Friday, July 17, 2020

The Idolatry of Normal

     So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

-Matthew 6:31-33 (NIV)

I was in a meeting recently (on Zoom, naturally), and we started talking about “when things get

back to normal.” You’ve probably had conversations like that the last few months with co-workers, family members, friends — the non-specific making of plans that lets us look forward to life “as it was,” pre-coronavirus. We know on some level, of course, that things won’t ever be just like they were. We will have always gone through this experience. It will undoubtedly mark us in many ways, some of which we haven’t even begun to discover yet. Eventually, though, the virus will be brought under control. We’ll develop a vaccine. We’ll find better and better treatments. We’ll develop herd immunity, maybe? While we’ll always have endured the weirdness and discomfort and (for some) tragedy of 2020, life will return to what it was pre-corona.

     Won’t it?

     Just a couple of days ago, in a phone conversation, someone asked me if I thought things were going to get back to normal. This person was missing meeting with the church, feeling disconnected. I told him, yeah, of course things would get back to normal. 

     Won’t they?

     Also a few days ago, our family was discussing vacation plans. Like everyone else’s, our plans for this summer had to be canceled. We found some comfort, I think, in talking about a life in which we could go anywhere we want without worrying about coronavirus. And we will, of course.

     Won’t we?

     Just for a moment, let me ask a different question.

     What if we can’t?

     What they don’t?

     What if it doesn’t?

     What if masks and social distancing are the new norm? What if, as far as we know, restaurant capacity will from now on always be, at best, some fraction of “normal”? What if working from home more or less permanently replaces going into the office? What if online, at-home education is here to stay? What if movie theaters as we know them are done? What if we never figure out how to go back to college and pro sports as they used to be? 

     What if a different way of being church is with us from here until Jesus comes?

     Look, I hope that isn’t true. Like everyone else, I hope there is a post-coronavirus life that resembles in every way our pre-coronavirus life. I don’t mean to be pessimistic, and in fact I tend to think that things will, sooner or later, get under control. 

     But what if it never does?

     I ask that question because I think we need to get out of our holding patterns. I think we need to stop just treading water, just marking time while we wait for some “normal” that may never come, or at least not soon. We’ve had several months to soak in the nostalgia of coffee with friends or baseball games or churches full of people. Nostalgia’s fun every now and then. As a way of life, it’s a dead end. It cares only about making sure that the future is as great as we remember the past being. I think it’s been our way of life for too long now.

     Remember the Israelites in the wilderness: “let’s go back to Egypt. Remember how great things were?” That’s what nostalgia does; it makes former slaves remember their captivity as a vacation. Next to the desert, memories of their servitude suddenly looked really rosy. Nostalgia distorts our memories of the past and our experience of the present. We complained about life in 2019 as well. Remember that. 

     Nostalgia distorts, but it has a more serious effect than that. It also disconnects. It disconnects us from God’s work in the world now. In longing for the past we start to worship it. Israel literally built a golden calf out of the valuables they brought with them from their past. May we not make an idol out of our pre-coronal lives.  

     God is not located in our past, you see — not in the idealized past of any era, and not in the immediate past that we all remember fondly in these days of sheltering in place and arguing over mask-wearing. God is here, now. He’s at work, as he’s always been, in the present. If you doubt that, look at the way he has us confronting racism — again. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, like all other human efforts it’s imperfect, halting, and sometimes ugly. But if you can’t see God’s hand in there too then maybe you’re just not paying attention. 

     God’s at work, right now, in the present, and as usual he wants us joining him in that work. He wants us to make church something more than a weekly event at a building. He wants us to find new ways to tell the good news of Jesus instead of just inviting people to hear a preacher. He wants us to serve the poor and hurting where we are. He wants us to leverage technology but also maybe to return to simplicity. 

     Your customers, clients, and patients still need you to serve them with the compassion, integrity, and grace that God gives you. Your students still need you to teach them with love and kindness and patience. Your work colleagues still need the peace that you embody as a follower of Jesus. Your kids and spouse and friends need your love and reassurance and presence now more than ever. The poor in your community need some of the time that perhaps your work commute used to take up. Your church — the people, I mean — need your prayers, your phone calls, your texts, your resources, your ideas, and your talents and gifts.   

     The problem with deifying the past, see, is that ultimately it makes us incapable of serving God and being about his work right now. We’re always looking back, remembering how good things were back then. We’re always looking ahead, wondering when things will be that good again. We have to just be in the present, this present, to be of any use to him. This is what God has given us. This is where we are. 

     Jesus tells us not to worry about the future, that each day has plenty of trouble of its own. But those words come after his warning about serving two masters: we can serve God, or we can worry about whether tomorrow will be at least as secure and profitable as yesterday. He tells us to make it our main duty in the world to look for God’s kingdom and righteousness, for those places in our world where God is at work, and then join in there. 

     Don’t look back at the past with nostalgia. Don’t look forward into the future with anxiety. 

     Look around. Find where God is at work and join him there. Make that your “normal.”

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