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One of the things we often forget when we talk about being “born again” is what an incredibly unpleasant experience it is to be born the first time. After the pains and the joys of birthing, the first word of the newborn is, after all, a hearty wail.
No one chooses to be born: it just happens when the time comes along. It is a threshold we cross involuntarily that takes us from the warmth of the womb into a cold and hostile world. We emerge ignorant and vulnerable and utterly dependant on the care of strangers, who are about to call themselves our “family.” Then we spend years watching and listening and learning, struggling to come to become mature, functioning members of the world we are dropped into.
And then Jesus tells us we must be “born again” to see the kingdom of God.
We’ve theologized this phrase in many interesting directions. These days, a lot of Christians use it as the central criterion for salvation. Consequently, “born again” has become a label, a lingo, an indicator of association with a particular set of Christian movements. And being “born again” has become a discrete experience that we try to generate in other people by means of passionate preaching.
But perhaps Jesus means something much simpler, and much more profound. Perhaps what Jesus is asking of us is a willingness to accept his formation, and, when the time comes, his call to extreme vulnerability.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Never have I felt so “born again” as I have in coming to India. To this point, my life in Christ has been a long and fascinating process of inner growth, maturation, transformation. But never have I felt such a clear and sudden break with all that is familiar and all that is comfortable.
I feel like a child fresh from the womb. In this place, I feel as naked and as vulnerable and as helpless as an infant. I have come with faith, and faith alone. I do not have a set of well-honed tools with which I can pry apart every problem, and evaluate every situation. I see around me need, want, poverty, and I have no instinct of how to respond. It takes most of my energy just to take care of my own needs. I sleep fitfully, like an infant, partially from jetlag, and partially from being on constant high alert.
These feelings are, on the one hand, deeply uncomfortable and highly inconvenient. As human beings (and, I think, as Americans in particular) we like to feel in control of our situation. We like to have our schedules structured, the variables of our environment set, and a feeling of general productivity flowing from our daily activities. These are assurances we do not have in this adventure, and it is more than a little disorienting.
And even when our experiences are difficult we recognize that they are also inexpressibly valuable. Now, as we have been thrown into chaos, our lives are being reoriented around those things that are truly important. We cannot grasp at assurances, because we do not know where to grasp. What we have is what is truly important: we have God, and we have each other. That is enough, and the rest is just details.
The details are falling into place, slowly but surely. We still fall asleep at night asking each other “What are we doing?” We still don’t know. But the sense of God’s calling is only growing stronger for us; we know more each day that we are where we need to be in this season. We are strengthened by the example of our Master, Jesus Christ, who also first ministered to the world by becoming small and weak and vulnerable. Since God has called us, we are confident that even our prayers, our presence and our weakness are blessings.