Tag Archives: Birth

Birth, and Identity

Birth, and Identity (CaD John 3) Wayfarer

“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
John 3:3 (NIV)

A prestigious and knowledgable religious leader named Nicodemus makes a clandestine visit to Jesus in the dark of night. He wants to question this young rabbi from fly-over country who everyone is talking about.

Jesus begins his conversation with the well-educated religious man with a very simple metaphor: you need to experience a re-birth. You need to be born one more time.

Nick didn’t understand.

Jesus then simply explained that, just as there is a birth of our physical bodies, there is also a birth of Spirit.

Born…again.

One of the things that I’ve observed along my life journey is that words or phrases themselves are metaphors. The the printed squiggly lines I read in a book or the little pixelated lines I are read on a laptop screen are just that: squiggly lines. Consider this series of lines: c-a-t. Those lines are not literally a furry, purring pet. Yet we understand the lines to represent letters, which represent sounds which, when put together represent words, to which we have attached a certain meaning. And, the meaning of words and phrases can be layered. One word can have a myriad of numbered definitions in the dictionary.

My friend, Dave, wrote his doctoral dissertation on the “dictionary wars” in European history when different institutional power brokers were seeking to ensure that their dictionary became the authoritative one. They sought to control the meaning of words. It was understood by these power brokers of the world that those who control the language (and, by extension, the message) will ultimately control the masses.

I observe this in our current culture, as well. Words and terms are being used in political discourse, but they mean different things to the individuals using them and listening to them on opposite sides of the political divide. We’re having arguments with the same words to which we’ve attached different meanings. I’m also witnessing that words and terms that have always meant one thing to me have been redefined by groups within the culture. New words and terms are also being created and used within one sub-culture that are completely unknown by other sub-cultures. It’s no wonder we’re having trouble communicating with one another.

Words and terms also matter in this theme of identity that I see threaded throughout John’s biography of Jesus. I use words and terms to both identify myself to others, and to identify other individuals and groups. Those words and terms are layered with the meaning I’ve attached to the term, as well as my opinions, my experiences, and my emotions. The term “Born again Christian” is layered with different meanings to different people.

Which is why I almost chose to ignore it when I read today’s chapter. Writing about the metaphor “born again” feels a bit like walking into a mine field blind-folded. Yet, I found the simple metaphor Jesus shared with Nicodemus to resonate deeply within me. Jesus wasn’t talking about politics, religion, or a particular demographic therein.

I believe that Jesus was using the transformational experience of physical birth to describe an equally transformational spiritual experience to which He was leading people. I’ve experienced it. I’ve known many others who have experienced it. It’s at once simple and yet hard to explain. I imagine it’s not unlike Jeff Bezos or Sir Richard Branson trying to describe the experience of weightlessness to my earthbound mind that has never experienced it.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself trying to strip away all of the layers of meaning and emotion that our culture attaches to the term “born again.” Like U2 trying to steal Helter Skelter back from what Charles Manson made of it, I want to get back to a simple word picture Jesus gave to a spiritually blind religious man.

“You were born physically, Nick. But there’s also a Spirit birth that you have yet to experience. Don’t you see? You’re spiritually trapped in the womb of your earthbound humanity. Once you’ve experience your Spirit birth, you’ll be an infant with an entirely new Life open to you to experience. A new identity. Old things will pass away. Entirely new things will come to you.”

Just Like My Ol’ Man

Just Like My Ol' Man (CaD John 1) Wayfarer

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
John 1:12-13 (NIV)

I was on my first major business trip since covid this past week. While on the road and having some extra time on my hands, I continued a seemingly endless task of organizing a massive archive of personal and family photos. Yesterday, I posted a photo on social media that I came across during this process. It’s a photo of my parents taken in 1976. Friends were quick to comment how much I look like my father, a reality that has become increasingly obvious the further I progress on this earthly journey.

Dean and Jeanne Vander Well, Le Mars, IA, January 1976

Identity is a theme at the very heart of John’s biography of Jesus. In fact, it’s present throughout the opening chapter on a number of levels.

At the time of the original Jesus movement, the followers of Jesus were navigating two prevailing schools of thought: Jewish and Greek. It happened that philosophers in both schools chewed on a concept of the Greek word, logos which is literally translated as “word” but was understood to metaphorically mean something much greater in importance.

The Greeks understood logos to be a rational principle that governs all things. Jewish scholars, on the other hand, considered logos to be the “word” of God which created the world and governs it, equating it to the eternal “law” which existed before creation and was revealed to humanity through Moses.

In the opening of his first-hand witness account of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection, John submits to his readers a “yes, and.” The eternal Logos is eternal, creator, provider of life and light, sustainer, and was made “flesh and blood” and came to live in the neighborhood.

The fact that this happened, John goes on to explain, has important ramifications for me: the opportunity to be transformed into the spiritual progeny of the divine. John foreshadows what Jesus will tell Nicodemus a couple of chapters into his account: there is a spiritual birth that is every bit as real as the physical one I experienced. There is a spiritual life that is every bit as real as my physical one. There is a spiritual family that is every bit as real as my physical one, complete with resemblance to my Father.

I love John’s version of Jesus’ story. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each have their own takes. John’s was written about 30 years later than the other three. John, the only one of The Twelve to live to old age and die a natural death (the rest were killed for their faith), is writing from a place of deeper wisdom and greater life experience. He has witnessed the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophetic claim that not one stone of Jerusalem’s temple would remain standing. He has grieved the deaths of all his companions. He sees with greater fullness and discernment all that Jesus had said and done. And he communicates it in a beautifully themed and structured work that was lifetime in development.

It was just over 40 years ago that I experienced the spiritual “birth” John introduces in today’s chapter. I look back with deeper wisdom and far more life experience than I had in the heady days of my youth. The DNA that gave me a striking resemblance to my father has been passed on to two generations. When Taylor did one of those online apps that shows you “what you look like as the opposite sex” she discovered that she’s basically a female version of me. Likewise, I found a photo of two-year-old me on my grandfather’s lap that looks astonishingly like my grandson Milo.

I’d like to think that the spiritual resemblance to my heavenly Father has become increasingly clear over those forty years, as well:

more loving and less judgmental
more joyful and less pessimistic
more peaceful and less fearful
more patient and less condemning
more kind and less spiteful
more goodness and less selfish
more gentle and less abrasive
more faithful and less dismissive
more self-controlled and less driven by appetites and emotions.

When it comes to who I am in the Spirit, I desire nothing more than to be identified by my resemblance to my Ol’ Man and my brother, Jesus.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Layered Stories of Redemption

Christmas Gifts[God] provided redemption for his people;
    he ordained his covenant forever—
    holy and awesome is his name.
Psalm 111:9 (NIV)

Scholars believe that the lyrics of today’s psalm (and tomorrow’s) were likely written by the same lyricist in “post-exilic” Israel. In the years after King David and his son, Solomon, ruled, the nation of Israel split into two nations (the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah). The kingdom of Israel was eventually besieged by the Assyrian army. The southern kingdom was defeated by the Babylonians. The temple of Solomon was largely destroyed along with the walls of Jerusalem,  and their best and brightest were hauled off into exile in Babylon (e.g. the story of Daniel). Eventually, a remnant returned to rebuild the walls (e.g. the story of Nehemiah). Psalms 111 and 112 were likely written in this period of time when the exiles had returned to their home.

As I read and write this morning I am in Christmas hangover. We’ve spent a wonderful few days with family and friends. Gifts have been opened. Time has been spent with loved ones. There has been plenty of feasting, and my body is feeling the effects of it. Wendy and I have spent time in worship, remembering Jesus’ birth, and have served in worship. It’s been a great week.

In the bright wrapping of a story about a new baby, shepherds, angels, and wise men, it is easy to lose sight of the ultimate purpose this Christmas chapter plays in the epic story God is telling in history. God is a purposeful author, and I have observed that he layers history with recurring themes. The people of Judah had lived as slaves in exile, and God had provided redemption in returning them home. The whole of God’s story is about all of humanity being enslaved by our own wrong choices and exiled from our Creator and our spiritual home. God himself provides redemption:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 (NIV)

The larger story of Christmas is the story of God’s Son choosing exile on this Earth in the form of human flesh, in order to ransom and redeem we who cannot redeem ourselves:

[Jesus] had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. Philippians 2:6-8 (MSG)

Today, I’m thinking of the interweaving layers and themes of God’s Message and story. I’m thinking about the celebration of gifts given and a baby born here in December, and how quickly it gives way to the commemoration of the death that same baby suffered and died just a few months later. I am thinking about old things passing away, about redemption, and about new things coming with a new year.

Chapter-a-Day John 3

Spiritual Transformation is a major theme in W...
Spiritual Transformation is a major theme in Western art. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’”
John 3:5-6 (NLT)

It is interesting how culture and media affect our understanding and our perceptions. They can influence the way we think (or refuse to think) about spiritual concepts. I often hear the term “Born Again Christian” thrown around in the news in an effort to identify a particular sub-culture.

How sad that our social and political views can taint our ability to approach and consider a simple spiritual teaching on its own merit. Let’s try to forget, for a moment, all of the socio-political connotations of the term “born again.” Jesus made a simple and profound statement about spiritual transformation. Those who wish to enter the Kingdom of God must go through a spiritual birthing process that parallels the physical birth we all went through. Just as the path of our physical life begins with a transformational experience in which we exit the safety of the womb and enter our physical world, the path of Spirit begins with a transformational experience in which we pass from a state of spiritual death and a new spiritual life.

I have come to abhor labels of any kind that are placed upon people. They are all a type of prejudice allowing us to categorize a complex human individual into a comfortable mental collective which allows then allows us to accept or dismiss them. How many great people have I missed knowing because I took one look, placed a label on them, and subsequently wrote them off?

Along my life journey I experienced a spiritual transformation that set me on this course, yet I find myself running from the “born again” label and all the baggage that comes with it. I’m saddened that an amazing spiritual metaphor has been effectively reduced to a cultural and political tag for the purposes of a media sound byte.