Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd March 8, 2020
John 3:1-17, Ps 121
There are a few of us in this congregation who are part of the Village Green English Country Dancing group. It’s a fun way to keep the mind and body in synch and to practice mindfulness. If my mind wanders even a millisecond, I’m lost. Mind you, I’m also lost when my mind doesn’t wander! Some of the dances involve twirling, and I don’t fare as well with these, as I easily become dizzy. But I’ve noticed that one of the better dancers keeps an eye on one spot on the wall when she twirls. This is an old ballet trick—if distant focus can be maintained, dizziness can be avoided.
In our dizzying pace of life, we easily lose this distant focus on our spiritual centre. We zero in on the details and lose the big picture. We become pre-occupied with specifics and lose the connections with family, friends and God. Accomplishments begin to trump relationships. When this happens, we lose our balance and begin dropping the many balls we’re juggling.
Lent is a time set aside in the church for us to slow down. The word Lent is connected to the roots that mean lengthening of days and slow—lentement. At Westworth, we are encouraging everyone during Lent to lengthen and slow their days enough to allow daily reflection and meditation. My hope is that we can better train our spiritual muscles in the practice of prayer so that we can refocus on our spiritual centre. Then, when those difficult times come, our spiritual muscles are in shape to help ground us in God’s love. We are trained and prepared for what lies ahead. It’s not easy to do—which is why some of us have spiritual directors, spiritual guides and small groups to support one another in this Lenten journey.
The psalmist writes in Psalm 121, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from God who made heaven and earth.” The psalmist is trying to reconnect with the spiritual centre. And it is through nature that the psalmist finds the way. The hills and the trees, the mountains and the prairies are full of God’s glory and point towards the Source of all life. That is where I best reconnect with the Source of my being—holy mystery, who holds all things together in love.
Zen meditation teaches that in the centre of every whirling wheel, there is an absolutely still point. Prayerful meditation in each of the traditions of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and Christianity all teach us how to enter this still point in midst of our whirling life.
Each of us best accesses our spiritual centre through particular means that align with our distinct personalities. It could be a meditative walk in nature, centering prayer, reflecting on scripture, quiet music, a silent retreat at St. Benedict’s, quilting—the list is endless. Where do you find your anxious worries diminish? Where do you find your heart stilled enough to listen and receive? Where do you find the Spirit’s call? When you recognize what best grounds you in God’s love, indulge yourself in this at some point during Lent. As Julian of Norwich writes, “To rest in God is a true prayer.”
Using this focal point of our spiritual centre as a lens, I invite us to consider a new way of reading the familiar words of John’s third chapter.
Nicodemus was a Jewish leader in Jerusalem. He was a Pharisee and a member of the governing body of the temple. He was also very interested in what Jesus was teaching. John 3 tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night to find out more about his teachings. Traditionally, we have understood “coming by night” to mean that Nicodemus came to Jesus secretly, under the cloak of darkness so as not to be recognized. But rabbis taught that “the Torah was best studied at night when it was quiet and the distractions of the day had subsided.” Night reflections on scripture led them to the still point of their spiritual centre. Perhaps Nicodemus was coming at night, not to hide, but to give Jesus his best hour of attention.
Nicodemus listened intently to Jesus. At first, he took Jesus’ words literally: “You must be born again.” “But how can anyone enter a second time into the mother’s womb?” he asked incredulously. Jesus responded that one must be born of the Spirit, who blows where it chooses. “But how?” Nicodemus asked again, still trying to get his mind around how one could be born again. But the Greek word for “born again” can also be translated as “born anew” or “born from above”. Jesus was talking about how those who are attentive to the movement of Spirit are born anew over and over. It is not a one-time, formulaic invitation of Jesus into one’s heart that makes us born again and gives us the entrance ticket into heaven. Rather, it is an ongoing centering of oneself in God’s love that opens us to the guidance of the Spirit’s whims and allows us to be renewed over and over.
But Jesus’ response to Nicodemus didn’t stop with the how. He continued to explain why this was so important. Let’s listen to John 3:16-17 again and focus on John’s reference to the world: “For God so loved the world that God’s only Son was given, so that everyone who believes in the Son may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John refers to the world four times in these two verses, but most people ignore the world and understand John 3:16 to refer only to individual salvation. When they do this, they are not reading the text very closely.
Jesus was telling Nicodemus that when people believe in him and are attentive to where the Spirit is blowing, they are born anew over and over. Why? So that the Spirit could blow through them and bring salvation to the rest of the world—not just to believers, not just to the church, not just to followers of Jesus, but to the whole world with all of its diversity. God sent Jesus not to condemn the world, but to save it—all of it. What does salvation mean? The Greek word means healing, deliverance, and safety. It means to usher in the kingdom of God—God’s reign of peace and justice—to this world in which we live.
Eternal life doesn’t begin in another world some call heaven. The kingdom of God—or kindom of God as some describe it—refers to the here and now and extends into the afterlife. The Spirit is blowing around and through us right now, right here. As much as we are able to sense the Spirit, we will be able to allow the Spirit to move through us and bring healing to the whole world.
Jesus chides Nicodemus for being stuck on the questions of how, but Nicodemus did hear Jesus and fully understood why Jesus was teaching him to be born anew. How do we know this? A few chapters later in the Gospel of John, the temple authorities challenged the temple police for not arresting Jesus. Nicodemus, one of the temple authorities, gathers courage and speaks up in defense of Jesus, saying “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing.” At the end of gospel, Nicodemus is one of only two who have the courage to identify as followers of Jesus and prepare his crucified body for burial.
It may be the children who best know how to sense the Spirit blowing in our midst. Rev. Stan McKay has said that children see and hear what adults cannot. But the children lose this gift when adults teach them that their dreams and visions are only make believe. That, to Stan, is one of the greatest tragedies of the residential schools. They taught the children not to trust their dreams and visions. Their spirits were broken. Yet Jesus told us that, to enter the kingdom of God, we all need to become as little children, naïve and trusting of the Spirit that blows where it will.
When we’re able to enter the still point of our spiritual centre, we will begin to sense the Spirit again. And we will recognize the Spirit in others. Jim Bell, of Siloam Mission, tells a story about his recognition of the Spirit in a homeless person. One windy, rainy, fall night, he walked through the early hours with the Bear Clan, picking up needles and checking on people living in tents. They returned to Siloam Mission and debriefed over pizza. When they had finished, some of them went back out and offered the leftover pizza to those in living the tents. As they were leaving the last tent, a woman called from inside, “Would you like my umbrella?” Jim was stunned. She offered the little she had to those who had shown her kindness and in so doing, the Spirit blew through her and touched the lives of those around her.
May each of us discern how best we can attend to the Spirit, so that the Spirit can blow a breath of healing through us to our own little worlds.
 Patricia Farris, “Late-Night Seminar: John 3:1-17” The Christian Century https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2002-01/late-night-seminar?code=sW7QvssUgr6VhZEGDRen&utm_campaign=8dc565e48c-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_09_11_08_32_COPY_08&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_term=0_b00cd618da-8dc565e48c-86206583
 Jim Bell, “Angels live in Winnipeg’s neediest corners,” The Winnipeg Free Press, October 17, 2019.