The Extraordinary in the Ordinary

My mouth dropped open, and I threw my arms around her. “What are you doing here?” “I have a meeting in the area this afternoon and decided to come to worship.” I hadn’t seen one of my dearest friends in over a year. Lynda has been a confidante, encourager and fellow professional who understands both the joys and failures of my life yet loves me unconditionally.

We had little opportunity to catch up, but there was enough time to tell her once again, “You have no idea now important you have been in my journey, helping to keep me centered and whole.” An ordinary moment became extraordinarily holy.


Hours later I was sitting in a small group among thirty clergywomen from the Michigan Area who had gathered for a two-day retreat at one of our United Methodist camps. “How do you keep balance in your life?” we were asked.

“I go to movies,” one woman said. “It’s a great way to forget about your problems. I just went to see Dracula Untold.”

“Why would you want to see Dracula Untold? Don’t we have enough draculas in our churches?”

“Well, sometimes it does seem as if a few people can suck the life out of me.”

We call it gallows humor among clergy. In reality, the vocation of ministry is a sacred and amazing calling, but if we are not prayerful and careful, it will wear us down to a frazzle until we flame out. The demands of ministry are literally non-stop. The to-do list is never completed, there is always one more person to visit and one more phone call to make, and from time to time someone has a bee in their bonnet with a painful stinger.

The clergywomen shared other unique ways in which we care for ourselves. Some pray, journal, exercise, scrapbook, listen to music, dig in the dirt and pursue painting or weaving. Others focus on their children’s school activities, try out new recipes, visit museums, attend concerts or spend time outdoors.

There were several common themes, however. Three out of five clergy in my small group mentioned how relaxing it was to mow the lawn. Why? Because the pleasure we derive from seeing something through to completion complements our ministries, which can never be wrapped up, tied with a bow and proclaimed, “DONE.” Mindless bliss was the term we used.

We also lifted up the importance of relationships. Professional coaching, mentoring, therapy, and spiritual direction are all ways in which we can share the burdens of ministry with those who listen well and offer wise counsel. Equally as vital are friendships with clergy and laity who understand the unique stressors of ministry, accept us for who we are and provide support and encouragement.

And then there is family. I pointed out the old, nondescript sweater I was wearing and said, “This sweater belonged to my son in high school. He outgrew it many years ago, but I decided it looked comfortable, so now I wear it all the time. This ordinary sweater is extraordinary because it reminds me of my son and, consequently, what is important in life. When I’m distressed over the expectations of others and the impossibility of getting everything done in ministry, I think about my family and can relax.”

Our truth as clergy is that the daily agenda of endless meetings, looming deadlines, difficult conversations, wrenching pastoral calls, and squeezing in time to study and write, knowing that Sunday comes every single week, can sap our spirit if we are not wise. It’s no coincidence that clergy health insurance is very costly. Clergy don’t take care of ourselves very well because keeping a healthy balance in our lives is so challenging.

The second day of our retreat we were astonished to hear that nothing was scheduled for the afternoon. It was completely free. Many of the women couldn’t remember the last time they had the gift of an afternoon off. “Do whatever you want,” we were told. “Do what fills your heart and gives you joy.” Ordinary moments became extraordinary.


“I walked the labyrinth.”

“A friend and I talked about the joys and frustrations of ministry.”

“I read a book until my eyes closed, so I took a nap.”

“We enjoyed silly laughter.”

“I sat quietly in the middle of the lake in a kayak and let the beauty of God’s creation wash over me: clear water, seagulls, flaming red trees, clouds and sun, shalom for the world.”

“I had holy conversation with amazing women.”

“I wrote a poem for the first time in ten years.”

“Someone invited me to walk through the leaves in the woods.”

At the same time as my clergywomen friends took time away to revive our souls, my husband was in Alabama with a group of clergy of similar very large churches. Although their agenda was different, they, too, shared the deepest yearnings of their hearts and the painful places of their ministries. All clergy need a safe place to confide in their peers.

It’s not an easy time to be a pastor. The passion and gifts that laity so freely offer to the church for the cause of Christ inspire clergy and make our hearts sing. At the same time, many of our churches are declining, and congregational anxiety over the future is widespread. Leaders can become entrenched, and church members occasionally treat each other in toxic ways. The pastor can also become an easy target to blame for the ills of the church.

How can we become self-differentiated leaders who put on our own oxygen masks first before seeking to minister to others? Perhaps clergy and congregations will become healthier if, rather than frenetically planning more activities and creating more programs, we seek to become more loving in our hearts and more whole/holy in our lives.

Rather than feed the insane pace of life today by following the pack or even setting the pace, perhaps God calls Christ-followers to a different way of living than our neighbors. Rather than forego sabbath because we are afraid of missing a deadline, neglecting emails or disappointing someone who thinks they need us right now, perhaps clergy and laity both need to listen more closely to the God who begs us to stop and see the extraordinary in the ordinary, even if just for one day a week.

Somewhere, sometime, someplace, someone decided that October should be Clergy Appreciation Month. It usually passes me by, but this month I give thanks for the courage of my brothers and sisters in the clergy who faithfully feed their flocks and lead their congregations during anxious times. I am especially grateful for our young clergy, for the deep call that prompts them to offer their lives to God through the itinerant professional ministry. I also give thanks for laity who understand the unique challenges of clergy and their families, provide sensitive, grace-filled support and guidance and give us permission to form healthy habits of self-care.

The day after I returned home from the retreat, Susan, her friend Maggie and I had a wonderful conversation as we waited for her surgery. It was a serious surgery, and Susan had already been in the hospital for a week. Susan and Maggie are highly intuitive and attuned to spiritual matters, and we talked freely about the presence of God in her room that morning. Susan asked about my time at the clergywoman’s gathering and affirmed the need for all clergy to have time away for refreshment and healing.

When we were ready to pray, Susan asked me to sing a song, so I sang, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness; And all these things shall be added unto you; Allelu, alleluia.” During the song a woman named Barbara came into the room to empty trash. As she greeted Susan and quietly went about her job, Susan praised Barbara’s gentle and gracious care and simple ministry of presence. Susan then asked, “Will you join our circle of prayer?” Holding hands around Susan’s bed I asked God to surround her with peace and guide the hands and hearts of the surgeon and all who would be caring for her. Then Barbara proceeded to pray a fervent prayer of power and might and glory as she proclaimed God’s goodness and asked for a hedge of protection around Susan. An ordinary yet extraordinary moment. Surely the presence of the Lord was in that place.

In the midst of the very humanness of the church, people like Lynda, Barbara, Susan, Maggie and countless clergy and laity share extraordinary love in ordinary ways by living balanced and whole lives. Sometimes all it takes is an afternoon off.


The Three Vows

Awakening at 4:30 a.m., we emerged from darkness into darkness, our solitary tents dotting the plateau in northern New Mexico. In silence our small group of pilgrims drove forty-five minutes to the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert, marveling at the brilliant colors of dawn welcoming the new day into the desert stillness.

We arrived in time for Lauds at 5:45 a.m., the second office of the day, followed by the mass. My senses were heightened in the silence, solitude and mystery of this magnificent desert setting. “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” If we were sleepy, the monks were, too. One of the monks was struggling to stay awake.

I could easily have become a monk, having always been fascinated by the monastic tradition, with its disciplined spiritual life of prayer, simplicity and balance. Introduced to the Order of Saint Benedict in recent years, I’ve discovered a treasure of wisdom that is easily accessible to all disciples of Jesus Christ.


St. Benedict was the father of western monasticism and is also considered the Co-patron of Europe along with Saints Cyrus and Methodius. Why? Because the monasteries he established in the sixth century helped to preserve the culture of ancient Greece and Rome after the Roman Empire crumbled.

As a young man, Benedict went to Rome to study. After dedicating his life to God, however, Benedict lived three years in solitude in a cave near the ruins of Emperor Nero’s summer villa fifty miles outside of Rome. After emerging from the cave, Benedict became the superior of a group of renegade monks. Unhappy with his leadership, the monks attempted to poison Benedict, who withdrew to the cave again. Eventually, Benedict established twelve small monasteries in the area.

Later, Benedict wrote his Rule for monks, which is known today as the Rule of Saint Benedict. The Rule was not only instrumental in the development of Christianity in Europe but is still followed today by Benedictine monks who choose a life of prayer, study and work in community. The principles of this Rule are also practiced by Catholic laymen and women and other Christians who desire to deepen their spiritual life.

St. Benedict taught the simple virtues of hospitality, respect, simplicity and holiness.
His rules for a good and balanced life are contained in the three vows that Benedictine monks take: obedience, stability, and conversion.



Monastic obedience is the relationship between a monk and the monastic leader, which extends to a connection of the entire monastic community in mutual obedience. The object of monastic obedience is the seeking of God. The monastic leader is a “director of souls,” not a manger or boss. The role of the superior’s commands is to help the monk’s search for God.

The word “obedience” comes from the Latin root word audire, which means “to hear.” Contrary to our society’s promotion of anything goes and seeking our own pleasure, biblical obedience focuses on listening to the call of God by responding to the needs of others and our world. How that call is lived out may change over the course of our lives, but we must always focus on that call and not be continually diverted by other voices clamoring to be heard.

Isaiah 48:6b-7 says, “From this time forward I make you hear new things, hidden things that you have not known. They are created now, not long ago; before today you have never heard of them, so that you could not say, ‘I already knew them.’” Obedience is a continuous process of listening to the new things God reveals to us every day, responding with faith and action to that which beckons us and saying “no” to that which does not further our call.


Monks in the Benedictine tradition make a commitment to live their entire lives in the monastery they join. But this vow of stability extends beyond stability of place to stability of community and stability of heart. By committing to community, just as with marriage vows, monks promise to work through issues and improve relationships rather than simply run away.

Stability is an antidote to the restlessness of much of our world today, where we love to escape by avoiding problems. If our jobs, family bonds and friendships don’t satisfy, we pick up and move somewhere else or find new relationships. Stability is a vow to pay attention to the movement of God in every moment and not always be seeking more excitement, more stimulation, more toys. Stability counters the unceasing search for the new and extravagant.

Stability of heart is perhaps the greatest challenge of monastic wisdom today. What our world needs more than anything else is disciples of Jesus Christ who display stability of mercy, stability of justice, stability of grace, stability of forgiveness and stability of reconciliation. The world needs to know that Christians will live out what they say and will practice what they preach. Stability is a vow to be consistent in our commitments and in our desire to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.


At first glance conversion may seem to contradict stability. Conversion is a dynamic vow that encourages us to be continuous learners, always seeking new ways to grow in our faith and practice. Conversion implies transformation, as we become aware of our deepest longings and risk change of heart, mind, and life.

Many Christians groups use “conversion” to explain how a person comes to faith. Often they experience a surprising and even spectacular change of heart where Jesus suddenly becomes real in their life, and they go from having no religion to claiming a personal relationship with Christ. People who are converted in this way can remember the day and hour of their religious experience and cannot understand the long, slow work of God in the lives of other disciples who were brought up in the faith since childhood. Not everyone is “born again” in the twinkling of an eye. Nor is faith always the result of a long process of cultivation.

In the Benedictine sense every person who seeks conversion is always looking for a new way to see life. Every day becomes an opportunity for transformation. Conversion is not a one-time experience but a continuous process of death and rebirth. It’s a way of looking at life that is creative, optimistic, positive and open.

Conversion sees possibilities, not problems. It gives people the benefit of the doubt, always seeking to convert the difficulties of life into opportunities for growth. The person who vows to follow conversion of life wants to transform the whole world from death and despair to new life and hope. He or she is not dogmatic but is always seeking and open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Each one of these vows, obedience, stability and conversion, is counter-cultural and challenges the status quo as well as the way we often about our lives. Every day is filled with profound experiences when we practice these three disciplines.


Whenever I think of that monk who couldn’t stay awake at 5:45 a.m., it reminds me of a story from the desert fathers. Some old men went to Abba Poemen and asked, “If we see brothers sleeping during the common prayer, should we wake them?” Abba Poemen answered, “If I see my brother sleeping, I put his head on my knees and let him rest.” Then one old man spoke up, “And how do you explain yourself before God?” Abba Poemen replied, “I say to God: You have said, ‘First take the beam out of your own eye and then you will be able to remove the splinter from the eye of your brother.’”

I could have easily become a monk, living a solitary life in the desert. Instead, I follow the monk’s life of obedience, stability and conversion in the city, eager to live out the long, slow work of God where I am called to serve.


Money Never Stays With Me

John Wesley was sixty-one when he met her in 1764. Margaret Lewen of Leytonshire, a twenty-two-year-old young woman of great wealth, had a yearly income of six hundred pounds at her disposal, but she was also in poor health with heart disease. John and Margaret developed a friendship, and Margaret’s father said that Wesley helped her more than any physician could. Margaret seemed to have found peace with God and joined the Methodists.


In December of 1765 Wesley fell off his horse and was seriously injured. When Lewen heard of the accident, she presented Wesley with a carriage and a team of horses. In 1766 Margaret’s father recommended that she move to London to be in closer communion with Wesley and the Methodists. Unfortunately, she became gravely ill in October and died shortly thereafter.

When Wesley went to visit Lewen, he found out that she had died the day before. He said, “So died Margaret Lewen, a pattern to all young women of fortune in England, a real Bible Christian.” Lewen left Wesley one thousand pounds, probably the largest sum he ever had in his possession. Wesley proceeded to give it all away, saying, “I am God’s steward for the poor.”

Wesley’s own sister, Mrs. Hall, who had been deserted by her husband, applied for some of the money, but it was already gone. In 1768 Wesley wrote his sister,

Dear Patty, You do not consider, money never stays with me; it would burn me if it did. I throw it out of my hands as soon as possible lest it should find a way into my heart. Therefore, you should have spoken to me while I was in London, and before Miss Lewen’s money flew away.

Our Wesleyan heritage is shaped by so many gifts from John Wesley: the warmed heart; prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace; works of piety and works of mercy; personal and social holiness; thinking and let think about all opinions that do not strike at the root of Christianity; class meetings, bands and societies. How is it, then, that most United Methodists have no idea that one of John Wesley’s greatest witnesses was around the use of money? “Gain all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.” These well-known words of John Wesley come from his 1744 sermon, The Use of Money.

John Wesley’s personal practices around money were shaped by an experience he had as a young man while a teaching fellow at Lincoln College at Oxford University. Wesley had just put up some pictures in his room when a chambermaid came to his door, wearing only a thin linen gown on a cold winter day. Wesley wanted to give her money for a coat but was chagrined to discover only a few coins in his pocket. He said to himself, “Will Thy Master say, ‘Well done, good and faithful steward?’ Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money that might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?”

In his late twenties, perhaps as a result of this experience, Wesley decided to live as frugally as possible so that he could give more money to the poor. In 1731 Wesley recorded his yearly income as £30 and his living expenses £28, so he gave £2 away. His income doubled the next year, but he still lived on £28 and gave £32 away. The third year his income was £90 and the fourth year £120, but he still lived on £28, giving the rest to the poor. Even after becoming one of the most famous men in all England, with probably the highest earned income, Wesley did not increase his standard of living but only his standard of giving.

When Wesley died in 1791, he had only a few miscellaneous coins in his pockets and dresser drawers. And the rest of the estimated thirty thousand pounds he earned during his lifetime? He gave it away.


Gain All You Can

In The Use of Money Wesley claims that there is nothing wrong with earning money, saying, “Gain all you can by honest industry. Use all possible diligence in your calling. Lose no time.” However, he is clear that earning money must not come at the expense of our physical health, mind, soul or neighbor.

We should abstain from whatever is harmful to our spirit, says Wesley, “For to gain money we must not lose our souls.” We should not defraud others by charging excessive interest, undercut them in the market, overcharge for goods or entice workers away from others. Moreover, we should not sell anything that impairs the body, mind and soul of others, such as alcohol.

I thank God for disciples of Jesus Christ who earn all they can and use it to bring glory to God. I once had a parishioner who felt called into the ministry as a young man. He attended a Bible school and became a lay pastor in the Upper Peninsula. When he had to perform his first funeral, he was so scared and uncomfortable that he decided the professional ministry was not for him.

This young man went into business, did extremely well, and became a Christian philanthropist. He often testified that his spiritual gift was generosity. God blessed him with the ability to make money so that he could give it away. “Gain all you can, by common sense, by using in your business all the understanding which God has given you.”

Save All You Can

Wesley limited his personal expenditures by not purchasing the kinds of things others thought essential for a person in his station of life. Under Wesley’s leadership, the London Methodists established two homes for widows in the city, supported by offerings taken at band meetings and the Lord’s Supper. When Wesley wasn’t traveling, he and other Methodist preachers who happened to be in London lived and ate in one of these homes, which, in 1748, housed nine widows, one blind woman, and two children.

During one four-year stretch, Wesley’s diet consisted mostly of potatoes, partly to improve his health, but also to save money. He said: “What I save from my own meat will feed another that else would have none.” Wesley writes in his sermon:

  • Do not waste any part of so precious a talent merely in gratifying the desires of the flesh; in procuring the pleasures of sense of whatever kind; particularly, in enlarging the pleasure of tasting.
  • Do not waste any part of so precious a talent merely in gratifying the desire of the eye by superfluous or expensive apparel, or by needless ornaments. Waste no part of it in curiously adorning your houses; in superfluous or expensive furniture; in costly pictures…

Give All You Can

For Wesley, the purpose of earning and saving all we can is not to cling to our money but to use it to a greater end, namely, bringing in God’s kingdom by giving it away. As Wesley wrote to his sister, “Money never stays with me.” Wesley provides clear instructions on priorities for using our money.

First, provide things needful for yourself; food to eat, raiment to put on, whatever nature moderately requires for preserving the body in health and strength. Secondly, provide these for your wife, your children, your servants, or any others who pertain to your household. If when this is done there be an overplus left, then “Do good to them that are of the household of faith.” If there be an overplus still, “As you have opportunity, do good unto all men.” In so doing, you give all you can; nay, in a sound sense, all you have: For all that is laid out in this manner is really given to God.

John Wesley concludes his sermon by including guidelines on how to make decisions about using our money. He challenges us to ask four questions.

  1. Am I acting according to my own character as a steward of what God has so graciously given me?
  2. Am I acting in obedience to the scriptures in how I spend my money?
  3. Can I offer up a particular purchase as a sacrifice to the Lord?
  4. Will God reward this expenditure at the “resurrection of the just?”

If we follow these four guidelines, Wesley is convinced that we will not only receive clear light in the way we should live and give, but our money will never stay with us.