To make a start where we are, we must recognize that our
world is not normal, but only usual at present.
Community is the place where the person you least want to
live with always lives.
In certain stores you will find a section of merchandise available at
greatly reduced prices. The tip-off is a particular tag you will see on
all the items in that area. Each tag carries the same words: as is.
This is a euphemistic way of saying, "These are damaged goods."
Sometimes they're called slightly irregular. The store is issuing you fair
warning: "This is the department of Something's-Gone-Wrong. You're
going to find a flaw here: a stain that won't come out; a zipper that
won't zip; a button that won't butt-there will be a problem. These
items are not normal.
"We're not going to tell you where the flaw is. You'll have to look
"But we know it's there. So when you find it-and you will find
it-don't come whining and sniveling to us. Because there is a fundamental
rule when dealing with merchandise in this corner of the store:
No returns. No refunds. No exchanges. If you were looking for perfection,
you walked down the wrong aisle. You have received fair warning.
If you want this item, there is only one way to obtain it. You must take
it as is."
When you deal with human beings, you have come to the "as-is" corner
of the universe. Think for a moment about someone in your life. Maybe
the person you know best, love most. That person is slightly irregular.
That person comes with a little tag: There's a flaw here. A streak of
deception, a cruel tongue, a passive spirit, an out-of-control temper. I'm not
going to tell you where it is, but it's there. So when you find it-and you will
find it-don't be surprised. If you want to enter a relationship with this
model, there is only one way. "As is."
If you were looking for perfection, you've walked down the wrong
We are tempted to live under the illusion that somewhere out there
are people who are normal. In the movie As Good As It Gets, Helen
Hunt is wracked by ambivalence toward Jack Nicholson. He is kind
and generous to her and her sick son, but he is also agoraphobic,
obsessive-compulsive, and terminally offensive: If rudeness were measured
in square miles, he'd be Texas. In desperation, Helen finally cries
to her mother: I just want a normal boyfriend.
Oh, her mother responds in empathy, everybody wants one of those.
There's no such thing, dear.
When we enter relationships with the illusion that people are normal,
we resist the truth that they are not. We enter an endless attempt
to fix them, control them, or pretend that they are what they're not.
One of the great marks of maturity is to accept the fact that everybody
comes "as is."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said people enter relationships with their own
particular ideals and dreams of what community should look like. He
wrote surprising words:
But God's grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment
with others, with Christians in general, and, if we
are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as
surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine
Christian community The sooner this moment of disillusionment
comes over the individual and the community, the
better for both Those who love their dream of a Christian
community more than the Christian community itself become
destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal
intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.
Of course, the most painful part of this is realizing that I am in the "as-is"
department as well. Throughout history human beings have resisted owning
up to that little tag. We try to separate the world into normal, healthy people
(like us) and difficult people. Sometime ago the title of a magazine article
caught my eye: "Totally Normal Women Who Stalk Their Ex-Boyfriends."
The phrase that struck me was "totally normal women." What
would one of these look like (or a totally normal man, for that matter)?
And if the obsessive stalking of a past lover is not just normal but totally
normal, how far would you have to go to be a little strange?
We all want to look normal, to think of ourselves as normal, but the
writers of Scripture insist that no one is "totally normal"-at least not
as God defines normal. "All we like sheep have gone astray," they tell
us. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
This explains a very important aspect of the opening pages of
One of the most ironic remarks about the Bible I hear from time to
time is when someone says that it's a book about pious, stained-glass
characters who do not reflect the real world.
I always know that means they haven't read it. Have you ever
noticed how many messed-up families there are in Genesis?
Here's a quick summary:
Cain is jealous of Abel and kills him. Lamech introduces polygamy
to the world. Noah-the most righteous man of his generation-gets
drunk and curses his own grandson.
Lot, when his home is surrounded by residents of Sodom who want
to violate his visitors, offers instead that they can have sex with his
daughters. Later on, his daughters get him drunk and get impregnated
by him-and Lot is the most righteous man in Sodom!
Abraham plays favorites between his sons Isaac and Ishmael;
Isaac plays favorites between his sons Jacob and Esau; they're bitter
enemies for twenty years. Jacob plays favorites between Joseph and
his other eleven sons; the brothers want to kill Joseph and end up selling
him into slavery.
Their marriages are disasters:
Abraham has sex with his wife's servant, then sends her and their
son off to the wilderness at his wife's request. Isaac and Rebekah fight
over which boy gets the blessing. Jacob marries two wives and ends up
with both of their maids as his concubines as well when they get into
a fertility contest.
Jacob's firstborn son, Reuben, sleeps with his father's concubine.
Another son, Judah, sleeps with his daughter-in-law when she disguises
herself as a prostitute. She does this because she is childless since
her first two husbands-both sons of Judah-were so wicked that God
killed them both; and Judah reneged on his obligations to her.
These people need a therapist.
These are not the Waltons. They need Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, Dr.
Ruth, Dr. Spock, Dr. Seuss-they need somebody. (Feel any better
about your family?)
Why does the writer of Genesis include all this stuff?
There's a very important reason. The writer of Scripture is trying to
establish a deep theological truth: Everybody's weird.
Every one of us-all we like sheep-have habits we can't control,
past deeds we can't undo, flaws we can't correct. This is the cast of
characters God has to work with. In the way that glass is predisposed
to shatter and nitroglycerin is predisposed to explode, we are predisposed
to do wrong when conditions are right. That predisposition is
what theologians call "depravity." We lie and sacrifice integrity for the
sake of a few dollars ("I don't understand, Officer-my speedometer
must be broken"). We gossip for the sake of a few moments' feeling of
superiority. We try to create false impressions of productivity at work to
advance more rapidly. (A new software package allows you to surf the
net at work, then with one click switch to a fake screen that makes it
look as if you're working on a project; it's called "boss screen.") We seek
to intimidate employees or children to gain control, or simply to enjoy
the feeling of power.
Everybody's weird. This is such a fundamental insight, you may want
to close the book for a moment and share this thought with the person
closest to you. Or the person it most reminds you of. Or perhaps these
are the same person.
Because we know in our hearts that this is not the way we're supposed
to be, we try to hide our weirdness. Every one of us pretends to be
healthier and kinder than we really are; we all engage in what might be
called "depravity management."
Every once in a while somebody's "as-is" tag becomes high profile.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian is guilty of plagiarism; a politician's
career explodes in sexual scandal; a powerful CEO resigns in disgrace
over illegal document shredding. What's surprising
is not that such things happen; it's that
the general public response is, "Can you
believe it? And they seemed so normal." As if
you and I, of course, would be incapable of
The problem with the human race is not
that we have just a few bad apples in our
midst. Writers in the field known as abnormal
psychology work hard to distinguish the
abnormal from the normal among us. One of
the dangers in studying the topic, sometimes
called the "intern syndrome," is that students
start to see themselves in every diagnosis.
"There is almost no one who has not harbored secret doubts about his
or her normality," a recent textbook says. But writers in Scripture say
that when it comes to the most important form of pathology, we are all
in the same diagnostic category: "All we like sheep have gone
astray" From a spiritual perspective, our "secret doubts about our
normality" have something important to tell us. As Neil Plantinga puts
it, "In a biblical view of the world, sin is a familiar, even predictable
part of life, but it is not normal. And the fact that 'everybody does it'
doesn't make it normal."
From the time of Adam in the Garden of Eden, sin and hiding have
been as inevitable as death and taxes. Some people are pretty good at
hiding. But the weirdness is still there. Get close enough to anyone,
and you will see it. Everybody's normal till you get to know them.
The Longing to Connect
And yet .
The yearning to attach and connect, to love and be loved, is the
fiercest longing of the soul. Our need for community with people and
the God who made us is to the human spirit what food and air and water
are to the human body. That need will not go away even in the face of
all the weirdness. It marks us from the nursery to the convalescent home.
An infant lifts up her face hopefully, she holds out two stubby little arms
in her desire to be held, she beams a smile of delight when she is picked
up and rocked-what heart can keep from melting?
At the other end of the spectrum, the widowed father of a man I
know falls in love with a woman at his church. He proposes, she
accepts. They walk down the aisle. He is eighty-four, a retired doctor;
she is eighty-one, a retired missionary. It is her first marriage. She kissed
dating good-bye during the Truman administration. You would think
she might have given up on the whole marriage deal by now; yet she
finds not only Mr. Right, but Dr. Right. They
throw off the age curve of the Newly Married
class by six decades.
As frustrating as people can be, it's hard to
find a good substitute. A friend of mine was
ordering breakfast during a recent trip in the
South. He saw grits on the menu, and being a
Dutchman who spent most of his life in
Michigan, he had never been very clear on the
nature of this item. So he asked the waitress,
"What exactly is a grit?"
Her response was a classic. "Honey," she
said (in the South, waitresses are required by
law to address all customers as "honey"), "Honey, they don't come by
Grits don't exist in isolation. No grit is an island, entire unto itself.
Every grit is a part of the mainland, a piece of the whole. You can't
order a single grit. They're a package deal.
"Call it a clan, call it a tribe, call it a network, call it a family," says
Jane Howard. "Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one."
It is not good for man to be alone. Dallas Willard says, "The natural
condition of life for human beings is reciprocal rootedness in others."
Honey, you don't come by yourself.
Edward Hallowell, a senior lecturer at Harvard Medical School,
speaks of the basic human need for community. He uses the term connection:
the sense of being part of something that matters, something
larger than ourselves. We need face-to-face interactions; we need to be
seen and known and served and do these same things for others. We
need to bind ourselves to each other with promises of love and loyalty
made and kept. These connections involve other people, of course (and
especially God); but Hallowell observes that people draw life even from
connecting to pets, to music, or to nature.
There is a reason for this. Neil Plantinga notes that the Hebrew
prophets had a word for just this kind of connectedness of all things:shalom-"the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in
justice, fulfillment, and delight." Try to imagine, the old prophets told
people then, and tell us still, what such a state of affairs would look like.
In a world where shalom prevailed, all marriages would be healthy
and all children would be safe. Those who have too much would give
to those who have too little. Israeli and Palestinian children would play
together on the West Bank; their parents would build homes for one
another. In offices and corporate boardrooms, executives would secretly
scheme to help their colleagues succeed; they would compliment them
behind their backs. Tabloids would be filled with accounts of courage
and moral beauty. Talk shows would feature mothers and daughters who
love each other deeply, wives who give birth to their husbands' children,
and men who secretly enjoy dressing as men.
Disagreements would be settled with grace and civility. There
would still be lawyers, perhaps, but they would have really useful jobs
like delivering pizza, which would be non-fat and low in cholesterol.
Doors would have no locks; cars would have no alarms. Schools would
no longer need police presence or even hall monitors; students and
teachers and janitors would honor and value one another's work. At
recess, every kid would get picked for a team.
Churches would never split.
People would be neither bored nor hurried. No father would ever
again say, "I'm too busy," to a disappointed child. Our national sleep
deficit would be paid off. Starbucks would still
exist but would sell only decaf.
Divorce courts and battered-women shelters
would be turned into community recreation