The joy of normality
After days of tragic and sometimes terrifying news from Ukraine, at last a good headline: the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori after years held in detention in Iran on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government.
Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has campaigned tirelessly for his wife’s release.
While she was returning to the UK from Iran, Mr Ratcliffe spoke to the press about his and his wife and their daughter Gabriella’s plans upon her return.
He wisely spoke about needing time to rebuild, aware that the six years they had lost could not be recovered, but that positive ‘new chapters’ can be written in their family life.
What I noticed was how much of what Mr Ratcliffe was looking forward to was just simple domestic family life, that which so many of us take for granted.
He said that one of the first things he would do is make his wife a cup of tea. And that there would be some tidying up to do at home.
After all they had been through, what was the thing they were looking forward to most? An elaborate holiday? A huge welcome home party?
No. Just being together. Ordinary life.
On the day of her return to the UK, Nicky Campbell picked up this theme on his BBC Radio Five Live phone-in show. He talked about ‘beautiful domestic banality’, ‘the love, the comfort, the rows’, ‘the messy bedrooms, the filthy plates, the discarded towels’, ‘the laughing, the warmth… the magic of belonging…. the joy of normality.’
The magic of belonging. The joy of normality.
And I knew exactly what he meant. We are a busy family of six. There’s always someone shouting, someone crying or someone laughing. And there’s a never ending stream of very normal and very dull jobs to do.
And my wife and I sometimes get frustrated in the middle of it all!
But then, frequently, in the evening when we are sat down together (if we are sat down together!) we look back on the day and comment on the little joys in and amongst it all.
Some families don't really function as families at all, with each member spending time alone in their own room, watching their own screen and eating their own meal, their houses essentially functioning as hotels.
But not everyone gets this. Loneliness is an epidemic. Many people are single, or are in broken or unhappy homes. And some families don't really function as families at all, with each member spending time alone in their own room, watching their own screen and eating their own meal, their houses essentially functioning as hotels.
This is why ever since Grace Church started, we have tried to make sure the church is like a big extended family, because ordinary family life is, to use Nicky Campbell’s word, ‘magic’ (not that we believe in magic, of course!).
The Bible indeed says that the church is a ‘household’ (1 Timothy 3:15). Households in the days the New Testament were written were much more than our modern mum, dad, two kids and the dog. Households included multiple generations, a higher number of children, and even members of staff.
And that is one of the pictures the Bible gives of the local church. It’s a rich tapestry of people from all walks of life, of all ages, being drawn together and united through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Modern families can be self-absorbed and have shallow horizons.
Modern families can be self-absorbed and have shallow horizons. But the Christian family, the local church, can be empowered by the gospel to radically hospitable and inclusive, with its vision set on blessing the whole city, and beyond that to the world.
And the full expectation is that we’ll put it into practice.
But how? Largely through pretty ordinary ways. Babysitting. Cooking meals. Hospitality. Heading out for walks. Caring for the needy in our number. Providing for each other financially. Washing up together. The older ones giving the younger ones advice on all sorts of things. Praying for each other. Making a cup of tea. Tidying up. All essentially acts of service. For that is what domestic life is - serving one another.
Hum drum? Often. Domestic? Sometimes.
As I lead the church, one principle I sometimes reflect on, one I was taught when I was younger is, ‘if we wouldn’t do it as a family, we shouldn’t do it as a church.’
It’s not a principle that always works. My family doesn’t have a website for example, we don’t hold formally minuted meetings, nor do we dunk our friends in pools of water (though we do try to be welcoming to all kinds of people).
But it is a principle that shapes Grace Church life in so many ways. And we invite anyone in Wakefield to come and get a taste of the joy of gospel normality. Come and have a cup of tea and a slice of toast this Sunday morning before we start our service. Can you do a bit of washing up?