Having raised three children into adulthood, I’ve had many occasions on which to reflect, over the past several years, on the differences between the environment in which they were raised and the environment in which I was raised. In many respects, my children and I were raised in very different worlds. But there is one experience, at least, which they and I share. We’ve all had some version of the following conversation—I with my parents, my children with me: “Why do you want to do that?” “Because all the other kids are.” “Well, if all the other kids were jumping off a cliff, would you want to do that too?” And the conversation usually breaks down at about that point with a sigh and rolled eyes. Peer pressure wasn’t new yesterday and it won’t be old tomorrow. It’s part of growing up, a universal experience that young people have to deal with.
But what we may be less aware of is that peer pressure is not just for young people anymore. All of us—whether we’re seven or seventy-seven, or any other age—we all experience a tremendous amount of sometimes subtle but always present pressure from our peers in the culture around us. Pressure from our cultural surroundings is intense, virtually irresistible at times. I was raised in a Christian subculture that was opposed to social dancing. (If you’ve ever seen me on a dance floor, this fact becomes painfully obvious.) When I was in first grade, my teacher decided that, on the last day of school, we’d have a dance. She told us to bring our favorite records. When I conveyed this request to my mother, she had a fit! She instructed me to tell my teacher that dancing was “against my religion.” My mother and I experienced peer pressure from our culture. I can’t say I was crushed by having to be a wallflower at my first dance. But I didn’t quite get it either. Dancing seemed pretty normal to me—people did it on TV all the time. Later, when I was in high school, I was a little more wistful about it. I was aware that being the kind of Christian that my parents had raised me to be placed me outside the norm of the larger culture. What was normal for most people was not normal for me.
We all want to be normal. We want to fit in. We don’t want to call attention to ourselves by being odd or quirky. And most Christians like to think that it’s possible to be a Christian and still “go with the flow,” to be a Christian and still be quite “normal.” Episcopalians, in particular, seem to be invested in not calling attention to ourselves by our religiosity. We don’t want our piety or our prayer or our religious language to cause us to stand out in a crowd. We want to practice Christian religion in the most “normal” way possible, along with being “normal” voters and drivers and homeowners and parents and grandparents and patriotic citizens.
We have much in common with some of our prehistoric ancestors, those who were around in what Jesus refers to as “the days of Noah.” Now, when you read the book of Genesis, it’s quite clear that the reason God destroyed the earth with a flood in “the days of Noah” was because of rampant violence and evil in human society. But Jesus, curiously, doesn’t mention anything about that violence and evil. When Jesus talks about the “days of Noah,” he mentions eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage—all pretty normal, boringly normal, stuff. It was, in fact, their attachment to those and other perfectly normal activities that caused them to be blindsided by divine judgement when it arrived in the form of a flood.
I fear that we in our society are also allowing ourselves to be set up to be blindsided by divine judgement. We want to eat and drink and marry and give in marriage, and go to school, and travel, and work, and make friends, and save for and enjoy a comfortable retirement, and have some fun along the way, and—some of us, at least—to even be a little religious along the way, as long as we don’t make too big a deal out of it. Until relatively recent years, our society has fostered the notion that being a good Christian is really just an extension of being a good citizen—live by the golden rule and attend the church of your choice on Sunday. All very normal. Until it starts to rain and the flood waters rise and we realize, too late, that we should have been paying more attention to that kooky fellow named Noah (nothing normal about him) who spent so much time building a boat in his backyard.
However, it’s not only our attachment to the normal that will blind us to the impending judgement of God, but also our seemingly endless capacity to normalize that which is really ab-normal or sub normal. There are several examples I could point to, but one in particular impresses me just because of the work that I do. I would suspect that, forty or fifty years ago, an unmarried couple who were living together, but wanted to do the right thing, and get properly married, would probably expect that the priest whom they hoped would officiate at their wedding would require them to first move to separate addresses, and probably also ask them to plan a low-key and informal wedding. There was an element of appropriate shame involved in the whole process. Thirty or forty years ago, the same couple would at least try to conceal the fact that they share sleeping quarters, and if they couldn’t conceal it, to at least smile shyly and act duly apologetic and embarrassed. Nowadays, and for the last 25 years or so, the same couple wouldn’t even think to either conceal what they’d been doing or be embarrassed about it in the least. It strikes them as eminently normal, simply the way things are done—and they’re right, it is the way things are done. You meet somebody, sleep together, live together, and then, if everything works out, you get married. You may even have a child or two first!
We have indeed normalized the sub-normal, in this and in so many other ways. And in our attachment to the normal—whether it’s true normality or false normality—the last thing we want to hear is the message of Advent, which is a message of consequences, a message of responsibility, a message of judgement. It’s a message that confronts us, of course, all throughout the year, but in Advent it takes on a tone of urgency. Jesus says, “Watch, therefore, for you do not know on what day your lord is coming.” Right there is a challenge to the normal. It’s not normal to be always watchful, always vigilant, always aware that cataclysmic radical change may arrive at any moment.
But that’s the attitude that Jesus urges us to have. And if we’re looking for comfort on this first Sunday of Advent, we won’t find it from St Paul. His message is just as pointed at Jesus’:
“...you know what hour it is, how it is full time for you now to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light...”.
Advent is God’s alarm clock waking us from our complacent attachment to the normal. It’s time to wake up and smell the coming of Christ! It’s time to get up, and lay aside what’s normal and make a radical decision, a radical commitment to Christ, lest we find ourselves in the position of those who lived in the days of Noah, but also died in the days of Noah, because they weren’t on the ark when the rains came. It’s time for us normal Episcopalians to start doing and saying things that risk getting the attention of those around us, things that might relegate us to the margins of our culture, for the sake of Christ and the gospel of Christ. We need to learn from the experience of some of our Christian brethren in other traditions—traditions we may have looked down on as marginal or fanatical or a little odd—but traditions which have maintained a healthy critical distance from the prevailing secular culture. We may not agree with them in the details—I, for one, don’t think the dance floor is the beginning of the road to Hell—but they have learned a point of view, a habit of the heart, that we would do well to imitate. Dancing may not damn us, but an attachment to being “normal” just might.
Jesus says that when he comes again in power and great glory to judge the world, people will be found doing normal things. Two men will be working in the field, two women will be grinding at the mill. We might add signs of normality that are more appropriate to our experience: two men on the same factory floor, or on the same putting green; two women working in the same office, or taking their children to the same park. At first glance, one is indistinguishable from the other. But Jesus says, at the moment of his coming, they will look very different indeed. One will be revealed as among those who have been co-opted, seduced, by normality, who have persistently excluded God from their lives, and will therefore be allowed to reap the fruit, the natural consequences, of those choices. The final portion of the Godless is to be without God. The other will be revealed as part of the community of the redeemed, the company of those who have yielded their hearts and lives to the Lord of history. They will enjoy the vision of universal justice and peace which Isaiah, the prophet of the Advent, writes about so movingly: “...they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Are we willing to risk being a little bit “different,” a little bit “abnormal” now, for the sake of being numbered among those who are “taken” rather than “left” on that great day? Now is the hour of decision, the crisis is now. Jesus wants to do business in your heart, in my heart, today. But he can’t do the work he wants to do if we don’t let loose of being normal. Are we ready to give it up? The phone’s for you. It’s Jesus. He’s on hold, waiting for your answer. What’s it going to be?
Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.