though not at that frequency the whole time. I know what I’m good at and have a good sense of some of what I’d like to improve on. I haven’t hit ‘excellence.’ Which, since we’re not going to be extraordinary, is just fine.
Except, I think it’s worth aiming for. I reckon most preachers manage a message that’s truly great once or twice in their lives. I’m not talking about the sort of preaching that goes viral, though that does occasionally happen and isn’t a bad thing if it’s happened for the right reasons; rather, I mean the sermon where the preacher knows that they are speaking words as if from God, and doing it well instead of ham-fistedly like normal. The kind of sermon where the congregation knows it too, and their lives are impacted even if they don’t remember a word of it afterwards.
We manage that for one person in the congregation more often than you would think, in the kindness of God’s economy. But I strive for that day where everyone is aware of it. I think that’s important because I know I do not do well at speaking God’s words after himself, which is the core of preaching. I aspire to doing it once or maybe twice in my life.
I think that’s a worthy goal. Of course, that means most times I preach it will be fairly ordinary. Which I’m quite happy with. Or, learning to be at least. The difference between the two is partly my effort—if I put no work in then the elevated preaching won’t ever happen—but it’s primarily God’s gift. I could put all the work in and nothing would happen unless the Lord in his kindness elevates my efforts from one to the other.
The same principle goes for any activity you do with God, I think. It certainly goes for your prayer life—I’d love to pray an excellent prayer, but I’ve heard a few. Those moments when God is in the room and present in the words of the prayer. I sometimes wonder if the person knew. I sort of think they probably didn’t. There’s a lesson there.
I think the sweet spot is aiming for excellent but entirely happy with ordinary. This requires us to be secure in ourselves. We have to know that God loves us as we are, filled with foibles, walking deserts becoming gardens. Only then can we be delighted when the Lord moves and our efforts are raised from ordinary to extraordinary—if he even grants that we notice. He is the difference between the two.
In ministry I find this a good motivator, I hope you do too. I can do better, but I can never do as well as I want to without God’s sovereign choice. That should humble me. It does sometimes. I can’t bridle the Spirit and ride him like a horse, he blows where he wills (John 3). I can’t make it happen, and I’ve come a cropper in the past trying to recreate moments of Spirit inspiration under my own steam. It didn’t end well.
It’s helpful to remember that most of what we do is meant to be ordinary. Preaching is the words of God to us, and sometimes they seem pretty average. Boring preaching is a terrible sin, but I know I’ve bored people before.
To take a different example: when we pick up a shot glass of grape juice and a dried out cube of bread, it can be difficult to believe that we are about to partake of a feast that God has prepared. Is he a particularly terrible host?
It’s even harder to then believe that we will, by faith, eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood. Now, we should do everything we can to make the Supper seem like a feast—personally I would do away with dried out bread and unpleasant grape juice for a start—but we have to know that in so doing we don’t elevate it from ordinary. Will people understand that this is more important if we invest in silverware? Perhaps, yes. Will that make them eat God? Obviously not.
It is by the grace of God that bread and wine are elevated into something entirely different. Let’s move past the interesting, but not apropos, discussion of how that works. My point is this: the ordinary means of grace (and all of them, not just the two I’ve mentioned) are ordinary and they are means of grace.
God visits us in the ordinary stuff of life. He is extraordinary, we are not. It’s good to work to do what we do for God—in every arena of life—better than we have done it previously. The true moments where the veil is lifted and we see reality, where we meet with God in his heavenly temple, where we enjoy sacrament are gifted by the grace of God. We cannot create them, but he won’t meet us if we do not engage in the ordinary first.
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
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