“Born from Above”

Spanish photographer Xavi Bou began observing the flight patterns of birds as a child on long walks with his grandfather. Bou wondered what it would look like if birds left tracks in the sky. He set out to map their movements, to make “visible the invisible.” To create the images, Bou tried holding the camera lens open for a longer exposure. The photographs turned out blurry. In the end, he settled on combining multiple exposures by hand. As one critic explains: “A final image might include more than 600 shots woven together into amazing patterns—the black slash of starlings, the lazy loops of storks, the frenetic lines of swifts. The shapes are as varied and beautiful as the birds that created them.”[1] Bou explains that his project, called Ornitogrophies “is a balance between art and science; a nature-based dissemination project and a visual poetry exercise, but above all, an invitation to perceive the world with the same curious and innocent look of the child we once were.”[2]

Both Xavi Bou’s creations and Lisa’s words about the way her new life is linked to the life of birds reminded me of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in today’s story from the Gospel of John: “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.” Jesus chose the metaphor of wind to describe the flow of God’s presence through us and through the world. The movement of the divine Spirit-wind is bird-like. The shape of its path is hard for the eye to follow. And yet the heart can see the tracks that God’s love leaves as it travels through our lives.

The stories in the Gospel of John are laden with symbolism. So it’s no accident that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. In John, we don’t get a birth narrative for Jesus. Instead, we hear how the Word made flesh bears God’s light. We also learn in those initial verses of the Gospel that it is nighttime in the world. The people of the earth have turned away from the light of God that inhabits creation. This experience of alienation is the larger context for a sacred encounter. It is the setting for the holy conversation that unfolds between Nicodemus and Jesus.

Nicodemus had been watching Jesus. He observed how the teacher moved—with fearless joy. Nicodemus saw the tracks Jesus left in the sky, revealing his connection to a power that was unseen and yet clearly real. God inhabited Jesus; that much was clear to Nicodemus. And yet Jesus unsettled Nicodemus, too, because he operated outside the authority of traditional religious institutions. At the wedding at Cana, Jesus demonstrated his direct connection to the flow of God’s abundance, transforming water into wine. A few verses after that, he overturned the tables in the temple, exposing corruption and demanding change. It was night in the world. The prayerful activism of Jesus cast light on all that needed renewal and healing. And Nicodemus knew what fear of the dark can do to people, how it can close our hearts and turn our hands to violence. In their secret nighttime encounter, Jesus invited Nicodemus to welcome a new life. He beckoned him toward change that wasn’t at all incremental. He urged him to leave the womb and enter the world, to give up walking and learn to fly. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Jesus told Nicodemus. Nicodemus did what any one of us would likely do in such a situation. He resisted. And, yet his curiosity caused him to probe further. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

In The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault writes: “The Kingdom of [God] is really a metaphor for a state of consciousness; it is not a place you go to, but a place you come form. It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place.” Entering the Kingdom of God, we awaken into this new way of seeing reality. This rebirth begins with a loosening of the ego’s grip. The ego filters the world through the lens of separateness, and is unable to move beyond polarized opposites. Letting go of this worldview feels like a leap into the absurd. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” And yet the act of releasing the ego’s mode of reasoning and reacting opens a new form of perception. It draws us into what Bourgeault calls the “non-dual knowingness” of the heart. We begin to move through the world with a different perspective, to perceive how we are rooted in a reality greater than ourselves, to understand our unbreakable connection with the divine. The Kingdom of God, Bourgeault explains, is an experience of “complete, mutual indwelling: I am in God, God is in you, you are in God, we are in each other. . . . We flow into God—and God into us—because it is the nature of love to flow.”

Friends, it is nighttime in our world, too. With the darkness closing in, it’s natural that our common life would become infested with fear and the violence that fear incites. The vast and widening gap between the haves and the have-nots fosters a form of warfare. The profound anxiety we feel about our political future cuts us off from those who have a different view, prevents us from imagining creative, win-win situations. And at a time when action is crucial, the enormity of the world’s problems leave us helplessly paralyzed and polarized.

At the same time, our experience with the Coronavirus is making me feel strangely hopeful, because it is helping me see that we have choices. Each of us can decide how to respond to this virus based only on our own level of risk and our own needs. If we do this, then our fear will surely divide us. The virus will be a reason for us to fight over hand sanitizer and masks. Social distancing will prevent us from accessing empathy and compassion. Or, the alternative is that we can make our plans with an awareness that we are connected to each other, that we are members of a community. As I wash my hands, I can remember that using soap and taking the time to sing happy birthday doesn’t just protect me. It guards the capacity and integrity of our healthcare system. Fewer people sick means that those who really need medical attention can get it. And in the face of precautions that keep some of us homebound we can, if we choose, still find ways to remain close and to offer one another care.

To me, this present darkness does not seem like a reason for despair. After all, nighttime is often the setting for sacred encounters, for holy conversations. The wee hours of the morning are ripe for secret conspiracies and creative solutions. The Spirit-wind blows where it wishes and it is rattling through us. It is the nature of love to flow and it is flowing through us. It’s Spring time in the world. The migrating birds are returning. They are singing their hearts out in the tree tops. They are setting their tracks in the sky, revealing unseen patterns of divine hope for this earth.

Amen.

[1] http://www.xavibou.com/index.php/project/about-ornitographies/

[2] https://www.wired.com/2016/08/xavi-bou-ornitographies/