Radically Normal

Normal (ˈnɔːməl): A normal variety of anything; that which, or a person who, is healthy and is not impaired in any way.

I remember the first time I heard the term “Jesus Freaks.” A veritable shiver ran straight down my spine as I shrunk a little, hoping nobody would see me as one of those people. Great, I thought, it’s not like the world doesn’t already think Christians have problems enough, now we’re going to save them the trouble and call ourselves “freaks”? I was horrified. For some reason, many of us seem to think words connected with extremes are somehow desirable. I recall a bumper sticker—I cringe in remembering it—that said, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space!” While the message seems cute, it’s really not. Words like intense and ultra and extreme contain a larger meaning than simply having more of a good thing; they imply abnormal.

 

Do we want the world to think of Christians as extreme or abnormal? Keep in mind, I’m not talking about lacking passion or commitment; I’m talking about demonstrating a self-imposed fanatical zeal that can result in segregation from our culture. Consider that “extreme” means “something at the outermost edge, and farthest from the center and something exceeding the limits of moderation and even opposed to moderation.” Again, this is not about being lukewarm or lethargic, it is about being wise. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be opposed to moderation—the Bible, in fact, tells us to be moderate. Of course, we are not to be lukewarm, but then again, moderate does not equal lukewarm-ness.

 

With this in mind, you can imagine my joyous surprise when I came across the book title Radically Normal. Not, Extreme Christianity, How to Be an Ultra-Christian, or What God Wants: Intense and Blasting Mega-Christians. Instead—beautifully! —the author had the bravery to call it Radically Normal. I was—radically—interested.

 

Josh Kelley’s book is excellent for many reasons. It’s exceedingly readable, chock-full of real-life humor, and it has just the right balance of introducing valid and often less popular ideas in a way that isn’t preachy or condescending. In fact, Kelley is heartwarmingly open and willing to be vulnerable.

 

So just what is this normal Christianity? According to Josh, “normal,” among other things, means not being an obsessive Christian. You know the ones, the well-meaning but condemnatory types who are void of balance, overly legalistic, and can make you feel small unless you are planning on being a missionary somewhere hellishly hot or callously cold: the types who seem to think fun is a four-letter word. They think in a binary that Josh aptly calls “2 tiered Christianity,” where suffering saints broiling away on the mission field (presumably without showers to make matters even a bit more … sticky) are high on the totem pole, while the average coffee barista—something Kelley knows about—is the second-class Christian.

 

The chapter touching this is called—so cool—“Greatness for Average Joes.” Josh does not suggest God, the perfect heavenly parent, wants us to be blasé, sub-par, indifferent, or even tame. (If you are a fan of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, you might remember that the deific lion Aslan, while absolutely good, was also not a “tame” lion). What Kelley tells us is that “God delights in the normal,” because “normal” is good! Moreover, as he points out, nowhere does the gospel call craziness or obsessiveness a virtue. Again, we are back to normal.

 

Speaking of joy and our perceptions of God, let’s answer Josh’s question, “Who is more fun, Satan or God?” If we think of Satan, we have been deceived—despite what some pompous and puritanical well-meaning preacher has (erroneously) proposed. Joy, we are carefully shown, is one of the central and foundational tenets of the Christian life. And not just spiritual joy either. Both spiritual and earthly joys. Josh unapologetically states, “A good party can help prepare you for heaven.” For emphasis, Kelley asserts, “Many people have been led astray with a damnable heresy that removes tangible joy from our faith.”

 

He then voices a great quote: “It’s Satan, not Christ, who hates the physical appetites and the proper joy linked to them. It is Satan, not Christ, who is the great teetotaler, the joyless puritan, the cosmic killjoy.” Josh believes so strongly in the importance of joy that he says, “I do not believe that God should be your only happiness. Not because he wouldn’t be enough (he is beyond sufficient for an eternity of delight), but because he doesn’t want to be. He has filled this world with many things that he longs for us to enjoy.”

 

Speaking a bit more to joy, Kelley admonishes us about the dangers of binaries. For instance, he challenges the notion that going to a prayer meeting is more holy than going to a ballgame—even if for the reason that then we are unlikely to invite God along with us to the game. Instead, we need to know that certain things are called for certain times. Kelley illustrates that this normality extends itself to all aspects of our lives. Thus, we are exhorted that while He was here on earth, “Jesus prayed, worshiped, read the Bible, fed the poor, and did all of the spiritual stuff. But he also feasted, drank, slept, laughed, cried, and told jokes.”

 

For Kelley, this is balance, and this is precisely what we Christians are called to. We are called to be examples of His love and His mercy and His good works, but we are to do it while living here on earth. If you, like me, feel frightfully fatigued at the frenetic extremes that our culture – even sometimes the Christian one – seems to fixate on, and breathed a breath of fresh air when you saw the word “normal,” you might just really savor reading this book.

 

As I reflect on Kelley’s analysis of a life well lived, I am reminded of G. K Chesterton, a Christian writer famous for his affable wit and spirited charitability. Chesterton had something to say about everything, including the value of our everyday lives. With reference to his own experience writing stories, he commented that a particularly onerous part of narrative spinning is in ever re-creating the normal everyday occurrences that fill the majority of stories. While the exciting plot twists and turns are more fun to write, it takes a surprising degree of endurance to persist in reiterating the seeming ordinary—“normal”— aspects of life. This is not really that surprising because accomplished authors often tell us this is exactly the skill that makes an especially memorable tale. After all, to be believed, a story still has to be about real people—doing real things.

 

And this is where Kelley’s view of being radically normal comes to play for me. Kelley and Chesterton both affirm the importance of the everyday stuff that we average folk do. They suggest that God Himself does not grow bored with our daily tasks and routines. Just as a parent does not get tired of watching her child’s daily activities, so, too, God, our heavenly parent, does not become disinterested or dissatisfied with ours. And while being normal might not sound as cool as being radical, it does consist in the actions of the majority of parts of our lives.

 

And for certain, Kelley isn’t claiming that Christianity is all tickles and giggles and perfume-scented bubble baths. But hey! Those lovely and beautiful and joyous things are meant to be part of our life as well. Our lives are meant to encompass a very large space; and a good part of that space is joy. Indeed, as Kelley says, “being radically normal is not easy, but it is achievable.” Two cheers to being normal—radically normal.

 

Christmas Gifts

 "ChristmasEveOhio1928" by Father of dok1 / Don O'Brien - Flickr photo Christmas Eve 1928. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ChristmasEveOhio1928.jpg#/media/File:ChristmasEveOhio1928.jpg

“ChristmasEveOhio1928” by Father of dok1 / Don O’Brien – Flickr photo. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons

You have probably heard the over-used saw, “tis better to give than to receive.” Now aside from the advertisers who glibly employ it for entirely selfish reasons (may they be sent for a week to the 8th circle of Dante’s hell) here is my annoyance: a gift with a motive is no gift at all, unless it’s to make the receiver thrilled to their booties. Romantic friends with pure intentions know that warming glow felt deep in their hearts as the beloved opens up some carefully chosen little treasure. Parents also know a similar feeling – or so I am told, not yet partaking in parenthood – of watching a twinkly eyed tot ogling over their gifts. I rather doubt that the parents were secretly plotting in the corners of toy department how best to psychologically manipulate their children into being better behaved, or quicker memorise their classical education. If they did, the gift would cease being a gift.

And so, I find myself troubled when one of the greatest Deific gifts offered is seemingly proffered with a large string. Maybe it’s just me, but so often during the holidays I hear, often performed with beautiful voices in song and hymn, that the Christ child has been given to the world as God’s heavenly priceless gift. I feel the tingles now just thinking of it. In the second breath coming from the preacher though, we are told that we owe this divine sovereign something in return. I am bothered.

Sure. I suppose that is the truth. I guess the tot who has just received the gift from pleased parents should feel indebted to her or his familial guardian. (Though, isn’t it funny how often the parents look happier than the child!)  And yet despite that being the case – maybe – I think if we were to ask the gifting parent whether their child should primarily feel obligation, that parent would suggest that we had never been a parent, or at any rate a true parent. They might even give us a rude look from over a shoulder as they left us standing by the punch bowl.

And so back to the well-meaning religious types who proudly proclaim God’s best gift to humanity ever, ever in one breath, but then in the next espouse how unrighteous we are if we don’t hold up to our end of the gift.

Did you see that? The last word shouldn’t have been “gift,” it should have been “deal.” But is that what we humans were given at Christmas, a deal?

G.K Chesterton speaks very fondly of Christmas and of gift giving and goodwill, but also of the nature of the grandest giver of them all. He cleverly uses the name Santa, but all the adults will know exactly of whom he is talking. During the holidays, he says,

[As a child]  I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them…. I had not even been good— far from it. And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus … was [a] benevolent agency… [that gave us] toys for nothing. Of course, most people who talk about these things get into a state of some mental confusion by attaching tremendous importance to the name of the entity. We called him Santa Claus, … but the name of a god is a mere human label. … [As a child] I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet … Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it.

So why did “Santa” give him the gift of existence? “It was,” says Chesterton, given in “a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.” No strings attached. Except maybe thankfulness.

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Cat Dish Leadership

Steems November post

Photo by Zboralski / CC BY 3.0

My first introduction to Anne Lamott was her statement, “I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” There was something about this punky comment that wooed me.

I admired and appreciated her honesty; her lack of pretence made me feel like this was an individual I could share camaraderie with. This is not to say I don’t sometimes sniff about for the dangers of false authenticity: the idol our culture has made of “being authentic” when “keeping it real” can just be another façade. Still though, I can’t suspect everybody and Lamott feels like somebody worth listening to, perhaps even a leader of sorts.

I admire her for her truth telling ability: for her willingness to expose her faith, foibles and failures. She articulates the exhausting degree of vulnerability required in giving ourselves to loving and being loved. Her discussions of life drip with gore and hope, and help me see beyond the brute side of mortality. She hints that some interactions and memories and experiences can be processed in so many different ways that we may not be as tied to personal history as it sometimes appears. The food of our souls, like the food of our mouths, can be fermented and stewed or boiled and roasted or chopped and salted. In short, in Anne I hear echoes of something that is flesh and soul affirming. And, the invitation to explore both the heights of Love’s radiance and the grass betwixt my toes engages me.

But even with all this, I inwardly tense up a little on the idea of Lamott as leader. A companion on this life’s journey? Sure. A leader? I have an uncomfortable time with her informality; her willingness to expose her inward processes and come right out and verbalize her struggles. Perhaps my discomfort is rooted in one idea of what separates leaders from followers.

Several years ago, Christian Century ran a post by Adam J Copeland. In his article, “Why Lead,” he suggests that we might do well to reinvigorate our current conceptions of leadership with a bigger emphasis on “followership.”  Leaders, then, are faithful followers on the path of love, wisdom, humility and self-sacrifice. For Copeland, leadership is a lot less about accomplishment, power, innovation or public relationship potential; it is about openly and heartfully following the one who is Love. But what does that look like in practical terms?

Henri Nouwen depicts leadership in very personal terms. For him, leading is the ultimate act of vulnerability. He understands the mantle of leadership as one that requires the laying down of one’s life: the complete abdication of ego,  individualism, control and power. That is,  “making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life” (In the Name of Jesus)

I wonder if Nouwen’s profound insight on leadership has something to do with the feeling one gets in rehabilitation groups. I’ve briefly glimpsed their power myself, and I’ve heard others comment on the same phenomenon. Being in the presence of people with such intentional honesty and openness about physical, emotional, social and spiritual struggles has a lasting impact. Pursuing the path of wellness requires honesty, both with others and ourselves. We do not grow when do not examine our hearts, hurts and hopes. A social worker who I am privileged to call my friend has commented on the potential of some workers to fall in love with their clients. The reason? Honing the vocabulary of honesty is deeply attractive. Most of us recognize that we all have proclivities to certain types of destructive behaviors, but not all of us have the courage to examine and voice them and seek guidance and share our hearts with others.

If I understand Nouwen correctly, it is the calling and duty of a leader to bare his or her heart and soul: to be a leader is to lay down facades in the hopes others will find their way to faith through that act of sacrifice. In this perspective, I hope that one day my own followership can mirror a meagre degree of honesty that Lamott has revealed to multitudes.

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The Moment the Chainsaw was Stilled

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.” —Madeleine L’Engle   Try a thought experiment. In your mind, sit yourself down to a story. Okay, now re-run in your mind all the parts where the wicked and perfidious villain merrily practices untold evils on the innocent and powerless. Now, instead of having […] Source: Off The Page

Don’t Worry, it’s Not Religious

 

We have to react against the heavy bias of fatigue. It is almost impossible to make the facts vivid, because the facts are familiar; and for fallen men it is often true that familiarity is fatigue.
– 
G.K. Chesterton

If you don’t mind, visualize a short little mental clip for me.

A friend and I have just been walking for 35 minutes to get to every booklover’s Mecca, Powell’s City of Books in Portland. One square city block of bookish awesomeness. Despite the heat and slightly sweaty state of our sandals—when book hunting, comfy feat are important—we are hugely stoked about beginning our four-day Powell’s event. Just as we are coming close to our destination, we see two peddlers nearly blocking the entrance to the bookstore. One peddler is a dude with dreadlocks, and the other is an easy-on-the-eyes hippie chick—flower print dress, dark flowing hair, and all. We creep closer. (We are introverts, and thus can creep super well, trust me.) As we get closer, we notice that they have a sign in front of them that says “free.”  Turns out, they are giving away a thick book and a CD in a shiny cellophane package. No cash is exchanged.

Odd, right?

Now, despite my country mouse nature, I am intrigued: one of the objects is a book. After watching cautiously, I finally accrue enough courage to approach Mr. Dreadlocks and ask what they are handing out. Just as my friend and I get to him, and he starts to point to the book in his hand, flower-dress girl coos to a passersby in a reassuring singsong kind of voice, “Don’t worry, it’s not religious.”

Turns out it was a free novel, and true to flower girl, it wasn’t religious. But here is the thing: why did I immediately sympathize with the passerby? I even laughed. And then I caught flower girl’s eye and she laughed with me. And then my friend joined in, and we shared a tripartite moment of mirth in that shared though unspoken understanding—that secret, but not-so-secret knowledge that people don’t even want something for FREE … if it’s religious.

Here is something of a bit of a play on words: when someone wants our attention (a seller, a student, a lawyer, a preacher) what do we do? We “pay” attention. There is a kind of transaction that takes place.

So the idea that something religious is of so little value that no one wants to pay attention to it, even when it is free, is a problem. At least it seems this way to me. And while I was thinking about this, I remembered G.K. Chesterton, and something pertinent he said about how we think about Christianity. He offers that Christianity has the problem of everyone being—or thinking they are—familiar with it. And this, he calls a “bias of fatigue.”

He goes on to say that it is nearly impossible to present vivid facts to a person suffering from the bias of fatigue. Chesterton’s advice is that in order to meaningfully convey information about Christianity, a change in imagery may be helpful. In The Everlasting Man, he says:

I am convinced that if we could tell the supernatural story of Christ word for word as of a Chinese hero, call him the Son of Heaven instead of the Son of God, and trace his rayed nimbus in the gold thread of Chinese embroideries or the gold lacquer of Chinese pottery, instead of in the gold leaf of our own old Catholic paintings, there would be a unanimous testimony to the spiritual purity of the story. We should hear nothing then of the injustice of substitution or the illogicality of atonement, of the superstitious exaggeration of the burden of sin or the impossible insolence of an invasion of the laws of nature. We should admire the chivalry of the Chinese conception of a god who fell from the sky to fight the dragons and save the wicked from being devoured by their own fault and folly. We should admire the subtlety of the Chinese view of life, which perceives that all human imperfection is in very truth a crying imperfection. We should admire the Chinese esoteric and superior wisdom, which said there are higher cosmic laws than the laws we know.

I have heard the statement “Jesus needs better PR,” but the only problem is that we (people) are it. And, maybe, just maybe, the problem of the bias of fatigue is that we are tired, too?

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Jupiter Descends

9 Jupiter Ascending“Boring,” “boorish,” and (my personal favorite) “profoundly terrible” are some of the nicer descriptors that can be found in the reviews of the Wachowski siblings’ latest movie. At just over two hours, this space-opera-cum-heroic-fantasy is acknowledged as visually appealing with its impressive special effects, but declared decidedly drab in the plot department. Worse than merely drab, however, some of the more literary minded commenters pronounce Jupiter, the main character, as nauseatingly implausible. Now, while I do agree with them that Jupiter is most definitely not a classical hero, I wonder at our underlying assumptions of heroism that leave some of us with the feeling that Jupiter got the crap side of the stick in this movie.  

If you haven’t seen it, here’s a brutishly rudimentary plot summary (spoiler warning). Jupiter, the female protagonist, is a young, overworked, under-appreciated, and unfulfilled maid in Chicago. Trapped in a life of scrubbing toilets and cleaning up other people’s trash, she starts and ends each day in exhaustion. Jupiter lives in extremely tight quarters with her Russian immigrant mother and extended family, which gives her little personal space or room for expression: the theme constantly upon her lips before her big adventure is, “I hate my life.” Pressured by a capitalistic cousin into selling her eggs at a fertility clinic, she is nearly abducted by assassin aliens and soon thrust into an interplanetary journey where she learns she is actually Earth’s royal owner. Assisted throughout the adventure (and rescued again and again … and again … and then some) by a genetically altered ex-soldier with flying boots, she is kidnapped, conned, and beat up by royal alien siblings intent on harvesting Earth’s population into a vitality serum: a practice they have been doing on other planets for thousands of years. Always rescued at the last minute by flying boot boy, the aliens are thwarted, the earth remains blissfully ignorant of and safe from the villains and Jupiter lives to see another day. The movie ends with her sacrificing sleep to cheerfully prepare breakfast for the relatives, taking up her cleaning job, and going on flying adventures with her new boyfriend (flying boot boy) and his now-returned sexy set of wings.

Okay—my apologies to anyone who has seen the movie and can readily identify the 27 important plot points that I have casually omitted. But, I trust the theme is clear: little Miss Royalty is rescued (a lot), is not particularly ambitious, seems perfectly content to return to an unimportant job and crowded house, and never seeks out public recognition. Oddly enough, it seems somewhere along the journey she internalizes a new axiom: “It’s not about what I do, it’s about who I am.”

As you’ve no doubt gathered, this is not your typical hero story. But what is a hero story, and what makes it so?

For those who’ve read Paradise Lost (a 17thcentury epic poem that dramatizes the creation and subsequent eviction of Eve and Adam from the garden. Satan and his super sneaky schemes to destroy the happy couple and amass an army to usurp God’s Kingship also play a prominent role in the plot) in class, or are generally familiar with the story, we were taught according to two schools of thought. One, Milton screwed up and made Satan the show-stealing character by accident. According to this ideology, Satan is actually the hero of the story. Strong, cunning, ambitious, independent, and a natural-born leader: Satan is clearly the classical hero whom Milton himself unwittingly valorizes. Paradise Lost, then, becomes a tragedy because our favorite guy, Satan, loses.

The other school of thought suggests that in Satan’s unquenchable thirst for status (he wants to be ruler of the world), we uncomfortably identify our own fallen and destructive lust for prestige. Educators of this persuasion suggest that in Satan’s defiant pursuit of dominion, Milton demonstrates the seductive dangers of the quest for control. This second school of thought is a less popular one because in Paradise Lost, Satan is such a sympathetic character; and, indeed while we may not overtly root for him, our culture often tells us that complete self-sufficiency is the key ingredient of happiness. Satan, according to our society’s mores, is a heroic figure. The question then becomes a matter of identifying our current model of heroism.

Which brings me back to Jupiter Ascending. Much of the angst at the film is directed at its improbable plot and boring main character. What kind of story stars a hero who goes on a journey to learn s/he is really, really important (and has a whole lot of resources at her/his disposal) and then moves back to an inhospitable and banal homeland, bickering neighbors, takes up a menial job, and smiles about living the daily grind, saying “it’s not what I do, it’s who I am that matters”? Not a contemporary hero.

Culture often tells us that as heroes of our own stories, we must have status in order to experience personal fulfillment. We have been told that we need resources to experience the world and get the recognition we crave. In other words, we have been told that to be successful is to wield power; and, perhaps even more importantly, be recognized for that power.

I wonder if it’s possible that some of our dissatisfaction with Jupiter’s choices mirror our own consumption of a toxic cultural narrative: a narrative that says, it’s never about who you are, it’s only about what you do. A narrative that uncomfortably sides with Satan’s quest in that old tale of so much discussion.

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