Tag Archives: Born Again

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.”

Resuscitating a Worn Out Phrase

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
John 3:5 (NRSV)

I find it fascinating how some words or phrases take on unintended meanings. As I follow the media coverage of the presidential elections, I will on occasion hear those in the media labeling people, or groups of people, as “Born Again” Christians. The phrase became popular back in the 1970s when Chuck Colson, a convicted Watergate conspirator, wrote a book entitled Born Again to tell the story of his own spiritual rebirth. Now when the label is used by members of the media, I get the feeling that the intended image is that of a narrow-minded, widely ignorant, politically conservative, socially repressed minion blindly leading some televangelist. While there are definitely people who fit that description, I find it sad that they seem to have become synonymous with the term “born again” because it empties the phrase of its intensely powerful meaning.

The phrase “born again” did not originate with Chuck Colson or evangelical Christians. It comes directly from Jesus, and it’s found in today’s chapter. Jesus was having a conversation with a religious man name Nicodemus and he simply makes the statement that if you want to enter God’s kingdom you must experience a rebirth.

The idea of rebirth is not new and it wasn’t new when Jesus said it to Nicodemus. It’s a theme woven into the tapestry of time and creation, and even Jesus seemed a bit frustrated that Nic was perplexed by something so spiritually elementary. Every year lifeless seeds buried in the ground bear life from the ground in the spring, grow to maturity in the heat of the summer, bear fruit during autumn’s harvest, then die and decompose in the harshness of winter. Spring is an annual, seasonal rebirth. Each week we start on Monday and work towards Friday night when we can take a break, end the week and start a new one. Every night we go to bed in darkness, enter the oblivion of sleep then with the break of light and the dawn we start a new day.

“Wait ’til next year.”
“Tomorrow’s a new day.”
“This is only for a season.”
“I just have to get through this week.”

God layers the Great Story with this theme of rebirth. The final chapters speak of a new heaven and new earth, and God says, “Behold, I make all things new” (btw, the reference to that verse was embedded in the the crux of my first tat). So, it should not be a surprise that Jesus tells Nicodemus that one of the basic realities and necessities of God’s Kingdom is a rebirth of Spirit, a new start, a new season, a spiritual new beginning. It has nothing to do with political affiliation, demographics, denomination, or attending church. What Jesus was saying was simple and organic: those facing a dead end need a new start, anyone whose spirit is languishing in darkness needs a new day to dawn, those whose hearts are frozen need the thaw of Spring, everyone who is dead in their sin and shame need to experience the power of a spiritual resurrection.

Today, I’m feeling the desire to breath new life into the worn out phrase “born again.”

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.