by Jim Harnish
Ordinary. The adjective reeks with the scent of stale sameness; the bitter whiff of bland boredom; the sour odor of lifeless order. It leaves a faint aroma of unexceptional drudgery in doing the same old things in the same old way without a hint of newness or a trace of creativity.
And then there is “Ordinary Time.” It’s the longest season in the liturgical year, beginning on the first Sunday after Pentecost (Trinity Sunday) and ending on Christ the King (also called Reign of Christ) Sunday, the last Sunday before the beginning of the new church year in Advent. The “high holy days” of Lent and Easter and “The Great Fifty Days” leading to Pentecost are behind us. Stretching through the “dog days” of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, most of the Sundays are simply identified in numerical order: “The __ Sunday after Pentecost.” Just another ordinary Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Who wants to be an ordinary pastor living in “Ordinary Time?” But then the disturbing truth settles in on us. “Ordinary Time” is where most of us practice most of our ministry.
Every week isn’t Holy Week and every Sunday isn’t Easter. Sooner or later, every person called into Christian ministry discovers something that lay disciples learn just about every day. High, holy moments that are alive with spiritual exhilaration are the exception. Most of us invest most of our days in the ordinary stuff of ordinary life. Whether we thrive or merely survive depends on what we do with the ordinary days.
My experience has confirmed the witness of others that the most effective way to nourish our souls is not to depend on extraordinary moments of spiritual inspiration or dramatic changes in the patterns of our life as necessary as these often become, but to practice the ordinary, time-tested disciplines of reflection on scripture, spiritual reading, and prayer combined with what John Wesley called “spiritual conversation” with trusted friends in Christian community and self-giving service to others. It’s about what we do with our ordinary time in ordinary places.
“Ordinary time” can also represent a “fallow season” in our life and ministry. I was going through one of those fallow seasons in both my congregation and my own life when a farmer friend taught me that every field needs a fallow season. The soil is plowed but left unplanted so the nutrients in the soil can be restored to be more productive in the future. Without a fallow season, the earth will become depleted and no longer able to produce healthy crops. When it appears that nothing is happening, the soil is being replenished for a growth season ahead.
My friend challenged me to use my personal fallow season to dig deeper into the soil of my soul so the Spirit of God could prepare me for more productive days ahead. He taught me to use the fallow season in my congregation as a time to pause from our hyperactivity; a space for deeper reflection on our mission, our ministry and our calling; a time to renew our sense of God’s Spirit at work within us by looking for signs of new life in unexpected places. With the psalmist, I experienced the way the Holy Spirit “satisfied the one who was parched with thirst, and he filled up the hungry with good things!” (Psalm 107:9)
Jim Harnish is a retired United Methodist minister and the author of “Extraordinary Ministry in Ordinary Time: An Invitation to Renewal for Pastors” (Upper Room, 2020).