“"Normal"”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
I grew up in a town called “Normal.” When I tell people that, they usually come up with a joke to crack, and while most of these spur-of-the-moment offerings aren’t that funny, there is an obvious potential for comedy there, best exploited in a connection with another Illinois town, Oblong, in the 1970’s newspaper headline, “Oblong Man Marries Normal Woman.”
It took me until my late twenties to figure out where Normal got its name—from the “normal” college. That still might not be much help to you, but that’s what they used to call a school for training teachers. It’s still there, now called Illinois State University, and it’s still recognized for its education program. The idea behind the old label was that teachers would be trained in a model classroom complete with children, and that model would both mimic and cement the norms of education. The method gradually shifted away from this, but it’s easy to see that a set of norms are still encouraged and enforced, both in teacher training and in the schools where they instill those norms in their students.
Life in our society has not been normal for some time. With the pandemic, the race riots, the lockdowns, the backlash against lockdowns, the sudden and counterintuitive mandate to, for example, cover your face before going into the bank, and to top it all off, the ridiculous political climate, it’s safe to say that 2020 has been an abnormal year that doesn’t match the models. I heard many predictions that, after Tuesday’s election, everything would go back to normal. Does it look normal now, to you? Really, was normalcy ever a goal worth pursuing? To put it bluntly, our norms stink.
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3.10b-18)
Paul’s point here is that the Jews, who looked at Gentiles as depraved and evil, were just as bad, based on the things God said about them over the ages. He follows this up by saying, “there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3.22b-23). That is normal. The behavior of individuals is normally contrary to God’s will, and leads to judgment.
But it’s not just at the individual level that “normal” doesn’t look so good. God gave Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, a vision of the future. Daniel, in describing the dream, tells him that he saw
a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. (Daniel 2.31-35)
God also gives Daniel the interpretation of this vision, which is that Nebuchadnezzar’s great kingdom (the golden head) would be supplanted by a lesser one (the silver torso). That kingdom would later fall to a still lesser kingdom, and so on down the statue. God showed this to Nebuchadnezzar in order to remind him that, grand though he was, he was not God, and his kingdom would not last forever. In contrast, God’s own kingdom represented by the uncut stone, would be utterly invincible, and fill the whole earth. The rest of Daniel is full of similar dreams and predictions, often getting into more detail of the events to come, to the same effect: kingdoms rise and fall, but God remains in control. Although we’ve been blessed with living in a relatively uneventful time as far as military conquest, let’s not kid ourselves. What Daniel predicted wasn’t unheard of; it was normal. On the scale of lifetimes, nations rise and fall, still, with monotonous regularity.
Is normal what we really want? Of course not! When we pine for the good old days, we’re being silly, if not foolish. “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Ec 7.10). The good old days weren’t so good, but we miss them because we wish to undo things that have been done since, and go back to a time before the latest deceiving tongues and venomous lips, without regard for the bloodshed and ruin of those previous times. As rough as 2020 has been, let’s not pretend 2019 was perfect, or the year before. Even then, we wanted things to go back to normal, and we didn’t get quite what we wanted then, either.
What we need is not a return to normal, nor is it to roll over and accept the new normal. Instead, let’s take a cue from Paul, who said,
“one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3.13-14)
That’s all that really matters.