Wednesday, October 18, 2006

born again and again

Today was yet another busy day at the restaurant. October and November are our busiest months. Between tomorrow and Sunday we have seven weddings, four rehearsal dinners, a surprise party, and a couple of other small groups (20-25). And we have a total of seven cooks, one baker, and four dishwashers.

Anybody looking for part-time weekend work?

On the way home tonight I listened to the replay of Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She was interviewing David Kuo, the former deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He has written a very critical book about the way in which the Bush administration has not followed through on its touting of faith-based initiatives, but I was too tired to stay interested for long. What did hook me was one statement Kuo made in talking about “born again Christians.” That term just flies all over me.

As I know I have mentioned more than once, I grew up Southern Baptist, so I know about being “born again.” I think I even know the story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus by heart (King James Version), so I know Jesus said, “You must be born again.” What bothers me is the way it has become a label to divide the “real” Christians from the posers – or at least that’s the way I hear it. Sometimes, it’s also used in somewhat of a derogatory manner by those who are critical of evangelicals or don’t understand much about Christians to begin with.

Either way, the term bothers me. I think, first of all, it’s redundant. To be a serious disciple of Christ means you’re not coming out of the same chute as you were before (pun intended). What I hear in Jesus’ words to Nicodemus is a call to see everything differently: his birth, his family, himself, his job, his faith, his sense of belonging on the planet. Nicodemus was flummoxed by Jesus’ words. Nobody can climb back up the birth canal anymore than you can back up your rental car once you’ve gone over those spiky things. Jesus never referred to anyone as a born again believer as though it were some special category. Neither did Paul, or John, or George, or Ringo. (Pete Best did once and they threw him out of the band.)

I’m also troubled by the phrase because it divides the people of God into us and them. Since Jesus’ time there have been divergent views on life, theology, and just about everything in Christianity. For almost a millennium and a half, the Church was controlled by bishops and the like who could declare those divergent views as heresy and have those people thrown out. Many of those decisions had to do with church politics than anything else. There are a lot of differences between churches, between denominations, between people. Some of them are important and some are circumstantial. However, once we reduce the variety to who’s right and who’s wrong, which is how I hear “born again” versus not born again, we knock grace right out of the conversation because we’ve reduced our faith to being primarily about who gets to go to heaven. It reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw once that said, “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.”

(Apropos of nothing, my favorite bad bumper sticker: “I found Jesus. He was behind the couch the whole time.”)

I understand “born again” as a euphemism for conversion. When I was five years old, while my father was preaching a revival at First Baptist Church of Conroe, Texas, I turned from a life of sin and sex and drugs and gave my heart to Jesus. I remember it more because it has been told to me over and over again and I take the experience as an pivotal moment in my young life. But do I think that one decision in my life is what made me heaven bound, or set my spiritual course? No, I don’t.

What I've learned from my experience and listening to the experiences of others is that we must be born again and again and again if we want to follow Christ. Jesus was telling Nicodemus to throw out the most basic paradigm of what it meant to be human and allow God to redefine existence. That’s not a one time deal; it has to happen over and over again. Using death instead of life as a metaphor, Jesus said it this way: “take up your cross daily.” We read those words and think about Jesus’ crucifixion as a model: be willing to sacrifice like he did (not that we really plan to do it) -- and we know about his resurrection. They heard those words and thought about the way in which criminals were brutally executed: Jesus was calling them to lose everything. Whether talking about life or death, Jesus was deconstructing the very foundations of our existence and reframing what it means to be fully human, as he was: born again.

Ginger keeps saying she wants me to write a book about how a liberal Christian can have heart faith. Here’s where I’ll start: I’m a part of the United Church of Christ because I’m born again. I’m not the same guy who gave his heart to Jesus when he was five. Since that time, I’ve been born again and again and again, leading me to a place in my faith a long way away from what I learned growing up. What I took with me was a love for good hymn singing, a belief in the power of God to change lives, a heart for missions, and gratitude for the way they taught me to study the Bible. Along the way, I was born again when I saw that Paul wasn’t kidding when he said in Christ there is no male or female. I was born again when I saw that what is true for gender is also true for sexual orientation. I was born again when I realized responding to violence with violence accomplishes nothing. I was born again when I sat at the wedding of my good friends Ken and George in Old South Congregational Church. I was born again when I married Ginger. I was born again as I learned how to choose reconciling with my family over my pride and hurt. I am a man of many births. Now God is laboring to give birth to me once more as I seek to find my calling vocationally. All along the way, I have been blessed with an amazing group of midwives who have helped to bring me into these new worlds and even as I struggle to learn to speak and walk anew, I hear Jesus saying, “You must be born again.”

Whatever that means for the days to come, I know Jesus never meant it to be used as a defining label or a condition of membership. I think he did mean to say that none of us has a corner on the truth.

It’s not about being right; it’s about being loved.

Peace,
Milton

9 comments:

seekinghim said...

This is an absolutely beautiful post and I feel blessed to have run across it today...thank you, God! I also struggle with the term "born again" because it is so often used in a divisive, us vs. them, one time event context. I love the way you talked being born again...again and again, and the reference to the "midwives" along the way. That description resonates with me in terms of my own journey. Thank you ...I will be back to visit again.

God bless- Kelly

Songbird said...

Milton, this is right on. Thank you.

jledmiston said...

Bet you were a cute sex-crazed, drug-addled 5 year old. Good post.

Jeff said...

Quite agree on the difference between what Jesus meant by "born again", and what modern-day Americans usually mean by "born again".

For a very in-depth column on fundamentalism, go here.

Here's to being born again, and again...

zorra said...

Imagine, if responding to a call from the Holy Spirit at five, or sixteen, or forty-eight, set your spiritual development in concrete at that point. I've known people who seemed to think that was appropriate, and expected by the church (be careful, if you start thinking you might turn into a LIBERALLLLL). I love what you said about all the times you've been born again.

I used to think that my answer to "When were you saved?" was "August 12, 1972,at about 10:30 P.M." Now I think that was the night God finally just grabbed me and shook me to get my attention. As I have been led back to, and explored more fully, the Reformed tradition into which I was born and raised, I've come to think, instead, that the best answer to "When were you saved?" is "Before the foundation of the world." And it continues, every day.

Always being reformed...

LutheranChik said...

You preach it, Milton! Great post.

Africakid said...

I think you should write that book that Ginger keeps suggesting.

SpookyRach said...

I love your "conversion story". Ha ha ha! I had nine long years of Godless hedonism before heeding the call of the saaay-vyer.

Favorite bumper sticker: My kid beat up your honor student.

Rafter said...

It is amazing how the term is misused. I never realized it until recently.

I have found myself being born again and again these past few months. I feel like I keep taking the blue pill.