Sunday, June 3, 2012

Sure, God can make people out of wet clay. But can he rebirth a fossil?

Have you ever noticed how it’s easier to learn something new than it is to unlearn something you already know? For instance, it’s easier to teach someone the rules of standard English who has never learned the language at all than it is to teach standard English to someone who has already learned a non-standard dialect of English. If someone has grown up in an environment where double negatives are used, that becomes a part of the way that person speaks. “I don’t want no mustard” is normal to them. Then a teacher tries to teach them that in standard English you can’t say, “I don’t want no mustard”, instead you say, “I don’t want any mustard.” Well, it’s a lot easier to get a non-native speaker of English to apply this rule.

As we learn stuff, it becomes wired into our brain, that’s the way the circuits go. And the more that wiring is used, the more deeply the circuits run. When people learn a language, if they’re picking up bad habits, and they’re not corrected, we say they become fossilized.

Out if the work-force, companies will often hire people who have no experience over those who do. Because if you want a job done your way, it’s easier to train someone who comes to the job with no prior knowledge or experience than it is to train someone who has already had experience that they must unlearn.

This same principle hold true in every area of life that I can think of. Knowledge and experience become so much a part of our wiring that eventually that’s the only way the circuits will run. This is true for everything from what is morally acceptable to us to the way we brush our teeth. Once ideas become fossilized in our brains, it’s pretty hard to change them.

Now, I think we all know that’s true. And yet, in order to grow spiritually, God calls us to a life of transformation. So, how is that possible?

That’s what the story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus was all about. Nicodemus was a guy who knew his stuff. He was a respected expert in the scriptures, a ruling member of the Pharisees. And since the Pharisees were usually in direct conflict with Jesus, Nicodemus had to sneak away to see him in the secrecy of the night, when nobody else was around. He had heard Jesus teach and he had seen him do miracles, and something about Jesus had touched him so that he had to know more. As a result, the two of them got into an extraordinary conversation about being born again.

If Nicodemus is ever going to understand the truth, he will have to unlearn everything he has been taught. He will have to be born again and start over. For a guy like Nicodemus, someone who assumed he already knew all the answers, this wasn’t going to be easy. Nicodemus already knew how to make sense of the world. He understood the ways of God. It was a part of his wiring; it had fossilized in his brain. How could he unlearn all that he had been taught so he could see who Jesus really was?

There were three things standing in the way for Nicodemus. Three obstacles were blocking him from really knowing who Jesus was and what he was about, three ways of thinking that he would have to unlearn.

First, there was a shallowness to Nicodemus’s faith. He figured Jesus must be a teacher sent by God. But why? Because he’d seen Jesus perform. As a kid, did you ever have to perform for your parents’ friends? “Show us how you can say your ABCs.” “Do that dance you learned in school.” “Play the piano for us.” And, like a good little son or daughter, we performed for them. Well, sometimes that’s the way we treat God. “Help me pass this test I didn’t study for, God.” “Give me the house I want, God.” “Cure my cancer, God.” Come on, perform for me. Show me something. Jump through this hoop. Could our faith depend upon how well God does on these command performances? It seemed to be that way for Nicodemus. His faith was shallow.

The second obstacle to knowing Jesus, for Nicodemus, was his lack of imagination. When Jesus said that he must be born from above, what does Nicodemus come back with? “Hey, I’m an old man here. How can I go back inside my mother’s womb and be born all over again?” Jesus often speaks metaphorically It’s the language of faith that transcends anything we have ever experienced on this earth, so it can only be understood with an imagination. But poor Nicodemus takes Jesus literally. It’s the only way he can hear what Jesus is saying because he has no imagination. It’s not possible for a literalist to be transformed in the faith without ceasing to be a literalist.

And that brings us to the third obstacle to knowing Jesus for Nicodemus: being unreceptive to the transformative power of the Spirit. Nicodemus seems to be closed to the testimony of others. He has the problem of having his mind already made up and he isn’t open to any information that might not fit into his way of thinking. Isn’t it interesting that he was a learned man -- someone who knew more about religion than just about anybody around – and yet, that was a problem because he already thought he knew it all.

Jesus spends a lot of time with Nicodemus. He seems to understand how hard it will be for someone like him to be transformed by God. And he explains why this is so important, why Nicodemus and all of us need to be born again so we can really see who Jesus is. “Because God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. For God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Shallow, closed-minded literalists like Nicodemus may have some problems seeing the real Jesus. In fact, it seems like such a thing would be impossible, like rebirthing a fossil. But we know that somehow, God manages to accomplish the impossible.

Now, my guess is that few of us are shallow, closed-minded literalists like Nicodemus was. But, no doubt, some of us are shallow, others are closed-minded, and some of us may be lacking in religious imagination. Or we may have other obstacles that stand between us and the life of transformation that God is calling us to. If our faith has become fossilized, it’s especially challenging for the Spirit to get through to us.

The song we sing in our gospel verse at Holy Trinity during the summer months is such a beautiful prayer for all of us who long to be transformed by God. “Lord, let my heart be good soil.” What we sing about our hearts might just as easily apply to our minds and our souls – all parts of us that God wants.

“When my heart is hard, roll the stone away. When my heart is cold, warm it with the day. When my heart is lost, lead me on your way.” Give me depth in my relationship with you. Give me an imagination that I might understand you. Open my heart, and mind, and soul, that I might be born again. And again and again.


Heather said...

Whoa. This blew my mind tonight...I was just thinking of my parents and "would it be possible for them to meet the REAL Jesus...the one who is all about LOVE and not hate?"...

Amazing how the Lord puts things into perspective. I'm asking Him to roll away that stone of anger so that I can pray for them to become more open-minded and to accept me (and my little family) just the way we are. Thanks for the lesson. :)

Anonymous said...

I am a Nicodemus, yet I feel that asking the lord to open up my mind is still demanding. Like parents asking their child to perform, like you said.