For the past few years, I’ve immersed myself in Wendell Berry’s fiction. I’ve grown attached to the history and people of Port William—that small, vibrant town providing the setting for all of Berry’s stories. I admire the author’s craft, and his literary vision provides inspiration. However, I think what I love most is how in Port William, I encounter ordinary people living ordinary lives. People experience beauty and sorrow. They are filled with hope and despair, friendship and loneliness, clarity and confusion. Parents raise their children, all the while worrying if they have done enough. Marriages plod on, love carrying them through grief and laughter and a hundred changing seasons. People seek to be faithful to their convictions, to their farms, to their friends. There are flashes of brilliance in Port William, but mostly it is people trying to be faithful to their promises, to love well, and to make amends whenever they fall short. This is the ordinary life that most of us know, the ordinary life in which we seek to practice integrity and devotion.
One of my favorite characters is Jayber Crow. Though as a young boy Jayber senses a call to ministry and eventually enrolls in a ministerial college, he quickly discovers he’s ill-suited for the vocation. He instead longs for the people and place he once knew as home. So Jayber leaves college and walks the many miles back to the small town of Port William, Kentucky, where he spends his life as the town barber.
For decades, Jayber does the most common work: He cuts his friends’ hair, he serves as the janitor for Port William’s Baptist church, he spends years as the church’s gravedigger. Jayber never marries and lives most of his life in a tiny bedroom above the barbershop. Yet as you read Jayber’s story, you discover how his love and fidelity nurtured and sustained those around him. You encounter the many lives enriched by his presence. You cannot ignore the faith, hope, and love Jayber infused, over so many decades, into his little village.
Aged and reflective, Jayber provides an honest assessment: “I am a man who has hoped, in time, that his life, when poured out at the end, would say, ‘Good-good-good-good-good!’ like a gallon jug of the prime local spirit. I am a man of losses, regrets, and griefs. I am an old man full of love. I am a man of faith.” Reading the wide scope of his story, you know without a doubt that Jayber’s hope was realized. Despite having lived in what most might call obscurity, he influenced many. Jayber’s life was deeply good.
One of the heaviest burdens for a Christian is the toxic suggestion that if we are to have any real impact for God’s kingdom, we must play out some epic tale of heroic obedience and extraordinary faithfulness. We often believe that if we are to truly follow Jesus, we must press for a monumental life defined by radical exploits of self-sacrifice, generosity, and witness. Certainly, if we remain loyal to even Scripture’s basic commands (loving God and loving our neighbors), our life will bear a distinctive character. However, most often following Jesus simply means being present to—and faithful in—the ordinary places of our life. It means putting one foot in front of the other. It means saying yes to God among the mundane, the unnoticed, the everyday.
One of the heaviest burdens for a Christian is the toxic suggestion that if we are to have any real impact for God’s kingdom, we must play out some epic tale of heroic obedience and extraordinary faithfulness.
Israel’s story reveals the beauty and boldness of such a faithful, ordinary life. The prophet Jeremiah lived during one of Israel’s most distressing eras, after the Babylonians captured Israel and carried them off as slaves. Jeremiah gave the people God’s instructions for the harsh days they must endure. What would we expect those to be, in this pagan land and under the rule of cruel oppressors? Should they organize a hunger strike? Should they strategize guerilla warfare? No, the prophet tells them to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (Jer. 29:7). They were to work for the good of Babylon.
And what exactly did it mean to work for Babylon’s prosperity? Well, they were to make homes where joy flourished. They were to plant gardens and eat the luscious produce of their labor. They were to marry off their kids and grow their families (Jer. 29:5-6). In other words, God instructed His people to do the things most common to mankind. And they were to pursue this unremarkable life with vigor, skill, and delight—all in God’s name.
God’s instructions to Israel are the same kind of instructions we hear over and again. The apostle Paul, for instance, points us toward a lifelong faithfulness, instructing us to remember that “whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). We should live and employ our passions and our skills, all to God’s glory. Likewise, Isaiah 60 paints a marvelous picture of God’s redeemed world. And in this picture, we find our ordinary human endeavors—our art and creativity, our architecture and social structures—gathered into God's world, all a part of God’s new city.
Most of the Bible’s teaching does not prepare us for being a martyr, for walking on water, or for raising people from the dead. Rather, the bulk of Scripture trains us for a lifetime of simple devotion to God. We learn how to be honest in our vocations, how to nurture our families with tenacious love, and how to use our unique talents to make our little piece of the world more whole, more true, more beautiful.
With joy, we can debunk the idea that our participation in God’s work requires audacious or awe-inspiring involvement. Most often, God invites us to something that seems small or commonplace. It’s the argument of Eugene Peterson’s aptly titled book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. All of us can follow God by being faithful and obedient in the very ordinary life He has given us.