The kids (my niece and nephew) were still pretty little when Nickelodeon started their Nick at Nite programing in the early 1980s. And it was fun to watch Joseph and Emily get such enjoyment out of some of the same TV shows we used to watch when we were kids (The Donna Reed Show, Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, Dennis the Mennis, Andy Griffith).
Because Nick at Nite’s programming was somewhat limited in those early days, my sister would tape some of their favorite episodes, and they’d watch them over and over again.
In fact, Joseph got to the place where he could recite particular episodes verbatim. Before long little sister Emily got in on the act. And then they started divvying up the dialogue so that Joseph would say one part and Emily would say another. It was a hoot! You’d have your own little live sitcom right there in the living room.
Of course, they would do the same thing with their favorite night time books; you know, that handful of favorite stories that a child wants you to read again and again. For Joseph it was Paddington Bear. Miss Emily loved My Little Ponies.
Joseph (who always insisted on having a nightlight and leaving his bedroom door ajar) would lie there in bed, silently mouthing the words as you read a beloved book, twirling his hair and staring off into space as he slowly drifted off to sleep. Emily was a bit different, she wanted to hear every word, and stayed awake listening intently (to make sure you didn’t try to skip any parts for the sake of bedtime expediency) until you said, “The End.”
“Thank you. Good night,” she’d say. Then politely invite you out of her room by asking you to turn off the lights and shut the door on your way out; and then she’d simply close her eyes and go right to sleep. She’s organized, our Emily.
But they both found great comfort and security in those well-worn stories of their childhood; reassurance, perhaps, that in some chapters of life everything remains in its proper place, and the stories all turn out predictably well.
I guess we still prefer those kinds of stories – in movies, novels and television shows – which we can count on to have a (reasonably) happy ending.
But then, the same is true even here in church; isn’t it?
We listen to these familiar, beloved stories of our faith, like this tale of Nicodemus; stories that we’ve heard so many times we can almost recite them from memory. And we draw a sense of comfort and security from hearing them read to us again and again (albeit hopefully not to the point of staring off into space and drifting off to sleep).
We make our way through a week of responsibilities at work or school, the complications of family relationships, the daily challenges of life; and then we come into this place on Sunday morning, breathe a sigh of relief and resonate with the familiarity of our biblical narratives, familiarity of our hymns and liturgies, familiarity with our church traditions. We depend upon the predictability of our faith practices. It gives us – in the midst of this stressful and uncertain world – some sense of reassurance through continuity.
So, here comes Nicodemus, a Pharisee; member of the highest Jewish council permitted by the Roman government: the Sanhedrin. This was a man well versed in matters of faith and tradition; a man of religious letters; a teacher of others; a man filled with the self-assurance and confidence and sense of personal eminence that comes from absolutely `knowing’ what was right and what was wrong.
You just can tell that by the first words that come out of his mouth, in this conversation with Jesus: “Rabbi, we know . . .” he says.
Now, some speculate that the Pharisees sent Nicodemus to trap Jesus in an unguarded moment of heresy and didn’t want to alert Jesus’ followers to their plan. Others suggest that Nicodemus came to Jesus because he was genuinely intrigued by all the things – the signs and teachings – he had been hearing about, but didn’t want his own colleagues to see him meeting with this renegade Rabbi.
Scripture doesn’t really tell us why. But the implication seems fairly obvious that Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night because was hiding something – either from Jesus, or from others, or from himself.
Whatever the case – in spite of all his self-assurance and `knowing’ – something compels Nicodemus to seek Jesus out under the cloak of darkness.
Nicodemus starts out by presuming what he “knows” and offering Jesus a bit of gratuitous flattery. But as soon as Jesus tries to share the truth of spiritual matters with him, it becomes obvious that – though he is sitting in the presence of the Light of the World – Nicodemus is still pretty much `in the dark.’
“You have to be born anew,” Jesus tells him. Nicodemus is stumped.
Fred Buechner has a bit of fun with that exchange: “Just how was he supposed to pull a thing like that off,” speculates Nicodemus, “. . . when you are pushing sixty-five and it was a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning? Could a man enter a second time into his mother’s womb when it was all he could do to enter a taxi without the drivers’ coming around to give him a shove from behind?”[i]
Turns out, old Nicodemus has no imagination; he’s a literalist; a Jewish fundamentalist. He knows the Torah (Pentateuch) like the back of his hand. Knows the Talmud (Jewish law) backward and forward. Knows the Jewish prayers – tefillah – by rote. Avodah sheba-Lev it’s called: “service that is in the heart.”
Nicodemus has got all that down pat.
But for some reason, his heart remains in darkness.
I read a story some time ago about a young homeless man who was discovered, by a maintenance person, to be hiding in one of our denominations’ large prestigious churches. Apparently he had been lurking in the church for quite some time; living in the attic, spending his day in darkness, only venturing forth during the night to prowl about the church, feeding on the leftovers from church suppers, moving about in the building only at night, listening in on the daily activities of the congregation from his secret hideaway up in the attic somewhere.[ii]
In fact, I was surprised to find out that there had been a similar situation in the last church I served (in Davenport) before coming here.
Kind of makes me wonder how often this sort of thing happens.
How about here? Do you know someone who’s `hiding in the church’?
Someone who’s been moving about in the midst of the congregation; present, but not fully here; wandering around the margins, living in the shadows, afraid of being found out?
Someone, perhaps, concealing their inner darkness by personality façade; or secreting deep insecurities behind a mask of bravado; or veiling nagging uncertainty behind a know-it-all attitude? Someone who mouths the words of the prayers and hymns, who goes through the motions of worship, but for some reason the significance of it all never really pierces the heart.
It’s not enough that you know the rules and regulations, the doctrine and polity, the prayers and liturgy. Jesus told Nicodemus, “You have to be born again.”
During the time I was still wrestling with my sense of call to the ministry, I was a para-professional at a residential school for special needs children (the Institute of Logopedics), in Wichita, Kansas. I was planning on going into special education; working at the IOL during the day and taking classes at Butler County College at night.
At one point, I’d signed up for a course called, “Early Childhood Education.” It turned out to be not at all what I thought it was going to be.
So, two nights a week I found myself, with 15 or so women of various ages, reading dozens of children’s books, and making Halloween ghosts from ping pong balls and Kleenex, and Christmas angels from popsicle sticks and construction paper. And, frankly, I was having a hard time engaging in the course work.
I did not want to be there, and that fact was probably obvious to others.
But I’ll never forget one night, after class, as I walked out to my car, peeling Elmer’s glue off my fingers; one of my classmates, a young woman, called my name from behind. As I turned around, she bluntly asked, “Tom, do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”
I just stood there in the dark, returning a blank stare.
So, she rephrased her question, “Have you been born again?”
Now, few other questions can strike such fear into the heart of a Presbyterian.
“It is a rallying cry, a code word, for a brand of evangelicalism,” as John Buchanan puts it, “that is not only outside our comfort zone, but with which we do not always agree.
“Are you born again?” sometimes sounds like, “I am and you, clearly, are not, and you’re in a lot of trouble.”
“We associate “born-again Christian” with theological certainty, with having answers for all the questions: The question of why Haiti and not the Dominican Republic? The question of abortion, a complex question about which born-agains seem absolutely certain. The same for gay ordination, gay rights, gay marriage. No nuance, no appreciation for human complexity, no openness to newness, led by the Spirit, which Jesus says blows where it wills; but absolute, unchanging certainty. It is theological exclusivity that excludes from the kingdom a lot—in fact, most—of the human race.”[iii]
I think my response to my classmate’s abrupt question was something like, “Uh, yeah. . . I guess . . . I mean, sure . . . at least, I think so. Well . . . ok . . . goodnight then.”
I’m not sure my inquisitor was satisfied with that answer.
And yet – though she may or may not have meant for this to happen – I did do a lot of thinking about that question as I drove home. I did a lot of thinking about this class I was taking and what – or rather who – it was really for; and my attitude about it all. And, interestingly enough, from that moment on, I found the remainder of that course to be a lot more enjoyable, and informative.
God works in mysterious ways. The Spirit, indeed, blows where it wills.
Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s okay to be in the dark sometimes—maybe even to embrace living in the dark for a while. The thing is, sometimes we actually see things better in the dark. Dark and light is not the same thing as black or white; nor is it equivalent to wrong or right.
One architect suggested that most of our older church buildings are distinguished because they don’t have enough light. In our contemporary churches, we’ve demanded more and more illumination; brighter buildings, more lights.
Which, “In a way, is a shame,” he says, “because it’s the shadows that make a building beautiful. Shadow, the interplay of light and dark, is a key element in architectural beauty.”[iv] It’s the shadow which most powerfully gives something a sense of depth, definition, and substance.
William Willimon – world renowned preacher and world class curmudgeon – grumbles about, what he calls “happy church.” Churches that are just so darn happy and upbeat all the time, “so full of praise and celebration, that they make you feel guilty if you happen to come in with a bit of shadow in your soul.”[v]
“To be someone who is going through a time of darkness or pain and to enter a “happy church”—with grinning clergy, and smiling ushers, and everything so positive, so upbeat, glorious and grand—can be terribly depressing!”
Now, I grew up Presbyterian, so I’ve never been in such a `happy church.’ But I can see Willimon’s point.
“There are some who [only] come to Jesus in the daytime . . . the only time they can imagine worship [is] in [the] full, bright light of day . . . churches that are able to worship only in bright lights, happy days, with [the] congregation singing nothing but bright, upbeat melodies.” It’s the `Prosperity Gospel’ which declares that if we just have enough faith – if we believe the right things and/or do the right things – then God is going to give us health, wealth and happiness. The same basic theology as that of the Pharisees/Sanhedrin.
One with which Presbyterians tend to take issue.
Not that we in the Presbyterian Church aren’t a happy lot. I mean, we like to have fun too. But our `happiness’ is not manufactured out of a (pie-in-the-sky-brought-down-to-earth) denial of the difficulty, the pain, the suffering of life.
The joy we express in worship, and in life, is the joy of salvation; joy the flies in the very face of pain and suffering and difficulty.
The light of our joy is in stark imminent contrast to the darkness of life.
Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night in confusion, or in curiosity, or in conspiracy. And Jesus – knowing all things – yet welcomed him. Not only that, Jesus shared with Nicodemus the key to the kingdom; the truth about God’s love and our salvation.
And it’s not about having all the answers, or being able to quote a bible verse for every occasion, or being absolute in our faith.
In fact, it has nothing to do with what we do, or think, or know—or think we know.
It has to do with that which God does in and through Jesus Christ.
“The wind blows where it wills,” Jesus said. And, therefore, we don’t have any more control over our second birth than we did the first time around.
But that’s okay. Because things are gestating the dark; things are ever coming together in the womb of unknowing, even as they are being prepared for greater light.
So, we don’t have to hide in the darkness—or hide the darkness within. For, `His grace is sufficient for us, and his power is made perfect in our weakness.” [2 Cor. 12:9]
I’ve been in ministry a long time now; dare I say it, maybe even as long as old Nicodemus. But I still don’t have all the answers to life’s tough questions. I have not memorized the Bible front to back. And I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be `born again.’
What I am fairly certain of, however, is this: Whether we come to this place seeking affirmation for what we think we already know, or just trying to find a bit of sanctuary from a harsh and demanding world, we all come to this place as people who are seeking Light because, to one degree or another we are still living in the dark.
But take heart, for in this place we discover that even those who come to Jesus in the midst of darkness – whatever that particular darkness happens to be – will find themselves somehow – in some gloriously mysterious way – being born anew into the Life of the One who is the Light of all people.
[i] Buechner, Frederick, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, HarperOne, 1993, p. 122.
[iii] Buchanan, John, “Appointment After Dark,” January 24, 2010.
[iv] Ibid. Willimon.
[v] Ibid. Willimon.
*Grateful acknowledgment to William Willimon & John Buchanan for much inspiration and some content.