In a little less than a week my daughter, my first born, will turn ten. Ten! It’s hard to believe that July 31, 2010 was that long ago.
That’s her birthday, a date I can’t forget. It’s burned in my mind because it was a big deal day. As it is for all of us; the start, the beginning of us, the one and only day we were born. Is there any day of our life that could be more important than that?
Once, John tells us, a religious leader named Nicodemus snuck out in the middle of the night to talk to Jesus. He didn’t want his colleagues to see him in such questionable company, but something drew Nicodemus to Jesus even with the risk of association. He had heard Jesus teach; he had seen Jesus perform miracles. “No one can say what you’ve said or do what you’ve done without being from God,” Nicodemus says.
To which Jesus responds: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Which doesn’t make any sense. A person only gets one birthday. Nicodemus knew that. Everyone knows that. So Nicodemus scrunches his eyebrows together in confusion and says, “What are you saying, we need to crawl back into our mother’s bellies and come out again?”
Jesus repeats his answer. To clarify he says it a little differently and with new details: “No one can go into God’s kingdom without being born in a new way, born of water and the spirit, born from above.”
Which still doesn’t make any sense. How can we have another birthday? By definition, we only have one.
Here we have a good example of a bigger truth: the way we define things matters. In this case, the way we define “birth” makes a big difference. By the literal definition, being born is the physical act of a new baby entering the world, something that can’t be repeated. But there’s a deeper truth than the literal truth.
So let’s think: What does it mean to be born, really? What happens at that moment?
To help us think, I asked a couple families that have experienced a birth in the past year to tell us what it was like. As they told their stories, I heard things like:
Shock. Out of my hands. Peaceful, but exciting. New life.
Excited. Finally here. Understanding love in a new way.
All our worries went away and we felt a sense of calm and peace.
Every birth is different, so it makes sense that they all use different words. But I also see a commonality: they all experienced a change, a newness, a transformative experience, a kind of existential surprise.
I remember when my children were born. I do remember that it was hard, and painful… but those negative memories are far overshadowed by the joy, the way my heart felt so full it would burst. I remember looking at my husband and seeing that same joy reflected back to me in his eyes, and how in that moment it was like the joy was multiplied – like two mirrors facing each other where the reflection keeps repeating into infinity. And I remember the feeling of powerful change. There were two of us; then there were three. There were three of us; then there were four. We were Alan and Mary; then we were “Dad” and “Mom.” Our lives revolved around God and the two of us; now our center of gravity had shifted, our lives revolved around God and us and these little people.
Those moments changed us forever; after July 31, 2010 and December 18, 2012 we would never be the same.
That’s a deeper definition of being born: an experience so dramatic, so wonderful, so new that it changes our whole life orientation.
That’s what Jesus wants for us: to experience a transformational rebirth, only this time it’s not a physical arrival but a spiritual one.
Have you experienced a rebirth like that?
Some people can point to a single moment. Maybe it happened on a youth retreat, or at an altar call. Maybe some exceptionally bad experience or decision led to an exceptional turn-around. You can point to that date like we all point to our birthdays – on this day, at this time, for this reason, it was like I was born again!
Others of us have more of a gradual rebirthing experience. I did. I grew up in the church, grew up with a family that taught me how to pray right along with my ABC’s. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t believe, a specific moment when I became spiritually alive.
But there are some significant transition points. I remember asking questions about my faith in my teenage years, how they started out small but got louder and louder, but how my faith got louder, too – and I learned to trust that our God was bigger than any of my questions. I remember that time I was at a youth retreat and I saw the joy of my faith reflected in the face of the guy leading worship, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that his faith was my faith, too. I remember when the adult counselors on Wilderness Trail washed my dirty feet and told me I was loved – by them, and by God – and I believed them. Through moments like these – and many others – my spiritual rebirth is more than just one single day. And as a mother, I think that’s ok. I knew my daughter long before July 31, 2010. I knew my son long before December 18, 2012. I experienced their kicks; I felt their bond; I loved them way before they were officially born. So why can’t it be that way for some of us, spiritually speaking?
Why can’t it be that way for all of us?
The truth is, our spiritual rebirth started long before we woke up to it. It started long before a thought even occurred to us that we might need God. It started even before we were literally born, or before God knit us together in our mother’s wombs. The beginning of our rebirth happened in this man named Jesus, who had this conversation with Nicodemus.
We don’t know the exact date that Jesus gave up his life for us… or the exact date of his resurrection. But that day, some 2,000 years ago, was the most important day in our lives.
It’s for that reason that we baptize babies, like JB – babies that aren’t so far removed from their physical birth. We baptize them acknowledging that God has already started the work of his spiritual rebirth. We baptize them with a prayer that as they grow, they’ll begin to participate in that work – that one day, they’ll have their own new, dramatic, wonderful experience that reorients their whole life around God.
Which is what we should pray for ourselves, come to think of it.
Every single day.
Whether you can point to a day on a calendar and say, “I was born again that day!”… or it was a gradual waking-up-slowly kind of experience… However the spiritual rebirth happened in you, may it keep happening. May it built on what Jesus did for us 2,000 years ago… and draw us ever deeper toward a perfect life given completely to God.