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  • Writer's pictureSt. Luke's

Breaking Open "Normal"

The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield

With a brief cameo from our tech guy's hand at the beginning. :)

Last spring, Rachel and I were walking along the riverfront in downtown Portland. It was a really nice day, and there were a lot of people out—walking, running, hanging out on the grass. And I saw something I’d never seen before. I saw a man without arms riding a bike. I don’t know if he’d been born without arms or if they’d been amputated, but they ended just below his shoulders. And he was just pedaling along the river, earbuds in his ears, as casual as anyone else hanging out. His bike had been modified, of course, so that he could steer and do what he needed to do. It didn’t have handlebars, and I’m not really sure how it worked. But it worked just fine.

I’ll be honest: I was a bit stunned. Before that moment, I would have never imagined how someone without arms could ride a bike—because I couldn’t imagine that a bike could ever look any different than my “normal” conception of a bike. But there it was.

It got me wondering about the idea of “normal.” It got me wondering what other ways that my idea of “normal” restricted my imagination for what was possible. It got me wondering about all the people “normal” leaves out.

Because if you look around, our world is built to accommodate a pretty narrow range of ways of being: abilities, body types, economic situations.

Do you know how many buildings people in wheelchairs can’t get into in Gresham?

Do you know how many people can’t sit in a standard airplane seat?

The free covid test program will send four tests to each household—which presumes a lot about what they think a “normal” living situation is. What is a household anyways? What about folks living with lots of roommates? Or multigenerational households where a lot of family lives under the same roof? What about folks who don’t have homes?

But instead of making the world more accessible, our instinct is to stigmatize.

“You can’t change every building for everyone.”. As if the burden of making spaces more accessible is too much work to bother with. As if disabled people are a burden.

“If they’d just lose some weight and take care of themselves, they wouldn’t have to worry about the plane seat.” As if having a larger body is a personal failing of effort, and not a genetic predisposition.

“If they worked harder, they could have a home of their own someday.” As if one nuclear family per home is the ideal.

But then I think about the armless guy riding a bike, and I realize that it’s not someone’s unique way of being that’s the problem. It’s our idea of “normal” that’s the problem.

Paul writes in today’s epistle: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as God chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you."

Paul is not into the idea of “normal.” He is not into lifting up one way of being as the ideal and painting other ways of being as burdens or wrong. In fact, he says that we can’t have the Body of Christ without all of us. Not one of us can say to the other, “I have no need of you.” Because, like I said last week, every single one of us in all of our glorious God-given difference is absolutely essential to the thriving of the whole body.

But Paul takes it a step further: “The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this.”

Let’s dig into the particulars of Paul’s language here. The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. Those members of the body we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor. He’s not saying they are weaker, that they are less honorable, he’s saying that we’re perceiving them as that way.

And when I say them, I mean me, I mean you. There’s something about each of us that makes us seem weaker or less honorable to others.

But those words seem and think, they point to that unhelpful and damaging idea of “normal.” Some people seem weak because they don’t measure up to some “normal” version of strong. We think some people are less honorable because they don’t measure up to some “normal” version of honor.

Those ideas of “normal,” Paul says, we need to counterbalance them. The Body of Christ is about seeing people who seem weak as indispensable. It’s about giving greater honor to those people we think are less honorable. And even if people have somehow proven to be less respectable, the Body of Christ means treating them with greater respect.

Why should they get more honor, more respect? Well, because those of us who fall more broadly into the “normal” range of being, we don’t need it! Not as much, at least. A lot of us haven’t been stigmatized and harmed in significant ways for our way of being. Our own sense of worth hasn’t been eroded by these false ideas of “normal” and not fitting into them.

In order to be the Body of Christ, Paul says, we must see every person as absolutely indispensable. We must actively make room for every single person. Not “make accommodations.” That still presumes a “normal” that we must deviate from. I’m talking about noticing who our ways of being and our spaces leave out, and reimagining them with the entire Body of Christ in mind.

Like reimagining a bike for someone who doesn’t have arms.

So what does it mean to reimagine the bike of our church? What does it mean for us to break open our idea of “normal” so that we can be an even fuller version of the Body of Christ?

As we move into our Annual Meeting, reflecting on the past year and looking forward to this new calendar year, those are the questions I want us to hold, open to, live into. And I’m not saying we’re not already open to these questions. I do think we work to make authentic space for a lot of different ways of being. And I think we have room for growth. We will always have room for growth. This work is the work of love, and it never ends. That’s a good thing. Amen.

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