During this past year of global pandemic, social unrest, and a divisive, fractious election, I suspect nearly everyone has at some point in time said to themselves “When will we go back to normal?” And certainly during the lockdown in April-May (at least that is when the lockdown occurred here in northern Indiana) when work, church, and many other normal activities were halted, it felt like we had entered a unparalleled era of history. I, like many others, was counting the days until life returned to ‘normal’. But as the year wore on, and returning to normalcy seemed increasingly far off, I began to ask myself the question “So what exactly is normal life anyway?” As I begin to think about it more I kept wondering whether the events of 2020 were really that unusual. Certainly we have had pandemics before, as the frequent references to the Spanish Flu of 1918 attest. We have had racial unrest before, as anyone familiar with the events of the 1960’s is aware. And as divisive as our politics are now, they still pale in comparison to the period surrounding the Civil War. I reasoned that those events happened a long time ago, so perhaps what we refer to as normal life are simply the periods of tranquility in between great events that alter the flow of history.
This explanation did not satisfy me for long. While looking up information relating to Covid-19, I discovered that there have been numerous pandemics just in the last 100 years. Influenza pandemics in 1956 and 1968. SARS in 2002. H1N1 in 2009. HIV began it’s worldwide spread in the 1980’s. And while not on the same global scale, diseases such as Ebola and Zika have made international headlines in the last decade. These periods of tranquility began to look smaller and smaller. Taking this idea further into my personal life, I thought of all the illnesses I or someone in my circle of family and friends have faced over the last few years. Clearly, sickness is relatively common. The same trend emerges if we look at racial unrest, war, famine, economic downturns, and natural disasters. What initially seems like a only few major catastrophes spread out by decades if not centuries, turns out to be, on further inspection, something that is far more commonplace. I began to wonder whether or not life had ever been normal, and what it even meant for life to be normal.
What is normal?
As I was searching out these questions, I read an address given by C. S. Lewis to a group of Oxford University undergraduates a few weeks after Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland, triggering the onset of World War II. He was addressing the question on many students minds at the time, mainly how could they justify continuing their pursuit of mundane, normal careers in academics which now seemed so irrelevant in the light of a major war. As Lewis offered his wisdom to help answer the question, he made this observation: “…I think it is important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates absolutely no new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life”. Life has never been normal.” This confirmed the direction my thoughts were heading, but it still left me with a question: if life has never been normal, then what are we longing for?
The best answer I have come up with is that what we are longing for is heaven. The apostle Paul eloquently described the longing in Corinthians, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known”. In Romans Paul elaborates further on the nature of this longing, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoptions to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” I am convinced that our longing for a return to normal life is an expression of our longing for a peace, rest, and sense of belonging that we have never truly known. This is the normal we seek, the desire of which is planted inside of each of us.
So will 2021 be normal? Yes. It will, like every other year in human history, be full of joy and of sorrow. It will give us hope and break our hearts. We will see great human triumph and shameful human failures. There will be both peace and war, famine and prosperity, marriage and divorce. We who follow Christ should understand as well as anyone that what we call normal life is, in fact, abnormal and that our calling in this world is to participate with Christ in the restoration of that which is abnormal.
In the meantime however, we face the fact that the circumstances and events of life will not be manifest everywhere, at every time, in the same way. This is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of the human journey, knowing that when I am rejoicing, someone else is weeping, and when I suffer, I feel I suffer alone. If we could all suffer and rejoice together, perhaps the struggles might be easier to endure. While we can bring comfort to each other, we can draw greater comfort knowing that when God did come to earth as a human, he walked the same road we walk, one encompassing both suffering and rejoicing; and we can still draw comfort in knowing that his presence is with us through the Holy Spirit. Immanuel, God with us. (I know Christmas is over but this is a cool video of children’s choirs singing the song Immanuel).
The C. S. Lewis quotation in this post came from the address ‘Learning in War-Time’ from the collection of sermons and essays linked below. *I receive a small percentage from any sales generated through this link.*
|The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses
By C.S. Lewis / HarperOne
Nine sermons and addresses delivered by Lewis during World War II, including “Transposition,” “On Forgiveness,” “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” “Learning in War-Time,” and his most famous, “The Weight of Glory.” “These display color, power, and profound thinking,”—Evangelical Beacon. Paperback with French flaps and deckled page edges.