The “New Normal”

Earlier this week, I was in a conversation with a young man with whom I have a mentoring relationship. As we discussed how COVID-19 has impacted (disrupted) our lives, including our ministries, we wondered aloud if things would ever get back to normal. Or would we find ourselves transitioning into what we commonly hear these days as the “new normal.” As we conversed, he said, “I wonder what normal actually means?”

So, as I’m wont to do, I looked up “normal” in the New Oxford Dictionary that resides on my laptop. This is what I found: “a town in central Illinois, home to Illinois State University.” That didn’t help. Searching further, I found the definition of the noun, normal – “the usual, average, or typical state or condition.” As I read the definition aloud to my friend, we both responded, almost in unison, “Why would we settle for normal? Why would we settle for the usual? For just average or typical?” There must be more to life than “typical.” I think Jesus calls us to more than typical…

Jesus constantly pushed back against the normal of his day. Have you ever noticed how often Jesus said, “You have heard it said …, but I say you…?” Many such statements were contained in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Here are a few examples:

  • “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment’ (the old normal). But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ (the old normal). But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’ (the old normal). But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ (the old normal). But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44)

Jesus was communicating to his hearers that with the arrival of the kingdom of God through his person, everything was now different – new creation! The old had gone and the new had arrived. The Apostle Paul reiterated this to the early Christ-followers (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). Please note that in the above passages, Jesus was not suggesting a new ethic, a new way to act. If that’s all we hear, then we have settled for a typical and usual approach to the Christian faith whose focus is behavior modification. Jesus did NOT suggest we ACT differently. His desire for us is to LIVE differently – as people who have stepped into God’s kingdom.

Jesus’ Sermon was not about how to live, but rather what life looks like in God’s kingdom, his realm, his rule. Quite frankly, Jesus was describing what life would look like if God were in charge. God broke into history through Jesus, ushering in the kingdom. God was taking charge. This was Jesus’ main message, that the kingdom was at hand (had arrived), to which he called people to repent (change their mind and direction) and believe this incredibly good news, or gospel (see Mark 1:14-15, Amplified Bible). Thus the words in the Lord’s Prayer – “Thy kingdom come.”

So what does this have to do with “new normal” thinking? I think this: We live in a time of inbetweeness. The kingdom that Jesus ushered in has been advancing and will continue to advance, coming to fruition upon his return. In the meantime, as Christ-followers, we figure out how to live with one foot in the kingdom of this world and one foot in the kingdom of God. I suspect Christian maturity is learning how to live in the world as a kingdom of God person (notice I said “learning how to live,” not how to act).

History and experience tells us that such maturity (which I think most really desire) is difficult to realize when life is “usual, average, or typical” – normal. It’s during times of disruption that we get to rethink what we want our life to be like, and that’s a very good thing. During this pandemic, we have no idea what the new normal will look like in the kingdom of this world. But we do have an idea what the new normal will look like in the kingdom of God. It will look like Jesus. I pick new!

Uncharted Waters

When in grade school, I was fascinated with 15th-16th century nautical explorers and the ships they sailed into uncharted waters. I was particularly fascinated with Columbus and Magellan and the courage it took to sail off into the wild blue yonder, not knowing what awaited them on the other end of the journey. In their travels they had a general idea where they were headed (or, at least, where they thought they were headed). However, they were at the mercy of the elements that tossed them to and fro, often driving them off course.

I have often heard the phrase “we are navigating uncharted waters” to describe our world as we know it today. Uncharted indeed! We don’t know exactly where we are headed, we are tossed about daily as news changes, and we have no idea what is on the other end of the journey. Uncharted waters and we feel a bit overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed.  A few years ago I wondered, “If one can be overwhelmed, is it possible to be whelmed? Is there such a word?” I discovered there is such a word as whelmed! It’s a nautical term that basically means to engulf or submerge.  Its root relates to the overturning of a vessel in a storm.  As bad as being in an overturned vessel might seem, we might still be alive and rescue still possible.  Overwhelmed, on the other hand, implies complete defeat. We are on the way to the bottom!

One of my favorite gospel stories is found in Matthew 14 where our friend Peter walked on water. If Mathew’s narrative is chronological, then this is what led up to the event…

John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod, the puppet Jewish king set up by the Roman empire. John was the prophet that called people to repentance (including Herod) and prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry. He was also Jesus’ cousin. When Jesus heard of his cousin’s death, “he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” The people figured out where he was and his solitude was interrupted by 15-20,000 people! Filled with compassion, he healed people all day long. He wrapped up his interrupted day by feeding all of them, then sneaking off to continue his time of solitude, sending his disciples by boat to the other side of the lake.

So off sailed the disciples, into the wind, beaten about by the waves. Sometime between 3:00a and 6:00a, after struggling to get half-way across the lake, Jesus approached their boat walking on the water. They were terrified (an understatement!) and cried out in fear, to which Jesus reassured them that it was he and they need not be afraid. (Have you ever noticed how often Jesus told people not to be afraid, to “fear not?”)

Peter, as he was wont to do, spoke first asking Jesus if he, too, could walk on the water.  So Jesus (I’m sure with a twinkle in his eye) said “Sure.” As Peter walked on the water toward Jesus, he looked around at the waves with fear and started to sink. He was whelmed by the waves crashing around him (not overwhelmed yet – his head was still above water) and cried to Jesus for help.  “Lord save me” were his exact words. Jesus extended his hand which Peter wisely grabbed before he became overwhelmed!

As we navigate the uncharted waters of a world-wide pandemic, we might be feeling a bit overwhelmed. Truth be told, as long as we have our head above water, we are simply whelmed, able to see Jesus’ extended hand. This is where trust comes into the picture. Can I trust Him in my state of whelmness? Or do I double down – work harder, try harder, tread harder? No doubt, there is certainly hard work for us in the days, weeks, and months ahead. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather navigate uncharted waters from on top, rather than the ocean floor.