The Extraordinary Power of an Ordinary Life

Preached at North Anderson (S.C.) Community Church Presbyterian, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spartanburg, S.C., and Greenville (S.C.) Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

When I was a kid I thought Leonard Bernstein was the most powerful man on earth. Even though I grew up in the age of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, not to mention Castro and Kruschev, it was at that moment when Lenny would take the podium in front of a crowd of a couple of thousand and a fell orchestra, when he’d raise his baton and everyone in the building and watching by television was eagerly anticipating the downstroke of that first beat, that, to me, was power.

Sometimes we feel powerful; often we feel powerless.

I was down at Litchfield Beach this past Labor Day with my husband, Jamie. It rained pretty much the whole time, so, in lieu of beach time, we did something I had never done before: we went to an IMAX theater at Broadway at Myrtle. Wow! That was an experience! A screen six stories high; a sound system that would put any other movie theater to shame. It was incredible.

We saw two films there, both having to do with the wonders of our planet’s oceans. But both films, especially the one on sharks, pointed out the same gruesome fact: we’re killing the oceans. Apparently more than 90 percent of the sharks in the ocean have been systematically removed by overzealous sport fishermen and commercial overfishing. As a result, and as a result of a host of other human encroachments, the reefs are dying.

I left the theater with the same feeling I get when I watch documentaries on the genocide occurring in Africa or other parts of the world; when I watch the needless slaughter of humans in regions like the Middle East; when I watched Al Gore’s presentation on global climate change — what can I do? What can little old me do in the face of tremendous injustices and suffering and wanton destruction?

When you get down to it, Bernstein really didn’t have any power as the world considers power. He did, however, have the power to transform people’s lives through the incredible music he was not only able to bring out of his musicians, but also the music he composed.

But again, I’m no Bernstein. Neither, I’d venture to guess, are man of you. We’re basically just ordinary folks.

One of my favorite “non-Southern” authors is Russell Banks, author of such great works of fiction such as Affliction. Banks once said this: “Reading the American classics like Twain taught me at an early age that ordinary lives of ordinary people can be made into high art.”

Well, when Mark Twain was giving a farewell speech in Liverpool, England in 1907, he recounted, now famously, an incident he gathered from Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. It went something like this:

There was a self-important little skipper of a coastal sloop engaged in the dried apple and kitchen furniture trade. He was in the habit of hailing every ship that passed, just to hear himself talk and air his small grandeur. One day a majestic Indiaman came plowing by; course on course of canvass towering on tall masts into the sky; her deck swarming with sailors; her hull burdened to the plimsoll line with a rich cargo of precious spices, lading the breeze with gracious and mysterious odors of the Orient. It was a noble spectacle.

The little skipper popped into the shrouds and squeaked out a hail: “Ship ahoy! What ship is that? And whence and whither?”

In a deep, thunderous voice came back the answer through the speaking trumpet: “The Begum of Bengal. 142 days out of Canton. Homeward bound. What ship is that?”

Well, that just crushed the poor little creatures vanity flat. He squeaked back, most humbly: “Only the Mary Ann. 14 hours out of Boston. Bound for Kittery Point, with nothing in particular.”

Only the Mary Ann.

It seems to me that we often think that the Begums of Bengal and they only, whether by fame or wealth or political power, can bring about any lasting change in our world. After all, we’re only ordinary folks; we’re only Mary Ann’s.

Here are some words to consider this morning, perhaps good and wise words:

“The words of the wise heard in quietness are better than the shoutings of a ruler among fools.” That’s from the Old Testament wisdom book we call Proverbs. Some good Jewish wisdom.

Here’s one from singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman: “I’ve seen and met angels wearing the disguise of ordinary people living ordinary lives.”

It was Harry Emerson Fosdick, the great progressive preacher of the Riverside Church in New York years ago who wrote: “Democracy is based upon the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people.”

And the Apostle Paul wrote: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

One of my favorite ways of verbalizing this notion of the extraordinary power of an ordinary life comes from the author of Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert. Giving advice to budding writers he wrote: “Be regular and ordinary in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Listen. An ordinary life, lived intentionally, can and does have incredible, extraordinary power. We sometimes forget that, especially in our days of celebrity culture and super-wealth and heavy-handed politics. To put it another way, you don’t have to be Superman to fight for truth and justice. You don’t have to be the Begum of Bengal to make a difference in the lives or those around you and, indeed, in the world. There is great, transformational power in an ordinary life.

Allow me to give you a theoretical example based on my own observation.

It used to be that American Protestants lived by a rule which flowed from the Reformation of the 16th Century called, in the Latin, Sola Scriptura, Scriptura Sola: Only Scripture, Scripture Only. The Bible was viewed as the infallible, inerrant, authoritative rule of not only faith and practice but history and politics and science as well.

In the decades following the Civil War, that paradigm started to shift under the weight of discoveries in physics, the advent of Darwinian thinking, increased studies in comparative religions and the rise of what’s come to be known as biblical criticism.

As a result, deeply held beliefs — things that the Bible clearly taught on face value like the recent creation of the cosmos, the enslavement of other human beings, the subservience of women — slowly fell by the way as more and more of Protestant America changed their attitudes and came to the conclusion that maybe the Bible did teach those things but those were specific words for a specific time and we don’t believe that now. Sure, there have been and always will be some radical holdouts who want to see their outdated view of the Bible imposed on everyone else and, unfortunately, they are the most vocal it seems. But in the big picture, that notion of Sola Scriptura, Scriptura Sola has been being modified greatly and, in some instances, disappeared altogether, in and from American Protestantism.

According to many sociologists of religion the next and final prop holding up that archaic way of viewing the Bible which will fall will be the whole homosexuality question. Indications are that people will indeed come to the point where they say, “Well, okay, maybe the Hebrew law and Paul do say homosexuality actions are sinful, but we don’t believe that now. Our understanding of the Bible has changed. We don’t believe that now.”

Now, what does this have to do with the transformational power of an ordinary life?

How will the majority of American Protestants come to realize that objections to the full participation of queer folks in the church and society should go the way of women being silent or masters being kind to their slaves or not eating pork?

I believe it will be brought about by ordinary queer folks doing what’s been called, coming out. And I don’t mean a once and for all kind of thing; the kind of event you can point to in your past. I mean coming out as an ongoing process. And I don’t necessarily mean the in-your-face wearing T-shirts or marching in Pride parades kind of coming out. Doing that’s fine if you want. I’ve done it in the past. But more and more I think of it as a normal part of ordinary living. I think of it as simply living honestly and ordinarily.

It means being who I am in the normal, ordinary course of life; being true to myself. I truly believe that as people come to realize that they work and play and worship right alongside folks whose sexual attractions and desires don’t fit into the majority model, more and more they will come to realize that the gender of who this or that person is attracted to or loves in a physical way really doesn’t matter. I long for the day when “don’t ask, don’t tell” is replaced by “don’t care.”

When it comes to queer issues, hearts and minds are ultimately changed not by laws or pronouncements or protests; rather, they are changed by a growing realization that it just doesn’t matter; a realization that queer folks are just as human as anyone else; a realization that we queer folks work, play, pay bills, grow families, grow old and worship just like everyone else. It’s the power of ordinary lives.

Think for a few moments this morning about those ordinary lives with which you’ve come into contact and been changed by. Let me quickly tell you about one in my life, an ordinary person living an ordinary life that I came into contact with some twenty-five or so years ago.

I’d bet good money most of you have never heard of Pete Mouzon. He’s never been on the cover of People Magazine or featured in an article in the Harvard Business Review or held public office. The fact of the matter is, Pete was a row-crop farmer in the South Carolina low-country. He grew corn and soybeans and tobacco with his family in a community in Williamsburg County which bore his name: the Mouzon Community. He was also an absentee member of the Mouzon Presbyterian Church, a church I served as pastor for three years immediately following my graduation from seminary. For three years I was Pete’s minister, his pastor, or, as he liked to call me, his “Preacher.”

Now let me quickly interject here that a lot of folks fresh out of seminary think they know it all. They’ve spent three years immersed in an academic atmosphere of theology and church history and Bible studies and they come out thinking, Hot diggity dog! Now I can share all this great knowledge with these poor folks who’ve never been to seminary. They come out thinking that they know how to do church and come in poised to shed the bright light of their knowledge of how to run a church with people who’ve been doing just that longer than they’ve been alive. So did I arrive in the Mouzon Community, thinking I had all the answers to the great questions of life.

So, even though his family name was on the church sign, try as I might, I just couldn’t get Pete to come to church. Oh, he’d show up on Christmas or Easter and sometimes for a dinner on the grounds. But attend regular worship services? He said it made him more nervous than a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

This was church for Pete: once or twice a week he’d pull up in my driveway and honk the horn of his pickup. I’d stick my head out the door and he’d holler, “Come on, Preacher! Let’s cut the block.”

Cutting the block for Pete meant riding, ever so slowly, never more than 10 miles an hour, up and down the dirt roads which traversed the forests and fields and along the swamps of that land he loved so much. Pete drove — and I really shouldn’t tell you this — and I played bartender. See, Pete always had this small ice chest full of ice, some plastic cups, a liter of ginger ale and a quart of Seagrams Seven in the truck. He’d drive and I’d mix. We’d ride, sip and talk.

We talked about a lot of things on those trips, but as time went on, we’d talk more and more about the weighty issues of life and death. Pete had lupus. But he was an ordinary man living an ordinary life that had an extraordinary effect on me, one of transformational power. I learned a lot from Pete about the history and flora and fauna of Williamsburg County. But I also learned something else from him, something much more profound. I learned how to be a minister of the gospel. I’d like to think he transformed me from an arrogant seminary graduate into a pastor.

Ordinary lives of extraordinary power. Have you thought of any you’ve come into contact with? What about your own life?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with fame or fortune or political power; with being a Begum of Bengal. But neither is there any inherent transformational power in them. Power, real transformational power, is the often unintentional effect of our ordinary intentional, honest lives on those with whom we come into contact; one that somehow sparks or enables their transformation into more genuine, more authentic human beings. And often, in the process we both are changed in our hearts and souls to become more Christ-like.

Maybe what Flaubert and those other folks who’ve expressed similar thoughts are getting at is that when we become so busy, so wrapped up in trying to be the Begum of Bengal we lose sight of the fact that as just plain, ordinary folks — little coastal sloops like the Mary Ann — we can have extraordinary power.

I’d suggest to you this morning that in addition to living authentically and true to ourselves, this might be another characteristic of an ordinary but spiritually transforming life: simplicity.

It’s a simple like in the sense that, as Thoreau sought to experience, it gets down to the bare essentials of life. It knows the difference between the fluff with which we so often fill our lives and the substance of those aspects of living which are fundamental and truly important.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the philosophy professor who stood before his class one day with a large empty mayonnaise jar. He filled the jar with a few large golf balls, asked his students if the jar was full and they said it was. He then poured in a container of small pebbles and they filled the spaces around the golf balls. Again, he asked if the jar was full and the students said it was. Next he poured in some sand and it filled all those spaces between the pebbles and asked once more. Yes, they sighed, it’s full. I taught philosophy for a while and know how philosophy students, especially those taking the class for the sole purpose of fulfilling a humanities requirement can sigh.

Next the professor produced two cups of coffee and poured them in the jar. The students laughed. “The jar,” the professor said, “represents your life. The golf balls are important things like your core values, your spirituality, family and friends, health, your passions — things that if all else were lost, your life would still be full. The pebbles are those things that matter somewhat but just don’t rise to the level of the golf ball stuff. And the sand, that’s the small stuff, the fluff. If you fill your life with the sand first, then there’s no way you can fit in the pebbles, much less the golf balls.”

“Well,” the students asked, “what’s the coffee for?”

“That’s to remind you,” the professor answered, “that no matter how full your life is, there is always room for a couple of cups of coffee with a friend.”

One of the three major reasons why people associate themselves with a faith community is to experience transforming spirituality. That transforming spirituality does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs in the connections we make, the relationships we build together, the community we create, the friends we drink coffee with.

Some of you just might be Begums of Bengal. Most of us, however, are only Mary Ann’s. And that’s okay.

Never, never, never think that because you are only the Mary Ann, running up and down the shallow coastal waters of daily life rather than crossing expansive oceans of adventure, that your life, your ordinary life, can’t be one of extraordinary power.

It’s true, you and I may not be able to stop the senseless slaughter of humans in far off regions of the world. It’s true, you and I may not be able to stop the incredibly stupid eradication of sharks in the oceans. It’s true, you and I may not be able to change humankind’s self-destructive obsession with war. It’s true, you and I may not be able to change the hearts of Americans so that all people, regardless of ethnic background or economic status or sexual and gender expression are treated equally and fairly and justly.

But you and I, with the love of Christ empowering us, can have incredible and meaningful impact on those around us. Never think that just because you’re only the Mary Ann that your ordinary life can’t be one of extraordinary power, bringing about spiritual transformation in the lives you work with day in and day out; spiritual transformation in the lives of those who sit in your classrooms; spiritual transformation in the lives of those friends with whom you interact; spiritual transformation in the lives of those strangers against whom you bump up in the normal routine of daily life; spiritual transformation in the lives of those people sitting in front of you and beside you and behind you this morning.

And who knows, you might even be transformed in the process.

If I can paraphrase Flaubert: be regular and ordinary in your life like a bourgeois, so that you might be original and extraordinary in effecting spiritual transformation in yourself, in those around you, and even in the world.

So be it.