Sanctuary was hot this morning. I’m looking around again at the signs of a dilapidated building – chairs and desks stacked haphazardly in the balconies, and the roof above the chancel is peeling and cracked on one side. I’m next to one of the surprisingly traditional emblems of church – a stained glass window – one of many that line the walls around this rectangular room. This window has two keys crossed which refer to Peter who was given the keys to heaven by Jesus when he states, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” (Matthew 16:19).
Keys to the kingdom.
Nicodemus, one of the religious elite, comes to Jesus at night. Someone who thinks he has the keys to the kingdom. Curiosity gets the best of him and he can’t stay away. He wants to see him for himself. Up close. Personal. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” But he doesn’t have a question. He doesn’t know what to say, so he says what any fangirl would say, “OMGOMGOMGOMG you’re amazing.” Maybe, not this extreme. But, Jesus sees the superficiality of it and as per usual, cuts to the chase. And it throws Nicodemus off because maybe he isn’t ready to go deep. Maybe he isn’t ready to give it up.
“You need to be born-again.” How can this be…?
“How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
A mother’s womb…
The preacher shares the story of his son’s second birth. After a few miscarriages, this one stuck, and as to be expected they were cautiously optimistic. As the pregnancy progressed his wife began to feel hopeful, and made plans and dreams for this little one. But one morning she woke up to heavy bleeding. They immediately went to see the obstetrician and discovered she was on the verge of a complete placental abruption. If the placenta tore from the uterine wall then they would likely lose the baby, and her life would be in serious danger from hemorrhage, too. She was immediately put on strict bed rest. About five weeks from the due date her water broke, and they did an emergency c-section pulling out a beautiful baby. Today the little one is a bouncing, happy child with no residue from such a traumatic and complicated pregnancy and delivery.
He shared this story as a way to insert his struggle and history with the all-too-common, evangelical phrase, “born-again.” To be born again always meant something transactional to him – straightforward, simple, black and white. Say a prayer, go to church, and now you’re born-again.
Oh, if only birth matters were as simple.
“The main facts in human life are five: birth, food, sleep, love and death.”
― E.M. Forster
A friend from my mom’s group has had two traumatic births with her two babies. The first was horrible and heart-wrenching, and the second, recent one was really wonderful and amazing.
Even though they barely made it to the hospital, even though it took running stop signs, red lights, and honking, and her husband yelling at people to get out of the way as they drove the mile to the hospital, even though it meant driving right up to the emergency doors stepping out and giving birth right then and there. Two nurses barely managed to get there in time with gloves on to catch the baby as she slid out. When the mom tells this story her eyes light up even as I’m clutching whatever is near because it’s so stressful.
I remember hearing the stories for the first time and reflecting on how both were a window into eternity. A brief window and moment into the precarious balance between life and death. It’s flesh and blood and water and spirit, it’s disgusting and beautiful, horrendous and powerful. Birth matters. Birth is complicated. Birth is not easy. And, of course, Jesus would use this as an image of God’s kingdom. Giving birth and being born of the kingdom is trauma. Being born again is labor and mess and the sliver of yarn between life and death. And that’s why I continue to be drawn to baptism. Sally Brown (PTSem professor) would be so proud of me, I think. That’s her thing. And I get it. I get it more and more each day.
Birth is the great equalizer. We all start somewhere. We are pulled or burst into this world, and that first breath we take is dying. From that first moment we’re all dying. Everyone’s dying. But we can resist. Baptism is a sign of that resistance. It’s the real sign, the real miracle that should “impress” us, it’s impressed on us in that moment of baptism, the seal is impressed and branded and tattooed on us, the sign that God chooses us, God chooses us over and over, God chooses life for us over and over and over.