Out of the blue yesterday, my phone rang. The voice on the other end was not one I recognized. In fact, I did not know this man at all who was calling me from Atlanta. But, like many of the emails and calls I regularly receive, this fellow, or so he explained, had come across something I had written for the HuffPost, BeliefNet or from just surfing the web – I do not remember where – but he had questions he wanted to ask me.
As he described it, he was once a self-professed atheist. But then, a few years ago, he had a spiritual experience he described as “the new birth.”
“So,” he asked, “do you believe in the new birth…in the need to be born again?”
His metaphor, for those of you who might not know, was borrowed from the New Testament story of Nicodemus, a secret follower of Jesus who, for reasons not unlike many today, felt the need to keep his fascination with Jesus under wraps. So, he would arrange to meet Jesus at night at the coffee shop on the corner of “Remote and Inconspicuous” and there the two of them would discuss mysteries of spiritual transformation.
One night, as they discussed perhaps the greatest of all mysteries – the mystery of birth – Jesus said, “Well you know, Nicodemus, you must be born again.”
Nicodemus looked confused. “Born again…but, how?”
Wrong question, Nicodemus.
Like many in the Christian community today, Nicodemus wanted an explanation…a formula…a detailed analysis…a “How to” manual of instruction. But, how could you ever explain the Inexplicable?
“To understand,” you say. “I just want to understand how to be right with God…how to be saved…and so miss hell and make heaven…”
To understand? What is there to understand? Can you explain how an oak tree grows? Of course not. Do you understand the mystery of time and space, quantum mechanics? But, of course, you do not.
Do you care to know? To explain? Again, you do not.
So, why this mystery? Why must you have a “How To” manual for this mystery?
In order to remove the Mystery? To control it?
Now, you’re talkin! Isn’t this the truth? You only ever wish to explain what you wish to exploit? Much of the history of Christianity, indeed many religions, is the history of Divine control. And, when that happens, it’s not too great a leap to human control. If you can explain the Divine, you can exploit the masses.
Need I say more?
So, as I talked and became acquainted with the stranger from Atlanta, he asked…”Do you believe people must be born again to be saved?”
His question was replete with “built-in” meanings…and, agendas.
“Do you believe…” is really just another way of asking, “Do you agree with me? And, those of us who hold to the ‘right’ beliefs?”
You’ve met these people before, haven’t you?
I knew where he was going. So do many of you reading this. It’s why some of you have chosen to be distant from me, and others like me, since we’ve chosen to come out of the dark, so to speak, instead of wrestling with our questions at the corner of “Remote and Inconspicuous.” So, if that’s where you are, so be it. Peer through the cracked door and listen in on the conversation. It’s really OK.
“So, if you wish to know,” I said to the fellow on the other end of the line, “this is where I am today: There is a mystery we call birth…we call re-birth…a mystery of inner transformation that I neither understand nor feel the need to explain. What I do know is that I no longer feel the need to insist people subscribe to the ‘Four Spiritual Laws’ as the way-to-be-saved, or born again, or as an explanation of either their condition or the Divine remedy for it.
I know only this: when you feel drawn by the Mystery of Life itself…when you can look, as Pam and I do as grandparents, into the infant eyes of a grandchild and ponder the miracle of life that began but months before when a protoplasmic mass took the shape and began the mysterious transformation into human life…
When, my friend, you can look at that mystery and are able to explain that mystery, then you will have earned the right, in my own estimation, to explain the Mystery we too flippantly refer to as “salvation,” in the church…too quickly reduce to a formula and call it “being born again.”
Until then, I am content to live with the questions…the ambiguity…the mystery…the “I don’t know what it is or how it happens…only that ‘once I was blind but now I see’”(Jn 9).
If you still need more than this, however, I understand. So, if like my new friend on the phone, you feel a little threatened inside right now by what you’re reading…if my words cause you a little discomfort because they’re so different from the comfort you’ve found in the ready-made religion of those who pretend to explain the Inexplicable, and you’re wondering, with some trepidation, “But how can I KNOW if I’ve been born again?”
I would answer: “Had you not, why would you bother to ask the question?”