The Normal Christian Life
May 20, 2015
Updated January 25, 2018
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Reading: Psalm 139
Are you normal? At one level, of course, that’s a rather benign question. But we don't have to think about it very long to realize the question has an edge to it. What is normal? What is abnormal? Is anyone “normal?”
The question is especially bothersome in a culture that keeps narrowing the definition of what is "normal." Advertisers subtly (but not so subtly) communicate an ideal height, an ideal weight, and an ideal body build. And people will go to great lengths to achieve it. An army of orthodontists, dermatologists, and plastic surgeons make it possible to change almost every square inch of our body, to make us fit narrower and narrower definitions of normal.
Labels and categories aren’t all bad, of course. Think about how much better we understand certain illnesses, or disabilities, or disorders. And think how much we can help people because we can categorize and diagnose and treat. In my years at Calvin Seminary, I can’t tell you how many students with learning disabilities we were able to test and diagnose and get the help they needed to succeed as students, even in Greek and Hebrew.
Where the pain and burden comes is when we introduce this notion of normal and abnormal. Those words, those labels, almost immediately tip over to accepted/unaccepted, in/out, good/bad, and secure/insecure. And the world is full of people who have been hurt and scarred by such ways of looking at people.
What light does the Bible shed on all of this? How does God see people? How does he call you to see others?
Ps. 139 sheds clear and wonderful light on all these questions.
David begins by affirming how thoroughly God knows each person (1-6). God knows when you sit down and when you stand. He knows your thoughts. He knows your words before you say them. He understands you more than you understand yourself.
David then goes on and explains that God is always by you (7-12). You can go to the heights of the universe, or to the depths of the earth. You can go all the way east to where the sun comes up, or all the way west to where it sets. You can hide in total darkness. But God is always right by you. (That's not a threat but a great source of comfort.)
Verses 13-18 are the heart of the psalm. David says, God has created your inmost being. The Hebrew word here is literally "kidney," and it refers to your innermost center, your person, your identity. God knit you together in your mother's womb. Before you are born, in fact, before you are ever conceived, God knows you, he sees you, all by yourself, individually. He has a destiny, a plan for you, a plan that is always bigger than you. You are unique in God’s eyes. There’s only one of you. There has never been one like you before. And there will never be another you in the future. There are no cookie-cutter human beings, like homes in a Las Vegas subdivision. Every human being is unique. And every individual has value — eternal value, human value.
In verses 17-18, David says, I try to understand just how deeply God knows me and cares about everything, including ME. I try to count your thoughts, God, and I can't do it. They outnumber the grains of sand. I fall asleep trying to fathom this. And when I wake up, you're still right there, and I start all over again. I can't get to the bottom of it.
How does God look at us? Is God this giant computer that categorizes people and calls them out of his memory, category by category until he gets to you? Does God have written in big capital letters in this imaginary book David refers to "NORMAL" and "ABNORMAL?" No. When God looks over the world, he sees persons. He knows them each one by name, and values each one individually. God doesn't compare person A with person B. He zeros in on each person and loves that person completely for who he or she is.
I think I first experienced just a little bit of how God sees us and loves us individually (and without comparing us to others or by some external standard) when I was student chaplain at Pine Rest back many years ago. I was a student chaplain back in the '70s, in what was then called Building #3, which was long-term geriatric/psychiatric care — a unit that no longer exists.
I still remember walking into Building #3 for the first time. They turned the key to let me in the door and then turned the key behind me after I stepped in. I remember my first glance down that long hallway. Some people were walking back and forth slowly, others were sitting as if they were waiting for something to happen, but not expecting anything to happen. Everything seemed to be in slow motion. Everyone looked the same.
But 12 weeks later, when I walked into Building #3 the last time, I saw Jim and Ed and Ralph and Elizabeth and Tracy, persons, individuals, children of the king, who laugh and cry, who have good days and bad days, friends and enemies, things they look forward to and things they dread — persons, just like I am a person.
In many ways, God used that summer to begin to do in me what Jesus did in a moment for a blind man. Jesus touched the blind man's eyes the first time and said, "Do you see anything?" And the blind man said, "I see people, but they look like trees walking around." And so Jesus touched him a second time. And then the blind man said, "I see everything clearly."
Yes, in order for us as Christians to be able to see people the way the God of Psalm 139 sees people, however they rank by worldly ways of categorizing people, Jesus must touch our eyes a second time. And he must touch our hearts.
And then Christians will be wholly different from the world. And the church can be that place (of all places) where all of God’s children are accepted and loved, regardless of how they measure up by some definition of “normal.” A place where we see persons, not categories, where we see through eyes of love and compassion, not measuring sticks of comparison.
Last year I did the funeral of John Richard Kromminga at Neland Ave. CRC. The son of John Dietrich Kromminga who was the president of Calvin Seminary for over 30 years, and his wife, Claire, John Richard was a brilliant mathematician, a computer programmer. In his day he was also a strong swimmer. He also happened to have a severe case of schizophrenia. John Richard was very fragile mentally, and very awkward socially. In most social situations John Richard was totally quiet or gave one word answers to your questions. He worked in the library at Calvin for over 25 years. I would hate to guess how few students he ever talked to in those 25 years.
But John Richard was a child of God. And if you cared, and listened, and were patient, you came to know a person. My first memory of John Richard, when I became pastor of Neland in 1988, was a Road Rally that we had as part of some adult fellowship night. We had to go out and find things. John Richard was in our car. We were riding down the streets around the old Calvin College campus, and JR started giving us this travelogue, telling which building was the library, the seminary, science building, telling us which house this famous Calvin professor lived in. A great memory and a keen sense of what was interesting.
I also remember him saying to me that night, in his flat voice, out of the blue, “I hope that, when you do communion at Neland, you say ‘Take, eat, remember, and believe that the body and blood of our LJC was given for the complete remission of all our sins, not forgiveness of all our sins.’ Remission is a stronger word, you know.” I pictured the Sunday dinner table at the Krommingas after a communion service at Neland, where Dr. John quietly explained those terms.
John Richard was a blessing to Neland. He was Neland’s strongest trumpeter. For decades, after every morning and evening service, JR was the one who duplicated tapes or CDs of the worship services. It was kind of funny to watch Neland scramble in the weeks after JR’s death to try to get someone to duplicate those CDs, which involved, among other things, staying around church for a half hour after each service.
JR also had an ironic sense of humor. JR worked in the theological section of the Calvin library. Well, in that section is this huge card catalogue that catalogues every sermon in the Calvin Library. From Genesis to Revelation, drawer after drawer of cards listing each sermon by text and title. Well, when I was the pastor of Neland, I would sometimes browse through that catalogue. I rarely went back and actually got the sermon out of the stacks; I was interested in just seeing the titles of sermons on a given text which were often very evocative. One day I was looking flipping through all the sermon titles on some chapter in Jeremiah, and all of a sudden, behind me, I hear the unmistakable voice of John Richard, “Running Dry?”
The only thing I enjoyed more than that moment was retelling that story to other people in JR’s presence, and seeing the sheer delight on his face when everyone would laugh.
John Richard was not “normal” by any societal standard. Not even close. Most Calvin students, I’m sure, were apprehensive about him, and would have been very uncomfortable talking to him. And JR required a lot of support over his lifetime from family and many others.
But when we buried John Richard last year, we loved him deeply, we hurt because he was gone, and we knew how much God loved him. And in the divine economy, the Psalm 139 economy, John Richard delighted God and brought glory to God and will bring glory to God forever.
Finally, God calls us to see people the way God sees people in Psalm 139 not just for the sake of those who are seen, but for our sake. We become more human, more like God and like Christ, when we see persons, not categories, when we accept people and love people and enjoy people for who they are.
When I was a little boy, our family would often go to Pella (16 miles from Oskaloosa, Iowa where I grew up) to visit some friends of my parents. Blondi and Joyce were the parents' names. They had a son and two daughters.
But I never really met one of the daughters. She lived in their home, but she was hydrocephalic. She had a birth defect in which, among other things, she had a very enlarged head, too large and too heavy to hold up with her neck. All the times we ever went there, she never came out of her room. She just laid in bed.
I can remember as a little child walking down the hallway by her bedroom and glancing in her room one time to see her. And after that, I could never go to that house without thinking about that girl in that room. We'd play ball outside, we'd play in the basement, but I'd always be thinking about that girl. On the way home from their house late at night, I'd be staring out the side window of our car over the moon-lit fields thinking about that girl.
There were two things that always amazed me about that family. First, I was always amazed at how happy they were. They were some of the most joy-filled people I knew. But how could you be happy, I remember reasoning as a 6 year old, when that little girl was in that room? The other thing that always amazed me about that family was how nice they were. That brother and that sister were nicer to me than my best friends at school. They really seemed to care about my brother and me.
As I look back now, I realize that through that little girl, Jesus touched that family's eyes a second time. Through years of accepting and loving their daughter/their sister who was so different, so unacceptable, so abnormal by any standard of society, they were sanctified. They were sensitized to see every person as "precious in his sight." That little girl helped them to see other people more the way God does, not as normal or abnormal, but as precious persons, fearfully and wonderfully made, whose days are ordained and numbered by God.
And that is the normal Christian life. That way of seeing is the norm, the pattern, the way of seeing for those who have been touched a second time, for those Jesus has made new.
The normal Christian life is to see not trees, but people, not labels, but children of the king. It is to see through the external, worldly differences that divide to that place where we all stand as one – under the knowing, searching, and loving eye of God.
The normal Christian life is where we finally see clearly that we are all, at the root of it, one – all fighting the same hard battle, all yearning for the same hope, all fleeing the same darkness, all holding fast in the circle of his light.
Has God touched you a second time? Do you see a bit of his splendor in all those people around you?
Search me O God and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
Oh God, give us the eyes and heart and mind of Christ.
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Thanks, Duane. Good reflection and reminders for me.
Thanks Duane, for an interesting article on normality. You interpret Psalm 139 more in terms of our physical and psychological makeup rather than moral makeup. You draw out the uniqueness of every individual to point out that God, in a sense, doesn’t look at us in some cookie cutter perspective, in which we are all the same. And certainly that fits well with a “disability concerns” sermon. But I’m not sure that you really connected with David’s thoughts in writing this Psalm. I think David’s confession was that God knew his heart and thoughts and knew either the purity or impurity of his being and thoughts. And this brings me to God’s basic understanding of our being. So what does God really think of us?
There’s no doubt that we are all unique and are individual. No one else like you or like me. But the real normal that the Bible or Christianity seems to emphasize is that we are all sinners. In fact looking at all human beings through the eyes of God, we are all failures, completely with no one excluded, except one. When Christians are asked, what makes Christianity unique from all other religions, the answer given is usually, Jesus Christ. Christianity is the only religion that provides a Savior, who is Jesus, who is set apart from all others. But the other unique factor that distinguishes Christianity from all other religions is that all people, none excluded, are moral failures in the eyes of God.
The God of other religions doesn’t look at people in such a way. People are given the life long opportunity to serve and love their neighbors, as well as God. We don’t read of the God of other religions setting the bar at any particular height. So it might seem as though their may be a variety of passing grades by which to win God’s approval ,such as A through D before getting to F for failure. Even the Mormons think that by far most people will make it to heaven, even if not a Mormon. But our God (the Christian God) says, of yourselves, you are all failures.
We’re all failures in God’s eyes because we miss his mark of absolute perfection, whether by a little or a lot. A miss is a miss. That seems to be a pretty high standard for God’s created creatures (human beings). After all he didn’t create us as Gods. We’re not expected to be all knowing like God, why perfectly holy?
But the good news is that he sent a Savior into the world. But wait. The Savior isn’t really for everyone, but only for his chosen ones (L - limited atonement). Whereas most have never even heard of Christ, let alone been persuaded by the Holy Spirit, therefor are condemned. I’ve heard of other religions having secret or hidden truths. I guess we, as Christians, are no different. Let’s talk as though the good news (the gospel) is good for everyone. But, of course, it’s not (just read the Canons of Dort).
So you ask, how does God see people? Primarily, as moral failures, deserving of eternal damnation. Not a very happy thought, about us or about God. I think you could have picked a better Psalm, Duane. Perhaps, I shouldn't have read Psalm 139 along with your article. Anyway, thanks for your article. It does make a person think.
Thanks for sharing this. John Richard sounds like a wonderful man and blessing to Neland. I love the mischief in the sermon story!
Thanks for pointing us towards Jesus' way of looking at things.
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