This morning at Grace, we heard two gospel readings: the one assigned for the day from the 13th chapter of Luke’s Gospel and, by a series of fortunate (for me, at least) events, another from John’s Gospel.
I heard the passage from John’s Gospel often in the church of my childhood: the story of the well-connected elder and teacher of the Jewish faith, Nicodemus, who made an after-sundown visit to Jesus, an upstart rabbi from Galilee.
It was good and bracing to hear a question Nicodemus asked Jesus when Jesus urged him to open himself to a new and more expansive vision of God’s kingdom by being “born again—this time from above.” Nicodemus responded: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
I’ve been asking Nicodemus’ question: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”
I will turn 65 on Wednesday. I know that 65 isn’t “old’ in our culture anymore, though it’s still the Medicare Birthday. It’s just that I didn’t expect to live until my 65th birthday. I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma in early 2014, and, then, the median survival rate was five years. Advances in Myeloma research, good medical care, and the love and prayers of many family members and friends have sustained me. I’m so grateful.
At the same time, the cumulative impact of the treatments which keep the cancer in check is difficult. I don’t want or need to detail the losses I’ve sustained and the limits which have tightened around me. It’s enough to say that my physical strength and stamina are diminished, that I regularly feel unsteady and queasy, that the drugs I take sometimes leave my mind foggy, and that the steady pain I feel, some of it physical and some of it psychic-emotional, can be disheartening.
There are days when I feel old, even though I’m not quite sure what old is supposed to feel like.
I have a friend who is in his later 80s, and we’ve realized, across many soul-to-soul conversations, that he and I, more than twenty years apart in age, stand at about the same distance from our likely deaths. That’s another way to think about what it might mean to be old. We’re dealing with similar questions and facing similar mysteries.
Over the last few months, I’ve felt the Spirit coaxing me to be “born again again.”
Across these eight cancer years, I’ve resisted and resented the limits with which I have to live now. The resistance and resentment use up energy I need for other things. I’ve been stubbornly slow to recognize that the limits are, in fact, gifts. To honor them gratefully is to be more compassionate toward myself and to become wiser in decisions about the scope of my work. I need to be born again again into a humble, grateful, and playful life within my limits.
Slowly and subtly, I’ve also become less hopeful. I’m sure that the interlocking crises we’ve all experienced over the last few years haven’t helped. I’m also aware, though, that I’ve allowed the uncertainties that my health challenges bring to make me more anxious and, therefore, less attentive than I want to be to the shimmering signs of grace and lovely lyrics of mercy all around me.
I need to be born again again with new eyes and ears for the surprises and delights of God’s presence and with a heart to feel anew the hope and joy of self-forgetfulness—of remembering that God is God, that God is love, that this is God’s world, that we are God’s children, and that nothing separates us from God’s love.
How can anyone be born again again after having grown old?
Jesus said that it’s possible because new life is the sheer gift of the uncontainable and untamable Spirit: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. . . The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
So it is. So may it be.