That’s how it is with people born of the Spirit


Veterans Day 2009

It all began with the shoes. I dressed to work out and stuffed my gym bag with my dress clothes and after dropping Jacob at school the plan was to work out, change into my street clothes and head to 3 meetings in a row.

The internet at home didn’t work and a 5 minute task took 45 minutes and the dog peed on the floor and it was Veterans Day and Jacob and I were going to take a cup of coffee and donut to Robert Garland and salute him for his service to our country. After the complications of the morning, we opted or a phone call to Robert to honor him.

Jacob was heading with his school to the Veterans Day parade and as we drove up to school he realized we’d forgotten his lunch. He’s incredibly responsible and makes his own lunch, so he was bothered that he’d forgotten, and I assured him I’d return quickly with the goods–had to be in a brown paper bag. And I brought that back and took it to his class and all was well.

Until I headed off for the first of my appointments. I had an hour and could squeeze in a short workout before that first meeting. I stopped in at the gym and realized walking in that I too had forgotten something “vital” to the day. Shoes.

I had forgotten to stuff in my dress shoes. I dress in my gym clothes on these days and put everything in I’ll need to head from workout to shower to work. In fact, when I mentioned taking the donuts to Robert Garland to Jill in the kitchen earlier that morning, she looked me over in my running shoes and gym shorts and said I was a walking contradiction. Running shoes and donuts.

And so I had a choice. I could make for home to get my black shoes to go with the black pants and oxford shirt I’d brought for the day, or I could stick with my workout plans. I chose to stick with the workout, and so I did, showered, dressed, discovered as I rummaged through my bag that I’d also forgotten . . . no, not my underwear, though that does happen, my belt. No dress shoes, no belt.

So I’m headed to the Grand Opening of the First Bank of Owasso in black pants, no belt, running shoes. The first thing Lance Newsom does when he sees me is to ask what’s the story behind the shoes. Well, I’m about to tell you.

I leave that nice event and head to a meeting with a man from OKC who is to talk with me about financial planning. I have a friend in Portland who has helped me mutual funds and investments. I have a friend in Minnesota who has also helped me over the years. A man in Nashville has done my taxes for eight years and still does. Great men and very helpful to me. Another man in Tulsa helps the whole church staff with a retirement account, so I’m not short of people who can potentially direct me in financial matters. But I was meeting this man this day because of a book he’d sent me two weeks ago. He authored a book called, “YES! I can get my house in order.” He bases the book’s title on the story of Hezekiah when he is told to get his house in order for he will die. I too want to get my house in order.

I’m in a time in my life where more is going on that I can possibly handle. And yet I want to control and gather in and “reign over” all that I see and like David on his rooftop, I think I can conquer anything, work anything out, I have the strength and can work out anything to suit me and work in my life. But there is too much. Too many trains leaving the station and I can’t be on everyone but I’m running from train to train, riding different ones and working here at church, editing a magazine and books, counseling people in chaotic lives while trying to hold it together myself, trying not to overdraft my life, and I need someone to help me get my house in order. I want to take my family back to Uganda in 2010 so my children can see the place where they grew up, two of them were born, where they’ve had so many beautiful experiences and friendships, to renew and uphold and bless those we love, our Ugandan friends.

So part of my heart is in Uganda and part of my heart is in writing and part of my heart is in my family, and part of my heart is in this church, in this Event Center, in every ministry that every one of you wants to start, in Neighborhood Kitchens that I’m fighting for funding to continue to serve this community, in starting FriendSpeak that we are launching today, in Angel Food and Food Pantry to even a thumbprint somehow on women’s ministry and my desire for women to have a voice in worship and praying in public assemblies and for their Women of Worth ministry to be rebuilt and all ministries here to rebuild and renew and for God to do a new thing, and I think I can be involved in all those things, and we’re seeing some awesome rebirth in children’s ministry and student ministry and outreach, Ben and Beth West are interns finding new and existing and sustainable ways to bring this community together for one ultimate reason: to share the good news of John 3:16 that God so loved (entire) world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

But so much is happening in my life, your life, so much chaos, we have failed to get even that most basic truth and life-transforming belief into our lives by way of sharing it with others we meet because too much is going on in our lives, too much good, too much unfocused good too much bad and unimportant activity and badly structured lives where we’re running from one thing to another. And it’s not that we’re malicious in this. It’s that we are complicit in a group lack of ability to focus because we’re trying to hold too much together at once.

For our church, we’ve chosen Servianity as our addiction, our obsession. We serve people and there’s nothing wrong with serving people, in talking about serving people, in “ministries,” but this church has always been about serving and ministry and it’s time we stop in our tracks and look down at our running shoes and ask, “What is the Spirit of God asking us to do?”

For me, I’m a recovering legalist, recovering doer of works-righteousness. If I can just do one more thing for God, write one more book, do someone one more good turn, start yet one more ministry, then maybe God will love me. I’ve not followed Jesus as much as Servianity. Jesus taught us to serve and not to be served. It’s part of who we are, but unlike Jesus, we take no time to pray, go to the mountain top to refocus, try to do too much in too little time, and we’re in our running shoes, looking goofy, huffing and puffing and trying to keep up with the appointments and all the time God is blowing across our faces, the wind, and he’s speaking and are we listening? Not usually. Why? Because that’s not all. We turn up the radio, be it music or talk radio, we crank up the phone, text, and all the time we’re waiting for what the next person is going to speak into our lives, what trend, what new thing we can pay attention.

For God so loved the world.

You’ve never really understood the context of that passage and neither have I. The text gets fuzzy as to whether Jesus or John is really saying it and the quote marks are a fabrication of translators–they don’t exist in Greek that John was written in–but there is a conversation going on previous to John 3:16 that happens either in the late hours of the night or early hours of the morning that has kept me up at night, made me wonder about the shoes, the appointments, the business, the works-righteousness, the attempt to do one more thing, the servianity.

A man named Nicodemus came to Jesus one night. He was a Pharisee. Pharisees believe the more you do for God the better he’ll like you. Many of you, like me, are Pharisees with some Jesus-Splenda added to the tea. Christ died, God gives his grace, he blew his Spirit upon us, changes everything and we sip our lattes and check our texts and read our mail and watch our shows and join our ministries and still believe like Nicodemus and the Pharisees that if we could just do one more thing in a day, be one more notch productive, sigh a little more when someone asks how things are going, serve God in one more ministry, then we’ll make him happy.

Now some of you are perplexed, because you don’t try to do too much. It’s become fashionable in some circles to say no with flare and for some of you, that’s an excuse to be lazy. You say yes to your job, your clubs, your everything but when it comes to serving in our body, you haven’t said yes in years. Some of you are lazy. I’m lazy about a lot of things. But you pair two things together and you get this weird awful combination.

A lazy legalist. What does a lazy legalist do? What does a works-righteousness driven person who is really basically lazy do? A whole lot of nothing.

One writer calls this skimming. You do a whole lot. You believe there is more and more to be done, to be experienced, but by the end of the day, you don’t know what you’ve really done.

So this legalist who is also a bit hard-headed comes to Jesus one night, knowing Jesus must be from God because he’s performed these miracles. Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

Nicodemus gives an oblique and perhaps stubborn reply. “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born?”

Jesus repeats, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus asks, “How can this be?”

Jesus is perplexed at Nicodemus’s density, his legalistic mind, his lazy stubborn lack of will to let go of all that he controls, all that he is doing for God, all his clout as Israel’s teacher and humbly accept this simple truth into his life. So Jesus goes for a frontal attack on the very faith he was brought up in, Judaism, and on Nicodemus.

“You are Israel’s teacher and you do not understand these things? (He didn’t pay attention to the prophets saying the Spirit would blow in and be a sign for the coming of the Messiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel and Joel said so.) I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.”

Then Jesus says, in effect, “I’ve tried to illustrate this for you, give you a word picture, an analogy from life, an earthy example, but you are dense. And you call yourself Israel’s teacher. How can you understand if I really start in on theology?”

Here’s what he says in verse 12: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

It seems the conversation goes on, there are quotes translators have continued in John 3:16, so I never knew this, never knew this was Jesus speaking. If you have a red-letter Bible, all this is in red, but I never really paid attention to this fact. John writes that Jesus said this about himself, to Nicodemus, the lazy legalist who thought one more thing for God would make him lovely to God, make him lovable, get him into heaven. Just one more thing, so that I have to stay awake at night to get it all done.

And Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.

Whatever we’ve done we’ve done “through God.” Plain and simple. No legalism. No works-righteousness. We don’t know what Nicodemus’s final response was except silence. John doesn’t tell us. I think I know this. He had no more sarcastic or cynical or stubborn remarks to make. Perhaps Nicodemus was in tears and on his knees.

Why do I think this? Because he defended Jesus in the ruling council later in John. Then he helped his friend Joseph of Arimathea to clean and embalm Jesus’s body. Nicodemus had become a disciple. He gave up his sarcastic, stubborn lazy legalism somewhere along the way not just because of the miracles anymore but because one night he came face to face with the Lord of the universe and when that happens the only thing you can resist is that one part of God that would not compel you without your choice. You still have to make a choice, but the choice is so clear that all works-righteousness and all the things you’ve ever done melt away in the light of Jesus face.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of glory and grace.

And that’s how it is with people born of the Spirit. We’re a mix of flesh and blood and Spirit, eternity stranded in time, to quote Michael Card, people born from above like Christ and filled with a singular hope and focused desire to know nothing in this world so interesting and intriguing and filling as the love of God that comes into the world through the Son of Life who gives us life and blows into our world and we see the results in our lives. Like Nicodemus we’re intrigued with the miracles, love the activity of life, obsessed with bad habits, but those activities will not give us life. Only what is done through God will give us life. And Nicodemus learns and we learn with him that the Spirit blows where it will, and if we’re paying attention, we’ll see the kingdom in that, no matter where it blows, that’s where we go. Not driven by activity, our culture, our busy-ness, our appointments, running in our goofy running shoes from one thing to another . . .

Sometimes it takes an event in our lives that sets off a chain of other events so that we pay attention. For Nicodemus it was a night conversation. For me that day I had conversations in my running shoes with several other people who were the face of Christ to me. A man named Dave Jewitt and another named Keith Carter. That day I sat down with them both for the first time in my life and shared a struggle I have with keeping it all together. And in their eyes I saw the kingdom and a sparkle and a focus and a vision. One said, “You must have vision, not just financial strength . . . God’s vision.” The other said you must narrow your life to One Degree of Particular Purpose so God can use your gifts, your Spiritually given gifts so that we can truly be people who are born from above and live out the gospel that God so loved the world.

That’s how it is with people born of the Spirit. They are not driven by activity, our culture, our busy-ness, our appointments, running in our goofy running shoes from one thing to another . . .

Sometimes it takes an event in our lives that sets off a chain of other events so that we pay attention.

For Nicodemus it was a night conversation. For me it was a pair of forgotten shoes.