Friday, April 17, 2020

Our Painful Longing For Normalcy: A Grace That May Alert Us to Deeper Wounds.

Longing for normalcy may be an indication that we have been broken and lonely far longer than just during our current situation.

I got a message the other day from a Christian thinker who said that there may just be too much noise from Christian voices on social media now. Perhaps, but isn’t it just like the church to start out with godly intentions and then begin to second guess ourselves. I agree, though, that this can be an issue, when, at times, not only are there a lot of voices, but the messages of the voices are competing. 

Having said this, I am noticing something a bit different as I listen to the noise. Maybe it isn’t just noise, but harmony. I began to write this post several days ago, but got bogged down trying to explain why I not only think theologically slowing down is a good thing, but that the data is bearing out that we should. I decided to take a break from this post and to write one merely on the data and the issues the data illuminates. That way, any future posts can just refer to the previous blog post when I want to stress the seriousness of this virus. 

From that first day, I wanted to speak on solitude and had Psalm 46:10 on my heart: “Be still and know that I am God.” Wouldn’t you know it, since that verse was laid on my heart, I have seen it countless times on social media. Moreover, I have also seen it in the context of what I want to talk about: Being aware that our aversion to solitude and our desperate want for normalcy may be an indication of something broken in us. 

When I have seen these posts, I have not read or watched much farther than just the first few lines or sentences, as I am trying to hear my own thoughts at the moment, but, it is encouraging to me that so many people are hearing the same thing. It is a testimony. There is a harmony for those who are listening. I think it is divine. 


I think we can all say that we want things to be different than they are at the present moment. Moreover, I think many of us would say that we wish things were “normal.” Perhaps we should all wish this illness to be behind us, but I see a lot of consensus that going back to “normal” may not be exactly a goal worth striving for. I am part of those that feel this way. 

Regardless, many of us want life to be unimpeded by this illness, and some may wish to rush a bit too fast, because of a sense of restlessness. Whether we are stir crazy, worried about the economy, or unhappy with our leadership, the fact of the matter is that we will almost certainly be in the same situation of restricted life for several more weeks. 

Assuming we hold the course that most medical experts think is best, if you have to do this much longer, do you think you will be more settled than when this all started, accepting the inevitable, or do you think your resolve will begin to or, perhaps, continue to falter? I have felt times of great peace and times of heightened concern and anxiety. 

Do you think you will come out of all this changed for the better, or are you just looking forward to it all being over?  For the Christian, our life should, during the good and the bad, always be growing in the likeness of Christ. In other words, we cannot just ride this out until we get back to normal. That would be an abuse of our time. We might not be physically able to do much in the way of ministry, but we can all be growing by listening and abiding in God.

Yet, many of us are saying, including myself, “I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.” This is, of course, a very natural response. Stability and normalcy is not a bad thing, but obsession with it, which is what might be causing some of our discomfort, can lead to less than sanctified thoughts and actions. I do not think it is pleasing to God to wish our life away, but, instead, it is honoring to find in all things reasons to press more into Him and to be shaped by what He is saying to us in every moment. 

If God is speaking to us in every moment, should we wish these moments by? Or, should we be still and listen? 

I think a lot of us are realizing that the call to, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), is much more difficult than we might have once assumed. The Psalmist is telling us to stop all the striving to overcome the world, because only God can overcome. 

Can you be still and trust God to overcome? That is not an easy question to answer right now. 

Many of us are not so much concerned with God overcoming the world (or the nations), as much as we are longing for things to just be the way they were a couple months ago. We can take Russian interferences and North Korean aggression and Iranian instability and refugee crises of all kinds. Mass shootings were starting to just become statistical analysis for some, many who are trying to explain away the numbers of this virus as well.

Can we go back to those simpler times? 

Yes, that is a bit of sarcasm, but not to simply to be morose. This, this we can all personally feel and measure for in our own lives and we don’t like it, but I fear it can merely be because it is an interference and not that it is a life taker. This situation should be giving us perspective. Do we want to simply go back to “normal”? Is it enough for you and for me to have the simpler pain and sufferings of the world that seemed a bit more distant? 

I am hoping I will not be lulled back to that Siren’s call again to allow “good enough” to be “good enough.” If you and I are privileged to come through this unharmed, then I pray to God we do not come out of this the same as the day we entered, or worse, more bitter. What will it say of a humanity or community that we weathered a pandemic only to rush back to normalcy and, once there and only once there, we were again content, or as content as we usually have been. Oh, God, have mercy. 

But, the overwhelming want for normalcy has the terrible capacity to lead us right back to this place.

Let’s explore at least one possible meaning of “I cannot wait to get back to normal” that might impede our Christian growth. What is it about normalcy that you miss? I think many of us would say that the answer is obvious that we rightfully miss each other in a time of isolation. We miss the rhythms of life to which we have grown accustomed. We might even say we miss the hustle and bustle. This just feels so lonely. 

But, let’s ask a deeper question: What do we miss in the presence of others and the presence of the crowds? Again, the answer seems easy: We all want personal interaction.What’s so wrong with that? Even the introverts of the world need personal interaction, and to think this is not true is to misunderstand introversion. We are all social creatures. So, sure, we all miss personal interactions, but, again, what is it about even this that we miss?

What if tomorrow everything was back to normal by some miraculous means that we all took for granted? How good would it feel to just go to a busy coffee shop and not speak a word, but just be surrounded by humans once again? I think it would be pretty nice, even if that was all I got. I actually enjoy sitting with a cup of coffee and studying while people move all about. There is nothing wrong with this, unless, of course, this is all we really need from each other, artificial greetings and being surrounded by the din of noise that business brings. Now, I am getting more to my concern: What if we find that much of the reason we miss people is the same reason some people find it impossible to sleep without a the drone of the television at night?

What if we miss people because we do not like being alone with ourselves, or, worse, with our God? Is the presence of other people, at least in part, a distraction of noise and motion that keeps you from really thinking about actual people and how we might serve them? In other words, do the crowds help distract us from the people that make them up? Does our business of life keep us from having to face the real questions of life and how our life might be best used? These are questions of ministry. If we never ask them, are we in ministry at all?

Being around people does not mean you are not alone. It may just make isolation unnoticeable. Perhaps, paradoxically, we enjoy being alone, but need the crowds to feel lost. Solitude exposes us before God in stillness. 

It is actually pretty easy to be lost in the crowd. 

Our culture is addicted to constant stimulation. I know that is part of what I miss about my routine. I spend a lot of time in my thoughts, but, at times, it is easier to just drown them out: In those times, I do not ride in the car in silence. I have the news on. At work, I socialize and study and write and have meetings. At the gym or on a run, I pay attention to the work or the music in my ears. I can easily come home and hop on facebook or turn on the television until it is time to eat, shower, and go to bed. 

A full day with no stillness is an easy day. For those of us that like to stay busy, this can prove a difficult moment, and while missing routine and personal contact is perfectly normal, if we cannot find any peace without such, that is a sign of a real problem.

 For those of us who are not essential, we are finding more and more time to be still, and many of us may find we do not like it. Even for those of us who do have normal quiet times, these times often have their limit. We can spend time with God, but we don’t have to spend too much time in the stillness. Quiet time can just be another part of the busyness if all we do is go through the motions.

So, think about it: Are you getting to know yourself more in this time and using the stillness to draw closer to God, or are you simply obsessing with “getting back”?  Are you replacing the distraction of busyness with the distraction of anxiety and worry. What sort of distraction is that, you may ask? Anything that keeps us from the stillness can be a distraction.

So, again I ask, why do you want to be around people? 

Will it be because you actually admire humanity and long to truly love people in person? Sure, we all have family and friends that we are close to, but what many of us are admitting is that we just want to be out in society again.Have we turned people into tools of distraction? Are we finding that objectifying people is not only something people do when they lust, but something we can do in all sorts of relationships? In our consumer society, going out is not a mere social exercise, but a way to be inundated. Everyone moving around like a heard, surrounded by marketing and flashy things, is mind numbing, and many of us like that. 

If we can get lost in the crowd, are we feeling far too exposed in solitude? 

People use to go out to shop on the weekends and dress to the nines, why? Think of all the memes of people who go to Walmart in pajamas. I am not a big fan of laughing at others, even when they have no shame. We should not take dignity from others, even if they do not afford themselves any, but that is not my point. Perhaps the lack of dressing up has a deeper meaning about where our society has headed over the years than simply Wal-Mart brings out the crazy. 

We dress up when we plan to “see” people. So, if we do not dress up and head right out into public, it means we do not really plan or want to be seen. We can go right out into society never intending to have any social interaction beyond moving through the crowd. 

Consumerism has been given a bad name in some circles for various reasons, but it is not the act of going out to shop that makes us consumeristic. Being merely consumeristic is being consumed by consumerism. It happens when we go out to shop simply to be consumed (taken in by) fleeting distraction. So, not only does going out now mean getting lost in the crowd, but also it means to have our mind lost in the distractions of objects, shiny new things. 

The reason people used to dress up to go shopping is because they had an expectation to be seen. They wanted to be seen, and not merely in the sense that they wanted to be noticed for being fashionable. No. People thought of going out into society as a way to connect, a chance to have an unscheduled conversation with whoever might be likewise out-and-about. Tomas Merton, a well known Trappist Monk, once said:

The saints are what they are, not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everybody else…*

Before we rush back into public, maybe we should use this time to find stillness and allow God into our hearts to bring about a love we are missing, as uncomfortable as that might be. Then, when God’s love flows through us, being back in the center of people to love will be all the sweeter. 

If we come out of this and return back to a life of routine and the only thing we can say is that we are glad things are back to normal, we have wasted our time. I think many of us, including myself may find some conviction in all of this. We may be learning that, perhaps, we are not so much looking to grow in this life, but often merely seeking to be stimulated. Scripture refers to this as life in the flesh. If all we want to do is entertain ourselves, we live in the flesh, but if we truly want to connect, that is a sign of love, and love is the very reason we are here. Love of others is the answer out of our self-centered distraction. 

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:3-5).

There is a practical side to all of this. By looking to others and their concerns, we move away from the heart of sin, which is selfishness. Acts of service and affection towards others can be a means of grace by which God sanctifies His people. We are then freed from a life that needs to be satiated to a life that finds fulfillment in love, whether that love is experienced in the stillness of God’s presence or in the communion of others. A spiritual life is one that seeks love, and that is always found when we seek to truly connect with others beyond self. Love God. Love others. That is the law of love. Again, Merton says:

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love…Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name…If, therefore, I do anything or think anything or say anything or know anything that is not purely for the love of God, it cannot give me peace, or rest, or filament, or joy.*

Are you learning to become your true self as you sit in the stillness and find yourself exposed to the Love of God? Are you, like me, a bit uncomfortable in the stillness? It would be easy to feel guilty if this is the case, but what if this is always the case for those who learn to grow in sanctification? Who could ever be exposed to the Love of God in their stillness and not find places where God’s light exposes sin, which is selfishness. Instead of running from the discomfort, let it expose and change you. 

God is not trying to make you feel guilty, but if we merely run away, that is all we will ever feel. If we stay, we find that God will move into our brokenness and begin to heal it. When humans sin, it has always been our tendency to hide. What we might find is that we feel most hidden in the crowd, but now we are exposed. Don’t run. He is not in the stillness to bring you guilt, but to bring you humility and love. He is there to give you more Christ, so that Christ’s love might live and work through you and you might be more you than you have ever been.

*Merton, Thomas, New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions, 1961. Pp 57, 62

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