I had the pleasure of asking Michael Kelley, author of Boring, a few questions about his latest book.
Q. Tell me about you.
M.K.: I’m Michael Kelley, and I’m a pretty normal guy. I’m married, have a job, a wife, and three kids. I go to bed at 10 pm and have to watch what I eat. I work at Lifeway Christian Resources, and I also write books.
Q. How did you come up with the title Boring?
M.K.: I think the title is a good description of the way we look at the “throwaway” parts of our lives – the ordinary stuff. We tend to think of these parts of life as things to get through instead of the parts where we can really meet and discover great purpose and meaning. So my hope with the title is that anyone who has ever looked at the ordinary and felt a little bored might connect with it, and then maybe by God’s grace move past it.
Q. What inspired you to write your book Boring?
M.K.: When I began writing the book, I did so with a few very specific people in mind. These are people who raise their families in godly ways, are faithful church members, and work in secular fields where they have chances to share the gospel regularly. But these are also people who have, in my conversations with them, regularly asked the question of whether or not they are really doing anything significant with their lives. I think that question comes from our tendency to think of the work of the Lord in terms of the big and grand when in actuality most of our commitment to and faith in Jesus is lived out in the seemingly small, everyday choices of real life.
I wanted to encourage those people – the stay at home mom or the office job guy – to actually find significance and meaning inside a “normal” life rather than seeing it as something to escape from.
Q. What is your book Boring about?
M.K.: There is no such thing as an ordinary life when you follow an extraordinary God. We live with a separation between the secular and sacred that shouldn’t be there. Everything in life is spiritual because the presence of God goes with the Christian everywhere. Our problem, then, is one of awareness. Do we really see these ordinary areas of life for what they are? For the meaning infused within them? We can. Instead of trying to escape what we think is boring, we need to see our lives with a new vision for what’s really been there all the time.
Q. Who is it for?
M.K.: This book is for the guy who works at a regular job and the mom who spends her days raising kids. It’s for the person who has ever looked at their life and wondered if there is something more.
Q. Why is it important?
M.K.: The book is important because we live in a culture that worships at the altar of excitement. Because we do, we tend to abandon anything that seems a little ordinary. This book helps us see, I hope, that meaning and significance isn’t found outside of the ordinary parts of life but within them.
Q. How is Boring different compared to other books?
M.K.: This book isn’t a self-help or motivational tool. It’s not telling you how to find the next great thing, but that the greatness is within the ordinary. Hopefully, it will help us to see the ordinary areas of life with new vision and meaning and in the end we will be more resolved to live them out well.
Q. What do you hope the book will do in people’s lives?
M.K.: I hope this book encourages people to stay inside their lives with resolve. I hope the way they see the most mundane parts of life is transformed and infused with new meaning and purpose.
Here’s the official description of Kelley’s book. Read on for an excerpt, or buy your copy here.
In Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life, Christian writer and speaker Michael Kelley evaluates the problem of how we define significance and offers a new perspective on living a “boring” life. Kelley asks, “What if a life of great importance isn’t found by escaping the details but embracing them? What if God actually doesn’t want you to escape from the ordinary, but to find significance and meaning inside of it?”
Boring lays a path for starting to see every day at work, every relationship, and every moment for what it is: a part of God’s plan. Kelley, who confesses to be a regular, “boring” guy, includes biblical truth in each chapter to show how God is present time and time again in everyday situations, and to awaken readers to the myth of “ordinary.” Because, as Kelley writes, “There is no such thing as ordinary when you follow an extraordinary God.”
An excerpt from Boring, by Michael Kelley
Early to Bed, Early to Rise
The college I attended had an interesting dynamic. Though I was at a small, secular university—a state school in the panhandle of Texas—the number of Christians drastically outnumbered the number of non-Christians. And these weren’t just any old Christians. These were the people who spent summers overseas serving others for the sake of the gospel. This was an environment where David Crowder and Chris Tomlin were as popular as Bono or Pearl Jam, and approximately one-third of the student body gathered together every Thursday night for a two-hour worship experience.
It was pretty amazing. I will admit, though, that much of the time I cut out a little early since worship didn’t begin until 10 p.m.
My dad was a statistics professor at this university as he had been for the previous fifteen years. There were a lot of days, particularly Fridays, when I would straggle into his office after an 8 a.m. class, unshaven and tired, and talk about how great worship was the previous night. Dad would smile and nod, ask a few questions here and there, and be genuinely excited about what the Lord was doing on campus.
One particular morning has stuck with me over the years. During one of these visits, my dad wondered aloud, almost to himself, about the attendance of some of the folks involved in that worship service to his classes on Friday morning. He noted a significant drop off of the Christian leaders on campus on Fridays, so he mused: “You know, son, sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is go to bed early and show up to class on time.”
I laughed it off at the time with the arrogance that only a freshman in college can have. And yet . . .
And yet there’s something there, isn’t there? Does attendance at a worship service justify the missing of class? What does it say to professors when their students flunk quizzes because they were so busy studying the Bible that they didn’t have time to pick up their textbooks? Is God pleased by that kind of behavior?
It’s a valid question, one that I still don’t have an answer to, but I would venture to say the fact that we ask such a question points out a misshapen idea of what God really wants from us in life. Long before we ask any of the more exciting questions about what vocation to choose, what person to marry, or what city to live in, we should be asking: What does God really want from all of us?
It might sound boring, but at a fundamental level, God wants the exact same thing from you and me as He has wanted from every other person who names the name of Jesus as Lord: He wants us to truly follow Jesus. To be His disciples. That was, after all, the marching orders Jesus left for His church: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations . . .” (Matt. 28:19).
The problem is that disciple is one of those words in the Christian vocabulary that has been so often used, so often quoted, that we’ve lost a bit of its meaning. If this is what God ultimately wants from us, then that definition should be incredibly meaningful. We should be mining it for all it’s worth, trying in an ever-increasing way to understand it more fully. So what, then, does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus?
Literally, the word means “to follow.” Disciples of Jesus are followers of Jesus. They walk not only where He walks, but in the manner in which He walks. It means that we acknowledge the lordship of Jesus and seek to see that lordship actualized in every area of our lives. That’s what disciples do.
Drop Your Nets
Jesus’ first call to discipleship in Scripture gives us a good picture of how a disciple responds to Him:
As He was passing along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, Simon’s brother. They were casting a net into the sea, since they were fishermen. “Follow Me,” Jesus told them, “and I will make you fish for people!” Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. (Mark 1:16–18)
Notice particularly what happened in that passage. The call of Jesus went out, and the men dropped their nets. Now I’m sure there’s a practical component to this—they dropped their nets because that’s what they were holding at the time. You can’t really walk off following some random rabbi with a bunch of fishing nets in your hands. Still, it does seem like a strange detail to include in the account. Mark didn’t say, “They shielded their eyes from the sun” or “They took a step out of the boat.”
They dropped their nets. They symbolically left their old way of life. They broke with the past—their past vocation, their sense of self, and their identity—and fully embraced the future. Those nets were the symbols of their livelihood—the very tools they would use to make their way in the world. And they dropped them and instead followed Jesus. That’s what a disciple does.
Disciples recognize the worth and value of the One who calls and see the “nets” in their hands in comparison to Him. They suddenly realize that they have a greater purpose than merely fishing; so they leave and follow Jesus instead. For disciples, following Jesus is both an exit and an entrance; an ending as well as a beginning. They charge off, not knowing exactly what the future entails, but knowing that whatever it is they’ll follow Jesus into it.
That’s how all of us started our life with Christ. And it’s a commitment that we renew day after day, moment by moment. Following Jesus is something that doesn’t only require a piece of a person; it requires the whole of who we are and what we have. It’s an all-the-time thing.
God the Discipler
God, for His part, engages in the lifelong process of conforming each of us to the likeness of His Son. We drop our nets, and the Holy Spirit begins to chip away at our long-held dreams, assumptions, desires, and ambitions, making us more and more like Jesus in the process. The disciple doesn’t only follow Jesus; he becomes more like Jesus. This is what God has planned for you and me since before time began:
For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brothers. And those He predestined, He also called; and those He called, He also justified; and those He justified, He also glorified. (Rom. 8:29–30)
This is what God has thrown His weight behind. This is what He is doing in every Christian, regardless of how mundane or exciting you think your life is. This is, we can say, God’s will for your life.
But here’s the problem: That’s not very exciting.
How fired up do you really get about knowing that the thing God is doing in you is making you more like Jesus? If we’re honest, most of us would rather hear that God is preparing a place of incredible influence for us. Or that God has some grand adventure in mind for us. Or that God has an exciting life of prosperity put out before us. Those things may or may not be true for you, but one thing certainly is: If you’re a Christian, then God’s will for your life is that you are being conformed to the likeness of Christ. Furthermore, God is only doing those other things in your future to the degree that they accomplish this fundamental purpose. If they do not, then He is not.
Slow and Steady
Most of the mechanisms God uses to transform us into Christlikeness aren’t the big, but the small. They are the series of choices we face day after day. This is how Paul described growing in Christ—not as something exciting, but as a methodical process akin to that of athletic training:
Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. However, they do it to receive a crown that will fade away, but we a crown that will never fade away. Therefore I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:24–27)
Despite what the training montages in the Rocky movies might lead you to believe, being an athlete is hard work. It’s not accomplished in five minutes and it’s not usually done to the sound track of “The Eye of the Tiger.” Staying in top shape requires waking up at 4 a.m. every morning and going to bed early every night; having a plan for what you eat and how you spend your time; making sure that all the small choices in life point to the one goal. That’s the metaphor Paul chose for growing in Christ—it’s an athletic contest, not a magic show where doves come flying out of a hat.
One of the reasons that everything has meaning for us as disciples of Christ is because everything is either moving us toward Christlikeness or away from it. Every choice isn’t just about the choice—it’s about whether we are embracing our sanctification or pushing against it. Paul knew the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ—that He is so valuable that anything stacked up against Him looks like dung. Is it any wonder, then, that he would, just one chapter after 1 Corinthians 9, also exhort those in Corinth to consider the little things of life as an opportunity to glorify God? “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31 niv).
These common, everyday choices are the guts of discipleship. Following Christ is not just about selling everything you have for the sake of the poor (though it might indeed be that at some point); it also involves managing your time; appropriately handling your throwaway thoughts; glorifying God through your eating and drinking; seeing the small things of life as things that either move you toward or away from Christlikeness. Disciples understand the true significance of these choices.
When was the last time you or I thought about these things? Chances are we haven’t considered them nearly as often as God has. As much as we might long for something new and different, something more exciting and fresh, God is still vitally concerned that we make the everyday, run-of-the-mill choices of faithfulness because we desire the same thing that He does—to more and more resemble His Son.
Many of us, in an effort to spice things up a little bit, have abandoned thinking deeply about and struggling with these choices. Similarly, we have abandoned the everyday practices of saints of the past, looking for something a little bit more modern and progressive. So we find ourselves bowing down to the idol of excitement all while claiming to be seeking after the living God.
We don’t need something new. We need something old. We need to do the same things that saints of old have been doing in order to deepen our understanding and apprehension of the greatness of God. We need to see that it’s not some kind of secret formula or latest methodology that exposes the myth of the ordinary. Instead it’s through these means of grace that many of us have cast aside as outdated and legalistic that God has chosen to deepen our relationship and experience with Him.
The Quiet Time and Other Boring Stuff
To put it practically, maybe it’s time we actually start having a quiet time again. And not just that. Maybe we need to practice devoted prayer, memorize Scripture, and fast. Maybe we need to do all these things that are meant to characterize the life of the disciple.
Over time, these disciplines have fallen steadily out of favor in Christian practice. We have come to see them as outdated practices that bind people in legalistic pursuits, and have instead drifted toward more “spiritual” ways of communing with God. The impetus behind this drift more times than not involves “feelings.” We don’t feel God when it’s just us and the Bible. We don’t feel God when we try to pray. We want something bigger—something more emotive—an environment filled with smoke and lights and all kinds of atmospheric aids in which we can truly sense the presence of God.
But here is something we need to consider carefully before we abandon these “outdated” practices: What purpose do feelings really serve? More specifically, can our feelings really be trusted as an accurate gauge of the presence and blessing of God? I would argue that the answer is no.
Ideally, I would wake up every morning with a burning desire to read the Bible. I would jump—literally—out of bed with my mind salivating for time in the Word. But I don’t. I hit the snooze button. Most days I straggle to the Bible still wiping the sleep from my eyes. I don’t feel like reading the Bible at all—I feel like sleeping. But on the best days, I read anyway, because feelings follow faith.
Feelings follow faith. Not the other way around.
When we engage in these spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible study, Scripture memory, fasting, and others of these little marks of faithfulness throughout daily life, we do so not because we feel like it, but because we believe that if we do, God will meet us in the middle of them. Our action is not fueled by what our finicky feelings might tell us to do one moment to the next, but instead by what we know to be true.
God has inspired His Word.
Purity is His plan.
He desires a life of faithfulness.
Faith is the engine of the train and feelings are the caboose that is pulled along.
Many of us find ourselves right now worshipping not at the altar of God but at the altar of excitement. We bow down to what is most noteworthy of the day, as determined by our emotions, and we firmly plant our allegiance and obedience there. But that’s not the picture God offers of the life of the disciple:
The man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence indeed is the Lord, is blessed. He will be like a tree planted by water: it sends its roots out toward a stream, it doesn’t fear when heat comes, and its foliage remains green. It will not worry in a year of drought or cease producing fruit. (Jer. 17:7–8)
What an amazing picture. Notice, though, that this great tree of a man, the one who is solid and stable, doesn’t get there due to his feelings but because of his faith. He trusts in the Lord. That’s not to say he doesn’t “feel” the Lord, but it is to say that such a man had made it his practice to drink deeply of the Lord regardless of the season. Heat or no heat. Feelings or no feelings. Psalm 1 offers a similar picture of a stable oak; in this passage, that stability is linked specifically to the fact that he delights in the law of the Lord:
How happy is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path of sinners or join a group of mockers! Instead, his delight is in the Lord’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night. He is like a tree planted beside streams of water that bears its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. (Ps. 1:1–3)
Put yourself in the place of the tree for a second. I’m sure the tree is grateful for the rain when it comes. I’m sure it feels nice to have your leaves pelted with drops of precipitation and an abundance of water to soak near the surface. But trees know (if indeed trees could know) that the surface water is the exception rather than the rule. It’s not going to rain everyday.
The strong trees—the trees that last—put in the hard work of growing deeper. They store up what water they can, but their default mechanism is to keep pushing. Down and down. Further and further. Day by day. They do so because if they go deep enough, they’ll eventually hit the real water. Not the kind that comes and goes, but the streams that run deep beneath the surface and never run dry.
Faith leads to obedience. Feelings are pulled along by that engine of faith. If we wait for the excitement, for the feelings, then we’ll be waiting a long time. And our spiritual lives will not be characterized by the strength and fortitude of deep roots. Rather than sturdy oaks we will be more like yo-yos, constantly moving up and down the string of life’s circumstances driven by those same feelings we long for.
Who do you want to be when the cancer comes? When the job is lost? When the economy crashes? Do you want to be the stable tree or the yo-yo? If it’s the former, then we must put down roots. We must engage in the time-tested practices of spiritual growth. And we must do in faith.
Perhaps one more example will help us to see the place of these boring disciplines in the life of the disciple of Jesus Christ. Think about it in terms of different kinds of boats.
Think first about a bass boat. You know, something with a powerful motor designed to get you from one end of the lake to the other as quickly as possible. The movement of something like a bass boat is passive. You turn the key, move the accelerator, and then hold on. It’s true, there’s no feeling like the wind whipping through your hair as you skim across the surface of the water. Sometimes life with Jesus feels like that—that He is moving and working in visible ways and the only thing you can do is hang on and pick the bugs out of your teeth.
Being in a rowboat is very different. There is no key. There is no accelerator. You know what there is instead? Arms. And oars. Movement in a rowboat is directly related to the strength of the one rowing. The distance you can go is dependent on the strength of your back. You don’t go very fast, but movement is steady, and slowly you can make good progress if you’re strong enough to keep on moving the oars. Sometimes life with Jesus feels like that too—that you are plodding along, one stroke at a time, not going very quickly and certainly not moving in an exciting way.
But for the disciple, a better picture of engaging the spiritual disciplines is that of a sailboat. It takes a lot of small choices to make the sailboat move. There are knots to be tied. There are sails to be raised. There are courses to be charted. So you do these small things, methodically, one at a time, and they’re hard work. But ultimately, none of those things moves you. Movement in the sailboat is about the wind. All the other actions you take are only meant to position yourself in such a manner as to catch the wind. Such is the case with these disciplines.
You pray, you fast, you read and memorize Scripture day in and day out because you believe that if you do these things, the wind is going to eventually start blowing. You are putting your life in a position in which you can catch that wind of God and be taken for a ride. It’s not very exciting on the front end, but once it happens, you see the result of all the mundanity and the boredom.
And by the way, the direct translation from the Greek words for Holy Spirit is “divine wind.”
Are you worshipping at the altar of excitement? Do these practices seem outdated and boring to you? Maybe you don’t need something new. Maybe you need to see these practices through the lens of faith. And maybe, if you do, you’ll find that the wind has been blowing all the time. You just needed to raise the sail.