lenten journal: not normal


    I started teaching at my new school just a couple of weeks before the end of the grading term, which means I needed books we could read fairly quickly. I’m also teaching eighth graders for the first time, and adjusting to younger students. When I found The Jungle Book in the supply room, I found help on both counts and, besides, we’ll get to watch Baloo sing “Bear Necessities” the last day of the term.

    One of the questions I asked had to do with Mowgli, who was saved from Shere Khan, the tiger, by the Wolf Pack and raised as one of them, though he didn’t exactly fit in. Mowgli then goes back to the human village to learn what he needs to kill Shere Khan, but he didn’t fit in there either. Both groups benefited from his presence and talents, and what he could do that they could not, but he was never one of them: never normal. So I asked,

    What do you think the story says about what it means “to fit in” in society? How does society benefit from those who aren’t “normal”? What problems do they cause?

    One of the quieter kids in the class raised her hand for help. She pointed to the question and asked what I meant. “Do you think society benefits from people who aren’t normal?” I asked her. Her eyes got bigger and she sat up.

    “Of course,” she said. “But there’s different kinds of not normal: there’s insane not normal that can be dangerous and there’s creative not normal that does cool stuff.”

    “Does society make room for either one to belong?”

    She didn’t answer the question out loud because she had already begun writing.

    What Mowgli and Shere Khan shared “not belonging” in common. Khan began hunting on the Wolf Pack’s territory because he was lame and because it was close to the humans, who were easy prey. He arrived uninvited and put the Pack in danger of human reprisals, so they had no use for him. Mowgli was taken from his family by Shere Khan and then raised by the Pack, who gave Khan a cow in exchange. They saved the boy, and so they loved him, even though he didn’t fit in. And they let him stay until he quit acting normal. At the heart of what it meant to be the Pack was the ongoing discussion of who belonged and who did not.

    The health and hope of any society depends on how they answer that question over and over. In all the flailing and fighting over health care and immigration reform, I hear the same question: whom do we take care of? At the bottom of both issues — before we talk about cost, before we divide into partisan camps, before we get lost in and frustrated by the wrangling in Washington – is the question of who belongs, who we consider part of us, or perhaps better said: how big is “us” anyway?. The underpinning echo is ominous and convicting: Cain looking up and asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

    We, like him, are often too quick to assume the question is rhetorical and the answer negative. It would be too costly to think of everyone as family. But the question demands an answer in the affirmative, if we are to take our humanity seriously, not to mention our faith. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper and that means it will cost us dearly and be incredibly uncomfortable and inconvenient and we will have to learn to live beyond our differences, and perhaps beyond our means.

    We’re not called to be normal.

    Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. He was killed while serving Mass by a single bullet to the heart that was fired down the center aisle of his church in El Salvador. In his early life, he worked hard to be apolitical and stay clear of controversy: to be normal. When one of his friends, Father Rutillio Grande who was an activist for the poor, was killed, Romero stepped outside of normal and began to make room for everyone. In one of his sermons he said:

    Do you want to know if your Christianity is genuine? Here is the touchstone: Whom do you get along with? Who are those who criticize you? Who are those who do not accept you? Who are those who flatter you?

    He wasn’t speaking rhetorically either. He was paraphrasing Jesus’ words: “Blessed are you when you are persecuted for my sake.” And then there was the one about the peace makers. Listen to Romero again.

    Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
    Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
    Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
    Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
    Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity.
    It is right and it is duty.

    Peace is generosity, not silence. Here’s what we’re up against. We live in a society that is quick to ask how much it is going to cost when it comes to relief efforts in countries other than our own or universal health care, but doesn’t show the same concern when it comes to the defense budget or the cost of war. Based on who the media say we are as Americans and how we answer the poll questions they ask, what I just described is normal. But it’s not faithful. And it’s not generous. And it has little to do with practicing peace.

    Micah said it boiled down to doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. Jesus said we were called to love God with all of our being and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Someone in the crowd was looking to find the appropriate boundaries for Jesus’ outlandish statement and asked, “Who is my neighbor?’

    He got the story of the Good Samaritan as a response. Forget the boundaries and the propriety that comes with being normal and privileged enough to cross over to the other side of the road. Forget about staying clean and safe. Be generous. Get involved in the messy details of anyone who needs help. Change your schedule, open your wallet, unclench both your teeth and your fists.

    That last paragraph sounds as though I’m talking to someone other than me. I’m not. Regardless of my rhetoric, I find it far too easy to be a normal American and to make sure I’ve got all my bases covered before I start thinking about the generosity my faith calls me to live out. I like comfortable as much as the next person. I quoted Donald Miller last night when he said, “Leaders aren’t cynical,” and I haven’t been able to shake it loose. All it takes is a radio interview with just about anyone in Congress and I’m convinced we don’t have anyone up there who can think beyond getting re-elected. (I know that ‘s not true; that’s where the cynicism kicks in.) I also know I am called (dare I say, “We”) to do more than criticize or yell loud enough to get my way.

    Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
    Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity.
    It is right and it is duty.

    I know. It’s just not normal. I mean crazy and creative not normal. I hope I get an incurable case.



    1. I must quote Springsteen: “Man, the dope’s that there’s still hope.”
      Peace to you my friend,
      from yet another crazy abnormal creative
      (I know, I been there 😉

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