Saturday, January 07, 2017

An Alternate View of Being Born Again

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him."

Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God." "What do you mean?" exclaimed Nicodemus. "How can an old man go back into his mother's womb and be born again? Jesus replied, "I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.- John 3:1-5


When I was in elementary school, I rode the bus to and from school. The driver was a kindly man named Brother Pete who was a lay minister at a local church. He talked regularly about the sinful life he had lived before he was born-again. I admit I didn’t really understand the concept, aside from the fact that it was a religious one different with my own. The way I felt was not judgmental, though I neglected to pick up the leaflets of religious literature always stationed at the front of the bus, or the free bumper stickers that warned me to not be caught dead without Jesus. The Methodist Jesus I knew in my childhood never pushed the idea that being saved before the end of life was of paramount importance.

As I grew into a typically questioning teenager, I began to be skeptical of the idea of being born again. It seemed too easy, too neat. One could make the initial step, but to be human is to backslide, to sin, to err. How could I know that being born again could really take, that it could be a transformative event that would revolutionize a person’s life from then going forward? I knew my own hypocrisies, my own shortcomings that routinely proved me to be a hypocrite. I made vows to change, adhered to them for a while, and then always broke the promises I’d made to God and to myself.

A story is told of the influential Protestant theologian Martin Luther. Luther would spend hours praying at a church, be satisfied with his work, and make plans to leave and accomplish other matters. Then he would have a sinful thought, and furious with himself, return to the church to pray for hours more. Luther held himself to a high standard, as he did the Roman Catholic Church, as our history teaches us.

I’ve written numerous times about my struggles with mental illness. I’ve also written numerous times about my Quaker faith. For the sake of a non-Quaker audience, allow me to share the story of our founder, George Fox. It is postulated that Fox suffered from bipolar disorder, and it is almost certain that he experienced debilitating periods of self-doubt and depression. Early in his ministry, in 17th Century England, Fox wandered the countryside in search of peace of mind. He found no shortage of advice and people who gave him explicit instructions of things to do to provide resolution to his internal crisis.

Like George Fox, I have wandered from person to person, place to place, seeking guidance and a lasting cure to that which has been troubling me deeply. Once, in my twenties, I visited an Episcopal church for a time, thinking that surely there would be the answers and the peace that I craved. On Sunday morning, during the service, a man about my age went out of the way to show me how to sing the hymns, to say the prayers, to know what to do and when to do it. But even entertaining the prospect of being a devout Episcopalian was not enough for me.

The order of service noted that special blessings were provided to those who requested them in special circumstances. I made my inquiries, and was directed to a smaller worship room adjacent to the larger worship space. As I waited eagerly, a priest arrived to greet me, who I recall was a blonde haired Australian woman. She asked me my reason for the blessing, and though I wanted to blurt out everything, I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t answer. She didn’t press me long.

I remember how she smiled at me and asked me to kneel in front of me. She opened a small circular metal container full of a clear, greasy, waxy oil. In accordance with my wishes, she intoned a blessing and with a thumb made the sign of the cross on the center of my forehead. For the moment, I felt greatly relieved. Surely this act would accomplish its purpose. I admit I did not wash the oil from my body for days afterwards, intending to extend the power and potency of this ritual as long as possible.

When I have resurfaced from a depressive or manic episode, I have come to associate the experience with being born again. And in so doing, I pray for a fresh start, a new lease on life. Manic episodes have been destructive to myself and others, leaving me with substantial guilt, a guilt I have hoped to cast upwards to God. Born again doesn’t have to mean a conservative Christianity obsessed with having every soul avoid a life spent in hellfire and brimstone. And for those of us who don’t have chronic illnesses like I do, born again might mean a recommitment to live a good life, a Godly life, a time spent on Earth working for the betterment of our fellow person, as we interpret it.

As for me, I believe in Heaven. To some, Heaven is a sweet notion of a place where we can rid ourselves of our human limitations and the basic pettiness of life as flawed creatures. And I understand why some are skeptical, why some believe that this life is all we have, after which we die and cease to live. But I have seen the heavenly parts of other people, the best case scenarios of interpersonal conduct, and I don’t think of basic nature is corrupt and evil. We can be easily knocked off course and misdirected in unhelpful ways, but this to me is not proof that no goodness exists in humanity. Together we are working to perfect ourselves as a people and as a civilization, even when we backtrack or go sideways.

One of my favorite poems is “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes. It summarizes the human condition, the back and forth between pain and pleasure, joy and pain. But the message within it is a positive one. Keep hope. Keep moving forward. Fight the good fight with all your might. There are challenges ahead of us but we have a duty to ourselves and to everyone else to fight for what is right, what is fair, and what is just.

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time

I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So, boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps.
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now—
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

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