• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Back to Normal?

Updated: Apr 16

Like many of you perhaps, there is an odd compulsion in some corner of me to get things back to normal. As the new pastor at a new church, I was looking forward to getting to know the staff, the Session, the Diaconate, the congregation, and the community more personally. I was ready to have small gatherings where we could ask one another questions and really get to know each others' stories. I wanted my spring timeline of visits back home, installation as a pastor, special events with family, and a completed move to Maryland all to happen normally. We are rightly on hold for all of it, but it hurts, and I find myself grieving for the expectations of normal I've lost. The actions we are taking now to stay apart, to close gatherings and groups, to wash and sanitize and disinfect, these are making the dent the scientists and physicians promised. The curve is not yet at its peak in many communities but things are slowing, flattening. Perhaps hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and deaths will also begin to reflect our combined efforts to stay home and stay safe, but there's a part of me wishing things could get back to what I assumed would be our normal new-pastor/church relationship and the normal of what Jill and I were expecting on the Eastern Shore. Easter helped me see something again. I already knew it, but had let it recede into the shadows. In preparing and preaching Easter, I couldn't ignore it. Now, I am attempting to retrain my head and heart to remember it, and even lean into it. As followers of Christ, we do not want things to go back to normal. In Jesus' time, for many of God's children, normal wasn't close enough to the Kingdom of God. Jesus' words and actions defined the Good News as the Kingdom, the Kin-dom, the community of God was coming and is at hand. This new Kin-dom would upset our normal. Jesus and the Kin-dom he preached were unraveling systems and structures that neglected the elderly, stepped over the poor, abused immigrants, and ignored the sick. In the new Kin-dom, Jesus was describing these precious children of God not as lesser but as equal and even given first consideration in communal priorities. Jesus never stopped teaching and promising the Good News of the coming Kin-dom, and died because so many would rather things go back to normal than to welcome the Kingdom he preached. The desire for "back to normal" in me resembles the same instinct disciples showed when they betrayed and denied him. The same cultural call for back-to-normal now echoes the systems and structures then who arrested, crucified, and buried the Messiah. If "back to normal" means going back to how things were, we as disciples of Jesus cannot in good conscience go that direction. Instead, at Easter, we are shown we must go forward, not back. Our direction is not back to the normal of before, but forward toward a new normal, the coming Kingdom of God. As people of the God we know in Christ, the Kingdom of God is the only normal we want to see come. The Kingdom of God is the motivation behind our words and actions. The Kin-dom of God is the inspiration in us to give, serve, worship, and work. The Community of God is why we resist, celebrate, struggle, and support. The New Normal is our goal and our prayer... "Thy Kingdom, COME... on earth as it is in the heavens!" And, we aren't just trying to get there ourselves. We are trying to help it arrive here for our benefit, yes, and for the benefit of all God's children. I will be resisting the whispers inside me grieving for "back to normal." Instead, I will be trying to lean forward toward a new normal. The only normal I might be willing to go back to is the garden, where all creatures were in harmony and balance, humans were good stewards of all creation, and there was not yet war, dying, death, or disease.

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In 2002, I left my corporate career, and went to seminary. Since 2005, I've been serving churches, and trying to follow Jesus, and lead others in doing the same...

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