Have you ever been lost in the dark? I recall a late spring night in NY, about three years ago when I was traveling home from a friends house in NJ. I said my goodbyes to my friend and his wife and got on the George Washington Bridge, with which I wasn’t that familiar. One of the on ramps indicated this was the way to CT, as there was construction on the upper ramp. So I confidently took it and found myself moving down an unfamiliar highway with the lights of Yankee Stadium glistening on my left. I was lost. I thought I could trust my intuition to get me back to where I had begun. So I took a right, at what I thought was a ramp that would let me retrace my course back to the Bridge. It wasn’t that late, but late enough so that the streets were quiet and without much traffic. Suddenly I became very confused and my intuition crumbled and I felt myself move into a panic. I couldn't find anything that reminded me of the way back and all the turns in the road were unfamiliar. I finally stopped driving when I realized that I was driving deeper and deeper into a section of NY that didn’t seem that inviting to strangers. I noticed that my heart was racing. I was feeling rather vulnerable.
I was alone in the dark in a section of New York that screamed danger. I pulled the car over to the curb and risked to ask a young couple how to get back to the bridge, but they looked at me quizzically and gave me fast and confusing directions that gave me absolutely no sense of comfort. As I sat quietly in my car and looked around, the night began to change. Perhaps there is such a thing as night vision! I saw that there were dimensions of light in the darkness and that the buildings and walls around me actually radiated a certain kind of light, a luminous quality, a subtle brightness which could support my blind fear and show me the way to go home.
I realized that night that there is light in darkness, and even though it was not blazingly bright, if I was patient and willing, I could see the light, steady my fears and perceive the darkness with different eyes. In front of me was a police cruiser, and yes, there was an officer in the cruiser. With only two minor adjustments, I was led to a sign with an arrow and two beautiful letters: CT.
John's story about the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus is a story about the night. A ruler of Israel and a teacher, Nicodemus comes by cover of darkness to ask Jesus some questions. What he really wanted was light for the journey and a sign to find the way home, but he is a good teacher and, like most committed teachers, he wants a good academic "question and answer" discussion with another Teacher who he has heard can do great and powerful things. As William Sloane Coffin would say, "A man of power, who recognizes true authority."
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, searching for the illumination, but there is a thick density about him. He begins with a declaration, stating that he knows about Jesus and he ends with a "How" question, to which Jesus responds, not with a three step logical discourse, but with a declaration of God's effusive, indefinable, amazing grace. Poor Nicodemus! He's not ready to be thrown off guard. He wants logic, a hearty discussion and intelligible answers. Jesus gives him mystery; a story about the water and wind and an odd suggestion about being born again.
You might call this a failed "Come to Jesus" story. Here is a meeting where the two men involved could lay all their cards on the table and open their hearts and minds to each other. Nicodemus could bare his soul and lay himself out in the open with Jesus. Instead, he has alarming difficulty with the metaphor and meaning -- "You mean I must re-enter my mother's womb?" -- He meets Jesus with shocking resistance and shrinks away from any spirit of change or conversion at all. You can almost see him shaking his head with an incredulous expression on his face.
You see, Nicodemus was afraid of the dark. He came to Jesus looking for a quick fix, a fast conversion from “who he was to an intellectual who he thought he wanted to be.” But he is resistant to change and reluctant to see in the luminous darkness which envelops him. He comes to Jesus seeking illumination and he leaves exasperated and frustrated. He is ill-suited to perceive a new world of gracious plenty where things are not finite or fixed or well ordered. He is essentially, “chaos intolerant.”
The season of Lent is a time of serious self-examination and looking deeply within, even embracing, the darkness of our own soul's life and coming up with whatever is there. It's about paying attention to the dark of night and the dimness of the day, and not giving up on the mysteries of God and the strange words of Jesus. During Lent we are encouraged to enter into nighttime conversations in order to shift our daytime realities. What we can discover in the darkness is that we can be changed, move from one understanding of the reality of our living to another; we can discover new dimensions, which will convert us to the subtler shaded truth within us. Dreams, ecstatic gratitude, poetry, conversations with persons not present or even no longer living, ideas for projects, books, films and whole cities, personality puzzles, healing prayer, business quandaries, new designs, spiritual housecleaning -- many of these beautiful, healing and even mystical experiences happen in the nighttime. Our spiritual imagination runs free as we enter the darkness and embrace the light within it. This is where we sometimes feel we are when we enter into the “interim time” between settled pastors.
The story of Jesus and Nicodemus is a conversion story gone awry -- there is no way that Nicodemus wants to linger in the darkness to try to understand this stuff. There is no way that he can see himself returning to his mother's womb to reenter the darkness again. Being born once is enough for him.
For some of us, the experience of conversion looks easy -- we repent and turn toward a new life, unfettered by the acts and deeds of the past.
I recall the born-again conversion scene in Robert Duvall's great film The Apostle. After committing a crime of passion, Sonny deep sixes his brand new Lincoln car into the river, thereby symbolizing the death of the old self. A day or so later, he enters the same river again and baptizes himself into new life as an apostle of Jesus Christ, dedicating the rest of his life to a ministry of good works among the poor. For Sonny, being born again meant letting go of all that he had been, drowning his deeds and his former life and beginning again, literally, as a new person in Jesus Christ.
Most of us are unable to let go of our life and our past as easily as Sonny does in the Apostle. Like Nicodemus, we are unwilling to let go of our pride or our self-image or our greed, in order to see in the dark or move toward new life. Many of us feel stuck in old guilt and shame, which can threaten our spiritual imagination and cause our sense of the power of the mysterious and the indescribable to waste away.
I have a colleague who says that “a little guilt is good for us. Hopefully, if guilt pushes us toward unanticipated action, it keeps us humble and it keeps us seeking relationship, and if connection paralyzes us, that's too bad.” I think he’s right! We are responsible for our actions, and our actions affect others. However, we fail God and ourselves if we allow our pride or guilt to become the dominant pattern of our lives. It is possible to become so hard in life that the beauty and imagination of the human spirit is diminished forever.
Some may remember the verdict in the trial of John William King a few years back. Most of us were expecting it. King killed another man, James Byrd Jr. by dragging him behind his truck for three miles on trail and black top. The brutal hatred and shameless violence of this crime is enough to make our stomachs ache for humanity. But what really stopped me cold is that King, when asked if he had any words he wanted to say to the family of the man he had killed, shouted an obscenity at them.
No remorse, no guilt, no repentance and no conversion. King is a man caught in an endless night of hate, with very little hope of finding any light at all. He is a man who refuses to be born anew. For him the water and the spirit may never flow. King is stuck within the walls of the flesh and may never know spirit.
But God is still speaking! Ross Byrd, son of James Boyd, surprised the nation when he announced that he did not want to see his father’s killers executed and was joining the struggle to abolish the death penalty in this country. It was reported that he based his about-face, on the death penalty, on his Christian upbringing and his belief in the Ten Commandments, one of which says "Thou shalt not kill."
Byrd said, “The death penalty is not the solution." Another man whose father had been murdered, Martin Luther KING III joined Byrd. They led a 24-hour fast and prayer vigil in front of the Texas’ death house. He said, "I am proud to be with the young Ross Byrd today in Huntsville. Today he stands head and shoulders above a whole lot of people in this country, including the justices on the Supreme Court. Byrd and I are both victims yet we call for the abolition of the death penalty which is nothing but state-sponsored terrorism,"
To be born anew or again doesn't demand a hard heart turned suddenly around or even complete letting go of one's old life. It doesn't even mean we can chronicle the exact hour or date of conversion or explain our changes to our audience's satisfaction.
To be willing to be born anew means that we preserve a place for the mysterious in our lives, and that we live with soft souls which are willing to be changed. The two teachers met under cover of darkness, and Jesus reminds Nicodemus that whatever happens to him will be as the wind in his hair or as a soft kiss of air on his cheek. The Spirit blows where it will in our lives -- it's up to us to notice, to be ready, and to be willing to be changed.
Jesus invited Nicodemus into the mystery of God: //-- water and spirit, darkness and light, wind and womb. Nicodemus could not make the whole journey. Ross Boyd was invited in to the mystery of God and embraced it. Can you? Will you?
Here is a description of a deep-sea diver's experience of darkness and light:
"En route to the floor of the ocean the diver first passes through the belt of fishes. This is a wide band of light reflected from the surface of the sea. From this area he moves to a depth of water that cannot be penetrated by light above the surface. It is dark, forbidding, eerie. The diver's immediate reaction is apt to be one of fear and sometimes a sudden spasm of panic that soon passes. As he drops deeper and deeper into the abyss, slowly his eyes begin to pick up the luminous quality of the darkness; what was fear is relaxed and he moves into the lower region with confidence and peculiar vision."
I remember a soft summer night in New York when the spirit led me out of fear into luminous darkness and peculiar vision.
God asks us to trust the luminous darkness and gives us water and spirit for our journey of life.