Yes to “New,” no to “Normal”
And so you’re back from outer space. I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face. I should have changed that stupid lock; I should have made you leave your key. If I’d have known for just one second you’d be back to bother me…*
Normal, I have been pining for you for two and a half long, painful years. Many times I convinced myself that I’d found a new version of you, only to find that it, too, was temporary. Illusory. And now you’re back, and although I’m happy to see you, let’s just say I’m having trust issues. You need not unpack those bags.
Let me back up.
The community I serve as a leader, Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, is up and running post-Covid. We need to wear masks in class and in worship. We have to observe certain restrictions about where we can eat. But otherwise, we’re able to interact as a community in ways that feel both familiar from pre-Covid days and brand, spanking new.
I find myself remembering things I didn’t know I forgot about orders of worship, habits of preparation, and the location of objects I haven’t needed in a long time. Where are the flip-charts? In the conference room closet, buried under clerical robes and chafing dishes we haven’t touched in almost the equivalent of a Master of Divinity student’s entire career with us. Where does music show up in a non-Zoom worship service? Answer: ideally, everywhere.
And yet, Normal, I’m realizing I don’t want you — my old, familiar version of you — back, for two reasons.
First, in your presence, there was so much I didn’t appreciate. I’d see a table of students in our Common Room and just walk by. Now I marvel; I tear up. I even occasionally ask if they mind if I nerd things up by sitting down for a few minutes of informal conversation and laughter. I never knew how much I love to — need to — sing with other people in order to feel close to them. I took for granted how much easier it is to do my job when I can pop into a colleague’s office, grab a student leader in the hall, or see a set of eyes and know that something’s off and in need of attention.
Second, when we thought you were sticking around forever, we didn’t realize the ways in which you privileged some and disadvantaged others. Normal happens to serve me well as an able-bodied, white, straight, educated, and financially secure American. When you were gone, I got a tiny taste of what it’s like when you go away, causing me to suffer the most modest losses of mobility, resources, and freedom. I’d allowed myself to enjoy the advantages you’d bestowed on me. Your absence woke me up to dimensions of my own life in this society, and, more importantly, to the lives of others. I won’t be falling asleep in the same way again.
So, Normal, I’m sending you packing. Why? Because we don’t need you, and because I don’t trust you’d stick around anyway. As for me, I want to find and create a new way, shaped by gratitude and intentionality.
I’m embracing new practices I never would have if you’d never left. For instance, today our community will come together for the first of two “Covenanting” sessions, where we’ll state aloud how we want to be together. In the past, we relied on you to fill in the gaps of that which was left unsaid about our needs, hopes, and dreams. To be frank, you were really bad at it. Amidst our Community Covenanting, we’ll eat cake together, as we believe we’ll recognize Jesus’ presence among us in the breaking of the bread.
Your stuff is out on the curb. We’re grateful for the time we had together, but we’ve grown apart from you and are becoming something new that’s just beginning to take shape.
With gratitude for what was, and hope for what is to be,