Monday, January 4, 2016

The new normal

Sheep path. Image from
My feline companion of over 17 years passed away last month and I am adjusting to a new normal, one where there is no cat living in our house (you can read my blog about Jazz here). It will take some getting used to, but I know I will adapt because we are wired to do just that. Paul Ricoeur talks about two sides of the self: idem, the self which remains the same and provides continuity, and ipse, the self which is always developing, always in process. Idem is that part of us which never changes, which makes us recognizable no matter how we age or are altered. Ipse is that part of us which allows us to learn, grow, and experience transformation. If the self were all idem, we would stagnate and become atrophied. If the self were all ipse, we would have no stability. We are uniquely, unalterably ourselves, yet we are built for change. Every time we breathe in and out, every time a cut heals, every time we learn something new, we are being changed.

I recently read the story of Jesus healing the man at the pool of Bethesda. You can find it in John 5:2-9. Here was a man who had been lying on a mat for 38 years, surrounded by other invalids, all waiting for the stirring of the waters at the pool. Legend had it that the first into the pool when the stirring happened would be healed. Jesus saw the man and asked: "Do you want to be made well?" The sick man replied that he had no one to help him into the pool so someone else always got there before he did. Then Jesus said to the man, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." And the man did so.

Two points stick out to me in this story. The first is the idea of being paralysed in some way. Here was a man who was stuck; things never seemed to change for him. He was surrounded by others who were also struggling with paralysis, of being unable to move on with their lives. Part of being paralysed (whether physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, or relationally) is that we see others moving forward, getting ahead, getting on with life, and we are left behind. We see others being transformed and we can't seem to get to that place. It is frustrating and discouraging to be unable to move forward. The second idea is that of being alone. The sick man said, "I have no one." When we are alone, we feel like an outsider, we feel there is no one to help us when we need it, we feel forgotten, cast aside, and of little value. I don't know about you, but I can identify with this man's paralysis (being stuck) and his sense of alone-ness. Good thing the story doesn't end there.

Here comes Jesus. Jesus sees the man. Jesus comes to the man. Jesus knows what the man has been through. Jesus knows the man's current state. And Jesus has a question for him which is really two questions: "Do you want things to change? Do you want to change?" In other words, do you want life as you know it to change? Are you willing to leave the place where you are now? Are you willing to change how you act, think, and relate to others (after 38 years)? Are you willing to get off your mat, your small place of comfort? Are you willing to trust someone, to give up your independence and alone-ness? Are you willing to start the long journey of learning new ways as you embrace Jesus's new normal?

These are important questions for us. Sure, we pray for healing. Sure, we pray for circumstances to be changed. But are we prepared for the hard work of embracing a new normal? Let's think about a hypothetical situation. Say you are a long-term smoker and after years and years of inhaling toxins into your lungs, those organs are pretty much useless. You go see a doctor and he gives you the good news that you are eligible for a lung transplant. Wonderful! Within a few months, you get the call that some unfortunate, healthy soul has died in a tragic car accident and their perfectly pink lungs are now yours. You race to the hospital and undergo a successful procedure which removes your diseased lungs and replaces them with healthy lungs. It's a miracle! You arrive home from the hospital, thrilled with your new lease on life, and reach for the familiar pack of cigarettes and light one up. What's wrong with this picture? The surgeon has done everything he can, but unless you change the way you think and act, you will end up in the same unhealthy situation you were in before.

Let's admit it, we can be a bit impatient and even passive when it comes to change; we expect God to do all the heavy lifting and fixing, not realising that in order for us to survive and flourish in God's new normal, we need to make some drastic changes. In short, we need to forge new ways of being, some new pathways on which to walk. The picture at the top is that of a sheep path which zigzags across a field in a totally inefficient pattern. The sheep keep walking this same, crooked path because they have always walked this path and forging a new pathway would require a lot of effort. They keep taking the path of least resistance. Our brain's neural pathways work the same way. It is said that it takes three weeks to form a new habit, to develop a neural pathway that makes a thought or an action natural instead of hard work. In other words, change is about developing new habits, and that requires some diligence and constancy on our part.

God gives us a new heart, a new spirit, a new mind, a new freedom. How do we flourish in God's new normal instead of reverting back to our old, crooked ways? Spiritual disciplines like prayer, gathering regularly in a community to worship, theological study, and fasting help to reinforce the work that God is doing in our lives. Transformation happens when we cooperate with God. God does what we cannot do. He gives us a lung/heart/mind transplant. He heals our paralysis. But then he invites us to get up off our mat and walk, to undertake a new normal which reflects God's gifts of freedom and healing. In all likelihood, the man in John 5 did not go back to the pool the next day and lay on his mat. After 38 years, he had to discover a new way of being and thinking, learn new actions, and explore a new way of relating to people. No doubt it was a challenge; forging new pathways is never easy.

A few months ago I was in Vancouver for a set of lectures on faith and science. During a cab ride, the biologist asked the theologian, "How do you know when you are wrong?" The theologian answered, "It has to be cohesive to be true, make sense in all areas of life. We are always learning. We believe things to be true based on our knowledge at the time. When something better is revealed, we change what we believe. Just like science." I love this. First, because it was a privilege to be in the company of learned colleagues who exemplify humility, respect, and a desire to learn from each other. Second, because it reflects both idem and ipse, both constancy and change. We strive to be faithful followers of Jesus AND we are always adjusting our perspective to align more closely with God's new normal, a normal which sets aside our self-interest and embraces God's interests. We can recognise God's pathways because God reveals himself through history and tradition, through Jesus, through the witness of the scriptures, and through our own experience and reason.

As we begin to walk into a new year, may we know that our areas of paralysis and alone-ness are not permanent. May we know that Jesus sees us and knows us and is aware of our situation. May we be brave enough to respond when Jesus asks us to get up and walk, and may we continue to forge new pathways which reflect and reinforce the newness of life which God so graciously offers us. Here's to the new normal, God's normal (clink of glasses).


  1. Thank you Matte, for both the hope and the challenge in this post. I am currently struggling with both, and your post is very encouraging (and still challenging, sigh...).
    This is a great word.

  2. Thoughtful (what you'd expect from 'Thoughtworks') and well written. And a great title for a new year that embeds 'idem' and 'ipse'.