Coming and Going

March 16, 2014     Gen. 12.1-8; Rm. 4.1-5, 13-17;
Jn. 3.1-17

In the sixth and final book of CS Lewis’ novels, the Narnia Chronicles, the kingdom of Narnia sounds a lot like where we live, with its conflicts, and struggles, and death.  On the last day of that fictional world’s existence, the people could choose to go through a doorway into a brightly lighted place or remain huddled in a dark and cold space around the occasional fire.  But if they chose to leave that blacked place and go through the door to the light, a really strange thing happened.  In the light they could look back and see those still in the dark, but those in the dark couldn’t see those in the light. They can only see the darkness that surrounded them.  Lewis’ metaphor is clear, on this side of life, death seems dark and formidable, because we stand in the darkness and we only see the darkness around us, but once we’ve “passed” over to the other side, we can see all.  In the light we see light, but in the dark…we only see darkness. 

Talking about a spiritual experience like this sounds like gibberish to some.  Spirituality is like that, it’s hard to get some to see the light.  It reminds me of the Far Side cartoon that shows two cows standing in a field.  The first cow turns to the second and says,
“You know that although the mathematical quotient pi is often abbreviated at only four decimals of 3.1416, actually it could be calculated to infinity.” 
The second cow turns back to the first and says, “Moo.”
Sometimes when I talk to people about the light of Spirit, all I get back is “Moo.” A fundamental change is required to see and think differently.  There’s an old saying, “If you keep doing the same thing, then the same things will happen.” That’s a dark reality.  It’s certainly one that invites more creativity and newer insights.

Recently the American Audubon Society published a report of very disturbing news.  They found frightening and dramatic evidence of the disappearance of some of the most common and familiar birds in America including sparrows, the Northern bobwhite, the Eastern meadowlark, and many others.  Among 20 species that they studied, the losses in some populations were as much as 70%.  For example, forty years ago there were an estimated 31 million bobwhites, now the number has shrunk to just 5.  I know that 5 million still sounds like there are plenty of bobwhites to go around, but what happened to the 26 million that have gone missing?  Are these birds going to be like the dodo bird or carrier pigeons that have completely vanished from the earth?  The Bible says God keeps track of even the sparrows, but there are now a third fewer sparrows than there were just a few years ago.  Where are they?  God only knows.  The whippoorwill population in the last few years has shrunk by one and a half million, for no apparent reason.  Warning signs like these scream at us saying, “Watch out!” Something must be dreadfully wrong, and with these warning signs, if we read them correctly, they point to the need to make fundamental changes in the way that we do things.  The loss of these birds may be a signal of something coming upon us all—like canaries were in mining operations.  This isn’t just about birds…it’s about us too!1

Things have gone missing from our lives too!  And Lent is just the time to take an inventory of tough questions.  Why are we alive?  What’s our life about?  What’s the place of God in our lives?  We heard this story of Nicodemus in the gospel today, as he wrestled with the same kinds of questions. As we read this story, Nicodemus came to Jesus at night.  Some commentators have speculated that Nicodemus was afraid of his Sanhedrin friends finding out that he had meeting with Jesus of Nazareth, but it’s more likely that he just wanted to have an undisturbed conversation with Jesus apart from the hubbub of crowds that often surrounded Jesus during the day. And Jesus unnerved him by telling Nicodemus that he must be “reborn”.  He wondered, “How can one be reborn when one is old?”  A question like that makes us think outside the box.  When we meet tough questions like that, it sets us thinking…Jesus often used impossible conundrums like these to get people to look at the larger picture.  Like all the missing birds, we wonder, what’s that about?  We must think in a larger frame of reference.   Consider the question, “In what world will the first be last, and the last be first?”  And the gospel frequently turns the tables on us that way. As I read this passage from John’s gospel, “rebirth” means the to seek first the kingdom of God.  Without this rebirth, is it even possible to see the Kingdom?

Evelyn Underhill, the English spiritual writer of the early 20th century, compared this to seeing the stained glass windows of a great cathedral.  Approaching the windows from the outside, with all the grey leading on the window’s mountings, they just seem to be an unarticulated part of the building as a whole.  But “then we open the door and go inside…(she said) all at once we are surrounded by a radiance, a beauty, that is beyond the fringe of speech.  The universal Light of God in which we live and move, and yet which in its reality always escapes us, pours (in) through these (magnificent) windows…and shows us things we never dreamed before.”3 That’s the Kingdom.

Lent is our time to think about the big questions in our lives.  It’s a time when we’re invited to walk through the door into the Kingdom and to think a little differently.  This isn’t as complicated as trying to find the solution to pi, but it does call us to think and live as a people who no longer live for self alone, but who seek to love and serve each other as children of the same God.  And perhaps by being “reborn” as God’s children we won’t shy away from the tough questions, but we’ll be a people who seek to live and move and have our very being in that God who bids us to live in the light.  When people ask us why we have to keep bringing up difficult questions that trouble and vex and ones they’d rather not deal with, you can tell them it’s for the birds and all the other tough things that God has called us to be accountable for in this world and the next.  Amen.

The Reverend Wayne Ray

1New York Times, June 19, 2007
2Economist, November 3, 2007
3Bernhard Christensen, Ed. The Inward Pilgrimage: An introduction to Christian spiritual classics. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1996, Evelyn Underhill, “The school of Charity” p. 136.