Ballad for an Ordinary Life

Verla 2013Today is playing out as pretty ordinary–full of the duties that keep life ticking, none of which are particularly memorable.

I hate the word ordinary. It sounds so dead and meaningless.

Then, in the car, I heard a classic county song written in the 70s by Chicago folk singer/songwriter Steve Goodman. It brought back a wave of memories.

Goodman grew up not far from where I spent most of my adult life. On the local music scene he was known for writing funny satirical songs– especially songs about the elder Mayor Daley, the Chicago Cubs, and Vegematic infomercials.

He enjoyed limited national fame for writing “City of New Orleans,” made famous by Arlo Guthrie. He also co-wrote a #1 song recorded by David Allan Coe called “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” Coe told Goodman it would be the perfect country song if only it mentioned momma, drinking, trains, and prison. Goodman obliged by adding a tongue-in-cheek last verse to include the necessary mentions and it was an instant hit.

My life sometimes feels like Steve Goodman’s perfect country song. If I want it to be perfect–or at least meaningful by our culture’s definition–I need to add a few over-the-top successes followed by a nervous breakdown, a stint in rehab, and a long climb back. A cure for cancer would help. Or what about a climb up Mt. Everest…backwards? Oh, and could you throw in a car chase or two and something involving sex?

The message? Ordinary is meaningless.

It’s a lie, of course, designed to make us dissatisfied with the sweetness of simple things like the smell of homemade apple pie on a cold wintry day or a shared belly laugh with a friend over an inside joke.

Don’t you sometimes want to rise up and say, “You don’t know squat about what matters! That train wreck you call your life? How’s that workin’ for you?”

Okay. That’s not the right response. I’m just saying.

Even when we recognize The Big Lie, it’s still easy to get caught up in byproducts of the lie: discontent, restlessness, the feeling that we’re not enough. We haven’t accomplished something grand. I get it.

The truth is, however, that there are seasons in life when things aren’t grand. It just is what it is and we press on, without answers, without glory. There are days when that’s what faithfulness and obedience looks like, and we need to let that be enough.

Years ago in Appalachia I met a wizened old farmer at a broken-down stand by the side of a road. He was selling boiled peanuts, along with Mason jars of canned chow-chow “put up by the missus.”

I asked him, “What’s chow-chow?”

“Don’t know,” he said. “That’s what my momma called it and her momma before that.”  He looked at me quizzically. “You don’t have to know what it is to enjoy it.”

Today’s an ordinary day. It doesn’t have to mean something in order for me to enjoy it. And if God has more important work for me to do, he knows where to find me.

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