12 March 2017

Born Again and Again

Second Sunday in Lent

Ninety miles north of Catonsville Presbyterian Church, about twenty-miles northeast of Lancaster, PA, is the town of Ephrata.  There’s a National Historic Landmark there known as The Ephrata Cloister.  This religious community was founded in 1732 by Conrad Beissel (1691-1768), a German Pietist who emigrated from Germany, in 1720.  Pietism was a movement in German Protestantism that sought to reform the state supported Protestant churches.  Pietist groups, which gathered to read the Bible and to pray, were not sanctioned by the state churches.  Pietists were interested in personal piety, in personal spiritual growth and development.  Beissel had a religious experience, and not long after that he was forced to leave Germany, in 1715.  He made his way to Germantown, Pennsylvania (outside Philadelphia) and then to Ephrata, where he became associated with the Anabaptist Brethren.  

The Ephrata Cloister, Ephrata, PA
Beissel eventually organized a religious community for people who were interested in a spiritual life, living apart, cloistered away from the rest of society.  At its height, there were about 400 residents of the community.  They lived and worked and worshipped together.  They held all things in common.  There were celibate members and entire families living together.  If, today, you walk through the cloister graveyard, you will find on many gravestones three dates: the date of birth, the date of death, and in between the two—the date when that member was born again.

Born again.  Are you born again?  It’s a designation that’s probably foreign to most Presbyterians and Mainline Protestants, although some would describe themselves this way.  The phrase became popular in 1976 when President Jimmy Carter started talking about being born again.  I remember, back in the 1980s, being asked, “So, when were you born again?”  The question made me feel uncomfortable.  No one had ever asked that of me before.  I knew what he was getting at. He wanted to know about my conversion experience, when I confessed Christ as Lord and became a Christian.  He wanted the date and time. 

But, I grew up Presbyterian!  My family, on my mother’s side, has been Presbyterian since the sixteenth century in Scotland; on my father’s side, Hungarian Reformed from at least the early nineteenth century.  I was in church every Sunday as a boy.  I never once missed a day of church school—and I have the perfect attendance awards to prove it.  I was a deacon when I was high school, an elder when I was in college.  But no one, ever, told me that I needed to be born again.  

Horace Bushnell
Like many Presbyterians, I suspect, I was the product of the nineteenth century Sunday School movement, shaped (in part) by the teachings of the Protestant theologian Horace Bushnell (1802-1876).  Known as the “father of American religious liberalism,” Bushnell was suspicious of pietism and religious awakenings and revivals.  In his classic work, Christian Nurture (1847), Bushnell said that children raised in authentic Christian homes and churches simply, naturally grow up to be Christians. “[A] child grow[s] up never knowing when he wasn’t a Christian.”[1] According to Bushnell, there’s no need for a dramatic conversion experience or a radical decision of faith.

If you can relate to this, if this was your experience growing up in the church, if this is still your take on the faith, if you’re like Nicodemus—someone who grew up in a faith community, nurtured in the faith, never having known a time when he wasn’t a child of Abraham—then you can imagine how he felt when he heard Jesus say, “Very truly”—in other words, “Pay attention!  This is the way it is!”—“I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born again” (Jn. 3:3).

This is, obviously, where the designation originates.  It’s the only place in the Bible that speaks about being born again.  John 3:3.  One verse.  That one verse has generated an entire sect of Christians who identify themselves as “born again,” as if it were a separate type of Christian.  Generally speaking, born again types are viewed with suspicion in American society.  I sometimes hear people say, “She’s one of those Born Again Christians.”  Or, “He’s, you know, one of those Born Agains”—meaning, fanatic, enthusiast, zealot.  Several years ago, comedian Dennis Miller was asked,  “Born again?  No, I’m not. Excuse me for getting it right the first time.”

The American novelist James Baldwin (1924-1987) had this to say about the Born Again.  He was raised in a Pentecostal church, but later left Christianity altogether, due, in part, to the hypocrisy of many American Christians and churches that operate more like country clubs.  In an “Open Letter to the Born Again,” from September 1979, Baldwin wrote, “The people who call themselves ‘born again’ today have simply become members of the richest, most exclusive private club in the world, a club that the man from Galilee could not possibly hope—or wish—to enter.”[2]

So, what do we do with John 3:3?  Skip over it?  Disregard it?  Some Bible translations, such as the NRSV, try to put distance between the text and these associations with conversion.  The NRSV reads, “…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  The Greek word here is anothen, which can mean born “again,” or born “from above,” or simply “reborn.” 

What is Jesus getting at here?  First, he wasn’t asking Nicodemus to change his religion.  He wasn’t asking him to leave Judaism to become a Christian.  The designation “Christian” didn’t exist in Jesus’ time.  However, Jesus was explicit that something had to be converted within Nicodemus; something had to change, come alive, be reborn within him.

Nicodemus shows up in the middle of the night because he doesn’t want anyone seeing him.  He’s a leader of the Jewish people, a man of deep faith.  He’s the religious expert.  He’s an institution man.  He represents the tradition.  He has power, authority.
He’s been tracking Jesus’ teaching and movement for some time.  He knows that God is up to something in him, but not sure what.  My guess is that he goes to Jesus at night because he’s curious.  He has a lot of questions and he wants answers.  At first, Nicodemus tries to butter him up, by saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (Jn. 3:2). 

Jesus, knowing all of this, avoiding this, not really listening to his flattery, throws out this non sequitur, about being born again!  Nicodemus, thrown for a loop, confused, says, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 

Do you see what’s happening here?  Nicodemus is being literal, concrete.  He has no imagination.  And because he remains there, because that’s where he often hangs out in his faith, he can’t see, can’t perceive, can’t hear, can’t discern what Jesus is trying to show him.  Nicodemus is stuck in his own limited, small, inherited frame of reference.  Jesus is trying to get him to think spiritually, or “heavenly” (Jn. 3:12).  Jesus invites Nicodemus to perceive through metaphor.  Jesus is trying to break open his reality through the use of symbolic language.  In this text and throughout John’s Gospel, we find Jesus trying to lift us to an altogether different paradigm.  So Jesus says, “Very truly”—This is the way it is!—“no one see the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of Spirit is spirit.  Don’t be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born again.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:5-9). 

Jesus is trying to expand his horizon of meaning, to increase his awareness of the Spirit’s movement in his life.  Nicodemus, even more perplexed, says, “How can these things be?”  Then Jesus said, “You’re a religious leader of God’s people. You’re supposed to know this.  You’re supposed to know something of the way of God. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (Jn. 3:10).  That’s a good question.  Why doesn’t he understand “these things”? 

Why don’t we understand “these things”?  How does anyone understand “these things”?   Maybe, because we get stuck in ruts, religious ruts.  We get trapped by what we know (or think we know).  We have our opinions, our cherished beliefs, and hold on to them for dear life, despite how irrational they may be.  They serve us well (or think they do).  Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1771-1834), poet, critic, and philosopher, once referred to the “film of familiarity.”  The familiar can become a film over our eyes.  In “consequence of the film of familiarity,” he writes, “and selfish solicitude, we have eyes yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.”[3]

Perhaps Nicodemus forgot that the Spirit moves through the world, moves through our souls, in order to remove the “film” that prevents us from seeing, in order to birth something new in us, something not known to us naturally, according to the flesh.  “What is born of the flesh is flesh” (Jn. 3:6).  The Spirit, though, comes to bring life, God’s life, true life, rich, abundant, meaningful, life-giving life (Jn.10:10)!  And the Spirit brings light. John 3 begins with Nicodemus arriving in the middle of the night, but Jesus is the light who reveals God’s love, the one who shines in the darkness. As John says at the beginning of his Gospel, “In him was life and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it” (Jn. 1:4-5).

Light.  The writer Susan Sontag (1933-2004) once said, in talking about the art of writing, “Information will never replace illumination.”[4]  Nicodemus goes looking for information.  Jesus is all about illumination.  His presence illumines.  “As Jesus speaks, the light of the world enters the darkness of Nicodemus’ ignorance.”[5]  In love, Jesus comes to illumine our awareness so that we come to see the kingdom of God in him—and then through him our perceptions of God, the world, and ourselves are transfigured and transformed.  This is the Spirit’s doing!  And when this happens in our lives—and every time that it happens—we are born again and again and again!  Illumination, enlightenment, revelation, the transfiguration and transformation of knowledge, perception, experience are all required—all the time, until the end of our time, until, beyond time, we are completely transformed by the light of Christ’s presence, no longer seeing in a mirror dimly, but knowing fully, even as we are being fully known by Christ (1 Cor. 13:12).

Illumination, not information.  There’s a huge difference between wanting to know about Jesus and knowing Jesus. There are a lot of people who know about Jesus.  Fewer actually know him.  Nicodemus arrives searching to know about him.  Jesus gives of himself, he presents himself to Nicodemus.  Jesus meets him where he is and begins to cultivate a deep relationship. 

Contemporary theologian Sarah Coakley (b. 1951), one of the brightest theological minds today, said, simply, “To know God is unlike any other knowledge; indeed, it is more truly to be known, and so transformed.”[6] In the end, Nicodemus came to know something new about God.  He was known and so transformed.  That’s what love does.  Love sees us and then opens our eyes to see.  Citing again James Baldwin, Baldwin said, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of things you don’t see.”[7]  That’s what Jesus did for Nicodemus.  In love, Jesus opened his eyes.  And what Nicodemus discovered changed him.  The encounter gave him a new life.  The next time we see Nicodemus in John’s Gospel is at the tomb.  John tells us that Nicodemus bought about seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes, along with other spices.  Then he and Joseph of Arimathea, together, reverentially wrapped Jesus’ body (Jn. 19:38-40) and placed it in the tomb.

Maybe there’s a Nicodemus in each of us, especially those of us who say that we believe and trust in God. Like Nicodemus, people of faith need reminding that the Spirit is always moving through our lives and the world.  In order to see God’s kingdom, to see God’s work in the world, to see Jesus, to see how God works through pain and suffering and even death, to see the Son of Man lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness (Jn. 3:14-15) and to see, to realize there—there, on a cross, of all places, the love of God that comes not to condemn, but to save the world (Jn. 3:16-17)—to see all of this requires the Spirit.  

Apart from the Spirit’s work you’re stuck with the literal.  You’re left with a man who died on a cross—which wasn’t all that unique in First Century Palestine. 

But to see on the cross the Word made flesh, to see love suffering in love, this requires the work of the Spirit.  It requires being reborn; perception illumined again and again, as the Spirit washes away the film of familiarity.  It requires new eyes, new hearts, new insights, all of which yields new life. It’s only then that we are born again—and again and again as the Spirit stirs us and moves us and allows us to see what God is doing in the world and for the world, as the Spirit invites us to share in all of it!

Today, I’m not reluctant to say that I’ve been born again.  I have to define what I mean by this, of course. I’m born again and being born again and again and again.  Technically speaking, if you think about it, everyone who has been baptized by water and the Spirit, everyone who confesses a belief or trust in Christ, everyone who affirms with the apostle Paul, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to Godself” (2 Cor. 5:19), has been and is being born again, has been and is being born from above by the Spirit.  Why?  Because we, like Paul, have come to this realization and are bold to make this confession and seek to follow him to our dying days, because time and again and again the Spirit has led us to make this confession. We know this to be true.

Yes, the Spirit opens our eyes.  The Spirit opens our hearts.  The Spirit’s wind flows across our skin and animates our lives—and changes everything.  Not once, but again and again and . . . .

Image:  Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, 1899.

[1] Christian Nurture is still in print.  An online version may be found here.
[2] James Baldwin, “Open Letter to the Born Again,” The Nation (September, 1979), 
[3] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographica Literaria (1817), chapter XIV.
[4] Susan Sontag, “The Conscience of Words,” At the Same Time: Essays and Speaches (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2007).  A summary of this essay maybe be found here.
[5] Allen Dwight Callahan, “John,” in True to our Native Land: An African American New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 189, cited in Jaime Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 29
[6] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
[7] James Baldwin, “The Black Scholar Interviews James Baldwin,” Conversations with James Baldwin (edited by Fred L. Standley and Louis H. Pratt), cited in Debby Irving, Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race (Elephant Room Press, 2014), v.

05 March 2017

What's Feeding Your Soul?

First Sunday in Lent

So, what’s feeding your soul these days?  Take a moment.  What’s nurturing your soul?  What’s your diet like?  Is it heart healthy?  Soul-healthy?  What are you “taking in,” imbibing, ingesting?  Is it feeding you? Depleting you? Making you tired? Or are you starving?  Running on fumes?

I’m not really talking about food here.  I am, but I’m not.  Food is an easy metaphor for something else.  Didn’t Jesus once take bread and say, “Take, eat; this is my body”? (Matthew 26:26).  And didn’t he take a cup of wine and say, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin"? (Matthew 26:28).  Bread and wine point to something, someone else. 

And, yet, we know that food, food that we put into our mouths and chew and swallow and digest, actually feeds bodies as well souls.  There’s “soul food,” of course, African-American cuisine originating in the American South; think of ham hock and black-eyed peas, collard greens, okra, fried Catfish, sweet potato pie.  There’re other kinds of food that also feed our souls, food that reminds of our childhood, or a time around the table with family, food that gives us comfort.  The number one comfort food in the American diet is grilled cheese sandwiches, followed by mashed potatoes, Mac and cheese, tacos, pizza, dumplings, baked ziti, and tomato soup.[1]

Getting hungry?  Just thinking about food, talking about food, the food we love, gets us hungry. Ready for brunch or lunch?

Now that I’ve got you thinking about food, I want you to think about being hungry.  Put yourself in the wilderness. You’re there with Jesus.  Led there, on purpose, by the Holy Spirit.  You’ve been there in this wild, barren, dangerous place for forty-days and forty-nights—the Bible’s way of saying, a long time.  And you’ve been fasting.  No food.  You had water; just enough to survive.  No food.  And, like Jesus, you’re “famished.” Now, stay there. In your famishment—just imagine for a moment what that feels like.  Feel it in your stomach. 

Stay there. 

Because it’s there, in that feeling, in that moment, when the work begins, when deep spiritual discernment starts to take shape.  It’s there, at the point of weakness, when we are most vulnerable, that we are most exposed to temptation.  It’s also in those moments, in extremis, at the point of despair, the moment we are stretched to our limits, stretched to the breaking point, that an awareness of something else begins to emerge in us, an awareness of a deeper truth breaking through, the awareness of a deeper power becoming available to us.  Yes, Jesus is tempted in a moment of weakness, but he also claims, in that exact same moment, a deeper truth that Satan has no power over.

This is where we begin the season of Lent—with Jesus in the wilderness.  The journey starts here.  The most profound, life-changing journeys of our lives always begin in the wilderness.  As we know, it’s the Holy Spirit who sent Jesus into this wild and dangerous place—not to punish him or abandon him—but to train him, test him, prepare him, strengthen him for his life task, his calling, the purpose of his life.  According to Matthew’s gospel, the tempter arrived at the end of Jesus’ forty-day fast, when he was “famished.”  It doesn’t say that the tempter showed up throughout the forty-day period, but “afterwards” (4:2).  The tempter showed up when Jesus was at his weakest. 

Jesus is starving.  Famished.  Ravenous.  Of course he is.  You would be too.  That’s when the seeds of doubt come.  “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But Jesus answered, “It is written….” And where is it written?  In Deuteronomy, where we find God saying to the Israelites, “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.  He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:2-3).

God tests the heart.  God tests our souls.  Our hunger for bread becomes a symbol for a different kind of bread, such as manna.  Our hunger for manna becomes a symbol for something that will truly satisfy our hunger, namely, the word of God.  The word of God as bread doesn’t satisfy the hunger in our bellies, but the hunger in our souls, the hunger of our hearts for something more than food.  Yes, we need food to live, to function.  But we also need a different kind of food to satisfy the cravings of the soul, food that is truly heart healthy—the kind of food that brings our hearts to life and causes them to sing, filling hearts full of compassion and passion for justice, for the beautiful, the good, the holy; full hearts that lead us to reach out to our neighbor, to God, to ourselves in love.  What’s feeding your heart? What causes your heart to sing?

Sometimes it takes being hungry to know what we’re really hungry for.  Sometimes it takes a season of fasting to clarify what you’re really hungry for.  In those moments, we might be tempted to satisfy our appetites with the wrong thing.  We might think we’re hungry for bread, when what we’re really starving for is entirely something else.  When we fast, things become clearer.  If you’ve spent any time fasting, you know that prolonged fasts lead to greater sense perception and awareness.  You know how your body changes when you give up dairy or sugar or alcohol or caffeine.  Your cravings change. We become aware of our appetites when we’re hungry, especially when we’re ravenous.

Although ravenous for food, Jesus confessed a craving for a different kind of food—the nourishment that comes from the word of God.  Jesus is referring to scripture here, the Hebrew Scriptures, not to the New Testament, of course.  Jesus uses scripture in his response to the tempter—although, it must be noted that even the tempter is good at quoting scripture to Jesus.  Jesus’ reference to the “word of God,” I think, also refers to something else. Yes the “word of God” is scripture, is a text.  But remember what scripture is; remember what scripture does.  Scripture is alive, it’s doing something, it’s active.  Scripture conveys through words the word of God, that is, the divine voice, the message of God, the will of God, the hope and vision of God, the presence of God.  The word is God and God is the word.  It’s this word, word as God/God as word, that we hunger for.  We hunger, not for a text—but for God.  That’s what matters most.  And so often in our lives, we think the hunger and cravings of our souls will be satisfied by turning stones into bread, turning material things into “bread,” materials things, such as money and everything that money can buy, into “bread.”  And then we’re surprised when these cravings never satisfy.  We’re not really hungry for bread—we’re hungry for God.

So, what’s feeding your soul these days? What’s nurturing your soul?  What’s your diet like?  Is it heart healthy?  Soul-healthy? It’s easy to say what our stomachs hunger for, but our souls? What’s bringing you to life?  What’s the source of your joy?

As we move through the wilderness of Lent, these are good questions to ask ourselves—good questions to pray about.  In your prayer, ask God to help you answer these questions.  It’s good to wrestle with them.  Stay with them.  Don’t resolve the tension too soon.  Sit with them.  Stay with your hunger.  Stay in the wilderness—don’t worry, you’re not alone.  We have forty days to sit and wait and listen and discover what—or who—nurtures our lives.

The great Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), wrote about his journey through the “dark night of the soul.”  He discovered that while he was in the wilderness that he wasn’t alone.  Even though all appeared to be night, there was something else hidden there, in the dark, there was something in the night.  In his poem Cantar del alma que se huelga de conocer a Dios por fe (Song of the soul that rejoices in knowing God by faith), he tells us what he discovered there, “That eternal spring hidden” (“Aquella eternal fonte esta escondida”).  It’s hidden, yet he knows what feeds his soul.  He knows what gives him life.  He knows what gives him light, as he says, “although it is the night.”  He writes:

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
Within this living bread that is life to us
            Although it is the night.

Hear it calling out to every creature,
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
            Because it is the night.

I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
            Although it is the night.[2]

Yes, bread. Yet, something more than bread.  The bread of life. 

Don’t be tempted by anything less.

Image: Briton Rivière (1840-1920), Christ in the Wilderness (1898).

[1] 25 Best Comfort Food, Huffington Post (January 2014): 
[2] This is the translation of Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), from his poem “Station Island XI,” cited in Malcolm Guite, The Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2014), 4-5.