“I used to be normal.”
John (not his real name) pushed his words out two or three at a time, as if someone were turning an .mp3 file on and off at haphazard intervals. You could see the strain in his jaw and throat during each unintended break in his speech.
We were sharing a bench in a Greyhound bus station in Greenville, South Carolina. I had observed John’s palsied gait as he had approached where I was sitting. He had struck up a conversation as soon as he had sat down.
“What are you doing here dressed like that?”
I was eighteen. A Senior at St. Pius X Catholic High School in Atlanta. We had just run in the Furman Relays, and my track team had left me behind. I was wearing my track uniform. And, yes, it was more than a little awkward.
“Well, my dad and his new wife had come up from rural Georgia to watch me run. I joined them in their car after the meet to wait out a rain storm. My team thought he was giving me a ride, so they left. He didn’t feel like adding an hour to his trip, so he gave me bus money and dumped me off here.”
We chatted for a few more minutes, then he said, “I used to be normal.”
John stood a few inches over six feet. His broad shoulders narrowed to a thin waist. Thick black hair and a square jaw framed his face. And a motorcycle crash had scrambled his brain. He would never speak or walk the way he once had.
He said that he’s not normal anymore like he was telling me that he had had a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. There was no hint of regret or frustration or self-pity in his voice. He was just reporting a mundane fact.
Horrified, I blurted out something like, “Don’t say that! Of course you’re normal. You’re like all the rest of us. I can understand you just fine.”
As I recall, he looked at me like I was missing something pretty obvious. In truth, I was. And that truth was about me, not him.
I was dying to be normal. Or at least, I was dying to make people think I was normal. Normal people get acceptance and love. Abnormal people eat alone in the lunch room. I knew the truth. I wasn’t normal at all. But I sure wanted to pass as normal.
You see, I was born with a cleft palate. When I was eighteen, it hadn’t been fully corrected, so I was saddled with a terrible speech impediment.
A student in a Catholic school filled with big, happy, intact families, my parents were divorced. And my dad almost never showed up.
I lived with my mom and her parents. They were immigrants from Austria who had passed through Ellis Island following the Second World War. We ate brown bread and knockwurst while everybody else in the neighborhood had fried chicken and cornbread for supper. English was obviously not the primary language in our house.
I wasn’t normal. I never even used to be normal. And trying to look like it was killing me.
What I see now is that it wasn’t being abnormal that was crushing me. Instead, my heartburn came from the human all too human game of separating people into neat boxes of normal and abnormal.
We have a tendency to make ourselves feel significant by finding somebody to be better than. When we’re better than somebody else, we get the thrill of feeling superior to be sure. But we also find an easy target to blame for what’s going wrong in our own lives.
As a bishop in the Episcopal Church, it saddens me to admit that from time to time religious institutions play the normal-abnormal game. And we’ve broken hearts and crushed souls along the way.
By contrast, Jesus came to make clear that God doesn’t see human beings in these terms. Jesus—especially the baby Jesus that Advent prepares us to welcome—shows us just what humans look like to God. Fragile, vulnerable, and needy. We wither unless nurtured. We thrive only by being connected.
That’s why John the Baptist blasts the religious leaders of his day.
Big crowds had gathered to hear him in the desert. He’s telling them to prepare for the Kingdom of Heaven. By heaven he doesn’t mean what we frequently mean today: a paradise that awaits us after death. The Kingdom of Heaven is this planet, only this planet once God’s love is as real on earth as it is in heaven.
And then he spots the Pharisees. He calls them a brood of vipers. In the Baptist’s view, they think of themselves as the standard of normal. They believe that their moral rectitude and their religious observances give them a passing grade with God. And their status entitles them to say who lands in the normal box and who gets tossed in the abnormal pile.
Jesus shows us that God doesn’t scrutinize us from a distance to make sure we’re normal. God seeks us out in all our squalid, tender, sordid, beautiful quirkiness. Each and every one of us.
Trying to be normal will kill you. It nearly killed me. God draws us to something better: being God’s beloved. Recognizing that everyone else is God’s beloved, too. There is nothing normal about that.