Beyond Being 'Normal'

What’s 'normal'? We hear a lot about the 'new normal' which has emerged in this lockdown period and which will gradually emerge as we transition not only out of lockdown

The Shawshank Redemption (1994 film)

The Revd Dr Gary Heard (Thursday 4 June)

What’s 'normal'? We hear a lot about the 'new normal' which has emerged in this lockdown period and which will gradually emerge as we transition not only out of lockdown, but also on the other side of the risks associated with COVID-19 (whenever that might be). When our third child was born in the late 1990s at 24 weeks’ gestation and weighing just over 700 grams, any notion of normality went out the window. The next 176 days were spent travelling backwards and forwards between the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and home, while pastoring a local church and having responsibility for another two preschool-aged children. Our conversation became littered with language and phrases which were previously unknown to us, and which occasionally needed to be explained even for our GP. What became normal for us was totally different to anything which came before and was often unrelated to the experience of other parents.

I began to realise that the use of the word 'normal' was a way of encouraging people to conform to a particular way of being. The term is highly value-laden and built upon expectations and experiences which are not universal, and which often contribute to frustration, alienation and poor mental health. In fact, for many people, what is announced as being 'normal' can be totally unrealistic.

Unfortunately, the use of the term 'normal' is often employed inside the church and to particular experiences of faith. Rather than seeing something which is not normal to us as worthy of further inquiry, it is usually employed as a means of silencing: “That’s not normal!”

Even a cursory read of the New Testament will bring an encounter with many experiences which were not considered normal at the time. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, forgave sins, struck up conversations with women, partied with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners, touched lepers, and raised the dead, just to name a few of the actions which were considered offensive because they weren’t normal. The experience of the early followers of Jesus could hardly be considered normal, which is why they drew attention: speaking in languages they had never learned (Pentecost), eating 'unclean' meats, and allowing women leaders to name just a few. There was not even a normal structure to church life and governance, although there were distinctive patterns.

If one were to sum up the 'new normal' which emerged in the New Testament, it was the ability to discern the way forward together, to be open to the newness which God has brought in Christ.

If the 'new normal' is simply to be freed from the routines and structures of the past and be able to imagine and create new and liberating ways forward, it is to be celebrated and embraced. If it is to construct a new system that imprisons us in different ways, it isn’t really different to the old normal.

The great promise of the Gospel is found in this freedom, “For if the Son has set you free, you shall be free indeed!” (John 8:36). But we’ve never been very good at sustaining that kind of life-giving freedom for long.

But we live in hope!


Category: Theological School