Joel ben Izzy, in his wonderful book The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness, relates a Zen story he had often heard but never understood. It seems a student seeking enlightenment went to visit a great Zen master. Knowing he must let the master speak first, the student waited. But the master did not speak and for a long time they sat in silence. Eventually the master offered the student a bowl of rice, and quietly they ate.
Finally the master said, “Have you finished eating?”
“Yes,” replied the student.
“Now wash your bowl.”
End of story. To Joel ben Izzy this story had always been an enigma until, while washing dishes in the midst of a personal crisis, suddenly he understood it. “Sometimes,” he wrote, “there’s nothing else to do but wash the dishes. Simple as that. We look for bells and whistles, flash and fanfare, but when you get right down to the truth, sometimes it’s very simple.”
Most of life is ordinary, and ordinary life is a means of knowing the truth. While the extraordinary can be glossy and exciting, or scary and disorienting, the ordinary is safe and comforting and, when fully embraced, enlightening. It’s like putting on comfortable old clothes in which, feeling completely ourselves, we’re able to relax.
“Just as I am” is not only how one comes to God in the first place, but how one continues to live in Him. Our God is so great that we want to accomplish great things for Him. However it is not just the great that glorifies Him, but everything. He wants to fill the whole earth with His glory––every blade of grass, every particle of dust.
If there’s going to be more glory than there is now, all that is dark must be illuminated. By dark I mean not only what is evil but all that is hidden, ignored, unremarkable, too plain for notice. These things, especially, when drenched in light, are what will magnify the Lord’s glory. Many sermons exhort us to accomplish great deeds, but we don’t often hear of the importance of ordinariness. This is the dark side of faith, the side that tends to be turned away from the sunshine of God’s love. Here is where faith is most needed, not up on the stage where floodlights play upon remarkable acts, but in the backyards and allies and empty lots of our lives. The very things we wish to hide, or that we fear are not worthy of notice, are what we must learn to bring into the light and celebrate. Here is where our deepest fears and anxieties reside—not in the big, important matters that preoccupy our attention, but in our underlying insecurity over how ordinary we feel. We are so plain and dull, we think, that we must accomplish momentous deeds in order to justify our existence. But this is a lie. We are justified and loved not for what we accomplish but for who we are, so that deep security can come only from resting in our utter ordinariness.
But here is the big question: Is the ordinary truly ordinary? No, it’s just that we see it that way. Our skewed vision needs healing. We need the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of our hearts in order to see things as they are. Then it will be just as if every coin and bill were declared to be worth the same amount, or as if every grain of sand were valued at a million dollars. Think of the wealth suddenly present at everyone’s fingertips! It is there now, if only we could appreciate it. As Jesus said, “Not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these lilies” (Mt. 6:29).