About four years ago, my son Morgan and I drove to Marin City to participate in a turkey giveaway. We were invited by a friend and all I knew was that we were to show up, help unload a truck and give away turkeys to people who couldn't afford one on Thanksgiving.
When we got there many things happened I didn't expect. One, there were many more people needing turkeys than I expected. I was ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work. But first we were asked by the man in charge to have a prayer. Ok, I thought, that's nice, ambitious given all these people, but nice. This tall large African American man with a booming deep voice easily managed to gain the attention of this crowd. Everyone joined hands. But just as the prayer was coming to an end, I waited, but no Amen came…Instead what came was a testimony. A testimony for those that don't know is the telling of a deeply personal story that takes a person from some kind of rock bottom in their lives to a new place where they find Jesus and their entire life begins anew. They become changed forever. A new person. Completely saved by Jesus Christ. In some evangelical churches they describe this as “coming to Jesus” and being “born again.”
I only half listened to his testimony because I became completely and totally annoyed. Partially because it was taking so long but more so at the thought of all these people showing up to get a turkey with no idea that they were in for anything else. I looked around the circle and thought how many of these people are going to stand here through this long testimony and do anything differently today than they did yesterday? They just came to get a turkey. Nowhere was there a sign hanging that said; “Free Turkeys, but first you must turn to Jesus. Or at least listen to how someone else did. “ This turkey was no longer free, it required the Atheists in the crowd, the Jews in the crowd, the Buddhists and everyone else, to listen to a testimony before they got their turkey. That's what annoyed me the most.
When the story ended and the turkeys started being passed out, this charismatic man with a booming commanding voice started making the rounds, introducing himself to everyone. And at this point I thought…”Oh for God's sake, please don't come over to me. I just wanted my kid to hand out a turkey.” Sure enough, he walked towards me. I averted my eyes and stood with my arms crossed, ready to protect myself against him and his crazy turkey theology. But soon he got closer and closer and I had no choice but to stand my ground and look at him. There he was staring down at me and before he even said hello he said with a knowing and very lovable smile… “You're from NY aren't you?” I immediately let my guard down because he reflected back to me with a sense of humor just how ridiculous I was being. Then he gave me hug that melted the defensive divide I had superficially created.
Today we continue our series on Marcus Borg's book “Speaking Christian.” In the book are common Christian words and phrases that over time have come to mean something that many of us can no longer relate to. “Born again” for those of us who aren't part of an evangelical tradition, makes us roll our eyes. As Herb Caen once said, “The trouble with born-again Christians is that they are an even bigger pain the second time around.”
That brings us to our story you heard today. It's a wonderful illustration of someone, in this case Nicodemus, who like many of us enters into a discussion, still struggling with what it means to believe. Randall Zachman in “Feasting on the Word” calls Nicodemus “a work in progress who should not be reduced to a hypocritical believer or admirer.”
Nicodemus is a Pharisee and leader of the Jews who comes to Jesus at night. There are a few schools of thought on what it means to come at night. One is, that in the Gospel of John night is equivalent to darkness, as in spiritual darkness. But I prefer another interpretation. Nicodemus was a Pharisee who adhered to the strict customs of his religion. Rabbi's then taught that nighttime was the time to reflect and look for guidance and find answers to their questions. Maybe I prefer that because it somehow justifies my occasional waking up at 3am with concerns and questions of own.
In San Francisco there's an organization called “Night Ministry.” Last year our middle-school youth, as part of their mission trip were led by Bethany to learn about what it means to be a night minister.
“Since 1964, a group of San Francisco Bay Area congregations have attempted to meet the human and spiritual needs of the city through informal, on-street encounters.
Taking a lead from Jesus Christ, who was often found among all kinds of people, the Night Ministers, meet people wherever they are.” Physically and spiritually wherever they are.
And so Jesus, a night minister, looks at this man Nicodemus, exactly where he was, and says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” It's important to point out that the Kingdom of God is in the present, here and now. Not a far away place one eventually goes.
Nicodemus questions Jesus as though he means it literally, to be born again. You might call it a misunderstanding.
Misunderstandings are important because they catch us in a wonderful moment of “How did that happen?” Misunderstandings force us to look back and reflect on how we arrived at our conclusion. We are works in progress. Jesus responds to him by asking Nicodemus a question “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” Theologian Anna Florence points out that “if we hear these words not as “shame on you” but rather with a sense of humor, it changes our place in the story. (Much like “You're from NY aren't you?”) “Suddenly there is room for our own ignorance, an ability to laugh at our own efforts and then get up and try again.”
Frederick Buechner writes, “If you tell me Christian commitment is a thing that has happened to you once and for all like some kind of spiritual plastic surgery, I say …you're either pulling the wool over your own eyes or trying to pull it over mine. Every morning you should wake up in your bed and ask yourself: 'can I believe it all again today?'…
If your answer's always yes, then you probably don't know what believing means…At least five times out of ten the answer should be no because the no is as important as the yes, maybe more so. The no is what proves you're human in case you should ever doubt it. And then, if some morning the answer happens to be really yes, it should be a yes that's choked with confession and tears and great laughter, not a beatific smile, but the laughter of wonderful incredulity."
Recently I went to dinner with a woman I didn't know very well. We got on the topic of religion and she explained her recent choice to attend a conservative catholic church. She said, “My life is messy and unpredictable. I have two small kids and list of to dos the length of my arm. I don't want a religion with room for interpretation. I want rules to follow and someone else to do the thinking for me so I have one less thing to do.”
It's not that I don't understand the temptation. I can't tell you how many times I've found myself sauntering over to the self help section of the book store hoping that maybe I will stumble upon something I have never heard before, that will completely change my life and turn my Rossanne Barr mommy moments into the calm Madonna of a mother I always imagined I would be.
But Jesus didn't send Nicodemus to the self help section of the bookstore. Jesus answers, “What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the spirit sprit.” Then he likens spirit to the wind that blows where it will. We may hear the sound of it but we have no idea where it came from or where it's going next.
And this is, for me, the key. Because the spirit, like wind doesn't allow us to be in control of it.
There lies a subtle beauty inherent in the heart of Christianity, we are not in control. Not because of rules and not because God is upstairs with a clipboard calling the shots on what will happen to whom. But because God is with us, next to us, loving us through the whole unpredictable beautiful mess of life.
We can't control spirit. But we can give in to the spirit. We can give ourselves away that we might be born from above. That is, we give away old ways of thinking and come to new way of living in Jesus Christ. A new life is not an eternal life with no end, (as in “all who believe in me will have eternal life”) but rather a transformation that carries us from the physical to the spiritual.
A transformative quality of life implies change. In math, in science transformation doesn't happen without a change. So first we have to ask, what gets in our way of change. Patterns, habits, old ways of thinking. Remember when you were roughly 20 and you were sure you had it all figured out. I was sure of so many things. This is the beauty of aging, little by little, life changes that. But only if we're open to it. We all know people who never came out of their 20 year old phase. Or people who have over time allowed their hearts be hardened by the quality and challenges of their lives.
Pema Chodron an American Buddhist nun tells the story of herself as a little girl about 6 years old encountering an elderly woman who was sitting in the sun outside her house. Chodron writes, “I was walking by her house one day feeling lonely, unloved and mad, kicking anything I could find. Laughing, the elderly woman said to me, ‘Little girl, don't you go letting life harden your heart.' “Right there” Chodron continues, “I received this pith instruction; we can let the circumstances of our life harden us so we become resentful or afraid or we can let them soften us and make us more open to what scares us. We always have that choice”
Chodron draws an analogy (of awakened hart) to the rawness of broken heart. “If we understand our knee jerk reactions to a broken heart, ones of anxiety, anger resentment and blame and see instead what lies beneath all those layers of a hardened heart we can find the tenderness of genuine sadness.” “This,” Chodron writes, “is our link with all those who have ever loved.” That link with all those who have ever loved brings us into communion with God, Jesus, the spirit and one another. If only we could experience that link, habitually.
It is so easy to stay stuck in our habitual places of self defensiveness. Self defensiveness is just that. A preservation of self. An unwillingness to change. We manifest our defenses in so many different ways.
I remember my first year in college in an acting training program. 18 years old and having grown up in NY somewhere along the way I got a message loud and clear that tough was good. I rejected all things girly and embraced being one of the boys. I walked, sat, ate and drank like a teenage boy. I only wore black, and I rarely smiled. I remember our Acting Mentor Joan Potter, an elderly woman with beautiful gray hair perfectly rolled and pinned, impeccably dressed and proper…The first thing she had me do was to start wearing skirts and sit with my legs crossed. Not because she was trying to get rid of the boy in me, but because to be a good actor you have to be able to live comfortably in the skin of anyone.
And the first step? She would say repeatedly “We must ask ourselves why we do the things we do.” That's how she spoke.
I don't believe Jesus expected Nicodemus to take his words and be instantly changed. I like to think that Jesus was acting much like a spiritual director, pointing out that if we wants to live differently and embrace the kingdom than we must ask ourselves why we do the things we do, and in doing so we open ourselves up to an ever changing spirit. Being born again or from above is not a once and for all ticket to a better life. It is an invitation to be present and open and accepting of whatever faces us in the moment. And we are invited each and every day again and again and again. We are invited when we are alone at 3 in the morning, again as the sun rises, over a mundane cup of coffee, in the first bite of familiar meal, in the smile of a dog, a partner of 20 years, a friend, a co worker, a stranger. It is an invitation of love whether it comes at you in the form of a hug or the slam of a door. All of it is a manifestation of God given life, moment by moment. How open you are to seeing God in each moment, how receptive you are to recognizing the invitation to look at the moment with a new set of eyes is entirely up you.
Finally-I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. To see the world with the eyes of child's. To look with fascination, to let go of what you think you know. Philosophers, artists, people all over the world have been saying this since the beginning of time. Over the last few days I've read so much all saying essentially the same thing. Some of the reading was very specific, detailed and technical. There were tools and how to's and analogies from nature and stories to illustrate their point…but in all that research that wasn't theological in nature, I was continually struck by how “self” dependent and self reliant it required one to be. It was entirely up to ones self to change.
So here, for me, is a fundamental difference in what we as Christians subscribe to our daily practice of living. We don't have to accomplish being born again or anything else for that matter by our selves. It's never entirely up to us and us alone. Week after week we teach our Sunday school children, that they are never alone in what they do. We're in partnership with God who is always with us, in everything we do, especially in the middle of the night when we feel completely alone, worried and have no confidence.
And when we practice living with this sense of trust that we are not alone, then we can begin to interpret our lives with a new set of eyes, much like those of very young child. We start to expect the unexpected. We may even go so far as to start praying for the wind to blow and take us in a new direction so that we're required to embrace change again and again and again bringing us to a new place in our life. A place we never thought of. A place beyond our wildest adult imagination. Much like a kingdom. Only not one of fairy tales and far away places, but here and now, where God reveals God's self to us in love constantly, a place where we are present enough not only receive it, but to return that love again and again and again.
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