When I was sorting my books this past Friday I was trying to begin by coming up with categories or subject names. Everything I have seems so interrelated that I ended up coming up with emoji's instead of words. I went through each book one by one. I'd pick it up, glance at it, and go Oh! Or OOOOhhhh! Or Meh. And some didn't excite me at all. I thought maybe I should have a category called “Blah blah blah.” I did finally come up with appropriate words like theology, spirituality, study guides, personal development, etc. My favorite books were in a category I couldn't quite define, but they were books that brought out the “Oh, cool” emoji in me. My friend Laura who was helping me, decided I should label that section the very theologically inspired category called Fun. That section includes a Book of Hugs, my Bruce Bochy book about leadership, a small book called “The Introverts Guide to Texting” and a tiny book called “Mr. God, This is Anna,” which was probably the first spiritual book I read as an adult. The book that only a word geek like me would think is fun that's in that section is called “Word Roots.” I got in the 98th percentile on the language portion of my ACT test only because I knew the roots of words. As opposed to the science section where I literally just colored in random circles with my #2 pencil.
Today's excitement then comes in the form of the greek word “anothen” which is used in the text from John for today. Christians who use the term “born again” often refer to today's text as Christ tells Nicodemus that he must be born a second time. Nicodemus asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?” Google images must be just as confused as Nicodemus because my search of the greek word “anothen” which means “from above” included many photos of the Greek islands from the sky; some photos of baptisms and moments from biblical stories; and my favorite, to represent the confusion of Nicodemus, a picture of the poster for the movie Back to the Future.
Nicodemus was right to be confused. To think of repeating anything is not what Jesus was talking about. This isn't about being born again, this is about being born differently, for the first time.
Being Born Again, as a particular Christian phrase or slogan often uses today's text to point to the biblical mandate to be born again. This is not the text to support that concept though, specifically because the Greek word “anothen” does not mean “again” as it is often translated. Being born again carries some weight among those who recognize the phrase or slogan, but it would be a mistake to get that idea from this particular text. That matters, because being born from above implies different things than if we say we're born again, and we would lose the richness and some of the connections without the concept of from above.
When we were studying the Lord's Prayer this past Tuesday, we had quite a discussion about the term heaven in the prayer. We really didn't want to think that God being in heaven meant that God was somewhere up in the sky. We would probably agree that “anothen” does not mean heaven. Being born from above doesn't refer to the sky. Above refers to somewhere beyond our normal reach. Beyond the place where humans are. That could be physically beyond our reach outside of ourselves, or so deeply hidden within us that we can't reach. In this passage being born from above has to do with discovering Jesus for ourselves not just in the human, the prophet and message and life, but also from the divinity of Jesus on the cross. Both.
Jesus' humanness is so engaged with our human life that is constrained by time and place and gravity, that the radical love he offers for the world seems impossible. At the same time, Jesus' divinity and grace and mercy are easily dismissed as not really for you and me, unless we remember the stories of Jesus here on earth interacting with people like us.
The scene with Nicodemus and Jesus is a real conversation between an explorer and Jesus. Nicodemus isn't in the story to show us what we look like when we don't understand. He's in the story to show Jesus engaging with us. It's the relationship between the two that is key.
Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a teacher comes to Jesus at night, perhaps at night in order to protect his position in the community. It might not do, to have a leader of Jewish teachings being seen talking with Jesus who was turning into a compelling but controversial character. Nicodemus didn't come to Jesus to make a full confession and conversion, he only came to find out more. Just like us, and our first time interaction with, not just encounter, but interaction with, our Christian faith. I didn't go to Old First Presbyterian Church 30 years ago to follow Jesus or change my life, I just wanted a flute job. Nicodemus didn't want a new life, yet anyway, but the spirit does what the spirit does. It's ok to start at the beginning.
Being born a second time “even after having grown old” doesn't mean to start at the beginning of your whole life and become younger and less wise and less mature. It means that you are willing to be born into something completely new, for the first time. It's not about emerging from a woman's womb again, but about emerging from the life that currently contains you; perhaps it's either a life that has nurtured you and cared for you but that needs to send you forth now, or a life that traps you. Is there some new life to which we might be being sent?
Lent is a season of quiet and reflection and spiritual discipline that is a gift really. It's a symbolic time for us to practice reflecting. The more we take the time to practice seeking God the easier it will be to recognize the gifts of God when they come. The gift might be the hope that breaks through even though sorrow has been deep and lasting. Or maybe the gift is that lightness to your days that you didn't think you'd ever feel again. The gift is usually a type of healing. God doesn't bring us sorrows. Life does that. God is with us during them and walks with us to find our way back to life.
Lent is a gift because with our true day to day lives, the events in our lives don't come in with built in reflection time beforehand to prepare for the changes that come. How different our lives would be if we were forewarned about changes like the signs in the road by my house – bump ahead, 15 mph.
The is a “social readjustment rating scale” that attempts to predict my likelihood for a breakdown later in life, based on my life events and the value assigned to each one. There are 43 events on this list each with a stress value attached. Here is the link if you'd like to learn more:
Six of the first 10 are related to a family relationship. Hmm. I'll just leave that there.
The highest stressor on the list is the death of a spouse. Divorce, separation, institutional detention, major illness, being fired, and marriage are among the top 10.
The Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory doesn't try to define the stress as negative or positive. But two other inventories do. There's the stressors defined by the Centers for Disease Control veterans affairs, for PTSD documentation and diagnosis in the. Also, the list of. The last two are clearly negative events, and help to research the effects of one's history on future struggles and how to mitigate or reverse those effects.
“Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood. ACEs can include violence, abuse, and growing up in a family with mental health or substance use problems. Toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect how the body responds to stress. ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood.”
Nobody has had a perfect life. There is nothing to be gained from trying to rate different types of pain. Human pain is as varied in its effects and impact on us, as is the immeasurable joy humans are capable of. What is sure is that our connections to one another are capable of creating a wide spectrum of emotions and feelings. We are capable of destroying another and capable of lifting another up. Why would we choose destruction?
God's humanity reminds us of our temptation to take care of ourselves and go it alone looking for solutions by earthly means. God's divinity reminds us that we don't have to.
We Are Called To Something New
Reverend Debra McGuire
March 8, 2020