International Ministries

Thankful for "ordinary"

May 16, 2010 Journal
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My old adversary is back in the news.  Eyjafjallajokull (that's AY-ya-fyat-la-yo-kutl, for those of you who forgot last month's lesson in Icelandic) has been shutting down airports again.                       

This time around, I'm no longer under the cloud of volcanic ash, only praying for those impacted by it.  A month ago, I was one of those impacted people.  I used the time during my extended stay at the International Baptist Theological Seminary to monitor news of the situation, spend time with IBTS students and faculty, monitor news of the situation, look for alternatives to my trashed itinerary, monitor news of the situation, take yet more pictures of always-stimulating Prague, monitor news of the situation, expand the profit margins of both Skype and Verizon, monitor news of the situation and, yes, reflect. 

Did I mention "monitor news of the situation"?  In fact, I was compulsively checking airport closures, flight cancellations and ash dispersion patterns.  I laughed at myself for doing so, but realized that "the ash issue" was like a new filling in our teeth:  our tongues simply cannot keep from touching it over and over, even though they are powerless to do anything about it.

When I wrote from under the cloud last month, I mentioned that a couple of New Testament passages had sprung to mind.  One was the experience of the disciples on the mount of Transfiguration, when a voice spoke to them from a cloud.  I didn't mention the other passage, but it was from the letter of James.

In a vastly different time and culture, James wrote the following admonition to--I assume, the wealthier ones among--his fellow Christ-followers:  "Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.'  Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring" (James?4:13-14?NRSV).

In the overall context of the letter, it seems pretty clear that James was not really opposed to planning, but to arrogance.  Yes, but, as Hamlet might say, "there's the rub." 

For, making plans and carrying them out is necessary behavior for human beings.  In fact, the more of it we have done, the more important it has become.  Our world runs on calendars and clocks and commitments to perform prescribed actions in predetermined places and ways.  (I am certainly glad that my knee surgeon's crew had spent many years learning to plan carefully and execute their plans with excellence!)

But, the more we plan, and the more our plans work... and the more we depend upon the fruit of that success, the more we get the idea that we are actually in charge.  We can "make things happen."

But then a volcano erupts.  A hurricane howls.  The earth shakes.  The rivers rise.  The snow falls.  Suddenly we are reminded that we are passengers on this ship, not pilots.  Some people do not take that news very well.  Come to think of it, I don't take it very well!

I am grateful we live in the kind of orderly, intelligible world where plans usually work.  Planes usually land where they are supposed to, and more or less on schedule.  But I realize that, as James says, none of us truly knows what tomorrow will bring.

The reminder of how contingent and fragile our plans and systems are, also made my eventual trip home last month a dramatically different experience.  I felt like a wide-eyed little kid, all day long.  As each piece of the itinerary actually worked, I was filled with joy.  What might have been "routine," or "taken for granted" a few days earlier was suddenly suffused with wonder.  We got on the plane and it really did... TAKE OFF!  The smiling flight attendants actually gave us... SNACKS!  We didn't crash; we... LANDED!  The trip was full of amazement to me, in a way it had not been for a very, very long time.

The trip home brought yet another passage to mind, the one where Jesus says to his power-prestige-and-control-seeking disciples, "whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10:15).  The kingdom of God is not something we deserve.  It is a gift.  We cannot "make it happen."  We must receive it, just as any child would.

I "received" the trip home last month "as a little child."  I was delighted and thankful.  Thankful for "ordinary."

So many things work so reliably in our lives that we come to take it all for granted.  We cease to be amazed.  We move from the attitude of gratitude to one of entitlement, pausing in our busy lives not to be thankful, but only to complain about anything that doesn't suit us or inconveniences us.  We move from wonder to whining, gratitude to griping.

I'm glad to have moved back a bit, to have a renewed sense of wonder that things work, and gratefulness that they do.  I invite you to take a moment today to think about all of the people and plans that have to "work" in order for your ordinary life to be what it is.  May the Lord grant you, also, the joy (to you and to those around you) of living gratefully, not only in the "special" moments, but in the ordinary ones.


p.s. I haven't gotten near enough to take any pictures of Eyjafjallajokull, so the lead photo is a shot I took of Guatemala's Volcán Pacaya erupting in 1974.