by Nathan Brown
I have never been much into birdwatching merely for the sake of it. Yet I appreciate seeing a feathered visitor in the backyard, observing some kind of crazy bird party while bushwalking, or even watching how a flock of pigeons or seagulls interact with people in the city or on a beach front. And recently I have been enjoying reading a book appropriate to my low-level ‘twitching’ interest — How To Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher, by English sportswriter Simon Barnes.
More than an introduction to semi-serious birdwatching aimed at those uninitiated in this pursuit, Barnes’s book is a prompt toward living with awareness and appreciation, particularly of the natural world in which we live. In his first few pages, Barnes describes pausing, as he crossed a park, to watch a group of small common birds darting about. “It was nothing special, nothing extraordinary, and it was very good indeed,” he reflects. “Note this: one of the great pleasures of birdwatching is the quiet enjoyment of the absolutely ordinary.”
But not only is it a principle of birdwatching, it’s also a lesson for life — and perhaps even more important for living faithfully. It says something about our longing and striving to be exceptional that words such as ‘ordinary’ and ‘average’ have evolved to mean something less than ordinary or below average. By so many voices, we are urged that to be ‘ordinary’ or ‘average’ is to never quite measure up. Belying the exaggerated lives of celebrities or those portrayed on our screens — or the updates some of your ‘friends’ might be posting on Facebook — by definition, much and most of our lives must be ordinary and average.
When we talk about ambition, our minds immediately imagine becoming a success or a star in the areas of our career or talents. We could break through or be discovered or somehow otherwise be recognised as the high achiever we deserve to be. Paul’s suggestion for ambition offers quite a contrast; “This should be your ambition: to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we commanded you before. As a result, people who are not Christians will respect the way you live” (1 Thessalonians 4:11, 12).
This is not an excuse not to make the most of the opportunities or talents God gives us, nor not to work hard and to do what we do well. But we measure our lives — and the lives of those around us — differently when we seek to, “live for him and make the Kingdom of God your primary concern,” as Jesus put it (Matthew 6:33). Many of our days will look ordinary and average — and that’s OK.
This principle also applies to our spiritual life. We should not measure our growth in faith and faithfulness so much by the mountaintop experiences as by our “walking humbly with our God” (see Micah 6:8) in those ordinary days. For many of us, faithful living is not about exotic mission trips or campaigns to save the world in one way or another. These can be good experiences and worthwhile undertakings but how do we live faithfully a few weeks later when we’re back in the office, factory, kitchen or classroom just doing ordinary things? “Discipleship is often ugly, messy and painful. Faithful service will regularly lead us into dull labours and bewildering struggles that would make unexciting press” (Andrew Byers, We Need Boring Christians, relevantmagazine.com).
Many healthy and faithful lives have many ordinary days — in the best sense of ordinary. And these many ordinary days are so much of what makes up a life of faithfulness. And, as Paul says, that’s often the kind of Christian life that is most respected by those who observe it. Such ordinariness can be “very good indeed.”
It’s also the kind of living that lays the best foundation for the extraordinary experience of our life and faith. Obviously, Barnes was still writing about bird watching but his further description also fits with living life with God and the aims of ordinary faith and faithfulness — “That is the first aim of being a bad birdwatcher: the calm delight of the utterly normal, and the rare and sudden delight of the utterly unexpected.”
Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation.