The Wild Glory of an ‘Ordinary’ Life

To the left of my desk is an original oil painting by an award-winning artist named Audrey Strandquist. Unless you live about an hour west of Minneapolis and are above the age of fifty, I doubt you’ve seen her work. Audrey was my wife’s maternal grandmother, and her awards were conferred mainly at regional fairs. She typically painted landscapes, but in the painting next to me, titled “Threshing” and dated August 8, 1940, she beautifully captured a portrait of her tall, strong 24-year-old soon-to-be farmer husband, Wally, standing next to a bin of freshly threshed grain. In the background is a field of mature corn. Audrey was 23 when she applied the oils to this old canvas.

Audrey passed away in October 1998, and Wally in April 2013. Both are buried a short distance from the farm they worked from the time they married well into their elder years, in a small cemetery next to the little evangelical country church they faithfully attended and served for most of their lives. They were what we might be tempted to call “ordinary folk.” But that would be a misnomer, an oxymoron of colossal proportions.

There actually exists no such thing: an ordinary human life. To think a life ordinary is to believe a delusion. It reveals the shameful fact that we can barely bear true beauty — we who tire quickly of sunsets, often curse the rain, find wind an inconvenience, and define boring as watching the grass grow. How strange that we find violent virtual deaths in our films more captivating than the gentle life that miraculously awakens when buried, pushes up through the dark soil, catches the sunlight for food, and grows into a brilliantly green brushstroke of beauty in the very real landscape art we view every day.

“As for man, his days are like grass” (Psalm 103:15). Perhaps that is why we find the lives of men boring and ordinary. Watching a man is like watching the grass grow.

Lives Like Grass

Wally and Audrey were like grass. But being farmers, they found the adventure of grass less boring than most of us. Year after year, in a choreographed dance of collaborative labors, they tilled the dark soil, buried the seeds, and watched the epic of nourishing life slowly unfold. They endured the suspense and sometimes the tragedies of storms, droughts, and pestilence. They knew that the flower of the field was both fiercely resilient and fearfully fragile.

Like the grass they so carefully tended, their lives were a portrait of unassuming beauty. In the landscape of reality, you likely wouldn’t notice them unless you took the time to look. Wally was strong yet gentle, and his voice was calm and soothing. Audrey was kind and encouraging, and the bounty of her dinner table was unsurpassed. They moved like the slow, steady rhythms of the seasons. They were human poetry in motion. But we frenetic twenty-first-century Westerners, who have largely lost the patience required for poetry, might call it slow motion.

“There actually exists no such thing: an ordinary human life. To think a life ordinary is to believe a delusion.”

With unpretentious drama, they both came to faith in the living Christ while young, being raised by faithful parents and in faithful church communities. They met, fell in love, got married, and then faithfully loved one another for more than half a century. That alone is a marvelous feat, given how many dangers, toils, and snares half a century brings to anyone. The lyrics of these living poems tell of how Wally patiently and tenderly cared for Audrey through the numerous health challenges she faced throughout her adulthood, and how both of them, in thousands of ways over many decades, served the saints of Oster Covenant Church.

But the most profound effect they had on me was how they faithfully raised a daughter who came to embrace the faith she saw them live out in the so-called ordinary ebb and flow of life, which of course is where all the truly epic events of life occur. They had no idea the priceless gift this would be to me since their daughter would become my godly mother-in-law — 48 years after Audrey put her brush to canvas on that hot, midsummer, threshing day.

The Grass Withers

Wally and Audrey were like grass. Grass might seem to grow slowly, but in reality, its poetic life is brief. Which is why this painting moves me deeply, this portrait of a hardworking young man crafted by his gifted, hardworking young soon-to-be wife, both in the flower of their youth. That was 84 years ago. The painting is still with us, but the mortal bodies of the artist and her subject are not.

These blades of the grass of God flourished in the morning, but in the evening, they faded and withered (Psalm 90:6). Scorching winds of disease eventually passed over Audrey and then Wally, and now they are gone (Psalm 103:16). Two more casualties of the curse. Another reminder of the ignoble prosaic ending to the poem so noble and full of wild glory that tongues of neither men nor angels can fully capture it: a human life. An ordinary human life.

All flesh is grass,
     and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
     when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
     surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
     but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6–8)

Where Grass Withers No More

I was there on the mournfully joyful days when we sowed the perishable remains of that kind, encouraging, artistic woman, and then, fifteen years later, the remains of that gentle, down-to-earth man, like seeds, into the hallowed ground beside the meeting house of the church they loved.

But make no mistake: we indeed sowed them. For it is the core of the Christian hope, the hope Wally and Audrey treasured in their souls, that what is sown perishable will be raised imperishable, what is sown in weakness will be raised in power, what is sown natural will be raised spiritual (1 Corinthians 15:42–44). They died in the hope all believers share: that the Sun of righteousness, the bright Morning Star, will make it possible for us, even though we die, to live in the eternal morning where the grass of God withers no more (Malachi 4:2; John 11:25–26; Revelation 21:4; Revelation 22:16).

And a day is coming when we will know that the epic stories of these quiet, grass-like saints have always been far more thrilling than the best novels and the greatest films. We will marvel at our former dullness, having ever considered such lives ordinary.

Someday, the curse will be reversed, and we will not have the patience to watch the millisecond epics of cinematic mass murder that have captured the imagination of fallen man. We will not have the capacity to find such dim phantasmal shadows entertaining at all. Not when what is playing out before us in vibrant colors now inconceivable is the gloriously wild real story of everlasting grass that, having burst from the ground, is alive with the light of the undying Star.