CK Short: Ordinary

Last week Tim challenged me to speak on being “Ordinary.” We’re still friends, as I hope this CK Short will demonstrate.

Download here.

Listen to the end to hear Tim’s response and to find out what I’ve asked him to speak on next week. Here’s a partial transcript of the podcast.

What would you say if one of your friends asked you, “David tell us what it’s like to be ordinary?”

Well I had the privilege of “enjoying” that experience last week. When offered the opportunity to challenge me to speak on a subject of his own choice, my friend Tim Challies said, “David, why don’t you tell us what it’s like to be ordinary.”

So that’s what springs into Tim’s mind when he thinks of me: “Ordinary.”

I mean it’s not a huge insult I suppose. He didn’t ask me to speak on being “Ugly” or being “Offensive” or being a “Fool.” But it’s not exactly the greatest compliment either is it?! “Ordinary”

OK, I didn’t expect him to ask me about being “Extraordinary” or “Super-intelligent” or “Tall, dark and handsome,” but I expected maybe something a bit more than “Ordinary.”

Maybe something like being “Loyal” or “Consistent” or “Reliable” or something like that. But “Ordinary!?”

I looked up ordinary.com and found that it’s owned by Tanglewood Ordinary Restaurant – serving grandmother’s Sunday dinner since 1986. Not exactly the most inviting name for a restaurant – Tanglewood Ordinary Restaurant. Ordinary.net hasn’t even been purchased yet.  Shows you how popular a concept “ordinary” is!

When I looked up a dictionary, I found this definition: “Ordinary: a clergyman appointed formerly in England to attend condemned criminals.” It’s also used to describe “some of the fundamental elements of the Catholic Mass.” In Britain it can even be used of “a Tavern or eating house serving regular meals.”

But I don’t think Tim was meaning any of these possibilities; rather he was thinking along the lines of this definition: “ordinary – the regular or customary condition or course of things.” Some synonyms are “everyday” “normal” “run-of-the-mill” “humdrum.”

Not much encouragement there, though, is there. Who wants to be ordinary, run-of-the-mill, humdrum?

Well, the good news for me and for you is that God wants the vast majority of His people to be “ordinary.”

“Ordinary” as a compliment
I know I’ve been expressing outrage over Tim’s choice of subject for me, but it’s all been somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I know the sense in which Tim is using the word and that’s why when he gave me the assignment, I didn’t give him a punch over the Internet. Rather I said, “Thank you, Tim. I take that as the highest compliment.” Because I believe that God’s will for me, and indeed for most of us, is to be extraordinarily ordinary!

Let me explain what I mean!

When you read through Ephesians 1-3, you scale the immeasurable heights and depths and breadths of Christian doctrine: predestination, election, redemption, justification, sanctification, union with Christ, and so on. It leaves you utterly breathless with wonder and awe.

And you think, “Right what’s coming. If God has done all that for me, what’s he going to ask me to do to show my gratitude?” You come to the end of the doctrinal depths of chapter 3 with the climactic doxology: “To him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages world without end. Amen.”

And you hardly dare turn the page.

Because you know that God’s about to demand that you go on mission to Africa or Antarctica for the rest of your life. Or He’s going to tell you to give away all your money and possessions and live in the ’hood. Or He’s going to say “I want you to live on top of a pole in the desert for 40 days.” Or “I want you to evangelize the whole city by midnight.” Or “You must preach to 20,000 people every Sunday and plant 1000 churches before you die.”

But instead, when you summon up the courage to start reading chapters 4-6 you can hardly believe your eyes. God wants me to tell the truth, to exercise my gifts in the church, to be honest, to love my wife or obey my husband, to honor my parents, to bring up my children for the Lord, to be a faithful employee and a fair employer, to be good citizen, etc.

It’s hardly the stuff of bestseller biography or conference ministry is it! I mean it sounds so humdrum, so run-of-the-mill, so…well, so ordinary.

And that’s exactly what God’s will for most of us is. Yes, there will always be a few Christians, maybe one in every hundred thousand, who are called to an extraordinary life or an extraordinary ministry. And yes, they’re the ones that get so much attention in this inter-connected media-saturated world. So much so that we begin to think that every Christian is like them and I’m just such a boring failure.

But the reality is that God calls most Christians to ordinariness, to serve him in the everyday, in the humdrum – in the home, in the workplace, in the church, in the community and in the nation.

And that’s not just found in Ephesians; you can see the same pattern in Romans, Colossians, Philippians, etc., too.

Extraordinary ordinariness
But remember I said that we are called to extraordinary ordinariness. Yes we are to serve God in these everyday run-of-the mill roles, but we are to excel in them. We are to be extraordinary wives, husbands, parents, children, employees and employers. We are to be the best ordinary we can be. And that’s what will make a lasting difference to the church and the world.

Extraordinary ordinariness will have a much greater impact than mere extraordinariness. Yes, the latest Christian sports star will get a million blog posts written about him every time he breathes. Yes, the latest kid to write about his last trip to heaven and back will make millions for his parents. Yes, the newest mega church pastors will wow CNN for a few weeks.

But the greatest and the most permanent good will come from the impact and influence of extraordinarily ordinary Christians excelling in their ordinary days and duties.

Isn’t that so encouraging! That will revolutionize the way I change my baby’s diapers, tidy my yard, talk to my employer, manage my money, drive my car, participate in politics, behave in my marriage, and so on. On one level, it’s so very ordinary. But God blesses faithful ordinariness, and especially extraordinary ordinariness to transform lives, families, churches, communities, and nations, one ordinary life at a time.

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To Cade and the 8%
Due to pre-natal screening only 8% of Down Syndrome children see the light of day. Gabe Lyons pens some lovely words to his son Cade and the 8%: “Cade’s life, and those like his, offers an alternative view of the good life.

  • These individuals alter career paths and require families to work together.
  • They invite each of us to engage, instead of simply walking by.
  • They love unconditionally, asking little in return beyond a simple acknowledgement.
  • They celebrate the little things in life, and displace the stress that bogs most of us down.
  • They seem to understand what true life is about, more than many of us.
  • They offer us the opportunity to truly value all people as created equal.

Happy Birthday Cade! I’m so grateful that God let us be your parents. You’ve changed us in ways we would have never changed ourselves. You’ve given us permission to measure loving kindness over productivity. You’ve offered us a glimpse of God’s grace while shattering our preconceived ideas of what is most important. We love you!”

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7 Tips For Balanced Biographical Preaching

Is the drawing of too many moral and ethical lessons from the biographies of Old Testament believers one of the greatest dangers facing today’s church? To judge by the number and volume of the voices expressing concerns, many seem to think so. Here are some of the criticisms I’ve gathered together from various places recently:

1. The biographical approach is man-centered, changing the focus of God’s word from God to man. It tends to put man and his needs in the foreground, but God and His glory in the background.

2. The biographical approach is moralistic. It turns the Old Testament into a list of “do’s and don’ts” or “be and don’t be’s,” promoting a new kind of legalism. It focuses on what we should and shouldn’t do rather than on what God has done and is doing.

3. The biographical approach is too subjective. We should simply read the text and understand it without trying to make personal application. Indeed, such “additions” to the text are harmful because it makes people seek assurance in introverted self-examination. “I’m supposed to be brave like Daniel. But I’m not. So I can’t be a Christian.”

4. The biographical approach fragments the Bible. It isolates the passage from the historical and literary context, focusing on small, individual “atoms” of Scripture rather than connecting them with the big picture. Unless we view the Bible as a single unit about the one work of God, it becomes a fragmented mosaic of different bits – theological bits, devotional bits, moral bits, historical bits, etc.

5. The biographical approach is Christ-less. When the Old Testament is detached from the sweep of redemptive history, it results in a Christ-less religion. At best, we may speak of God rather than man, but such Christ-less results would suit a Muslim or a Mormon as much as a Christian.

6. The biographical approach skips over the original meaning. It often fails to ask the intention of the original author for the original readers. It draws a straight line from the biblical character to ourselves and omits the important question, “What was the author’s message for Israel?”

7. The biographical approach is too individualistic. It emphasizes short-term personal piety to the exclusion of corporate responsibility, a biblical worldview, and an eternal perspective.

Over-reaction to legitimate concerns
These are legitimate concerns; in some biographical sermons all seven of these problems can be present (kind of a perfect imperfection). But let’s not rush to the other extreme by insisting that the biblical narratives simply teach us lessons about God, with no, or virtually no, ethical or moral significance.

For example, in The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, Sidney Greidanus urged that we “ought to employ biblical characters the way the Bible employs them, not as ethical models, not as heroes for emulation or examples for warning, but as people whose story has been taken up into the Bible in order to reveal what God is doing for and through them. Their personal history must be seen as part of the greater story of Israel’s national history, which, in turn, is part of the even greater story of redemptive history” (118).

Notice that Gredianus does not say: “We should not use the Old Testament characters only as ethical models or heroes for emulaton, etc.” He says we should not use them in that way at all.

More recently, in Chapter 2 of Reclaiming the Old Testament for Christian Preaching, Paul Kissling wrote: “To focus on the human characters is potentially to endanger the interpretative process by majoring on the minor. Another way to say this is to affirm that God is the only character in the Hebrew Bible who should be the focus of interpretation.” (31).

Kissling’s chapter has much excellent material in it, but notice again the overstatement. He does not say that God is the major character to focus interpretation on, but that He is the only  character who should be the focus of interpretation.

And within the past few weeks, Matt Chandler’s Gospel Project video has had the impact of devaluing or at least minimizing the moral or ethical lessons to be drawn from the David and Goliath narrative. Matt is not quite as negative in his comments as Greidanus and Kissling, but judging by my email Inbox, I’m afraid that his comments may further contribute to this trajectory of virtually eliminating the exemplary element of the Old Testament characters.

Balanced reaction to legitimate concerns
As I’ve already said, I’m sympathetic to the concerns of these theologians. I like the way that they are helping the church to transform biographical preaching into theological preaching, and especially into redemptive preaching. All three men give us extremely helpful methods to move us from the personal story to Israel’s story, to God’s story of redemption. However, they go too far by by eliminating altogether the moral and ethical lessons from these spiritual biographies.

The Bible does use personal biographies to teach us how to believe and act. For example, Paul highlights how the Old Testament described Abraham’s faith for our benefit (Rom. 4:22-24). Paul views the whole Old Testament as exemplary (Rom. 15:4), and the history of Israel in particular (1 Cor. 10:1, 6, 11). The Apostle James points to Job and Elijah as examples (James 5:10, 17). The writer to the Hebrews held up Christ and His Old Testament saints as examples of faith and works (Heb. 11:1-12:2). In fact the Lord Himself warned, “Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32). As John Owen said, “Old Testament examples are New Testament instructions.”

So, we need a third way, a way that values the exemplary moral and ethical principles and practice of Old Testament characters but also moves on to the theological and redemptive purposes and plans of God in Christ. Instead of biographical or theological/redemptive, we should be thinking biographical and theological/redemptive. Here are seven tips that will help us to address the seven legitimate concerns in a balanced way:

  1. While giving full weight to the human biography, keep God, not man, in the foreground.
  2. Distinguish Christian morality from mere moralism by emphasizing that we need Christ’s grace to obey any moral requirements, and His forgiveness when we fail.
  3. Avoid an unbalanced introspective subjectivism by encouraging believers to look away to Christ for grace far more than looking within for evidences of grace.
  4. Read every story in its immediate and also its redemptive context. As Bryan Chapell says in Christ-centered Preaching: “No aspect of revelation can be thoroughly understood or explained in isolation from some aspect of Christ’s redeeming work” (276).
  5. See Christ even when studying Christ’s people. He was the Savior of Old Testament saints as well, and any good they accomplished was by the power of Christ’s Spirit alone.
  6. Don’t jump straight from OT character to the 21st century Christian. Rather, pause to discern the original purpose for the original audience/readers, usually Israel, the OT Church (Acts 7:38).
  7. Include the corporate perspective, explain how the passage impacts our worldview, and project the story forward to include the endtimes/eternal unfolding of the story.

Each of these could be expounded further, but I hope these hints will at least begin to re-balance some of these recent over-emphases.

Update: Here’s a review of Chapter 1: Preaching Narratives from Reclaiming the Old Testament for Christian Preaching


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30 “I will’s” from Hosea

A couple of years ago I was asked to prepare a month of meditations on Hosea for a daily devotional. My initial thought was, “That’s impossible. I might manage 5 or 6.” But when I got started I was stunned to find so many divine “I will’s” in this little prophecy and they became the basis for my 30 meditations. Here they are (the thirtieth was this list).

  1. I will avenge (Hosea 1:4).
  2. I will hedge up your way with thorns (2:6)
  3. I will allure her (2:14)
  4. I will…bring her into the wilderness and speak comfort to her (2:14)
  5. I will give her vineyards from there, and the valley of Achor for a door of hope (2:15)
  6. I will take away the names of Baalim out of her mouth (2:17)
  7. I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field (2:18)
  8. I will betroth you to me (2:19)
  9. I will betroth you to me forever (2:19)
  10. I will betroth you to me in righteousness (2:19)
  11. I will betroth you to me…in judgment (2:19)
  12. I will betroth you to me…in lovingkindness (2:19).
  13. I will hear (2:21).
  14. I will sow her for myself in the earth (2:23)
  15. I will have mercy upon her that had not obtained mercy (2:23)
  16. I will say to them which were not my people, You are my people (2:23)
  17. Because you have rejected knowledge, I will also reject you (4:6)
  18. Therefore will I change their glory into shame (4:7)
  19. For I will be to Ephraim as a lion (5:14)
  20. I will go and return to my place till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face (5:15)
  21. I will not execute the fierceness of mine anger (11:9).
  22. I will place them in their houses (11:11)
  23. I will make you to dwell in tabernacles (12:9)
  24. I will be your king (13:10)
  25. I will ransom them from the power of the grave (13:14)
  26. O death, I will be your plagues (13:14)
  27. I will heal their backsliding (14:4)
  28. I will love them freely (14:4)
  29. I will be as the dew to Israel (14:5)