June is the month for weddings. As a priest, the part I love most about weddings is the opportunity to do pre-marital counseling with the couples. I love getting to know them and to see how they relate to one another. For the second of three meetings I ask them to prepare a genealogy of their families to help the three of us discover what matters to them, how family dynamics have made them who they are, and how that might help them to see certain features of their lives as gifts rather than curses, and to see behavior patterns they can choose to change.
One time I worked with a couple that told me they argued a lot about religion and they didn’t like what happened when they did. They wanted a different outcome but didn’t know how to get it. I asked how they each experienced spirituality. Not surprisingly, their initial answers were about religion. She talked about what she believed, which sounded a lot like what she knew. He spoke about his problems with institutional religion. They both responded with mental constructs about religion. Then I asked if they could remember moments when their spirits were nurtured. She talked about moments in union organizing when a contract has just been signed and the workers are celebrating. At those times she felt like she connects with something greater than just the moment. I said, “That’s spirituality.” He spoke of his love for astrophysics. He told his friends that when he dies he hopes he can travel through the universe to see all the nebulae up close. He loves working with mathematical models around astrophysics because it connects him to something bigger than himself. I told him, that’s spirituality.
I think the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was like that. Nicodemus knew he was missing something; he saw in Jesus a possibility for finding it. He, too, started with religion, and was caught off guard when Jesus spoke about spiritual experience. But Jesus took him seriously and pushed him beyond his comfort zone. He saw someone open to risk leaving behind the truth-as-he-knew-it to explore something new. Many say Nicodemus met Jesus at night to avoid being seen with him. But the rabbis taught that the Torah was best studied at night when it was quiet and the distractions of the day had subsided. Could Nicodemus be using his study time to expand his search beyond the standard texts? Could Jesus himself become the book into which Nicodemus delves, mining every word for wisdom and understanding?
Jesus ushered this seeker into a realm of wisdom more complex, deeper and richer than anything he had known. Using language that is at once poetic, suggestive metaphorical, and imaginative, Jesus speaks of being born from above. Like most of us, Nicodemus responded in his best left-brain, legal-scholar, and word-parsing mode: “we know you're a teacher from God.” Jesus persisted in his right-brain, heart vocabulary, with fertile images of wind, spirit and expansive love. He confronted Nicodemus with an uncomfortable truth: “you know too much.”
There’s a well-known story about a person who sets off on a journey to find the meaning of life. Upon arriving at the home of a sage that everyone said had the answer to the question, the sage invites the guest to a cup of tea. The seeker responds, “No thank you. I didn't come all this way for tea. I came for an answer. Won't you tell me, please, what is the meaning of life?" "We shall have tea," the sage replies forcefully. So the person gives up and goes inside. While the sage brews the tea the guest tells the sage about the books she read, the people she met and the places she visited. The sage listened, placed a tea cup in the guest’s hand, and began to pour the tea. The guest failed to notice when the cup was full, so the sage just kept pouring until the tea ran over the sides of the cup and spilled to the floor. "What are you doing?!" the guest yelled. "It's full, can't you see that? Stop! There's no more room!" "Just so," the sage said. "You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There is no more room in your cup. Come back when it is empty and then we will talk."
An Episcopal priest named Barbara Brown Taylor connects this story with Nicodemus’ story: “Jesus and Nicodemus dispensed with the tea ritual, but the outcome was the same. Nicodemus came looking for answers. Jesus would not cooperate. He poured tea all over his visitor's hand and said, in effect, that Nicodemus already had gallons of answers available to him. What he needed was one drop of experience - one moment of new birth--and he could leave all his answers lying in puddles on the floor.” ("Stay for Tea, Nicodemus," Barbara Brown Taylor, The Christian Century, 1996)
The great Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, also described this: “Nothing in the world can change from one reality into another unless it first turns into nothing, that is, into the reality of the between-stage.” This is precisely why we need faith. Without faith we will not empty our tea cup so we can receive something new. We must empty it before we are sure that the tea being offered will satisfy us. Wise people know that only by opening up to the unpredictable can we become flexible enough to deal with reality as it is. Another writer says, “People who flourish become ‘beautifully unpredictable’ [because] acting in unexpected ways is necessary for growth. Nobody grows by doing the same thing every day. Children are not exact replicas of their parents. There’s always some random genetic combination that can lead to new skills and attributes. Similarly I think that being “beautifully unpredictable” is essential for our individual evolution. (The Science of Happiness: Barbara Fredrickson On Cultivating Positive Emotions, Angela Winter, in The Sun Magazine 05/09)
How long did Nicodemus stay in this liminal space between the familiar and the new? Between the world where his status was recognized and esteemed and his worldview reliable, and the new world of unpredictable life on the wings of the wind of love? We don’t know. What we do know is that the Word-made-flesh – Jesus - became Nicodemus’ text, and turned the living water of the Torah into an ever-expanding pool of wisdom. (Patricia Farris) Nicodemus, like us, had to learn how to live with both the predictability of what he knew and unpredictability of what he didn’t know. Knowing and not knowing, predictability and unpredictability are both important parts of being a complete human being. The not knowing of spirituality is necessary to discover new knowing: we don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes. Unpredictability is not enough. The knowing that religion offers provides a necessary constraint. At the heart of creativity lie constraints: the very opposite of unpredictability. Constraints and unpredictability, familiarity and surprise, are somehow combined in original thinking. (Margaret Boden)
That’s why the dance between religion and spirituality is so necessary. Religion offers restraints. The word comes from the Latin “ligar”, which means to bind, fasten or tie. Even science has concluded that is not a bad thing in itself. But when a constraint becomes more of an externally imposed restraint than a clear center around which our lives are oriented, then it ceases to be life giving. One way to discover our clear center is to ask, “What would be so attractive that it would hold my behavior within a boundary and keep me from wandering into formlessness?”
That’s what Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to ask himself. In John’s Gospel, knowing where people come from is an important part of social status. Nicodemus granted status to Jesus by saying, “We know you come from God.” There are all kinds of innuendos in John’s Gospel about where Jesus’ came from. The important truth is that Jesus knew where he came from while few others did. Jesus offered Nicodemus what he offered everyone: the status of coming “from above” that trumped any other source of status. No wonder it’s easier for the poor to let go of their status to accept the status Jesus offered them?
How did you become a follower of Jesus? We sing, "I have decided to follow Jesus." There is some truth to that. But standing alone, it ends up being a shallow and insufficient answer. When we also say, "God chose, claimed, and made me a child of God" - in other words, 'I have been born from above' – then we begin to discover the depth of God’s love. I remember when I was in college telling people that I had decided to go into the ministry as a result of joining a Christian group on campus. When my mother heard that, we smiled and said, “Frank, don’t you remember when you were 9 years old and used to lead family worship services?” Instantly I remembered. That couldn't come from anywhere but “from above” since no one in our family was a religious professional. I invite you to discover the beauty of unpredictability as you open yourself to the discomfort of not knowing on the path to the deeper, more life-giving knowing of the Spirit, both in your personal lives and as a congregation.