Have you ever had to ask a really vulnerable question? When you didn’t know the answer to something, but felt like somehow you should?
In 2006, I was working for an inpatient substance abuse program. My coworkers were a group of seasoned nurses who had been in this field for a long time. That year, we switched from using paper charts to document patient progress to using an electronic medical record. After just a few hours of training, these staff members were asked to switch this big piece of their workflow in a very fundamental way. While I think everyone eventually got through this transition, it was highly frustrating for my coworkers who didn’t have much experience with computers. I remember, one day, one of my coworkers was clicking over and over again on something in the electronic medical record and couldn’t get it to open, and she asked me for help. I showed her that if you double-clicked the link, it would work. She turned to me with bewilderment and asked how a person would know when you need to click once on something and when you need to click twice. As someone who tends to be more intuitive than linear in my approach to most things, I had no clue how to answer her question—how to describe what the guiding principle might be. But I could empathize with her confusion and uncertainty as she tried to make sense out of this new aspect of her job.
And a little closer to home for me . . . In the organization where I currently serve as a hospice chaplain, we are going through a bunch of changes right now. The chaplains are now being asked to complete admission paperwork with our patients and families. This means being fluent in the language of Medicare coverage and insurance and being able to answer questions about these things. This is brand new to me, it is NOT something that I learned to do in seminary, and it is making me feel like a beginner at a job I have been in for almost 8 years. I am having to ask lots and lots of questions, and don’t always feel like I am getting it. It is a vulnerable and unsettling experience. It is much more comfortable to stay in the safe territory of things that I understand and am good at.
What vulnerable questions have you had to ask in your life? Maybe for you too it is about a new thing at work. Or maybe it is about trying to better understand a loved one’s experience, or trying to talk about your relationship. Maybe it is about a new health condition that you never expected to need to become an expert on. I suspect that many of us have had this experience sometimes—of feeling like we should have all the answers when we just don’t.
Nicodemus was a respected religious leader, and coming to talk with the controversial figure that was Jesus might not be perceived as a proper and fitting thing to do. So, he comes to Jesus in the shadows of the night when no one would see him. He comes to ask his vulnerable questions in cover of darkness. He asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” I imagine his confusion as he tries to make sense out of Jesus’ language of being born from above, of being born of water and Spirit. Nicodemus finally asks, “How can these things be?” It was a moment when his knowledge, his expertise as a religious leader and teacher, were not sufficient for him to fully comprehend this vision of the kingdom of God of which Jesus taught. I can imagine that he might have felt uncomfortable and frustrated.
And, yet it seems to me that there are not neat and tidy and linear answers to Nicodemus’s questions. Jesus speaks in metaphor about the wind blowing where it chooses, and draws upon a story from scripture, all pointing toward the mystery and the wonder of God and Spirit, realities which are not so easily pinned down and defined.
But this lack of simple answers is hard. I think it is a really human thing to want things to be really simple and straightforward. And the Christian tradition has over the years taken this text in some problematic directions in an effort to make this passage a little more neat and tidy. Three examples of this come to mind.
The first common interpretation that gets us into trouble is to divide up flesh and spirit—and to see the flesh (and human bodies in particular) as bad and the spirit as good. In this view, the flesh needs to be subdued, ignored, or transcended in order to give attention to our higher spiritual selves. But it only takes the shortest of leaps to move from devaluing our human bodies to oppressing the bodies of those who are perceived as different or nonconforming. Interpreting Scripture in this way has sometimes laid the groundwork for violence against bodies that are viewed as particularly suspect: women’s bodies, queer and trans bodies, bodies of Color. Thankfully, I don’t think this dualistic split between flesh and spirit is actually in the text. Rather, being born of the waters of the womb, the waters of baptism, the spirit that comes from heaven like a dove . . . all the ways that we are born are all necessary and good. In her poem, “The Spirit Likes to Dress Up,” Mary Oliver suggests that the Spirit needs our full human selves in order to be fully realized. She writes,
It could float of course/but would rather/plumb rough matter./Airy and shapeless thing,/it needs/the metaphor of the body/lime and appetite/the oceanic fluids;/it needs the body’s world/instinct/and imagination/and the dark hug of time/sweetness/and tangibility,/to be understood,/to be more than pure light/that burns/where no one is—/
If the first problematic interpretation is dividing up flesh and spirit in a dualistic way, a second problem interpretation happens when Christians forget that Jesus was Jewish, rooted solidly in the stories and practices and history of his tradition. Instead, some interpreters have pitted Nicodemus as a Jewish leader and Pharisee against Jesus (whom the interpreters somehow viewed as already Christian, even though that tradition didn’t yet exist) and they have seen Jesus’ words as a rejection of Judaism. This has contributed to antisemitic rhetoric and violence over the centuries. When actually, this text offers an intra-Jewish dialogue, where Jesus and Nicodemus have much in common. Jesus draws upon the Hebrew scriptures in this story, speaking of Moses in the wilderness as part of the common frame of reference that he and Nicodemus share.
Additionally, in a third interpretation that gets us into trouble, I think this text has been used to create a very individualistic picture of what belief in God and salvation are about. That famous text John 3:16—“for God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”—is sometimes used to depict salvation as being about just God and me—instead of God and me and all of us (the whole world) together. More on this later though.
But first, back to the wind. Jesus 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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
I could hear the wind howling outside my tall apartment building during our recent winter storms. It had a wildness and an untamed quality as it blew the snow on the pond outside my window into shifting arcs and lines, ever-changing geometric formations. It is a sound that directs my attention to something beyond myself, my routines, my preoccupations. This text compares the Spirit to the wind. There is an aspect of God’s presence that blows outside the boundaries of our best laid plans, our best thought-out logic.
There is a way that much of what we know of God comes from the experiences of our bodies and minds. Yet at times God’s spirit blows from outside of ourselves, moving us in a direction that we couldn’t have imagined or predicted. And this, my friends, is a word of grace.
In her commentary on this passage, preacher and professor Barbara Lundblad writes “Learning God cannot be done with our minds alone, even with our clearest thinking.” The recovery community offers an insight that when our best thinking gets us into problems, that we likely aren’t going to be able to think our way out of these same problems. Anne Lamott, in her book Traveling Mercies talks about grace, stating
It is the help you receive when you have no bright ideas left, when you are empty and desperate and have discovered that your best thinking and your most charming charm have failed you. Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there.
The Spirit, the breath of God, can feel like grace in our lives. The wind blows where it chooses. The movement of the Spirit can be jarring, but sometimes it gets us unstuck when it feels like there is no way out of our current predicament. It can lead us toward making a way out of no way.
The world is in a place where we as humans have gotten ourselves deeply stuck. Geopolitical tension continues to ramp up between the United States and China and Russia, and the threat of nuclear war seems very real. People around the world are forced by armed conflict to flee their homes. Wealth inequality continues to increase—in a world where some people have plenty and most struggle to survive. Our society’s lack of commitment to addressing housing insecurity means that large numbers of people lack a safe stable place to live, even in the cold of our Minnesota winter. Our country is rocked by an existential struggle of whether we are willing to teach and learn about our own deep-rooted history of systemic racism, and there is a strong movement right now toward willfully ignoring the larger historical context of how the persistent racial disparities in wealth, education, and health outcomes came to be. It can all feel like we are deeply tangled up and stuck, and it can be easy to lose heart.
Jesus invites Nicodemus—invites us—to believe. But not in a strictly cognitive, intellectual sense of that word. Barbara Brown Taylor, in a lecture she gave entitled “Learning to Walk in the Dark” suggests that until the last few centuries, belief was understood not as intellectual acceptance of a doctrine, but rather “to set the heart upon.” What does it mean to set our hearts upon God? I wonder if it might mean a re-centering? A turning toward what matters most. It might mean reorienting our individual and communal lives, priorities, practices, how we spend our time and our money. In our tradition, we observe the season of Lent as a time of returning to God, of realigning our lives with our deepest values. In our Lenten Covenants at First Church for this year, we were invited to reflect upon the questions: How will you make space for Sabbath, for rest, renewal, and liberation this Lenten season? Is there something you need to stop doing, to let go of? Is there a hurt to mend or a change to make? Is there a new practice you would like to explore? These questions invite and spur us to reflect on how our lives are in alignment with the commitments of our heart.
Thankfully, this isn’t something that we do entirely by ourselves. At First Church, we have been exploring the practice of Sabbath this year. In Ezra Klein’s podcast “Sabbath and the Art of Rest,” he and author Judith Shulevitz suggest that Sabbath is at its heart a communal practice. If we are trying to reshape the structure of our lives by ourselves, it isn’t going to happen. We need one another to co-create Sabbath practice, to make rest structurally possible, to make it fun, to offer each other support and accountability.
Likewise, I suspect that salvation is also communal. Salvation can be a loaded word—particularly as many Christians define it as being entirely about individual people getting to go heaven. The mission of the church then becomes about rescuing as many individuals as possible through getting them to profess acceptance of a certain doctrine about Jesus. Picture those signs with “John 3:16” being held up at football games. But that doesn’t totally work for me, and I am guessing that it may also not work for some of you.
What does God’s saving grace mean to you? What does it mean to us? I don’t have all the answers to these questions. But, again, I suspect that it might relate to God’s movement in our lives as a larger community. I also think there is something profoundly hopeful about all of us together attuning ourselves to how God is at work in our bodies and hearts and lives, and where the Spirit might be moving us to grow and to change and to reimagine our world.
God yearns for us, for all of us together, to be whole, to be in right relationship, to walk together in justice, mercy, and humility. Even in the midst of the brokenness, the injustice, the geopolitical crisis all around us. Even in the midst of the death dealing forces of empire in Jesus’ time and now.
We look to Jesus, who walks with us . . . in and through all of it. We look toward the life and death and teaching of Jesus as the embodiment of God’s saving love. And we know that God is with us in our most vulnerable questions. And God invites us to listen to the sound of the wind, to feel the unbounded movement of the spirit, and to know that divine grace that defies the limits that we would set upon it.