“Who, who, who,” called the wise old owl, “is normal?” Maybe the owl could ask a carpenter. Our word “normal” means “standing at a right angle.” It is from a Latin word, normalis, “made according to a carpenter’s square,” from norma, “rule, pattern.”
And who sets the pattern?
Susan Cain, author of the 2012 book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, marshals evidence that our culture – our schools, our churches, our corporate environment – has bought into the pattern of the extrovert myth. Celebrating the superiority of extroversion has been so well established that among personality disorders the World Health Organization (WHO!) and the American Psychiatric Association include aspects of introversion. Although these organizations are buttressed by cheerleaders like Tony Robbins, Harvard Business School, Toastmasters and the mega-church, whole other cultures wonder at who we are. Professionals from Asia take classes to understand the extroverts of North American. Reading “Quiet” took my breath away.
When I put the book down, I was left with questions like these: “How do we get outside of the simmering soup of our culture so that we don’t simply conform to the pattern of our culture? What if the “ladders” of our experience are warped. How do we gain true perspective?”
Studying history is one way to look through other eyes. Susan Cain notes that introverts used to fare better in the US during an era that favored a “Culture of Character.” A quiet leader like Abraham Lincoln could be honored as a man who, as Emerson said, did not “offend by superiority.”
But, history has it limitations. So, do the arts. And so does science. Percival Lowell (1855 – 1916) established the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. As he studied the planet Mars, he saw canals – perhaps a sign of intelligent life. Later astronomers showed that there were no canals on Mars. What were the canals that Lowell saw? Some hypothesize that they were the blood vessels from Lowell’s own eyes reflected in the telescope.
It’s good to recognize our limitations. And it’s good to be grateful that even in this broken world, it is possible to draw a straight line with a crooked stick. Truth and beauty are real and even folks like us can pursue them.
But, what would it be like to be “Normal” – “The Norm” – to be “The Carpenter” – to be the sinless Son of God – God himself in this world – the first person since our first parents to “stand at a right angle” in this world?
We can answer some of those questions by reading Scripture – seeing what Jesus did and listening to what he said. The One who had no speech impediment, who knew what he said and meant to say exactly what he said, the Word made flesh chose as the FIRST word of his FIRST sermon a command: Repent (metanoia) – for the kingdom of heaven is near (Matthew 4:17).
“Meta” can mean “after” like a metamorphic rock – a rock that has been transformed by heat or pressure so that its form (morph) is afterwards (meta) changed. It can imply “beyond” and “outside of” – like metaphysics being beyond or outside the limits of physics.” “Noia” is “mind” – or how we think about the world. So, metanoia is a change of mind, a reorientation, a fundamental transformation. It is not just mental assent! Metanoia is a change of behavior as well. It’s like an extrovert becoming an introvert – permanently.
So, metanoia, the word Jesus chooses to inaugurate his public ministry is a “walking on water” kind of command. We might be tempted to say: ‘Thanks, Jesus, for asking us to do the impossible. How do we get outside our culture – outside our skin – outside our minds – and look at life as God does?” We could give up – like an introvert in an extrovert world.
But when we read the rest of Scripture (for example, Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25, 2 Peter 3:9), we find that metanoia is also a gift – a costly gift that God has freely given all kinds of people. How could something as life altering and liberating as this metanoia that reconnects us with God and our neighbor be a gift? It’s counterintuitive. Nevertheless, orphans become sons and daughters; the self righteous become humble; those who lived to please themselves now live to please God; those who were bitter, forgive; those who were disconsolate have hope. Metanoia. Grace and glory.
Sucking out (some of) the marrow-nourishment from the bone-words with you,
PS During a report I gave to the leadership of our church in 1999, I quoted Luther. Some missed my reference to Luther and thought I was talking about myself. Does this sound like you too? Listen to Luther.
“It is exceedingly difficult to get into an unnatural habit of thinking in which we clearly separate faith and the works of love. For even though we Christians are now in faith, the heart is always ready to boast of itself to God and say, ‘After all, I’ve preached so long, lived so well, and done so much surely He will take this into account.’ We even want to haggle with God and impress Him with our life. But it cannot be done. With men you may boast, ‘I’ve done the best toward everyone and if anything is lacking I will still try to make it right.’ But when you come before God, leave all that boasting at home. Remember to appeal not to justice but to grace.
However, let anyone try this! He will see and experience how exceedingly hard and bitter a thing it is. How can anyone, who all his life has been mired in proving his own righteousness by his own efforts, pull himself out of that way of life and, with all his heart, rise up in the one Mediator? I myself have been preaching and cultivating this through reading and writing for almost 20 years. Still I feel the old clinging dirt of wanting to deal so with God that I may contribute something so that He will have to give me His grace in exchange for my holiness. Still I cannot get it into my head that I must surrender myself to God’s sheer grace. Yet I know that it is what I must do” (revised, The Sum of the Christian Life – Luther).