The Guest Star

Sermon for Sunday, March 12, 2017 || Lent 2A || John 3:1-17; 7:45-52; 19:38-42

The Pharisee Nicodemus is not a member of the main cast of the Gospel according to John. In the parlance of television, he would be known as a recurring character. If each chapter of John’s Gospel were an episode of a TV series, it would fill one standard network season, and Nicodemus would guest star in episodes 3, 7, and 19. We meet him at the beginning, middle, and end of Jesus’ ministry, and each time we drop in on him, Nicodemus is somewhere new in his own journey towards an active faith in Christ.

The Gospel writer makes clear that the intention of the Gospel is to help the reader believe by telling the story of Jesus in a certain way. The writer uses Nicodemus’s three-part journey as a stand-in for our own, as we, too, journey towards more active faith in Christ. The world of Nicodemus and our own world share some striking similarities. Nicodemus lived in a world that had yet to be steeped in Christian tradition; people around him were either confused by the message of Jesus, hostile to it, or ignorant of it. Today’s world is similar; the Christian worldview no longer permeates Western culture, while confusion, hostility, and ignorance to the message of Jesus are in long supply. Today, we’re going to go on the journey of our guest star Nicodemus to see what his participation in the story of Jesus has to tell us about our own. Continue reading “The Guest Star”

The New Version of Me

A Good Friday Meditation; John 19:31-42


2015goodfriImagine with me the thoughts of the Pharisee Nicodemus on his way home from helping Joseph of Arimathea bury the body of Jesus. Nicodemus appears at the end of the Passion Gospel reading, as well as two other places in the Gospel according to John, both of which are referenced in what follows.

Two years ago, I knocked on a door. I waited until nighttime and wrapped myself in a traveling cloak with a deep hood so no one would recognize me. Was I afraid to be seen with Jesus, who my colleagues branded as a dangerous radical? Yes, but fear was not the main reason for my caution. I was ashamed. I was ashamed to admit that I didn’t have all the answers, ashamed that someone else’s words could make me feel so infantile, like a newborn baby. So I hid myself in darkness, not to protect against prying eyes, but to conceal me from myself. I hid from myself. I hid from the version of me that Jesus was beckoning to emerge from some long forgotten exile.

I used to relish my position on the council, my authority as an arbiter. I took pleasure in the blank looks of acceptance on the faces of my litigants. They invested me with the power to judge, and I failed to notice when that power mutated into self-assured complacency. Predictability became my idol. There was never a new problem to be solved, never something I couldn’t explain or interpret or analyze. Over the years, I forgot how to ask questions because I was always the person with the answers.

Until that night. Until my vestigial curiosity awoke that night. When I first opened my mouth, my council voice came out, and I made a grand statement about knowing who comes from God. I could tell immediately that Jesus was not one to be cowed by my position or impressed by my stature. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

I didn’t know what to say. I remember opening and closing my mouth several times. I remember Jesus smiling at me – patient, eager. Then my breath forced an “H” sound from my throat, and I was surprised when the word “how” came to my lips. I was asking a question. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” The floodgates opened, and for the rest of the conversation, all I did was ask questions: “Can one enter into the mother’s womb a second time and be born? How can these things be?”

Ever since that night, I have heard his words carried on the wind. Since the wind blows where it chooses, my idolatrous reliance on predictability has vanished. Since I don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, my fantasy that I have all the answers has disappeared, as well. On my way to see Jesus, I was hiding from a new version of me. But everyday, I felt Jesus’ words drawing that new version out of me.

Last year, I reminded my colleagues to obey their own rules. No one on the council had discovered my secret meeting with Jesus, so my position was safe. The two versions of me occupied the same body, and, at that time, the familiar one dominated still. But I had begun to question and look past the veneer of institutional banality.

Jesus had shown up at the festival of booths and caused quite a stir. The chief priests had sent the temple police to arrest him, but they came back empty handed saying: “Never has anyone spoken like this!” I suppressed a smile. He escaped again. The rest of the Pharisees were outraged. One of them shouted: “Surely you have not been deceived, too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?”

A small voice inside me murmured: “I do.” Then a louder voice: “Careful. Careful.” When I spoke, I tried to defend Jesus without giving myself away. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” But they were implacable. That’s when I noticed something I would never have seen had Jesus not awakened my curiosity. These colleagues of mine, the keepers of tradition, the self-proclaimed protectors of the Law, were breaking their own rules. I could no longer be party to such bankrupt ideals and blind action. That day, the small voice grew louder, the voice attached to the new version of me.

Today, I buried my Lord. Two years ago, I went to see him at night to cloak my own shame. But today, the sun shines down, unaware that its brightness mocks the darkness in my soul. The sun shines down, and I walk out under its beams so the world can see where my allegiance lies. When first we met, Jesus said to me, “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” It took two years, but here I am. Here I am in the light.

See, all you who pass by: I am one of his. I am not the person you knew. I am a new version of me, the version Jesus called out of me. See, all you who pass by: I am not ashamed any more. I feel the wind on my face, and I know his words are true. See, all you who pass by: is there any sorrow like my sorrow. My Lord is dead. It took his death for the old version of me to die. But will my new version survive with him gone? Will I have another chance to walk in the light? Has the darkness won? When will the light return?

Updated from a piece I wrote for Good Friday, 2009.
Art: Detail from The Descent from the Cross by Rembrandt, 1634

Shattered Certainty

Sermon for Sunday, March 16, 2014 || Lent 2A || John 3:1-17

NicodemusFull disclosure: the chapter of the Gospel I just read to you easily makes my Top 5 list of favorite passages of scripture. Nicodemus is my favorite recurring character in the entire Bible. Even the name of my website – wherethewind.com – has its roots in this chapter. I love John 3; I’ve read these words many hundreds of times over the years. I barely needed to look at the Gospel book while reading just now, because these words have carved out a space within me. I know them by heart. I knew what they said before I even sat down to work on this sermon. I was certain of their content; just as certain of their content as Nicodemus is of his knowledge at the outset of his conversation with Jesus.

But such certainty comes with a price. Such certainty is dangerous. The moment I declare I am certain about what this wonderful story says is the same moment I stop looking for new wisdom within it. The moment Nicodemus says, “We know,” at the beginning of the conversation is the same moment he signals to Jesus he has no desire to listen to Jesus’ teaching. For his part, Jesus hears this “We know” and starts rolling up his sleeves. He has his work cut out for him. As their conversation progresses, Jesus shatters Nicodemus’ certainty and replaces it with a tentative, yet ardent, curiosity – an uncertainty that will lead to new ideas, new growth, and new life, an uncertainty that will lead Nicodemus from darkness to light and deliver him to the foot of the cross.

Like Nicodemus, we all crave certainty. It’s biological. Our ancestors moved from hunting and gathering to farming and homesteading because the latter was so much more predictable. We follow the same instinct when we allow the salesperson to tack on the three-year warranty when we buy new electronics. And who hasn’t gotten annoyed at the meteorologist who was certain it wasn’t going to rain the day of the big game?

We crave certainty. But each of us learns sooner or later that nothing in life is certain. The crops of our ancestors surely suffered droughts. The computer sometimes breaks the day after the warranty expires. And there’s a reason there’s an expression: “As variable as the weather.”

We crave certainty, and yet we live with uncertainty each day of our lives. What then should our prayer be? Should we pray for more certainty? Or should we pray for peace amidst uncertainty? Judging by Jesus’ side of today’s Gospel story, he invites us to walk hand-in-hand with him into the ambiguity of the uncertain, only to discover there truer, brighter, and more abundant life.

But let’s get back to our friend Nicodemus. As a Pharisee and leader of the Jewish council, Nicodemus would have been something of a judge or arbiter for his people. Rather than asking questions, Nicodemus would have been used to answering them. Rather than embracing uncertainty, Nicodemus would have seen it as his duty to project an air of certainty about everything, for the noble cause of keeping public morale high in the midst of foreign occupation, if for nothing else.

And yet, there’s something about Jesus that penetrates Nicodemus’ certainty. After all, this Pharisee undertakes a scandalous nighttime journey to rendezvous with such an upstart rabble-rouser as Jesus, who has just recently made a spectacle of himself in driving the moneychangers and animal sellers out of the temple with a whip. But Nicodemus comes just the same. Something compels him to come. Even the desire to see Jesus must have made a small chink in Nicodemus’s certainty.

But when he arrives, his programming kicks in, and he projects that ingrained air of certainty. Even though he calls Jesus “teacher” twice in his opening statement, he proceeds to try to teach Jesus something: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Right away, Jesus attacks Nicodemus’s certainty. He might as well have said, “You know, do you?” What he actually says is this: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Well, that’s sort of what he says, because the same words might mean this: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”

In this response Jesus reaches for intentional ambiguity in order to start breaking Nicodemus out of his certainty. Jesus’ words could mean either thing, and I think that’s just the way Jesus wants it. His ambiguity achieves just the result he’s hoping for: Nicodemus asks not one, but two questions! If you’re certain you don’t ask questions. Perhaps there’s hope for this fellow yet, I imagine Jesus thinking.

And so Jesus feeds him more ambiguity: “The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Not only do we not know from whence comes the wind, but even Jesus’ choice of word – wind – could mean breath or even Spirit. Jesus pulls Nicodemus deeper and deeper into delicious ambiguity, and disused synapses begin to fire in Nicodemus brain. When Jesus is finished, there’s a new fire in Nicodemus’s eyes as he asks the most sincere and uncertain question in the entire Gospel: “How can these things be?”

In one short conversation, Jesus shatters Nicodemus’s unrealistic and leaden certainty and replaces it with the true and natural uncertainty of life. When next we meet Nicodemus he is testing out his newfound uncertainty. He takes a risk in speaking out against members of the council, who want to break their own rules to put Jesus to death. He doesn’t quite declare himself as a follower yet, but he’s on his way. The third and final time we see Nicodemus, he is standing in the broad light of day helping Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus from the cross and bury him in the tomb. In that moment, nothing is certain. Nothing is sure. Because their Lord has died. And yet they serve him anyway.

From his first appearance to his last, Nicodemus models the life of faith. He sheds the armor of certainty when he meets Jesus and pulls on the armor of faith – for certainty, not doubt, is the opposite of faith.

We crave certainty, but in this life we will never achieve it. Jesus knows this, and so he offers us something even better than certainty. He offers us the gift of himself. A good friend of mine once defined “peace” as the “deep and abiding presence of God.” This is the gift Jesus offers us – his abiding presence, his peace, a peace that thrives in the midst of shattered certainty.

When you feel the uncertainty of life threatening to overwhelm you – what the Book of Common Prayer calls the “changes and chances” of this life – I pray you might remember Jesus teaching Nicodemus to embrace such uncertainty because in such uncertainty we discover our faith. And when we discover our faith we also find the promises of God for our lives – the promise that the deep and abiding peace of Christ will always and forever be traveling with us along the way.

*Image — Nicodemus and Jesus, sketch by Rembrandt

Five Years Ago

Five years ago today, I navigated to WordPress.com and sat for an hour just staring at the computer screen. I had recently received some advice from an editor at a publishing company that I might consider starting a “weblog,” whatever that was. My seminary thesis  reader, Brian McLaren, had put me in touch with this editor (for the life of me, I can’t remember his name), and I’m so glad he did. The editor gave me the best practical advice imaginable for a young writer.

“You need to write,” he said. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it?

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“You need to write every day,” he continued. “And that means you need someone or something to be accountable to.” Then he turned me on to the idea of blogging, which was still not quite mainstream in 2008. Thank you, Mr. Editor! (Was it Kevin? Ah well. I really can’t remember.)

So there I was, five years ago today, staring at my computer screen. I was stuck trying to make a decision– namely, what to call my blog. I tried many names, also things I can’t remember now. I was listening to music, and in the moment of greatest despair that I would never come up with a name I was satisfied with, U2’s song “Kite” came on.

“Who’s to say where the wind will take you?
Who’s to say what it is will break you?
I don’t know which way the wind will blow.”

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The words Bono was singing bore into me. It was like I was hearing them for the first time ever. The chorus hung in the air. I could have grabbed the word “wind” and held it in my hand. As I looked at the words in my mind’s eye, they reformed into a verse from the Gospel According to John: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” So says Jesus to the Pharisee Nicodemus. This encounter is one of my favorite in the Gospel. In it, Jesus shatters Nicodemus’s preconceptions — his entire worldview, in fact — and rebuilds it with himself (Jesus) at the center. Over the course of the Gospel, we see Nicodemus first tentatively and then boldly step into his own re-creation.

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For Nicodemus, and for me, it starts with the wind of the Spirit (which, handily, is the same word in ancient Greek). The words from U2’s song shimmered with meaning from the Gospel, and I knew I had found the name of my blog.

Ever since, these words have guided me. I do not know where the wind will take me. But I believe that wherever it is, God will be waiting when I get there. The last five years have confirmed this belief over and over again. Through the blog, I made connections with The Christian Century and EpiscopalCafe. Then, about a year and half in, I came to the attention of the United Methodist Publishing House, and my second book with them comes out this summer! The blog is also partially responsible for the way I met my wife (as well as giving her mother something to find when she googled me). Above all, this website has kept me writing and reflecting on how God is moving in my life and how I am moving in God’s.

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Over the month of June, I plan to have a five year anniversary celebration for wherethewind.com. I will re-post some of my favorite entries, along with ones that marked significant moments and connections. (If you have a favorite post you’d like me to re-issue this month, let me know!) I look forward to the next five years of wherethewind.com, and I’m so profoundly grateful to all of my readers for taking this journey with me.

I leave you today with some of the first ever words I posted on this website, five years ago today.

Adam, a follower of Christ,

to all those who find this blog through the Series of Tubes.

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

The Apostle Paul really nailed the beginnings of his letters, so I thought I’d borrow his intro formula to begin my blog. Paul journeyed all over the Mediterranean following the little dotted purple and blue and red lines you see on the maps in the back of your study Bible. I’m afraid I can’t afford the airfares to Thessalonica or Ephesus, so I will have to rely on the Interwebs to make a new set of dotted lines from my MacBook to your computer. Since you’re probably in modern day Scranton or Lubbock rather than ancient Greece, I think the Internet is the way to go.

[…] Who’s to say where the wind will take me? Who’s to say where the Spirit is leading me? In this blog, I will reflect on the movement of God in my life, the movement that dances on the wind of the Spirit. I invite you to follow my reflections and discern how God is moving in your own life.

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Guitar Lessons

(Sermon for Sunday, June 3, 2012 || Trinity Sunday B || John 3:1-17)

Playing at VBS in 2003 after my sophomore year of college. That was less than three years in to my guitar playing. It would have been seven or eight if I had never quit.

When I was in seventh grade, my parents bought me a three-quarter sized guitar and procured the services of a guitar expert to teach me the basics. At the first lesson, I learned the names of each of the six strings and how to play notes by plucking them. At the second lesson, I learned how to arrange my fingers on the strings so they made special shapes called chords. At the third lesson, I learned that I would have to practice if I wanted to improve my guitar playing. There was no fourth lesson.

You see, I was a bright kid, to whom pretty much everything came quite easily. I was a good athlete, so baseball and soccer were right up my alley. I really didn’t have to work much to make good grades in school. I had next to no challenges in any of my classes. And so when I was confronted with something that I couldn’t immediately master with no effort, I decided not to try. I put the guitar in the case, and the case sat unopened in my closet for years.

Now, as most of you know, I am a guitar player. So what happened? I picked up the instrument again my senior year of high school, and, being a tiny bit wiser than my seventh grade self, started practicing. I’ve been playing for over eleven years now, and I’m not half bad, but a wistful part of me always wonders how much better I would be at the guitar if I had not quit after three lessons back when I was thirteen years old.

My seventh grade self fell victim to a psychological epidemic that affects the vast majority of the population. Exactly one symptom characterizes this epidemic: people have difficulty agreeing to perform tasks that fall outside of their recognized competencies. This is still true for me: you’ve never seen me do ballet or fix the central heating in the church because these are two things that I don’t do very well. I have no training in either of these areas, and so the likelihood that I will agree to pirouette across a stage or put together an HVAC system is next to zero.

I’d be willing to wager that this fact of life is also true for you. I’m sure each of you could come up with a list of things you are unwilling to try because you know that you aren’t going to be good at them. You know that if you tried, failure would be in your future, and who wants to feel like a failure? And so the psychological epidemic keeps us from attempting new things and keeps us safely ensconced within the borders of our comfort zones.

For us this morning, the trouble comes when the list of things we are unwilling to try includes speaking openly about our faith in God. Why should this be any different from playing the guitar or doing anything else, you might ask? The simple answer is this: becoming an expert in guitar playing is possible. Becoming an expert on God is not.

Today’s Gospel reading teaches us this reality, which is an appropriate lesson on a day when we celebrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish council, fashions himself such a God expert. He comes to Jesus by night, and at the outset of their conversation, tries to display his knowledge of how God operates. “Rabbi,” says Nicodemus, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Nicodemus’s “we know” sets him up as the so-called expert on God. The irony is that his statement is true. But Jesus isn’t interested in whether or not Nicodemus speaks correctly; Jesus is solely interested in moving this so-called expert into the unfathomable depths of God’s interaction with God’s creation. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” says Jesus in response to Nicodemus’s opening remarks. Jesus’ statement is intentionally ambiguous. The words could mean “born from above or born again,” and I think Jesus means both. The very ambiguity of the phrase shows Jesus’ attempt to push Nicodemus out of his comfort zone where “we know” is his default position.

For his part, Nicodemus latches onto the more mundane of the two possibilities: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he asks. This response might sound a bit sarcastic, but at least the Pharisee, who has always been the expert answering questions, is now beginning to ask some of his own. The question is the small chink in the armor of Nicodemus’s expertise. Because of Nicodemus’s willingness to ask a question, Jesus sees that there is hope in showing him the expansiveness of all that this so-called expert does not know.

And, boy, does Jesus show him. Jesus opens Nicodemus’s mind and heart to the mystery of how God creates God’s people, and of how God moves in the world like the wind moving through the trees. When Jesus is done, Nicodemus’s opening “we know” now sounds laughably empty in comparison to the mysteries Jesus reveals to him. To begin to walk in and among these mysteries, Nicodemus must change his empty “we know” into an “I don’t know” full of desire and curiosity. And he takes the first tentative steps along this path with the sincerest question in the entire Gospel: “How can these things be?”

In just one conversation, Jesus shows Nicodemus that being an expert on God is not only not possible, but also not the best way to be in relationship with God. Only by acknowledging his lack of understanding can Nicodemus hope to begin to hear the sound of the wind blowing, this wind of the Holy Spirit that breathes life into creation. Nicodemus’s job is no longer to try to explain what makes God tick. Jesus gives him a new job: to bear witness to the mysterious movement of God in his life.

We see Nicodemus twice more over the course of the Gospel. In his next appearance, he puts one tentative foot outside his comfort zone when he reminds the rest of the council about their own rules when they want to put Jesus to death. And in his final appearance, we see that Nicodemus has fully embraced the new life that Jesus revealed to him. In broad daylight on the afternoon of the crucifixion, Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimethea take Jesus from the cross and bury him in the tomb.

This so-called expert on God had his world turned upside down that night when he went to see Jesus. Jesus showed him that expertise is neither possible nor desired when relationship with God is concerned. There is not a person on this earth who is competent to talk about what makes God tick. While you and I might have difficulty agreeing to perform tasks that fall outside of our recognized competencies, we can take heart in the reality that Jesus released us from needing to be competent in this particular area. We will never be good at talking about God because God is far too glorious, far too mysterious and majestic for our puny words. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. Releasing us from the need to be competent means that Christ rejoices in even our most halting attempts, in even the simplest expressions of feeling God’s love.

My prayer this morning is that each of us might feel released from the need to be competent when we have the opportunity to speak to someone else about our faith. Don’t be like my seventh grade self who gave up the guitar because he wasn’t an overnight expert. Rather, acknowledge that expertise has no domain where God is concerned. The simple word about how you feel God’s movement, spoken from the heart, is worth more than any treatise on the inner workings of the Holy Trinity. The halting word about not understanding God’s movement is worth more than all the “we knows” like the one Nicodemus speaks when he first encounters Jesus. The good news is that God uses our incompetencies as much, if not more, than our competencies. So I challenge you and I challenge myself: live into our incompetent ability to speak of God’s movement, and perhaps through our witness, someone new might start seeing God’s wind blowing through the trees.

Schooling Nicodemus (or) “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow”

The following post appeared Sunday, March 14th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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In the film Men in Black, Jay discovers that aliens exist and many of them live on Manhattan Island. When he confronts Kay about this unnerving new detail, of which he (Jay) was previously unaware, Kay deadpans: “A thousand years ago everybody knew, as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on it. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

The season of Lent invites us to examine what we know, or, put more precisely, what we think we know. When we tackle this examination, we open ourselves up to encounters with Christ, which tend to augment, rearrange, and expand our knowledge with the addition of deeper faith. The Gospel contains myriad stories of Jesus blasting people with new knowledge,  so we should expect nothing different in our own lives. One such story co-stars the Pharisee Nicodemus (read up on John 3 before you continue).

As a general rule, if someone in the Gospel besides Jesus says “I know” or “we know,” then that person either knows a small fraction of the whole or, more commonly, nothing at all. Strangely enough, knowing nothing at all can even manifest itself when the statement made is quite true and correct. Such is the case with this leader of the Jews, who comes to see Jesus one night.

Nicodemus uses his “knowledge” displayed at the beginning of the conversation as a weapon to corner Jesus into a particular set of expectations. The Pharisee says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Apparently, so far so good. This statement is true: Jesus has come from God and most definitely stands forever in the presence of God. But there’s irony in the statement, also. Nicodemus calls Jesus “teacher” twice — once in Hebrew (Rabbi) and once in Greek (didaskalos, from which comes the word “didactic”). But at the same time, Nicodemus’s conversational opener allows no room for Jesus to teach. Instead, Nicodemus is the one attempting to teach Jesus, to pigeonhole him into what Nicodemus and his colleagues have labeled him.

But Jesus refuses to be put on the defensive. In usual fashion, he completely ignores Nicodemus’s opening salvo and immediately expands the conversation to a depth and height that Nicodemus is not expecting. Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above/again.” There’s a delightful ambiguity here: in Greek, “from above” and “again” are the same word (anothen). They both work in the context, and Jesus probably means both when he says the word. How better to jostle someone loose from his rigidity than with a small helping of ambiguity?

But Nicodemus grasps at the more mundane of the two meanings and responds: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” This may seem like a sarcastic response, but at least this Pharisee, who has always been the one answering questions, is now (albeit haltingly) beginning to ask some of his own. But Jesus doesn’t seem interested in staying on the terrestrial plane, so he ignores Nicodemus questions and pushes him to a new level of understanding. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” At this point, I imagine Nicodemus’s brain starts hurting.

But Jesus keeps pushing him. Nicodemus’s opening “we know” now sounds empty in comparison to the mysteries Jesus is revealing to him. To begin to absorb these mysteries, Nicodemus must turn this empty “we know” into an “I don’t know” full of desire and curiosity. With his next words, Jesus gives Nicodemus license to let go of what he thinks he knows: “The wind/Spirit blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (Here’s another delightful ambiguity—in Greek, “wind” and “spirit” are the same word, pneuma.) Nicodemus must now consent to trusting in things he can never quite figure out. Indeed, he must realize that the truest things that have ever been or ever will be can be believed without being adequately explained. In a word, Jesus asks Nicodemus to have faith that the words he speaks are true, no matter how difficult, preposterous, or confusing they may sound.

And Nicodemus takes a tentative step into the shallows of faith in Jesus. He asks one of the sincerest questions in the Gospel: “How can these things be?” With this question, Nicodemus allows the cognitive dissonance that has been cresting to break on him like a wave. This dissonance is the necessary distress that happens when he realizes he doesn’t know something he thought he knew. But dissonance isn’t a bad thing. In music, dissonance is the interesting part, the part that pushes the piece onward. A pleasing harmony (called “consonance”) can hang in the air indefinitely, but a dissonance begs to move forward to the next consonant chord.

So it is with Nicodemus and anyone who opens up himself or herself to the possibility of the unknown. Allowing the cognitive dissonance to enter our comfortable worldviews pushes us to grow into the next consonant chords in our lives. When Jesus confronts us, like Nicodemus, with the mysteries of the faith, we can either step backward into the comfort of what we think we know or step forward, fully expecting the boundaries of possibility to be far wider than we can perceive. This confrontation goes by another name: revelation.

Every encounter with Jesus, whether in the text or in life, promises an opportunity for revelation, which obeys no boundaries of possibility. Revelation is that thing you know, but don’t know how you know it. Revelation is visceral as well as mental because the brain alone is ill-equipped to handle it. Revelation infuses us with an odd mixture of peace and exhilaration—peace because we know God is there, exhilaration because we know God is calling us to serve. Cognitive dissonance is the birthplace of such revelation. The dissonance reminds us that what we know is far less than the whole. When we can acknowledge that we don’t, in fact, know where the wind comes from or where it goes, we are primed for receiving the revelation of God’s love that Jesus is forever revealing to the world. This is a scary proposition, for if we do, indeed, remain attentive we might actually hear God calling us to serve in a way that doesn’t fit our plans.

But revelation bursts our ability and our desire to control because it blows where it chooses on the wind of the Spirit. When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “We know,” he is seeking to control the conversation that will follow. But he immediately discovers he’s in over his head. When we acknowledge that Jesus has things to reveal to us that we couldn’t possibly imagine, we discover we’re also in over our heads. The trick is to learn to breathe in the wind of the Spirit while underwater (to grow gills and fins) and to find a new natural state submerged in the revelatory love of Christ.

When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How can these things be,” he allows the possibility for revelation to strike him in his head and in his gut. His cognitive dissonance jettisons his need to control. He is open for Jesus to reveal new and wonderful things to him. And Jesus does — things about the Son of Man ascending to and descending from heaven, things about the Son of Man being lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, things about eternal life and self-giving love and believing and salvation.

I imagine Nicodemus left his encounter with Jesus in a daze, his heart and mind on overload attempting to process all he had seen and heard. Is he able fully to put his trust in Jesus, to allow the dissonance to resolve into a new and deeper consonance? Not quite yet. But we are lucky enough to meet Nicodemus twice more in the Gospel (check them out! John 7 & John 19). His journey towards the consonance of a life of faith following Jesus models for us our Lenten journeys of self-examination. If we open ourselves up to encounters with Christ during this season of Lent, then (as Kay says), “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

The new version of me

(A Meditation for Good Friday; April 10, 2009 || John 19:31-42)

Imagine with me the thoughts of the Pharisee Nicodemus on his way home from helping Joseph of Arimathea bury the body of Jesus.

Two years ago, I knocked on a door. I waited until nighttime and wrapped myself in a traveling cloak with a deep hood so no one would recognize me. Was I afraid to be seen with Jesus, who my colleagues branded as a dangerous radical? Yes, but fear was not the main reason for my caution. I was ashamed. I was ashamed to admit that I didn’t have all the answers, ashamed that someone else’s words could make me feel so infantile, like a newborn baby. So I hid myself in darkness, not to protect against prying eyes, but to conceal me from myself. I hid from myself. I hid from the version of me that Jesus was beckoning to emerge from some long forgotten exile.

I used to relish my position on the council, my authority as an arbiter. I took pleasure in the blank looks of acceptance on the faces of my litigants. They invested me with the power to judge, and I failed to notice when that power mutated into self-assured complacency. Predictability became my idol. There was never a new problem to be solved, never something I couldn’t explain or interpret or analyze. Over the years, I forgot how to ask questions because I was always the person with the answers.

Until that night. Until my vestigial curiosity awoke that night. When I first opened my mouth, my council voice came out, and I made a grand statement about knowing who comes from God. I could tell immediately that Jesus was not one to be cowed by my position or impressed by my stature. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

I didn’t know what to say. I remember opening and closing my mouth several times. I remember Jesus smiling at me – patient, eager. Then my breath forced an “H” sound from my throat, and I was surprised when the word “how” came from my lips. I was asking a question. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” The floodgates opened, and for the rest of the conversation, all I did was ask questions: “Can one enter into the mother’s womb a second time and be born? How can these things be?”

Ever since that night, I have heard his words carried on the wind. Since the wind blows where it chooses, my idolatrous reliance on predictability has vanished. Since I don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, my fantasy that I have all the answers has disappeared, as well. On my way to see Jesus, I was hiding from a new version of me. But everyday, I felt Jesus’ words drawing that new version out of me.

Last year, I reminded my colleagues to obey their own rules. No one on the council had discovered my secret meeting with Jesus, so my position was safe. The two versions of me occupied the same body, and, at that time, the familiar one dominated still. But I had begun to question and look past the veneer of institutional banality.

Jesus had shown up at the festival of booths and caused quite a stir. The chief priests had sent the temple police to arrest him, but they came back empty handed saying: “Never has anyone spoken like this!” I suppressed a smile. He escaped again. The rest of the Pharisees were outraged. One of them shouted: “Surely you have not been deceived, too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?”

A small voice inside me murmured: “I do.” Then a louder voice: “Careful. Careful.” When I spoke, I tried to defend Jesus without giving myself away. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” But they were implacable. That’s when I noticed something I would never have seen had Jesus not awakened my curiosity. These colleagues of mine, the keepers of tradition, the self-proclaimed protectors of the Law, were breaking their own rules. I could no longer be party to such bankrupt ideals and blind action. That day, the small voice grew louder, the voice attached to the new version of me.

Today, I buried my Lord. Two years ago, I went to see him at night to cloak my own shame. But today, the sun shines down, unaware that its brightness mocks the darkness in my soul. The sun shines down, and I walk out under its beams so the world can see where my allegiance lies. When first we met, Jesus said to me, “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” It took two years, but here I am. Here I am in the light.

See, all you who pass by: I am one of his. I am not the person you knew. I am a new version of me, the version Jesus called out of me. See, all you who pass by: I am not ashamed any more. I feel the wind on my face, and I know his words are true. See, all you who pass by: is there any sorrow like my sorrow. My Lord is dead. It took his death for my old version to die. But will my new version survive with him gone? Will I have another chance to walk in the light? Has the darkness won? Will the light return?