Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Born Again or Born From Above?

In some Christian circles, the term "born again" has become a litmus test. The designation "born-again Christian" carries with it implication that either there's another kind of lesser Christian or that others in the church aren't Christians at all. What is this incessant need we have to separate the sheep from the goats?

What intrigues me about this is that Jesus never actually uses this term. In John 3, Jesus speaks of being born from above (or born anew) and uses this incredible mystical language about wind and water and Spirit to describe the renovation of the heart. It's Nicodemus who is thinking chronologically instead of spiritually. It's as if an artist is talking to a scientist who is not quite comfortable using the right part of his brain. Nicodemus doesn't understand and asks how you could possibly go back in your mother's womb and be born again.

I believe in the new birth. Absolutely. It's a gift of God for those who would freely accept it and be taken by the wind of the Spirit into a new reality of grace. As Jesus said, "the wind blows where it wills." New birth is not about who's in and who's out. It's about the incredible mystery of what it means to live in trust. It's about where our energy comes from. Life in the Spirit is to be born from above.

Don't feel ashamed if you can't name the date or place where you were "born again". If you didn't go down to an altar or have an emotional experience, remember that these are human measures of a deeply mysterious reality. New birth in Christ can come in a potent experience like that. It did for me when I was 10 years old. But to say my experience is the only kind of experience is to put limits on how God can touch somebody. God can also work over a long period of time turning one's heart back toward God. Who are we to put limits on grace?

Christians are born from above. We are born into a way, a life, a journey of grace. Jesus called this the kingdom of God and described it in all sorts of mystical and narrative language. It's a life where the last shall be first and the first last, where the poor are valued and the rich are to care for the needy. It's a life that's not about status and position but about orientation of the heart, where the best place at the table is the lowest place at the table. It's a life where the very definition of leadership is the willingness to wash feet and get your hands dirty, and where love is all about giving yourself away.

This gift comes like wind from above if we only allow ourselves to be carried by it. If you prefer a more precise way to measure who's a real Christian and who's not instead of all this talk of wind and Spirit, remember that I didn't make this up. That's how Jesus taught it to Nicodemus.

I believe in conversion. We need to be restored into the image of Christ and we do tend to stray. But I believe conversion is not a single experience but a way of life. It's the life of grace. We long to be converted again and again into a fuller and richer embodiment of the love of God. When we become Christians, God is not finished with us yet. Like the man who Jesus healed of blindness, yet saw people "like trees walking" so Jesus healed him a second time, we are in constant need of being transformed into a new way of seeing.

In what way is God calling you to be reborn?