God works wonders from dust…

Today is Ash Wednesday.   It is the beginning of Lent and the day in the church calendar that we are called upon to face our own mortality.   I am confessing a secret that I actually don’t hate Lent.  Because in this crazy, busy culture we need 40 days to contemplate, pray, and fast and this is the day that kicks it all off.  It is in Ash Wednesday that we are called upon to face the deep truth that as mortals we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Mary Oliver says about this life “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Even though we talk about calling and gifts and graces and God guiding and leading us through life, Ash Wednesday is reminding us that we are dust and to dust we return.

It can be scary, a little refreshing.   Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran priest shares the image she has about Ash Wednesday, “If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and us not knowing what the distance is between the two, well then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and then held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. With these ashes, it is as though the water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the future to meet us here today. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God. Promises which outlast our piety, outlast our efforts in self-improvement, outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”  We live in a culture that tells us if we work hard enough, have enough money, buy enough skin care products, eat healthy enough, or exercise with enough vigor, we might just live forever.  And yet, we know that is not true.  So today, we proclaim the truth that we shall return to the dust over which God first breathed life.

And I, at least, breathe a sigh of relief.   Because admitting and facing my own mortality, allows me to admit that God is God and I am not (and we should all be very thankful for that).  It allows me to lay down my attempts to manage my own human brokenness, and step into the deep and holy mystery that is the Christian life.   Having confessed my sins, and admitted my own mortality, it allows me to live freely this incredible, mortal life that is my reality right now.  It allows me to take chances, take leaps of faith, with every breath that I have in my body.

But perhaps more than that, it helps me to let go of my fear.  Because Ash Wednesday reminds us that in spite of it all, death does not have the last word.   While we and others have the power to destroy our mortal flesh, God has destroyed death.

The beauty of Ash Wednesday is that it cuts through the crud, the non-essentials.  It gets to the heart of the very core of everything.  It reminds us of God’s infinite promises to us.  It reminds us there is beauty in our brokenness, and freedom that we don’t have to live up to some earthly falsehood of perfection.

Ann Voskamp says this about Lent, “I can’t seem to follow through in giving up for Lent. Which makes me want to just give up Lent.  Which makes me question Who I am following.  Which may precisely be the point of Lent.”

Whether you’re adding something or taking something away, whether you commit to have some quiet in your life and spend twenty minutes in day in silence, whether you write down things that you are thankful for, or fast one day a week.   Randy Wells reminded me before the service that I have to talk about the “feast” days on Sundays that you can choose to follow your Lenten discipline or not because every Sunday is supposed to be a Resurrection Sunday or mini-Easter.  He then pointed out, we shouldn’t take that as an invitation to cram all of the other days vices into that one day!

Jo Ann Staebler in her book “Soul Fast,” says, “In the deep stillness of prayer my soul fasts.  Fasting, at its heart, is turning away from what keeps me from God.  Two things I must leave:  the walls I build around the space that was made to be God’s dwelling; the absurdities I keep in that space, so jealously hoarded.  Taking down the wall that protects the false self I have been building, all these years…risking exposure, emptiness, loneliness.  The fast is silence, ocean-deep and prolonged.  Shard by shard, the wall begins to fall.  Inch by inch, the space clears, and Love lights the shadows.  I come unprotected, and learn that God alone is safety.  I come unaccompanied, and find that Christ alone is Friend.  I come hungry, and receive the only food that satisfies.  In letting go is abundance.  In emptying I am filled.  This is not denial, but freedom.  Fast is feast.”

Maybe we should fast from the 24 hours new cycle.  Maybe we should fast from television.  Maybe we should fast from social media.  Maybe we should fast from the electronics that get in the way of us talking to our friends and family, like they are attached to our bodies or something.  It doesn’t matter to me what you do, I just want you to be intentional in this Lenten ritual.  As most things in life, what you put into it, is what you’ll get out of it.  It’s only a tool, a ritual, to draw us closer to Jesus.

Hear these powerful words from the artist and poet, Jan Richardson, in her poem “Blessing the Dust.”

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

God can work wonders from dust.  God made you in your mother’s womb.  Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look up at your skies, at what your fingers made — the moon and the stars that you set firmly in place — what are human beings that you think about them . . . that you pay attention to them?”

I’ve heard Hawk Nelson’s “Diamonds” on the radio and can’t help but relate it to Ash Wednesday every time it comes on.  Here are the lyrics:

Here and now I’m in the fire, in above my head
Being held under the pressure, don’t know what will be left
But it’s here in the ashes
I’m finding treasure

He’s making diamonds
Making diamonds
He’s making diamonds out of dust
He is refining
And in his timing
He’s making diamonds out of us

I’ll surrender to the power of being crushed by love
‘Til the beauty that was hidden isn’t covered up
It’s not what I hoped for
It’s something much better

Oh The Joy of the Lord
It will be my strength
When the pressure is on
He’s making Diamonds

I won’t be afraid to shine

May we never be afraid to shine.  God can do mighty things through us.  Our Rabbi Jesus can lead us to do some crazy, awesome things as we follow his teachings, example, and have his dust all over us.  The Holy Spirit can fan the fire to make diamonds out of dust.  So, shout it from the roof tops, sing it in your heart, whisper it quietly to yourself, but tell that truth.  That you were formed from dust and to dust you will return.  Then, breathe a sigh of relief and be free.  Because it’s not all about you.  It’s about what God does in us.  As I will say when I put the ashes on your forehead, God can work wonders out of dust.  Thanks be to God indeed.

Pruning in Love

This past week 24 people from Gator Wesley served with Pura Vida Ministries in San Jose, Costa Rica. The theme was “Abide” and focused on John 15:1-17. If you haven’t read this passage in a while, check it out. It has all sorts of nuggets of wisdom and good food for thought.

Verse 2 has particularly struck me saying, “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” I don’t know about you but I’m not always a fan of people removing things or pruning when it doesn’t fit into my schedule or what I think is good for me. Some of the control freak in me wants to know the who’s, what’s, and why’s of pruning and all of the intricate details so that I can fully analyze the situation. Getting negative feedback or personal criticism isn’t something that makes us feel good. It often hurts. It can seem callous and cold or completely unmerited. It can also be our natural inclination to rationalize and push it to the side and not want to move forward. There are times when we need to shake it off and consider the source, but there are also times when people point out blind spots or things that we’ve been wrestling with and trying to name and figure out. This is still often uncomfortable and hurtful to hear out loud, but it also is a growing edge.

That’s the thing that I like about this passage. Jesus is not just randomly removing branches or tearing us down. Jesus isn’t haphazardly pruning a little bit here and a little bit there with no rhyme or reason. It’s not like when I try to cut Enoch’s hair thanking God that it’s curly enough that even if I completely mess up, it will be camouflaged enough that people won’t notice. Jesus removes and prunes so that we bear more fruit. It’s not pruning to criticize or punish or intentionally wound, it’s pruning to make us stronger and more reliant on him and his love.

To make sure that we know that this isn’t about us not being good enough, Jesus says in verse 3, “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” The definition of cleansed is “To free from dirt, defilement, or guilt; purge or clean.” So it’s not about us measuring up to unreachable goals, it’s about abiding in the love of Christ so that we can be in tune enough with the Spirit that we can tell the difference between needed pruning and the roar of the world around us. It’s letting God lead us to a place where we make a home with God – leaning on God’s grace, truth, discernment and strength.

This pruning is so that God may be glorified and that we bear much fruit and become disciples (verse 8). Sometimes correction, facing consequences, and hearing a hard truth is for our own good and our own growth. We want our communities to grow and thrive and we want the world to recognize us as disciples of Christ. As we look at pruning others may we look to the rest of the passage as we “love one another as I (Jesus) have loved you” (verse 12). May we prayerfully speak in love and hear in love. May we surround ourselves with people that really know us and truly love us. A community that, “knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.” May we also realize that Jesus is one of these friends that wants us to dwell and abide in him, to keep his commandments and draw joy from that, to love one another, and to realize that he has chosen us and continues to want the very best for us.

*The video is Jame Grace’s “You Lead.” I appreciate that it lifts up that no matter how much the world is pushing or pulling, we are led by God in this crazy journey called life.

Renew, Restore, Uphold

As we continue through our Lenten journey, looking towards Holy Week – these verses are a challenge, a promise and a prayer. “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. . . . Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.” – Psalm 51:10, 12

The sentences above was my facebook status this morning.  The passage came from the online Upper Room readings this morning.  I don’t know about you, but I needed to hear them.  It is so easy to get caught up in the busy-ness of life and all of the things that “have” to get done, that at least for me, the things that I treasure sometimes get pushed aside.  There’s only so long that we can spin like tops like in Inception without completely stopping and getting skewed.  

I think some of us see God as the One that keeps the top spinning.  We see God as the strength to get us through the next thing and the next and the next.  This time of year when there’s just a month left in the semester, in many ways I cling to that image of God giving us the strength, perseverance, and grace to keep moving and going and completing the things that we need to complete and remembering the things we need to remember.  

For some of us, it’s harder to see God as the One that sometimes is this one to stop the top mid-spin.  If you’re in the middle of dancing to a good song or jamming in your car, you don’t want the song to suddenly go off either by someone changing the channel or an emergency test or you arriving at your location.  Sometimes though it takes this sometimes awkward pause to wake us up to realize that we’ve been running on our own steam and in our own self-centeredness and self-involvement and that we haven’t connected to the One who sustains us in awhile.

It’s not that we haven’t been doing what we need to do.  It’s not that I haven’t gone to worship or small group or done the “minister” stuff, but no matter how long the to do list is and no matter how many directions our minds are pulled in whether in worry or day dreaming or whatever, sometimes we need to press the pause button and reconnect with the One who is providing us with the music.

My prayer for myself and each of us is that if we’re speeding through this Lenten journey and we’re thinking we’re in the home stretch, that we’re just as attentive now to God’s leading as we were when we started this journey on Ash Wednesday.  My hope is that we’re just as committed, disciplined and awakened to God’s joy and presence now as when we first believed.  May God speak to us in clear and powerful ways and may we have ears to listen and hearts ready to receive.  May our lives be renewed and restored, and may we trust that God will uphold us today, tomorrow and forevermore!

Image
This is a true outside of Wesley where I've gotten to watch some persevering green silk worms slowly and surely make their way. May we fit into God's rhythm the same way.

Marked with the Holy Spirit

Yesterday the online Upper Room’s focus verse was Ephesians 1:13, “When you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in [Christ, you] were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” What an appropriate text the day after Ash Wednesday as we boldly navigate this Lenten journey.

I love how the Holy Spirit shows up in the unexpected. Actually, sometimes I’m most surprised when the Holy Spirit shows up in the obvious places. Like a worship service. Dinner. Even a board meeting. Tonight we had our Wesley Board Meeting and our fellowship dinner and program night, followed by a joint prayer/worship service with BCM (Baptist Collegiate Ministry) and CRU (Campus Crusade).

I admit that I started off the day pretty well. One of the students even said I looked more rested and alive today. (Pretty good praise for a Thursday.) But by the afternoon as the students went to enjoy a game of sand volleyball by Winthrop Lake, my sinus infection had turned into a monster of a headache and I was just D for Done.

I can’t say that the headache went away or that everything went exactly smoothly and perfectly but I could definitely feel the presence of God as Jon talked about his calling into ministry and we as a board got to send him with our approval to the District Committee on Ministry to be a certified candidate. I could tangibly hear and see the wonder of this special community as students shared over dinner, relaxed, hung out and chatted everywhere, and generally looked like they were right at home. And then as we began to make our way to the Winthrop Amphitheater for a joint prayer service with BCM and CRU – none of us knowing exactly what this would be like – but coming along anyway – I was struck in wonder by the beautiful night sky, a chance to worship with fellow believers on campus, and an opportunity to not be the one in charge, but a participant.

You see we were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. Even with our sinus headaches, our thank God it’s Thursdays, and our exhaustion, God still shows up, guiding and leading us in the midst. It’s not just something that’s a maybe – it’s a promise.

Where did God show up for you today? Was it when things were going super smooth or a little rocky?

Drawing Closer – Lenten Journey

I have been being slack in my blog posts and I promise to do better in Lent. Below is a post I wrote on the Winthrop Wesley blog (wuwesley.wordpress.com) that I am posting here as well because in the days to come I may need some accountability as I am led by the Holy Spirit of what this 40 days of wilderness will be.

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Our text at this past week’s worship service was James 1:19-27 which is a familiar part of James. Verse 22 says, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

It’s a passage that is lifted up in a lot of Protestant congregations and we looked at it in particular leading up to today, Ash Wednesday.

Last week I had the honor and joy to speak at a conference for young adults in ministry. Relevance LEAD was a great time of talking with other pastors and lay people in ministry that were my age, to dream about the possibilities and life of the church, and to share in friendship, community building and collegiality. It was a special time. And something completely different than a typical conference as the speakers were part of the conference just like everyone else and we all have a vested interest in sharing these ideas and musings.

I liked that it was set up to dream big dreams and engage but there was another part of me that kept itching for the nuts and bolts, what would happen when the rubber hits the road. Each person was wrestling with similar things and were living out their faith and that of their community in mighty ways, but it still begged the question of what this means for our greater church. I felt a bit like James – let’s not just talk about this and know that we all feel in similar ways, but let’s do it.

It’s all well and good to talk the big talk, but if we go back home from this conference and it doesn’t change how we think or how we do things, if we don’t take away friendships that will continue as we journey together, if we don’t actually begin the first steps of these big dreams – what’s the point? It’s good to know that you’re not alone, but if we stay completely in the theoretical, than it can sometimes just be hot air and words.

Just like this Lenten season. I’ve heard students buzzing about what they’re giving up for Lent and that seems like the big question of the next couple of days. I admit, I didn’t grow up with a huge emphasis on giving things up or adding things to my life and I didn’t really do it until college. One of those years I gave up popcorn, which was my current obsession. The next year, I gave up M&M Mcflurries. Now that was all well and good and I think I could rationalize them as a step to be healthy but even that would be a stretch with all of the rest of the junk I eat.

You see, it’s not just about what we give up or add – it’s about whether those things draw us closer to God. Several of our students have talked about giving up facebook. One is giving up three hours a day with her phone – not just class time or when she’s asleep, but three hours where she won’t be checking it all the time. She plans on this being time where she can draw closer to God. Another student has covenanted to intentionally pray three times a day for the season of Lent. If you’re just giving up chocolate or ice cream or coffee for the heck of it and it’s not something that’s drawing you closer to God – what’s the point? I get the idea of sacrifice but I also think if we just do the sacrifice and we’re not adding things like reading scripture, doing a daily devotion, writing down things that we’re thankful for, renewing an old friendship, sending words of encouragement to friends, or walking in the outdoors with God in nature – than we’re fooling ourselves into thinking that we have this thing covered. It’s not about choosing something so that if someone asks us about it – we can give a ready made answer, but choosing something because we have invited the Holy Spirit into our lives and have opened ourselves to see the areas that we might need to work on.

One of the students Monday night after worship described it as a giant Pinterest board where you’ve “pinned” all these different things and they look nice and easy and like things that you would like to do “one day,” but you never actually get around to doing them. James is saying – do it now. Lent is calling us forth to realizing that yes we are dust and to dust we will return, but in the meantime let us draw close to God and walk this road.

My brother Josh is doing a Lenten series called “Holy Walkabout” and I love the idea of Lent being this special time where we’re walking with God into the wilderness. We don’t always know what we’re going to discover or the ways that God will reveal God’s self. We don’t always know what areas we need to work on in our lives because I don’t know about you, but I’m a pretty good rationalizer. I would say that I’m exceptional when it comes to finding ways to eat junk food. It defeats the purpose of Lent for me to negotiate back and forth if this counts or if that counts. Because when we open ourselves to the Spirit’s leading and we actually go all in with this thing, we realize that it’s not just about us or having something to say when people ask, but it’s about wanting to be part of this larger story of God’s love and grace for us and how we can best live that out so that the world may know God.

So are you going to keep pinning the things that you want to do on a giant to do list to do eventually or you going to actually start chipping away at some of these possibilities right now?

God’s not going to hand out gold stars for those that participate and unsmiley faces for those that don’t. It’s not about that. But it is about deepening that relationship and trusting that real change, habitual change can take place in 40 days.

So think about it…ask the Holy Spirit to come and guide you…what are some ways you can draw close to God this Lenten season? What are some things that hinder or road block your relationship? What are some ways that we can intentionally live out our faith right now?

Dig in.

Lent Week 3 – Water, water, water…say it with me

The text for this past Sunday is one of my favorites.  I feel like I say that just about every week though so it’s a little redundant.  It was a long one – John 4:5-42.  It’s hard for people’s minds not to wander with such a chunk of text but how can you break these things up?  It’s the story of the Samaritan woman at the well which is a familiar one to a lot of us.

Every week this semester, Josh, Adrienne and I have been playing basketball in the West Center (the gym on campus) on Tuesdays and Thursdays when time and no meetings have allowed.  It’s two against one and we go to 21 by 1’s and 2’s for a typical 3 pointer.  The best we’ve ever done against Josh is 15 to his 21.  The worst is 1.  Sad times.  Josh definitely takes a healthy joy in blocking my shots after me blocking his through out my growth spurt in high school.  After one of these lovely work out sessions, we went back to Wesley and I was beyond thirsty.  I asked them if we had anything besides water in the building.  I’m not a complete water hater.  Well, actually I kind of am.  I just don’t really like it.  How spoiled and snotty is that?  True.  Anyway, there were 3 or 4 students in the office at the time and we had a long, serious conversation over how I say the word, “water.”  Why do they have to hate on their campus minister this way?

Apparently, maybe due to my strong Southern roots, say something along the lines of “warter.”  When I should be saying “wa-ter.”  Whatever.  At the time of this conversation on Tuesday I had no idea that the text coming up was the one with the Samaritan woman at the well.  I pick texts along time in advance and don’t always remember where we are.  So on Sunday as I’m trying to read this text in front of a congregation and than later on in front of the students, I felt more than conspicuous and nervous about saying it – oh about a dozen times.  I was so concerned about the pronouncement and trying to get the words right, that it would have been easy to miss the whole point of the text.

Some of us that may not always talk right or look right or use the right scripture or dress a certain way or do a certain job or belong to the special club or organization, we may sometimes be afraid to speak up and be real.  In this week’s Neue This Week, they had a post from Relevant Magazine called Church Members Anonymous.  It spoke about a pastor visiting Alcoholics Anonymous with some friends.  It talks about some of the similarities he saw between AA and the church and the honesty he encountered in this meeting.  He talks about being real and these moments of personal confession and being active participants in our faith community.

This Samaritan woman didn’t show up at the well for an AA meeting, but Jesus made no bones about knowing exactly who she was and what was happening in her life.  The disciples walk up later and they can’t believe he was talking with someone from Samaria, much less a woman, and they didn’t even know about her husband history.  If she were a college basketball team, she wouldn’t be the one that people would pick to go all the way in a go spread the Good News and people are going to listen to you kind of way.  And yet, this little Cinderella story had the energy – she went around and rallied the people and told them about this man who could be the Messiah.  She might not have been the one anyone would pick to do it, but her sharing about this man that knew her better than anyone got people out to meet the One she spoke of.  In verse 39 it says, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”  She got them there just by sharing her story, her interaction with this man who told her everything she had ever done.  And then they saw it for themselves and believed.  “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

She had this interaction.  She had this experience.  She felt this grace and had to share it.

I love it.  It was never really the big shot teachers or the intidating people that none of us think we can live up to, but regular folks just like me and you that just spread this thing like wild fire.

A really, really old song that I think fits this well and one that I always think of with this text is Sierra’s “No Stone to Throw.”  I know that is hugely old school Christian music and showing my age.  I get that.  But some of the verses say:

I’ve got no stone to throw,
No ax to grind,
I look in Maggie’s life,
And I see mine.

I see somebody searchin’ for somethin’,
A little love and understandin’,
And the longer I know the Lord the more I know,
I’ve got no stone to throw.

I don’t think any of us would get away with much in the face of Jesus.  It’s like a kid caught with his/her hand in the cookie jar.  Or with crumbs on his/her shirt trying to cover up the evidence.  None of us has any stones to throw.

God can use any of us to spread the Gospel.  None of us has messed up too much or for too long.  None of us has won the perfection award for 10 years running.  If we are honest, like at that AA meeting, we know that all of us struggle and mess up at times.  Realizing that justifying grace that this Teacher, this man is speaking to me and is including and accepting me, is a big deal.  And then we keep moving towards that repentance and renewal.

The thing about that justifying grace is not just that it leads us to sanctifying grace or in other words, moving closer and closer to living in right relationship with God, but it’s something we’ve got to share.  There’s an urgency there to share what we have seen and touched and know.  Just like this woman, we don’t have to do this all by ourselves.  She just shared her testimony and the people’s interaction with Jesus did the rest.  She just opened her mouth and told the world.

I agree with the AA story that what the world wants to see is people being real.  They want to know that this is available for them too, not just a select few.

My challenge this week to the students and to me is that we intentionally pray for 5 things.

1.  a family member (this one should be relatively easy, but hey you never know – it could be hard)

2.  a friend (this one should definitely be easy.  they’re your friend for goodness sake)

3.  a broken relationship (when I described this to the students I literally break my hands together showing something breaking – this is a wound or something that hasn’t been resolved and forgiveness found, this is something that still needs some healing)

4.  someone you’d least like to pray for (when I started this list was their someone that came to your mind that you were like – heck no, I do not want to pray for that person?  that’s who we challenge you to pray for)

5.  the lost among us (even down here in the crazy South, there are people who haven’t heard the Gospel, or at least not as it directly relates to YOUR life and YOUR experience with God – how are we sharing that?  who are we sharing this living water with?)

Will that be hard this week?  Probably so.  Do we have to have a certain degree or knowledge to say the words?  Nope.  Do we even have to pronounce the words all in the most correct way?  No.  But I have a sneaky suspicion that intentionally praying for these folks may open our eyes to some other things around us and ways we can be in prayer and sharing in real and mighty and tangible ways with our neighbors.  Are we willing to surrender a bit to the Spirit some of our time and energy and resources to see where this will lead?  Are we willing to drop everything like she did to go and tell people?

Food for thought or should I say, living water for thought.  And for prayer hopefully.

Let's take this living water out into the world.

Neue this week:  http://neuemagazine.com/index.php/blog/6-main-slideshow/1217-church-member-anonymous?utm_source=Neue+Weekly&utm_campaign=575e03c79f-Neue_Weekly_03_30_11&utm_medium=email

Week 2 of Lent – Oh Nicodemus!

John 3:16 is one of the most well-known verses in the Bible.  It may be THE most well-known verse.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him nay not perish but may have eternal life.”  It was one of the first ones my mom had us memorize and we memorized the KJV so I’m remembering some “whosoever believeth.”  We see this verse all over the place – bumper stickers, t-shirts, written on the facepaint of Tim Tebow when he played for Florida.  It’s a popular verse and one that focuses on the gift of grace given to each of us.

I totally get that and appreciate it.  What I think we get less of is the passage proceeding it.  This chapter comes after the wedding of Cana and the cleansing of the Temple – after the beginning of John where he has introduced Jesus and then proceeds in the coming chapters to show that the words he wrote in the beginning are backed up by signs, actions, and other bits of evidence.  He’s doing these things and already there is grumbling by those in power.  There’s always some grumbling when something new and not the norm.

Then here comes Nicodemus, a Pharisee who is a leader of the Jews, meeting with Jesus in the night.  Many have said that this looks like Nicodemus is afraid of what other people will think or that he might be in “cahoots” with Jesus.  Don’t you love the word “cahoots”?  He even seems to be speaking the party line, using the word “we.”  “WE know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Maybe he didn’t want to be linked to Jesus.  Maybe he was afraid that his fellow Pharisees will think less of him, be suspicious of him, or will ostracize him.  There was probably at least a little of that.  But it also could be that he wanted to talk to him and it was private, personal, something on his heart.  Have you ever been to a conference or workshop or concert or sometime when you’ve heard or seen something really powerful and you really, really want to talk to the person that moved you but you don’t want to line up with all the other well wishers or those asking questions?  It’s not that you couldn’t wait in line or that you don’t want to talk to the person or you too good to do it, but it’s something you want to ask and digest and unpack away from other listening ears and prying eyes?  It may even be a little embarassing for some reason.  Sometimes the things that we believe and hold dear in our hearts or the things that we question and are trying to make sense of are not something we want to broadcast to a room full of people.  So I don’t think the darkness necessarily makes Nicodemus a sketchy person.

When I preached this text a couple weeks ago, I was preaching in Cannon Chapel at Emory University.  Love Cannon Chapel.  Love Emory.  Loved catching with old friends and seeing people I love and respect and meeting new friends as well.  I’m telling you though there’s not much that scares me more than preaching in Cannon or at Glenn Memorial where all the smart people that actually know the commentaries and all the angles are.  Maybe I’m giving them too much credit.  Could be.  But I know for sure and certain that my hands were shaking before I started preaching.  When you come to someone and ask questions and you really respect that person and are a little star struck, it’s hard to say what you want to say.  It’s hard to get it out.  Especially in front of folks.

Jesus answers to him are not sugar coated, pulling punches or making easy leaps for him.  He’s not watering down his language or making it an easy transition, but says that “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Now that is not something that Nicodemus automatically understands.  He’s not like us who has seen billboards or tracts or heard over and over that you must be “born again.”  This wasn’t in his common lexicon.  He didn’t have a giant billboard outside the local bowling alley saying that May 21, 2011 is judgement day and you better be born again.  He also didn’t have any handy dandy tracts.  Sad times.  But you know what – the text itself doesn’t say “born again.”  Many translations don’t talk about it happening again, but that it is something “born from above” or “born anew.”

My sister in law is due to have her baby today.  She is.  The baby still hasn’t come and we’re all on baby watch.  Every phone call, facebook post, and everyone I see – all of us want to know when this baby is going to be born.  As we have watched Karen grow more and more “with child” we have witnessed the growing and changing of her body as the baby has expanded and expanded, and the grand finale isn’t even here yet.  None of us in any shape or form want to try to crawl back up into the womb and be born again.  I’m not getting all scientologist on you with the silent birth thing, but the image of being born again doesn’t much seem like a quiet or peaceful process.  Being born from above or born anew speaks to something different.  This isn’t quite like your first birth but is something that is different in its nature.

Nicodemus asks these same questions about birth and Jesus answers him saying “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is borth of the flesh is flesh, an what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”  This isn’t a fleshly birth.  This isn’t just raw humanity at its finest.  There is something more here.  This is about Spirit, not just flesh.

The week before I preached on this text we were in Washington, DC for a seminar on human trafficking and immigration and it was a rich experience with students from all over the country.  Northern Illinois Wesley, Arizona State Wesley and Winthrop Wesley all came together for the experience and the dialogue back and forth was fantastic.  The only thing that seemed to bother me was that on several occasions there were times I felt like we were talking past each other, or that as soon as someone threw out a statistic than the debate or argument was supposed to be over.  This to me is flesh.  When we’re just trying to win or have our point heard, but we don’t care about the other person or want to have a back and forth dialogue and not just a championship – it’s hard for me to see the Spirit there.  But when opposing viewpoints come together and some semblance of truth comes out and reigns forth, it’s easier to see the Spirit moving.

I often feel like people are missing the point in the midst of the fray.  As I watched the US launch missles against Libya that evening on the news and as I tried to gather information on what was happening and why it was happening, at the bottom of the screen in the ticker tape CNN was reporting that Kevin Costner had signed on to play superman’s dad in the new Superman franchise coming out.  Now, I love my celebrity news as much as the next person and I’m not hating on Superman, but the beyond irony of seeing us bomb Libya at the same time seeing the casting news of Kevin Costner was a little much.  Flesh versus Spirit.  “What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”  When we look around us in the day to day what do we see of the Spirit?  What do see that’s born of flesh?  Verse 8 says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. ”  One of the things that we say as part of our “What We Believe” on Sundays says “We believe in the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter, who blows peace, strength and perseverance over our lives.”  The Holy Spirit really is in some ways, this uncontrollable force that we invite to shake up and invigorate our lives.

The thing that I really like about this text is a part of it that we usually gloss over.  Or maybe pastors where you’re from don’t usually gloss over things, could just be my own inclination.  Verse 14 talking about the serpent in the wilderness that Moses lifted up is usually something that I would keep on trucking past and not necessarily dig into.  But I love this part that I had never discovered.  Here’s Moses in the book of Numbers with the Israelites wandering around in the wilderness for 40 years and even though everything is being provided for them – land, food, everything, they still start complaining because the food being provided isn’t good enough.  How often do we complain about not being able to get that next new thing or the best food, when God is providing abundantly for us?  So here’s God in Numbers 21 sending some poisonous snakes amongst the people and suddenly the Israelites really do have something to complain about.  Suddenly, it’s legit and even more griping ensues.  So God asks Moses to make this bronze serpent and if they look to it, they will be healed.

So you’re like okay.  We get the reference but what does that have to do with this?  This whole serpent thing became a crutch.  It wasn’t some cure all for all that ails humanity.  But they kept on worshipping it, generation after generation.  It talks about the same serpent in 2 Kings 18 when Hezekiah is cleaning out the temple.  In verse 4 it talks about him breaking it into pieces and how the people of Israel had continued to give offerings to it and had named it Nehushtan.  They had named the thing.  No longer had there been poisonous snakes.  No longer was it necessary, but they kept on doing it. 

There’s a part of us that love the formulaic or the ritual.  It’s easy.  If it worked before, let’s keep using it as much as we can.  (To talk about how we do this in the church, is just too easy.)  If healing came the first time, than maybe if we rub this magic rock or if we do ______ than it will protect us again.

But the thing is, God can’t be reduced to a formula when it comes to special stones or idols.  For that matter, the Christian life, can’t be reduced to a formula or simple ritual.  We can’t just pay homage to relics, even if they once meant something in one time or place.  Not that I’m saying we throw everything out, but the One who is lifted up in the Gospel is greater than any simple thing we could create.  Jesus as the Son of Man is lifted up and that’s more powerful than any snake or any idol of our own – whether wealth or security or power or sense of safety or self.

This is what leads into that familar John 3:16 passage.  It’s not just for a select few that bow down to the snake, but for everyone that believes in him who is lifted up for all of us.  I love the next verses too, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

John 3:16 is important, true.  It is.  Mom wouldn’t have made us memorize it otherwise.  Christian merchandising definitely indicates this is so.  But we shouldn’t make the words the magic formula, but the Savior that they’re pointing to.  We shouldn’t break everything down to a 3 step process, but should let the Spirit of God speak through the words of scripture and our words as we greet the world with light.  We shouldn’t just grasp hold of these verses without also looking at the rest of the teachings of our scripture talking about justice and loving our neighbor and our God.  If we don’t just go back and depend on the old relics, but we see what the Spirit has in store and if we choose not to limit how far God’s redemptive love can reach, what a world we could be looking at.

Yes, there’s a battle of darkness and light.  Yes, there are choices to be made.  And I think often some of us are right there in the middle right where Nicodemus is.  You see these verses don’t end Nicodemus’ story.  We see him again in John 7:50 sort of trying to ask some questions to help Jesus but not really committing to actually step up and put a stop to anything.  Then we see Nicodemus again with Joseph of Arimathea in John 19:39 and it’s done.  Jesus is gone and he brings some myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body.  John specifically says that this is the same Nicodemus as the one who visited Jesus in the night.  He doesn’t tell us if Nicodemus regrets not doing something or if there’s sadness as he prepares the body of Jesus or if he struggles with his part played.  John doesn’t tell us any of those feelings, but he tells us actions.  Nicodemus came and asked questions, Nicodemus attempted to speak up, and Nicodemus helped prepare the body.  We don’t know if Nicodemus regretted just going with the status quo or old relics, or if he eventually caught on to this new vision in Jesus.

How have we reduced our Christian walks to a formula?  When something challenging or difficult happens to we begin the same ritual that has worked before or we start promising God all sorts of things that we’ll change if God would only…?  How are we like Nicodemus, curious, questioning, sort of trying to step up, and yet…?  How have we reduced God’s power and vision into tidy boxes?  Can we discern what is “flesh” in our lives and what is Spirit?  Are we ready for the Spirit to burst into our lives…into the lives of our churches…into our workplaces…into the day to day?  Or are we so awesome at compartmentalizing our faith that we’re letting a lot in this world just pass us by because we don’t feel that sense of urgency?

For God so loved the world…