How can these things be? Our struggle for our humanity

As I live with Nicodemus in these days of Lent, I keep hearing the haunting words of a U2 song and seeing Bono with uplifted arms wailing “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Influenced by gospel music and spiritual yearning Bono sings “I have climbed…run… walked… crawled…to be with you…“But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Then I see a concert crowd wail along with Bono a truth beyond their knowing, “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

In his ‘come to Jesus’ moment Nicodemus was seeking not only to find Jesus but struggling to find God and himself. Jesus pointed Nicodemus in the direction of God’s reign and being “being born from above” and “being born of water and Spirit.” The Christian language we have come to know and which has come to be spiritualized and indoctrinated is “born again.”

Nicodemus was confused by Jesus’ “born again” call and cried, “How can these things be?”

Jesus told Nicodemus to look and live in the right direction.
‘Truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’
‘No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.’
‘God love the whole world so much that God is saving the whole world – the cosmos.’
God has acted. God is acting. Our act is to respond and enter into God’s acting.

We are not told what Nicodemus does with Jesus’ invitation and instructions. We are left with Nicodemus’ question: “How can these things be?” We are as confused as Nicodemus.

In our Lenten worship series we are on a journey with Jesus, a journey of “becoming human called and shaped by Jesus” – shaped by being birthed into a new way of being with Jesus.      But something gets in the way. We struggle with Jesus and we struggle with life.

One of my teachers in the Shalem Institute, Gerald May, wrote a book called Addiction and Grace. In years of listening to many people share their greatest struggles and their deepest desires, May became convinced that “all human beings have an inborn desire for God” (1). Our desire for God is God-given. God creates us in God’s own image – which is to say, with our deepest desire being for God and God’s love.

“But something gets in the way” (1). We let this God-shaped place in the heart of our being be filled with other things. A contemporary word for all the other things that suck up our “desire” and demand our attention is “addiction.” Addiction attacks our desire for God and attaches our desire to other things.

Lest we too quickly limit addiction to a few people remember that all people have an addiction. All of us are addicted to something. Or lest we too quickly limit addictions to a few things remember that there are many addictions. Yes, money, sex, and power can be powerful addictions. Yes, drugs, alcohol, and violence are addictions. But addictions can also be ideas, ideology, work, relationships, intimacy, isolation, fantasies, information, ego, consumption, success, control, information, polarization, even religion or perfection or purity and many other things (3). Addiction is anything that calls our attention away from God.

“Psychologically, addiction uses up desire. It is like a psychic malignancy, sucking our life energy into obsessions and compulsions….Spiritually, addiction is a deep seated form of idolatry. The objects of our addictions become false gods….that enslave a person’s will and desire” (13).

Our addictions are not just individual addictions. Some years ago Anne Wilson Schaef wrote a small insightful book called, When Society Becomes An Addict. We are a society addicted to materialism and militarism. We are a society addicted to violence and weapons. We are a society addicted to consumption of energy and entertainment.  Our society is an addict. We fight wars and have a global military presence to maintain the habits of our addictions. Violence is our great addiction – the violence of the gun, yes; but also the violence of accumulation, self-defense, offense, rage, vengeance and a multitude of other sinful harmful habits of the heart.

We all struggle with addictions whether we know it or not. We all should be in AA. But that is why we are the church – to name, confess, and find healing from our addictions by worshiping God. In worship we seek and find our true desire for God rather than follow our false desires that turn us away from God. It is why in this Lenten season we conclude our worship with lament.

An ancient spiritual guide said, ‘We are not so much human beings seeking to become spiritual as we are spiritual beings seeking to become human’ (Richard Rohr and others before him).

God created us as images of God living as humans on earth. Our task is to live into our true humanity in God’s image.

Nicodemus’ struggle and question

Presumably Nicodemus struggled with his desire for God and his addictions. Jesus called Nicodemus away from his addictions and back to his desire for God as a “birthing” process. Nicodemus wondered – or lamented – “How can these things be?”

Jesus explained that “these things can be” because God is – and Jesus called us to our rightful collaboration with God – entering into what God is doing.

“Born again” doesn’t give the full meaning of Jesus’ words here and Nicodemus is baffled. So Jesus adds that it is being “born from above” and “born of the Spirit.”  “Born from above” is from God – to recognize and receive what God is doing. In John’s community it also means belonging to a community. To be “born from above” is not just an individual process of transformation but the group – the community of faith is undergoing transformation as well. It is not so much to have a certain experience but to take a certain action – an action with a communal and social dimension (David Rensberger, Johannine Faith and Liberating Community, 56; Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God, 88).

“How can these things be?” Because God is! Because God made you. Because God loves you. Because God seeks you. Because God knows your desire. Because God knows your struggle.  God became human in Jesus to connect us to what God is already doing so that we can be re-birthed into our full humanity – the fullness of being created in God’s image for God’s love.

Prayer by Thomas Merton “The Road Ahead”

I close with a prayer from Thomas Merton that expresses our desire for God and recognizes our struggle to find God and our true humanity. Let us pray.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this,
you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
AMEN

TEXTS:  Genesis 2:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17