I was 16 years old, almost 17. My airplane had just taken off and that’s when it hit me. I had no return flight planned. This was it, the moment I had been looking forward to for years. It was actually here. I was flying off to college.
From the time I first heard about college, there was never a moment when I didn’t know this was what I wanted to do. My bedroom closet was filled with boxes of college catalogs and viewbooks. (I can’t remember if I sorted them alphabetically.) This was (just) before the dawn of the World Wide Web, which meant I had to call up each admissions office to request information, something I had been doing regularly since I was 12.
Now, at 10,000 feet and rising, the realization kept hitting me, over and over again. I had no frame of reference for such a trip. I kept looking for it, but, nope: it wasn’t there. I was not coming back any time soon, and neither my mom nor my dad were coming with me. It would take my breath away each time. “You mean I’m not dreaming? I won’t be waking up from this?” The feeling was of being uncontained and unbounded. A dream has bookends: bedtime and morning. But this had no boundaries. It was just real. My world had changed.
Our world changes when our old frames of reference no longer work. Imagine what your birth must have been like. You are safely contained in a warm, loving, nurturing environment. You are intimately connected to your mother and every one of your needs is constantly met. Then, one day, the walls of your increasingly cramped home start caving in. Your world is falling apart, and your safe container—the only frame of reference you have had for all of life—is being destroyed. This must be it. This is the end. But then you find that you are not dead. You have awakened in a new world. And there’s no going back, no matter how much you’d like to.
We all have had this experience, and we all will experience a final transition too, a final loss of the world as we know it. I’d like you to pause here and reflect on this fact: regardless of what separates you—culture, nationality, religion, space, or time—you share this heritage and this destiny with all of humanity, and all of humanity shares it with you. You have been thrust into a new world, and you will be thrust yet again. During the in-between time, we are all in the same boat, doing our best to live and make sense of our lives. Understanding this, allow yourself to be filled with compassion for yourself and your fellow humans on the other side of the world. This trip ain’t easy!
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
Here Jesus speaks of another transition, another birth, after our first birth but before our final “birth” (into the great beyond). As a result of such birth, our world will change: we will “see the kingdom of God.” We often associate great joy with the idea of being “born again”—and rightly so! But we must also remember the cost of birth: the fear and the loss and the disorientation that precedes such joy. When our old frames of reference are being destroyed, we don’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel. “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3) What ends up being birth feels at the time only like death. All of a sudden, being born again doesn’t sound so fun. It means being launched from the safety of our current womb. It means being thrust into an unknown larger world for which we have no map. It means being deprived of all our current sources of comfort.
So…new birth, anyone? Depending on your life’s Divine plan, you may not have much of a choice. When the contractions come, the results are inevitable. At best, you can delay it, holding fast to the walls of the womb, kicking and screaming with all your might. That’s how I experienced my own recent transformation, the most powerful one of my life so far. After passing through what felt like an eternity of final abandonment (but which really only lasted for about a day), I told people I had entered the second half of my life. A friend reflected back, “Wow, that sounds like being born again.” I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but he was right. About a month later, I reflected on the experience in my journal:
I fell into hopelessness, experiencing a sort of death, moving directly through my fear when my depression reached its worst. My faith died before I had anything to replace it with. I wouldn’t wish such darkness on anyone. But it didn’t last forever. “It is finished.” I really had no idea what was happening to me, but I now see it was a necessary passage—the death that precedes new life. And thus the Christian story takes on new significance and wonder for me. The sun rose again. Only this time, I found myself in a new world. God had brought me home!
Compared to this experience, going off to college was a walk in the park. But there’s an important parallel: in both cases, I got what I most deeply desired. In the ensuing months, God became, as I’ve said before, both more real and more mysterious to me than ever. Most importantly, I experienced the joy of being loved and safely contained—but this time, by the entire Universe. Today I live from what I learned by direct experience—not from theology or even the Bible, but what theology and the Bible do confirm:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
(2 Corinthians 5:17)