Uncertain Geography


Sometimes, you get a nice clean moment… a perfect transition from one life to another.

I’ve told you bits and pieces of this story before.

I grew up in First Congregational United Church of Christ in Platteville, Wisconsin. That is where I was baptized and confirmed. That is where I went to Sunday School and youth group. that is the church that shaped my understanding of Christianity. And when I skipped church and slept in on a Sunday morning, that is the church I skipped.

When I was eighteen, I left that town and that church and went to a small private liberal arts college… where I was an introvert… and I was a little insecure… and I was far from home and on my own. And one of the very first groups that befriended me were the Christians. And these Christians were not like the Christians at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Platteville, Wisconsin. They were… different.

And they told me that it was not enough to grow up in the church. They told me that it was not enough to welcome others and serve people and strive to live a life defined by love. They told me that no one could enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit, without being born from above, without being born again

I remember seeing a friend fall to his knees, tears streaming down his face, beating his chest. I remember hearing him pray the prayer… and confess that he was a sinner bound for the flames of hell… and declare that he believed that Christ had died on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for his sins… and invite Jesus into his heart.

And I remember seeing him welcomed into that community of Christians in a way that I never was. And I remember, a while later, being shown the door… and feeling like I was a child of darkness who could not stand the light. And I remember going out into the world… and wandering.

Jesus is on a bit of a walkabout.

There’s this montage in movie Rocky II. It’s famous. You’ve probably seen it.

Rocky Balboa leaves his apartment on Lambert Street in Philadelphia and starts his training run as Bill Conti’s Fly Nowplays in the background. He runs along the railroad tracks at the Lehigh Avenue Right-of-Way. People cheer him on as he jogs through the Italian Market. He meets some kids at the B Street Bridge at East Gurney.

Those kids follow him along Kelly Avenue, by the Schuykill River; and the crowd grows as he runs down Chestnut Street and past Independence Hall. And by the time he runs down Benjamin Franklin Parkway and up the steps of the Art Museum, it looks like half of Philly is behind him.

For anyone who is not familiar with the geography of Philadelphia, that is a thirty mile run that crosses the city several times. Y’know… your average everyday fifty-k training run.

And I’m telling you this because, in these first few chapters of John, Jesus is also taking a complicated route. At the beginning of the last chapter, we were in Cana. Now we’re in Jerusalem. And over the next few chapters, we will travel through Samaria, back to Cana, back to Jerusalem, back to Galilee, back to Jerusalem…

There is a theory that, at some point, the pages of John got scattered and out of order… and that someone stitched the stories back together… and they did the best they could. That’s how confusing and impossible this is.

And this week, Jesus is in Jerusalem for the first time, at the beginning of this long strange journey, having a conversation with a pharisee named Nicodemus. It is a conversation that has defined Christians for centuries. It defined those Christians who I met in college. It defined my friend who fell to his knees.

You might know how it goes.

Jesus tells Nicodemus, “I’m telling you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

And Nicodemus is understandably confused, “How can anyone be born after having grown old,” he asks, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

And Jesus replies, basically, “No, no… not born again… born anew… of the spirit. You need to be born of water and of spirit.”

And I’m going to be honest: that is not helpful at all.

Sometimes, you get a nice clean moment… a perfect transition from one life to another.

We like certainty. We like knowing where we have been and where we are; we like knowing where we are and where we are going. We like nice clean moments and perfect transitions.

We like knowing who we are and where we stand.

I need to be careful here. There isn’t anything wrong with knowing who you are and where you stand. And there isn’t anything wrong with falling to your knees and praying the prayer. That’s how it is… for some people… some of the time.

But if you’ve been around for a while—and if you’ve been paying attention—then you know that sometimes, you get a nice clean moment… a perfect transition from one life to another.

But most of the time…

Look, if you laid my life out in a straight line and looked at all of it at once… there would be a span when I am not married and a span when I am married. And I was married in a nice clean moment, a perfect transition from one life to another. But the relationship that Mariah and I have—the relationship that makes that moment matter—overflows that moment and overwhelms everything else.

And there would be a span when I am not baptized and a span when I am baptized… when I am not confirmed and when I am confirmed… when I am not ordained and when I am ordained. But the relationship that I have with Christ—the relationship that makes all of those moments matter—overflows those moments and overwhelms everything else.

And when I look at my life… when I examine those moment that looked like nice clean perfect transitions… it turns out that they are a lot messier than I remember. It turns out that who-I-am is really just a freeze frame of who-I-am-becoming. And where-I-stand is just a snapshot of where-I-am-going.

And that the certainty that we like so much is nothing more than a comforting illusion.

A little bit after Jesus tells Nicodemus about being born anew, of water and of spirit, he talks about light. And he says, more or less, “I am the light of the world. And I didn’t come here to condemn the world. I came here to save it; to light it up. So here’s what it comes down to: you can either sit in the dark with your sins… or you can step into the light.”

And here’s the thing about light: it doesn’t have a nice clean boundary. There isn’t a perfect transition from darkness to light. You don’t step into it in a moment.

There is twilight and shadow and penumbra; light bleeds into darkness and overwhelms it.

And maybe being Christian…

…following this Jesus as he travels from Cana to Jerusalem to Samaria to Cana to Jerusalem to Galilee to Jerusalem and further still…

…following this Jesus as he moves through the world and through us…

…being born from above, of spirit and of water…

…is not so much a moment as a journey. It’s a journey that goes from place to place, back and forth, around and around, through light and darkness and shadow. It’s a journey that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in the moment. it’s a journey where even we don’t quite know where we are coming from and where we are going.

But the good news is that it is a journey where we have a guide; and that guide knows the way.

Our faith, is not in who we are or where we stand. Our trust is not in our certainties or our prayers. Our sense of direction in the uncertain geography of our lives is not founded on the crude maps that this world offers.

Our faith is in Christ: the light who guides our journey. Our faith is in Christ when his light is a pinpoint on the horizon. Our faith is in Christ when his light overflows the world and overwhelms us. Christ is our certainty.

And I know that’s hard. I know that’s hard when it feels like we are wandering in the wilderness and all but lost in the darkness. And I know that it can be tempting to grab onto whatever illusions of certainty this world might offer.

But I am certain that Christ is leading us to something amazing… to a life where every doubt will fall away and every tear will be wiped away… to nothing less than the kingdom of God.

And maybe—just maybe—that journey is what being born anew, of water and of spirit, to eternal and abundant life, is.


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