Two Births–John 3:3-6

John gospel iconJesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

Back in 1976, when Jimmy Carter made headlines by being interviewed in the pages of Playboy, he also arched some readers’ eyebrows by using the term “born again,” as in born-again Christian. As peculiar as the term might have seemed to the vast non-evangelical masses, it doesn’t biblical Christians as an odd term, coming straight out of this passage from John 3.

My Catholic sister-in-law, presumably representing a common Catholic reading of this passage, understands the “born of water,” the first of the two births mentioned here, to refer to baptism. Since that phrase follows hard on the heels of Nicodemus’ reference to climbing back into his mother’s womb, I think it much more likely to refer to that original birth. For me, it took place on December 28, 1962 and, like all human births, involved the shedding of some water.

Everyone who reads these words has experienced that first birth, the birth of water. That birth is the common legacy of all humanity. In fact, every human to come along since Adam and Eve has passed through that birth of water in one way or another. The person you love and appreciate the most has not experience birth of water any more than the worst ISIS militant or annoying driver on your morning commute.

The other birth, on the other hand, belongs only to those who, presumably like Jimmy Carter, have trusted in Christ and been regenerated, reborn, by the Holy Spirit. I mention President Carter because I find the man both fascinating and annoying. He’s the only U.S. President I’ve met. I admire his woodworking and his attempts as President to be a decent human being. On the other hand, he has stood for some things, over the years, that I would wholeheartedly stand against.

And in the end, Jimmy Carter will have to put up with me for eternity in the presence of God just as I will have to put up with him. We share–assuming that he was telling the truth to that interviewer, which I believe he was–that second birth, a birth of the Spirit.

Look around your church on Sunday. There are certain to be people who have, like you, experienced the second birth and who drive you bonkers. Maybe you argue with them on committees or just find them rude and abrasive. It doesn’t matter. We’re all stuck with each other.

Some day, perhaps soon, we’ll all–you, me, your annoying person, Jimmy Carter, and a host of others–will find ourselves, by virtue of our second birth, spending eternity with God. All those annoyances from this world, the world of the first birth, will seem like nothing in that day.

The Game Changer of Flesh–John 1:14

John gospel iconThe Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.—John 1:14
Recently, I went to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art with my 1st-grade grandson Uri’s class field trip. Although I really didn’t see that experience coming, you have not lived until you’ve tried to shepherd a bunch of 1st-grade boys through a museum. Early in our visit, we found ourselves in a room full of Baroque paintings, many of them portraying Biblical subject matter. I tried and failed to get the boys interested in a rather lurid image of the beheading of John the Baptist.
Then I heard a voice ring out at a level decidedly above that appropriate for an art museum. “Hey, that’s God!”
I looked to my left and saw a painting that portrayed a group of soldiers and henchmen crowning Jesus with thorns. “That’s Jesus,” I pointed out, not exactly correcting the boy.
“Yes, that’s God. Jesus is God.”
This boy’s mother happened to be the other adult in our group of six energetic boys. She found herself caught in the same slightly awkward spot as I did. Apparently she agreed with her son’s identification, but the matter was slightly more complex than he was making it. On the other hand, she recognized that this room at the art museum was not the place for an in-depth exploration of the theology of incarnation.
The idea of a deity taking on human flesh is not completely unique to Christianity. In Greek myth, gods and goddesses were constantly popping up in human form attempting to seduce a genuine human or to impart some bit of knowledge. The distance between Greek god and man, however, was not all that immense. Zeus, after all, was not the creator of the universe. He didn’t even create the world.
When the Word takes on flesh, things are different. Jesus suffered through 33 years of human life, 33 years of smelly, petty, stupid, selfish people. Long before a few hours of arrest and trial, beating and crucifixion, Jesus suffered in the flesh in ways that make my field trip with Uri seem trivial.
I have written elsewhere that Easter and the resurrection of Jesus changed everything. That’s true, but in reality, the first game changer came when the Word became flesh, when God wrote Himself into the drama of human existence

Stay in Bed and Avoid Problems: Ecclesiastes 10:8-9

Whoever digs a pit may fall into it;

    whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake.
Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them;
    whoever splits logs may be endangered by them.—Ecclesiastes 10:8-9
As I sit here this morning, taking a bit of slow start to the day, I have time to reflect on various things. It is 7:41. I didn’t get up at 6:00 or even at 7:00 today. Since I didn’t have to go to work and Olivia didn’t have to go to work, there was no rush. There’s been rain falling gently for the last 90 minutes or so, so my mind said, “Stay in bed and avoid problems.”
Life’s problems can be best avoided, I think, by doing nothing. Think about it. If I never mow my grass, then I will never risk injuring myself with the lawnmower. If I don’t drive anywhere, then I cannot get into an automobile accident. If I don’t brush my teeth, there’s no chance of me choking on toothpaste. I could go on.
In the verses quoted here, Solomon gives four examples of ways that work can seem to be foolishness. Is this to be read as saying that work is folly? I’m not going to dig a hole, because I might fall into it. Or is he simply pointing out that every worthwhile thing has its attendant dangers?
Life has its risks. If I go through life without risk, then it is really not life. I wrote recently about Dean Potter, a famous climber who died in a BASE jumping accident. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who risk their necks foolishly, but is such risk really worse than risking your life by not living it? Would you rather have your life cut short when you’re doing something or to have your life cut short because you spent it sitting on the couch watching reruns of MASH?
Throughout Ecclesiastes, you run into that word ‘meaningless.’ I try to make sense of that word by substituting “What’s up with that?”
Throughout this chapter and throughout life, we have a series of examples of things that don’t make a great deal of sense. But our job is not really to make sense of life and all of its details. If you cut stones you might get hurt by them. What’s up with that? No, it doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t really make sense, but that’s just the way life is. Life under the sun doesn’t always make  sense, but that’s okay. We can’t hold out for sense. Instead, we just need to accept the risk. Then enjoy our food and drink and work. That’s the fate of man under the sun.

Crashing the Helicopter Parents–Ecclesiastes 7:16-18

Do not be overrighteous,

    neither be overwise—
    why destroy yourself?
17 Do not be overwicked,
    and do not be a fool—
    why die before your time?
18 It is good to grasp the one
    and not let go of the other.
    Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.
—Ecclesiastes 7:16-18
Bubble wrap parent
The most careful parent on the planet hovers over the child like a helicopter, spawning the term “helicopter parent.” This parent invests in every piece of protective gear for junior, effectively wrapping her in bubble wrap for every activity. This parent carefully rations the child’s television usage and ensures that the little one does not sit too close to any device that might emit harmful and as-yet-unidentified radiation. Don’t even ask about vaccination, because this parent won’t take any chances, lest an MMR booster kick junior over into the autism spectrum. Smoke alarm batteries are changed religiously when daylight savings time begins, and background checks run on each and every adult who crosses junior’s path. This is a careful parent.
How surprising then when that child became the victim of a freak, unpredictable accident.
When Solomon speaks of someone being “overrighteous” or “overwise,” I think he might be speaking of the helicopter parent. The overrighteous person is obsessed with doing the right thing in absolutely every situation. The overwise person thinks things through perhaps a bit too much and believes himself possessed of all the right answers.
Solomon doesn’t suggest ignoring the right thing. He doesn’t think that the helicopter parent ought to land, hand the kids a box of razor blades, and tell them to play on the Interstate. Instead, he’s pointing out the uncertainty of human life and the inability of individuals to control that life.
Happily as stewards of our own bodies and as guardians of the growing bodies of our children, we don’t have to be perfect. We—or our children—can eat a little bit of junk food, engage in a  bit of dangerous play, and expose ourselves to a moderate amount of contagion without utterly ruining our lives.
Both obsession and neglect destroy life, in Solomon’s view. In between those extremes lies a wide swath of acceptable and healthy behavior in which we can be happy and make the best of things.
We’re all going to die, he continues to remind us. We might as well enjoy matters and please God until then.

A Time for Everything, but Especially…–Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—
A time to give birth and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
–Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

It’s pretty much impossible for me to read Ecclesiastes 3 without hearing the Byrds singing. If you’re so inclined, you can click “play” and listen as you read on. (Or just listen. After all, it’s your time.)

I’d like to focus not on “a time to cast away stones,” which I know is the part of that passage that holds the greatest meaning for you, but on that first half of verse 2. “A time to give birth, and a time to die.” We tend to emphasize the first part of that pairing without acknowledging the inevitable second part. The moment we are born, we start dying. That’s a simple truth of mortal existence, but who wants to talk about the time for that particular event under heaven?

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas famously urged his father, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and I would not be one to argue for accepting an early exit from this life. It’s easy for me, at age 52, to say, “I’ll be ready to go when I hit 90,” but I’m pretty sure that I’ll feel differently when I’m blowing out 89 candles on a cake.

There is, however, a difference between being ready and eager to die on the one hand and being open to the fact that death will one day arrive. Knowing that death will immediately put me into the presence of Christ, as 2 Corinthians 5:8 makes clear, does not incline me to take an early trip in that direction.

Knowing that death will come one day should sober us to use each day that we have in a manner worthy of the God who gave us that day. Knowing that the first death will not be followed by the second death but instead by an eternity in a glorified resurrection body allows me to live those days I do have without fear.

What prompted the Byrds to record “Turn! Turn! Turn!” or Pete Seeger to write it? I’m not sure. Pete passed from this mortal coil in 2014, and I won’t speculate on his eternal fate. What I can state with confidence is that we all had a time to be born and will all have a time to die. Living with the hope of Christ makes the latter fact far less ominous.

Is It Meaningless?–Ecclesiastes 1:2-3

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors

    at which they toil under the sun?—Ecclesiastes 1:2-3
What gets me up in the morning? Why do I roll out of bed when the alarm sounds? Isn’t everything meaningless, as Ecclesiastes says? I feel good about my professional life. If someone earnestly works with me in a writing course, they can acquire and hone skills for reading, writing, and thinking that will make their lives better, but so what? They’re going to die. I’m going to die. Smart or ignorant, things will work out pretty much the same, won’t they? Isn’t it all meaningless?
Albert Camus suggested that the primary philosophical question should be “should I kill myself?” In other words, Camus suggested that a human being needs to ask whether life is worth living, or, to put it less drastically, is bed worth rolling out of when the alarm sounds.
I rise in the morning and eat healthy food to prolong and improve a life that is, apparently, meaningless. I run or bike or otherwise exercise to improve my body for its meaningless existence. Off to work I go, pursuing tasks that are meaningless, paid with money that is meaningless, and provided with medical benefits that allow me to do all of this meaningful stuff in a healthier, longer way. Meaningless.
I’m working to get my weight back under 185 pounds, but I recognize that this is meaningless.
I’m training to run a 5K in less than 23:30 and a marathon in under 4 hours, but these things are meaningless.
I’m putting money into retirement accounts so that when I leave the college’s employ, I’ll have enough money to live well. Meaningless.
Or is it? Jesus healed dozens of people, but those people eventually died. Was that meaningless? Jesus fed 5,000 men on one day, but they got hungry again. Where was the meaning in that? Paul planted churches all over Asia Minor and Greece, but every one of those churches has since ceased to be. Were his efforts meaningless?
Sometimes, my students think that the tasks I set before them are meaningless, “busywork.” I don’t give busywork. The work I give them is designed to lead them to something worthwhile. I trust that the work God puts before me is worthwhile as well, even when it seems trivial. If all the meaning in rolling out of bed lies in it pleasing God, then that action is worthwhile. When we do things for the glory of God, they are never meaningless.

A Strong Man Enters–Psalm 5:7

But I, by your great love,
    can come into your house;
in reverence I bow down
    toward your holy temple.–Psalm 5:7

Although I am primarily a runner–and recently a bike rider–I do now and again lift weights. Years ago, when I was in high school, I really got into lifting weights. During my junior year, I quit the wrestling team when faced with the choice between suffering through Thanksgiving break or making weight. I opted for turkey. After that, I started going to the gym each day rather than to wrestling practice, and through months of work, I saw some very good outcomes.

Today, when I’m on the machines at Planet Fitness, I see the weight lifters. They’re in the squat racks performing unusual exercises. They carry clipboards to record their routines. My limited weight lifting is simple enough that I can keep track of my routine in my head.

Weight lifting can be addictive. You get that rush of blood to your muscles without making your lungs and heart feel as if they’re going to explode. Your muscles swell up after the workout so you feel like Arnold, plus, over time, they get bigger. You get stronger. Strong is good.

Strength is good, whether it be how much you can bench press, how fast you can move a bicycle, or how far you can hit a golf ball. It’s good to be strong in front of the buffet or when tempted to squander your money. But as useful as strength is on this earth, it does absolutely zero good when we come before God.

You think you’re strong? God can out lift you, out run you, and out jump you. His self control, His wealth, and His skill can make yours seem puny. Come before Him saying, “I am strong,” and He may very well show you that you are not strong.

In this world, I possess some strength, but only when I come before my God in reverence, only when I bow, can I enter His house. And frankly, if I cannot enter that house, then all the strength in all the other places of this world isn’t worth a five-pound dumbbell.

Dressed for Success–Galatians 3:27

 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. –Galatians 3:27

When I was younger, I liked to root through the mud, play in the creek, slide on the grass, and do all those other fool things that little kids are wont to do. Why not? I was young and the world was a giant adventure, a playground for my friends and me.

Muddy kidInvariably, though, my mother would flip out when I ripped the knees out of my best pants, smeared grass stain on my new jeans, or otherwise befouled and besmirched my clothing. “Why don’t you wait until you have on rough clothes for that?” she would ask. I never thought to point out that she never let me out of the house in “rough clothes.”

Today, I manage my own clothes. I try to take care of my better things, and I most always dress appropriately to the situation. But reading this verse from Galatians recently, I was struck by the fact that, as a believer in Jesus, I am constantly clothed with him. These are spiritual clothes that will serve just as readily when cutting a widow’s grass or preaching the gospel. I might look ridiculous wearing my best suit to change the oil in a friend’s car, but the apparel of Christ is not out of place.

My concern, however, is how I look when doing things that I shouldn’t do. Would I get snippy to a store employee while wearing a Christian T-shirt or the logo of my employer?  Probably not, but I am wearing Christ every single day. Every action that I take reflects on Him.

Where I go, what I say, what I do, how I react, what I eat, what I drink, how I treat others–these are all things that reflect on my clothing. May I never bring dishonor on the great designer of my most durable outfit.

The Executioners Are Coming–John 21:18

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”–John 21:18

John gospel iconDo you want to get older? Do you want your body to decline in all its powers? Nobody does. Getting older is something that, especially in our society, we fight against. Older people don’t have the cachet of wisdom that they do in some more traditional cultures, and if you don’t gain respect for wisdom (or don’t gain wisdom itself) as you age, then I’m not sure what you have to look forward to.

All you have to do is watch sports to realize that physical activity is a young person’s game. Baseball players tend to living on borrowed time at 40. Most football players do well to make it into the mid-30s. Gymnasts, especially female gymnasts, are pretty well washed up by 20.

Of course we will see people with good genes and good habits who can achieve great things as they age. I went to Israel with a man who, at over 70, grew impatient when our tour guide would not allow him to walk up the trail to Masada. Gene bolted from the group at the top of the hill and walked down. At the bottom, he had plenty of energy to do a human flag on post at the bottom.  A few years after that trip, Gene was diagnosed with cancer. He declined very quickly and died having accomplished a great deal and living a rich life.

The lesson is that we all will wind up like Peter in the verse above. Jesus explained to Peter that he would decline in both his physical powers and his independence. In that particular case, Peter would be led away by executioners. But then we’re all being slowly led away by executioners, whether they be Roman guards, cancer cells, atrophying heart muscle, or general wear and tear. Our executioners might be internal or external, near or far, but they are coming.

But look at what Jesus had to say about those executioners. He didn’t say “panic” or “run.” He had just finished telling Peter to “feed my sheep.” I don’t know when or how I will die, but I will, unless Christ returns, surely die. The executioners are already on their way. The only question for me to answer is how I live between now and then.Will I do my best to keep the executioners at bay or will I hurry them along? Will I feed the sheep or will I feed myself?