Friday, December 28, 2018

What can we say March 8? Lent 2

   Genesis 12:1-4a was an eye opener for me my first week of seminary. Prof. Lloyd Bailey explained how this wasn’t just a thing that happened to Abraham, but was the key to unlock the entire calling of God’s people – to be blessed, to multiply, to be given land (a huge problem historically!), and to be a blessing to everybody else. So preachable and wise. Psalm 121, which we read at gravesides, is also rich in wisdom; for his long journey, Abraham lifted his eyes to uncertain hills; and Jesus and his family, along with all pilgrims in Bible times, sang this as they made their way to Jerusalem for Passover – including Jesus’ last. Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 is Paul’s midrashic read of Abraham and why he matters; I love to dissect all this in Bible study, but am not so good at preaching it.

   So I’m going with the Gospel, John 3:1-17. Utterly familiar – and yet I’ve had good cause to rethink it in the past few months. I was invited to write a book about Birth (in the series, Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Ministering Well): it’s coming out next month! Listening to moms, doctors, and midwives, and in much research, I have tried to connect what I learned to what it might mean to be born again. I kept wondering why it is that preachers (George Whitefield, Billy Graham, etc.), who’ve talked for centuries about being born again, virtually ignore birth itself when theologizing about being born again. They’re men? Never witnessed a birth? Is “born again” really a revivalist mood, a surge of spiritual emotion, or even a zealous commitment to be different?

   Think about it: Nicodemus comes in the dark – like life in the womb, about to be born. When you were born, the first time, wasn’t it true that “God called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet. 2:9). 
Isn’t it curious that, in explaining this new birth to Nicodemus, Jesus speaks of being born of water and the spirit. Recall your first birth. You were in water. Then you emerged, gasping for air, for a breath – or we can say “spirit,” as the Hebrew ruah, and the Greek pneuma both mean air, and then by extension, spirit. It’s always water, and then the spirit when getting born.

   That you “must” be reborn intrigues. The Greek, deĩ, isn’t must as in You must do your homework, or You must report for jury duty. It’s more like You must come to my birthday party! or You must come with me to the hospital to see Fred before he dies. It’s love, it’s a deeply personal, can’t-miss-it necessity – like birth.

   The heart of Jesus’ surprising notion of being born again is this: you can’t grit your teeth and get born the first time, and you can’t when you’re born again either. Back in October of 1955, I didn’t think, Hmm, nice day to get born, let’s do it. An entirely passive, unchosen event. Even the mother has zero ability to turn a microscopic zygote into a breathing, squawling person. Birth happens to you, and in you. Rudolf Bultmann, reflecting on Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus’s search for salvation, clarifies that “the condition can only be satisfied by a miracle… It suggests to Nicodemus, and indeed to anyone who is prepared to entertain the possibility of the occurrence of a miraculous event, that such a miracle can come to pass.”

   Given the ways preachers like Whitefield and Graham conducted revivals seeking new births that were marked by a swooning of emotion, it’s important to realize that Jesus didn’t ask Nicodemus to feel anything. There are, of course, intense feelings at birth. The mother giving birth may be overwhelmed with an intensity of joy, or anything else along a broad spectrum of emotion. The one being born though: is birth an emotional high for the baby?

   Of course, the feelings mother and child share in childbirth are the pains, the excruciating squeezes, the tearing of flesh and sometimes the breaking of bones. Could Jesus have imagined such agony when pressing us toward a new birth? Jesus courageously embraced pain, and invited us to follow. Paul, imprisoned and beaten multiple times within an inch of his life for following Jesus, wrote that “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God… provided we suffer with him” (Rom. 8:15-16). No wonder we prefer a happy emotional kind of rebirth at a revival, over against the costly discipleship that is the new life Jesus has in mind for us. It isn’t the feeling, but the fact of the new birth, and the hard facts of union with Jesus in a world puzzled or hostile to his ways.

   By now, of course, we see that Jesus wasn’t asking Nicodemus to behave a little better. It’s radical, a total shift of focus, priorities, behaviors and habits. Bultmann explains it perfectly: “Rebirth means… something more than an improvement in man; it means that man receives a new origin, and this is manifestly something which he cannot give himself.” My first birth defined my origin as a Howell. I have the DNA, I favor my dad, I am who I am. How could I come by a new and different origin? Let’s look to St. Francis of Assisi.

   After fitting in and even excelling as a child and youth, enviably popular, chic and cool, Francis heard the call of Jesus. Taking the Bible quite literally, picking up whatever Jesus said or did and putting it on his to-do list for the day, Francis divested himself of his advantages, including his exquisite, fashionable clothing, which he gave away to the poor. His father, Pietro, a churchgoing, upstanding citizen, took exception, locked his son up for a time, and then sued him in the city square. Giotto’s fresco in the basilica where Francis is buried shows a stark naked Francis, handing the only thing he has left, the clothes off his back, to his father. But his eyes are fixed upward, where we see a hand appearing to bless him from up in the clouds. At this moment, Francis declared, “Until now I have called Pietro Bernardone my father. But, because I have proposed to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so upset, and also all the clothing which is his, wanting to say from now on: ‘Our Father who are in heaven,’ and not ‘My father, Pietro di Bernardone.’” A biblical moment, if we have regard for “You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 2:23), or “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother” (Matt. 10:35).

   What is we ponder “born again” from the mother’s side? Anne Enright, who shows no evident interest in religion: “A child came out of me. I cannot understand this, or try to explain it. Except to say that my past life has become foreign to me. Except to say that I am prey, for the rest of my life, to every small thing.” Isn’t this what being with Jesus, a child who came out of his mother, is like? The past is laughably past. Every small thing, devoted to this Jesus, matters. Perhaps being born again is like the discovery so many new moms make, articulated beautifully in John O’Donohue’s words:
   Once it began, you were no longer your own.
   A new, more courageous you, offering itself
   In a new way to a presence you can sense
   But you have not seen or known.

   I'd be remiss, if we're trying to parse John 3:16 in light of all this Birth stuff (and oh my gosh, if you're having Holy Communion!), if I didn't share Rachel Marie Stone's marvelous envisioning of Mary's great gift to us: "A girl was in labor with God. She groaned and sweated and arched her back, crying out for her deliverance and finally delivering God, God’s head pressing on her cervix, emerging from her vagina, perhaps tearing her flesh a little; God the Son, her Son, covered in vernix and blood, the infant God’s first breath the close air of crowded quarters… God the Son, her Son, pressed to her bare breast… God the Son, her Son, drank deeply from his mother. Drink, my beloved. This is my body, broken for you." 

  {Images: photo I took of the birth of my son, Noah, by c-section; Frank Anigbo's "Study for Agony and Ecstasy"; and Giotto's fresco, "Francis Renounces Worldly Goods."

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