Time for a “New Normal”?

Time for a “New Normal”?

photo by Susan Hopping
photo by Susan Hopping

My friend Susan has been working with me on some images for the blog and other projects. When I sent her a draft of this entry to see if she had any ideas, she told me about the “Monkey House” at a nearby park. I have a personal affinity toward monkeys. Often when a friend is feeling down or overwhelmed and I don’t think another cliche or Bible verse is going to do much good – I’ll just send them a funny picture of a monkey. Laughter has a way of breaking the fear cycle that can send us into the pit of depression and anxiety – and monkeys make me laugh. Naturally I was excited about using monkeys to support a discussion of the new normal. Then I got this message from her: “I may need to lower your expectations – there are actually no monkeys in the monkey house.” What!!!??? A monkey house with no monkeys? As it turns out, there were once monkeys in the monkey house – a local shop keeper in the 1930s – 1950s kept them as a way to draw people to his store. Not only does the house not have any monkeys,  it isn’t even in it’s original location. It was moved in order to preserve it as a local landmark. As I thought about it, I realized this was actually even better than misbehaving monkeys: the monkey house had found a new normal.

Change is an inevitable part of our lives. It happens to us constantly in both boldly overt and radically subtle forms. Our aversion to change seems to be directly proportional to the amount of disruption the change brings to our life. McDonalds changes up the meal numbers on their menu: a slight annoyance the first time you end up with a McFish (ewww) instead of a Big Mac (yessss…hold the shred, please). Your child announces a change of religious belief or sexual orientation: that takes some getting used to.

Marriages. Deaths. Divorces. Graduations. New Babies. These are all life events that take what we see as “normal” or routine and require us to redefine what we believe to be normal. As I sat in a circle of others who were dealing with the pangs of an ending marriage, we often encouraged each other to find and embrace “The New Normal”. There are some interesting things about that process that I though to be blog worthy. As I have watched my parents struggle and begin come to grips with my gender identity; as I have watched my ex-wife venture into a new relationship; as I have watched my kids start high school, get married, have children of their own; not to mention the extremely dramatic changes that I have had to embrace in my life in order to find a sense of peace and congruency; all of these remind me of an unavoidable reality: new normals are always around the corner.

In order to understand them a bit better and learn to embrace and recognize them, I’ve looked at the story of the Master of the new normal: the teaching of Christ in the New Testament. If you’re not familiar with my personal stance on Christ and the Bible, let me sum it up for you: I believe Christ is the Son of God just as he claimed and has provided a way for all people to have a relationship with God; I believe that the Bible is a reliable tool for teaching about and understanding God, His relationship to us and our relationships to each other (I often say it like this: All truth is God’s truth, all Scripture is true, not all truth is in Scripture.) As far as any more specific doctrines, practices, beliefs or religiosities, I am in a process of “reconstruction” and have pretty much committed to staying there the rest of my earthly life; placing a higher value on the question and the process of asking it than on the need to arrive at any specific answers.

Having said that, as I read the about the life and ministry of Christ, I see a man who was absolutely dedicated to establishing a new normal. In what Christians often refer to as “The Sermon on the Mount” (he presented a lot of wise teachings – “The sermon” – while standing on a small hill – “the mount”), Jesus talks through a series of things that were established thought and gives direction for the change – the “New Normal”. He starts each one with the phrase “You have heard it said…”; in other words “your normal is…”. Each time he follows that up with “But I tell you…”; in other words “Let me give you a new normal”. Here are a few examples:

Old normal: judgement for actual murder. New normal: control your angry thoughts as well as your actions.

Old Normal: don’t sleep with someone if you’re already married to someone else. New normal: be careful of the thoughts you allow to enter your heart about sex with someone else.

Old Normal: Love your neighbor, hate your enemy. New normal: find a way to love them both.

In all there are six standardly accepted thoughts and practices of the Jewish culture Jesus was talking to that he openly challenged and turned inside out. (They can all be read in Matthew 5:21-28.)

One of my favorite new normals Christ gave was when we went up to a well to get a drink of water. There was a woman there and he asked her for a drink from her cup. That was a simple sentence to write just now, but it was actually filled with new normals. Jesus – a man – spoke to a woman he didn’t know: BAM!!! new normal. He was a Jew, she was a Samaritan: BAM!! new normal. Since he didn’t have a cup to drink from, she assumed he wanted a drink from her cup. BAM!! New normal. OK, I have the “BAM!!”s out of my system, but I hope you get the point. These were seemingly subtle things in this encounter that were actually a big deal! Through their conversation she realized he was a good teacher so she asked him about a major difference between her people and the Jews: her people said worship should be done up on a mountain, the Jews said it should be done in the Temple in Jerusalem. Essentially her question was, “Which is the actual normal place to worship?” Jesus answered with a new normal: “It soon won’t matter where, but how: you will worship in Spirit and Truth.” (The whole story is in John 4:1-25)

Based on my own experience, what I’ve seen as I’ve walked through life with others, and the way Jesus approached his teaching, I’ve noticed a few things about new normals:

  1. There is nothing “normal” about them. Our journeys are going to take us different places. While there are truths we can all hold on to, the way they represent “normal” as our lives evolve is rather personal – something someone outside of our brains and not walking in our shoes may not understand.
  2. They are rarely anticipated. We need to be living in a state of mind where a new normal can pop up at any moment. Ultimately that means developing a world view and belief system that is attached something greater that our own habits, patterns and comforts.
  3. They are usually uncomfortable at first, but most often turn out for the best of ourselves, those we love and those we share life with.

When a new normal presents itself, we are forced to ask the question that I have referred to often in recent posts: Do I need to accept this as something I cannot change or is this something I need the courage to change. The only way to really live life in the face of the new normals is constantly praying for the wisdom to know the difference between these two.

PS – If you ever find yourself in need of a funny monkey – just let me know, I’m always glad to share!

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