Tuesday, April 11, 2006

"Born Again"...again?!

This must be one of the most loved and hated terms surrounding Christianity. Most people within evangelical circles use it often, and put it out front as THE DESCRIPTION of what being a Christian is.

But for many, this is a badge, not of honor, but of dishonor. I will never forget working at a rental car agency, sitting in the office with a co-worker. Somehow the matter of faith came up. "You're not one of those born-again people are you?" I could sense the disbelief and hostility in his voice.

Doing my best to diffuse the anger, set the table for real dialogue, and get any bad models from his past out in the open, I asked, "What do you mean by 'born-again'?"

He went on to explain that those people are in-your-face, narrow-minded, and, above all, hypocrites. I was quick to side with him where I could. No, that is not what I mean when I use the term. No, I hope I am not what he just described. But yes, that is a term the Bible uses. (If my memory serves me correctly, it is only used in one chapter of the whole Bible. Which begs the question, "How did we become so monotone in our description of the faith?" and "Why do we take the lame way out, only parrotting cliches without understanding the picture that is behind the term?")

Well, for those of you who are still reading, you may wonder where does it appear in scripture and what does it mean?

John tells the story in his Gospel. Nicodemus, a religious leader, comes to see Jesus...at night. Presumably when none of his peers will see him making this trip.

Nicodemus says to Jesus, "Rabbi," (a sign that he respects Jesus), we all know that God has sent you to teach us." (Do you hear the humility?) "Your miraculous signs are proof enough that God is with you."

How does Jesus respond? Will he commend Nicodemus for showing respect, humility, and being teachable? No. Will he scold Nicodemus for coming at night? Not quite. But Jesus does challenge him. "I assure you, unless you are born again, you can never see the Kingdom of God."

Do you see what Jesus is doing? He knows Nicodemus has two competing ideas about religion. Nicodemus is a leader of the religious group. He is part of the status quo. He is a piece of the religious machinery. Jesus lets him know that to experience what God has in mind, good 'ol Nic needs a new perspective; he needs to be able to see and hear things differently. He needs to have different priorities. He needs to be made new. (Interestingly enough, the Bible uses the terms "new heart" and "new mind" and "new things" more often than it does "born again". But, I believe, they are describing the same idea.)

Well if this doesn't make a whole lot of sense to you, don't feel bad. "What do you mean?" exclaimed Nicodemus. "How can an old man go back into his mother's womb and be born again?"

Jesus goes on to explain a little more. "Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives new life from heaven." Another translation of the phrase "born again" can be "born from above". Jesus is saying what Nicodemus needs is something that can only be brought in from an outside Source. A Higher Power, if you will.

Have you ever been on vacation, or taken a nap, or had an experience that left you feeling like "a whole new person"? Take that experience, and multiply it by 100 and THAT'S a little of what is meant by being born again/from above.

Now, let's go back to my friend's statement before. Maybe the in-your-face, narrow-minded, hypocrites who claimed to be "born again" weren't really that after all. Maybe it is obvious to those "outside" the church that there is nothing "from above" about their lives. But that's THEIR problem (though it sure feels like our problem when we have to fight through those crappy, warped models).

But my problem, and I think, your problem is this:

have I sought out my own, authentic invitation to be a whole new person, born from above, born again?

Maybe the images of "starting over" or "starting with a clean slate" are appealing to you. Maybe the idea of a supernatural hand that gets you started on a different path is appealing to you. Maybe you like the idea of having new ears to hear the Good News in a brand new way. Maybe you would love to have new eyes to see truth that you've missed before.

If so, take a moment now and ask God to make you new. To make you born from above. To make you born again.

I am convinced that is a request God is always ready to answer. The result may be overwhelming and ecstatic. It may be much more cerebral and non-emotional. You may feel completely different. You may feel the same. But this is a journey of FAITH. And I have faith that what you just did will make a difference larger and more far-reaching than you'll ever know.

Grace & peace

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