When I hear the words “born again” I am immediately transported to a little Pentecostal church we went to as a “cultural experience” on a mission trip to Appalachia one year. The band started a song about the days of the week, and the preacher told everyone to stand when they got to the day of the week that they were saved. Our youth looked terrified. One of the adult volunteers turned to the youth next to him and said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m picking Thursday. I don’t think we want to be left sitting when they are done with the song.”
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Some traditions hold a lot of stock in the concept of conversion, being born again, or being saved. As we talked about it in worship Sunday, the concept raised images of Bible-thumping pastors warning people of an immanent ticket to hell if they weren’t born again. For others it resonated in the sense of a renewed connection to the Eternal Source, which to me seems more aligned with Jesus’ intention.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tries to tell Nicodemus that what he needs is a spiritual awakening, or to be born again from above. But Nick just could not understand what Jesus was talking about. He was a devout Jew, a Pharisee and a member of the prestigious Sanhedrin (sort of a city council with judicial capabilities). I heard a term recently that I think applies to Nicodemus – hypnotic drumbeat – the Pharisees had a hypnotic drumbeat going for all of Nick’s life telling him what to believe and how to live his faith, and he was under its spell. Any other beat made no sense to him.
As Jesus tried to explain, it just sounded more and more cryptic to Nick. Jesus started talking about the wind… you don’t know where it will blow, you hear it, but don’t know where it came from or where it goes. This is how it is for people born of the Spirit.
Born of the Spirit… what does that mean? What does that look like? Theologian Marcus Borg says, “to be born again is to enter new life through and in the Spirit, a life centered in the Spirit of God.” It is unpredictable and uncontrollable. But it is beautiful and mysterious.
Why is this important? Because as we grow up most of us lose our connection to Spirit as we get caught up in the hypnotic drumbeat of the world. We learn that the goal of life is to be what other people want us to be, and to do what society expects of us. With the birth of our self-consciousness comes the birth of our separated self. The one that no longer recognizes itself as part of a whole, as part of God, as part of all creation. And this world reaffirms that separation over and over again. We lose the children of wonder, imagination and spirit that we were when we were little.
We’re told to put away our imaginary friends, to grow up, to be realistic, and practical, but when we do this we pull ourselves further and further into the world of separation, a world of us and them, of comparison and judgment. We become completely hypnotized to the dominant drumbeat of society and religion. We fall into a spiritual darkness… like Nick at Night… searching for something, but unable to see it or understand it until we can loosen ourselves from that darn drumbeat and start letting in the spontaneous spirit that wants us to die to our false identities and reclaim our authentic selves.
Frederick Buechner said, “We live our lives from the outside in, rather than from the inside out.” We let what is around us dictate what is within us and consequently we lose sight of what is really within us – the light of the Divine within us, our authentic selves.
The process back to our authentic selves, the process of being born again can happen gradually or in an instant. Most of us experience a series of awakenings during our lifetimes. Multiple small new births that eventually bring us to a place of a new or renewed consciousness. This new state of consciousness (or new birth) has nothing to do with externals – creeds, dogma, ritual, personalities and institutional religion. It sees everything from a higher perspective with a different priority of values and relationships.
The spirit pulls us to the impractical. The spirit invites us back to the open, loving, child of wonder that we once were. The spirit drives us to be bold and daring. The spirit invites us to risk, to open our sails and fly.
The spiritual journey is to let go of the hypnotic drumbeat, to suspend our disbelief, to engage that pure wonder, to live from the inside out, to be born again.