This week the liturgical calendar begins marking “Ordinary Time” following Eastertide and the Festivals of Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity. The season of Ordinary Time continues until Advent.
Yet how can anyone consider this upcoming season “ordinary” in 2021? We are rebounding in fits and starts from the pandemic of a century. We have no idea of much that lies ahead for the church. Our times are “extraordinary” by every metric.
Yet perhaps the best way for us forward at this time is to focus on the ordinary. Proclaiming the Good News. Providing for the nurture and fellowship of the saints. Assuring the continuity of ministry of Word and Sacrament. Committing to truthfulness in all things. Seeking justice for everyone. Living with each other in a way that reveals God’s intention for all humanity. (I said “ordinary,” not “easy!”)
These are the things we are called to do all the time. And they are especially needed now. They may be “ordinary” parts of our ministry, but we dare not take them for granted. Especially not now.
Not when many in our world seek to repress the voices of the marginalized.
Not when many in our world seek their own advantage despite its expense to others.
Not when lies are being promoted publicly and shamelessly as truth.
Not when polarization is so entrenched that family and neighbors refuse to speak to each other.
Not when the church’s rhythms of life and worship have been dramatically altered by a massive pandemic.
Yet the way forward is about more than innovation. It requires us to find patterns and commitments that connect to our past, as well as being open to a new future. In the words of Jesus, it is a commitment to “treasures old and new.”
The root of the word “ordinary” is “ordinal,” which refers to things of first order. Ah, Presbyterians love order, so “ordinary time” should be right up our alley. And so it is. Ordered life. Ordered ministry. Ordered worship. Our cardinal scripture verse may well be 1 Corinthians 14:40, “But all things should be done decently and in order.”
Order, however, is not just a description of how things work together. It also refers to priority. Ordinal numbers are the first few in a series. Order is just as much about what goes first, second, and third, as it is about lining everything up rightly.
Ordinary time may thus be construed as a time to make sure that what matters most is firmly in place at the top of our priorities.
Our Book of Order calls these first-order commitments “Foundations of Presbyterian Polity.” I find its Foundations section to be about far more than polity – it is a description of the bedrock of our life as a church. It sets forth the theological basis for everything we do. When we forget the theological foundations for our life together, we lose our sense of what matters most, and risk becoming like the ancient people of God at their worst, when “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)
It is in this Foundations section that the list of “ordinary” church activities that I cited above gets spelled out. It’s called “The Great Ends of the Church.” (Book of Order F-1.0304)
Another manifestation of a lost sense of our core priorities is when each congregation chooses its own style of worship, fellowship, and mission, simply according to its own preferences. Much of what we do is variable and contextual, but it must never be unmoored from our foundation stones.
These are truly extraordinary times. And especially in such times, we need most acutely to attend to the “ordinary” things, to our bedrock priorities. How we execute them may be very different from what we did before the pandemic. But to ignore them is to become hopelessly disoriented as we navigate tumultuous seas. They are our guiding lights. They are what remains when all else is shaken. (Hebrews 12:26-27)
To go back to a more ancient source than our Book of Order, consider a pair of other listings of first-order priorities:
- Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)
- Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27)
Pandemic or not, let us always keep the main thing the main thing!
Yours in pressing forward,