3/12/2017 Be Born of Water and Spirit

Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1–4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1–5, 13–17; John 3:1–17

People who sneak around at night obviously don’t want to be seen. There’s risk involved. It may have to do with personal safety, or perhaps there’s a larger activity or cause involved that would not necessarily be enhanced if everybody (or even just a few specific somebodies) knew what’s going on.

Nicodemus probably believed he had a lot riding on his seruptitous meeting with Jesus. He was, after all, a respected rabbi, a member of the Jewish ruling class. Jesus was the outsider, a rabble-rouser to say the least. He’d been making a lot of noise with his miracles and bold teaching. That’s precisely what drew Nicodemous to this late-night meeting. It’s easy to imagine at least one of the questions in the older man’s mind: What if… this man from Nazareth really is the Messiah! But no, that’s absurd. It’s impossible. But then again….

What is remembered the most from their conversation is Jesus’ insistence that a human being must be “born again” to enter the kingdom of God. Actually that’s only a secondary meaning of the word that is better understood as “born from above.” Nicodemus couldn’t quite get past the literal, physical concept. How could a man reenter his mother’s womb? Of course, that’s nonsense. Yet being “born again” in a spiritual sense has taken hold in broad swaths of Christianity, so much so that some folks insist that if you can’t say exactly when and where “it” happened, then you’re not really a born-again Christian (or, to take it further: not really a Christian at all). I consider myself blessed that I was reared in a Christian faith tradition that takes a far-less rigid approach to spiritual rebirth.

After all, did our ancient spiritual forebears Abraham and Sarah experience such a sudden “rebirth” the moment he decided to follow a new and unfamiliar god to who knows where simply on the basis of a promise? Or did it come over a lifetime of faithfulness? Saul of Tarsus (who became known as the Apostle Paul) is often held up as the epitome of “born-again conversion” because of his dramatic experience on the road to Damascus. However, in recent decades significant scholarship has pointed out Paul’s life experience was much more a “calling” than a “conversion.” [This central contention of what’s known as the New Perspective on Paul is covered in my book, What Was Paul Thinking? along with a bunch of other good stuff about the apostle.]

Anyway, I much prefer “born from above.” It leaves open a lot more possibilities, more paths to follow, more and varied timelines. Looking back over my life I now recognize a number of moments of rebirth. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say there have been multiple moments that opened new doors, which then led to often-extended birthing and maturation. Allow me to share one.

St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church

You shouldn’t be too surprised to learn at the outset that I didn’t see this coming at all. In hindsight, maybe I should have, but I didn’t. My wife and I were on vacation in June 2009, visiting our grown kids in Colorado. The plan was to spend time with them in Denver after a week of camping in Estes Park, which sits at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. I’d done some online research beforehand and discovered there was to be a concert by a boys’ choir from Texas in the local Episcopal church (St. Bartholomew’s). St. Bart’s is housed in a beautiful church building made from large rustic (and I assume native) timbers, exactly what you’d expect to find in the midst of the Rocky Mountains.

St. Bart’s gets all kinds of visitors

The Fort Bend Boys Choir of Texas presented a fine mixture of religious and secular (particularly patriotic) music. One choral work, in particular, stuck with me that night: a tender (and we were told, rarely sung) anthem, with an almost haunting quality to it:

Be still for the presence of the Lord, the holy One is here.
Come bow before him now, with reverence and fear.
In him no sin is found, we stand on holy ground.
Be still for the presence of the Lord, the holy One is here.

Be still for the glory of the Lord is shining all around.
He burns with holy fire, with splendour he is crowned.
How awesome is the sight, our radiant king of light.
Be still for the glory of the Lord, is shining all around.

He comes to cleanse and heal, to minister his grace.
Be still for the power of the Lord is moving in this place.
(Words by David Evans)
Album: “Great Day”

The vacation proved to be a terrific respite from months’-long tension at the office. When I finally returned to work at International Headquarters a little more than a week later “Be Still…” had found a small niche in a back corner of my mind. That was the Monday morning I was suddenly confronted with the news my job was among the many that had been eliminated. I was abruptly given an early-retirement offer and immediately relieved of my responsibility as Herald editor–and everything else I was involved in.

I still remember the moment, after the initial wave of anger and shock had passed, when for some unknown reason I put a copy of the Fort Bend Choir’s CD in my office computer and listened once more to “Be still for the presence of the Lord….” It would be a song I would come back to on numerous occasions. It brought comfort and assurance of a way ahead. I now can’t think of a better way to describe the ensuing year or so after that moment as being “born from above” yet again. Now, don’t get the idea it was nothing but bliss; perhaps another time will be more appropriate for a recounting of the bumps–although it’s quite possible that time won’t come at all, at least in this blog.

There are times when we can be completely proactive regarding our future. At other times, well, we’re surprised, and it’s our response to those surprises that opens up unexpected pathways. The Spirit does indeed blow as it wills. That’s a hard truth, especially for those of us involved in institutional religion. One danger is something called “functional atheism.” Parker Palmer explained that as

“the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen – a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God. It often leads to burnout, depression and despair, as we learn that the world will not bend to our will and we become embittered about that fact…” (Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, p.88)

Lent, after all, is a time of reflection and examination. Somewhere in that mix is the concept of judgment, too. Blowing in and out and around all of that, of course, is the Spirit. Be still….

For a very short audio preview: be-still[1]

For the full track of “Be Still”: Be Still – FWBC

(Full disclosure: I just got back from a short vacation a day ago, so I’ve reprised this blog posting from a few years ago.)

speak-to-the-bones-1NOW AVAILABLE! My new book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book.The experiences of ancient Hebrew prophets are presented as a guide for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in social-justice action. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use.

About Rich Brown

Rich Brown is a writer, blogger, editor, and publisher. His most recent book is "Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile" (Isaac's Press).
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