In a wonderful series of commentaries on Scripture, John Shea presents a powerful story on what it means to be born again, to be born from above, as Jesus says. A man he knows, tells how he was born twice of the same woman.
This man's story:
One day he was driving his aged mother to a funeral. She had been already at many funerals, having had to bury her own husband, a brother, and most of her friends. She also found herself without much money, in failing health, and on the edges of a serious depression—not exactly one of the “Golden Girls” on the top of her game, spinning off laughs by the minute. As they drove along, she talked about her own funeral and was giving instructions on how she wanted it done. Then, quite unexpectedly, she said: “I'm giving up on fear. Everybody dies. Nothing is left.”
Her son protested, telling her that giving up on fear isn't easy to do, even as he realized at that very instant how much his whole life was bound up precisely by fear—fear of sickness, fear of death, and fear of losing his job, his good name, his good looks, his status, his friends. He gazed at his mother and saw that she was beaming. He knew she meant exactly what she had just said.
They never had that conversation again, but from that moment on he noticed his mother began to change. She was no longer afraid to speak her mind on anything, and she spoke it calmly, wisely, without pomp, with great patience, and with an ever-growing compassion. She became stronger and more gentle, both at the same time.
People were attracted to her and drew strength from her. Her son was one of those people, and he began to visit her more frequently, now not out of obligation but because he needed the nourishment she was giving him. It was like a new umbilical cord had been forged between them. Slowly, just as she had once given birth to his body, she now gave birth to his spirit. He felt himself begin to change, to have less fear. This second gestation took more than nine months, but a new life was slowly born in him. He was able to “give up on fear” and move into life with a freedom that, as Jesus says, comes only from above. (John Shea, Gospel-Light, “Crossroads,” 1998, pp. 94-95)
To be born again, to be reborn from above, is not something that we can do, at least not fully, in one instant or in one dramatic, religious gesture, no matter how deep our sincerity. There is more involved than falling at the feet of some evangelist or of answering an altar call, albeit these can be an important beginning.
To be born again, from above, involves a gestation process, namely, being hooked up to a new umbilical cord, one that begins to nurture us in such a way that our old support systems (the meaning and security we draw from our achievements, successes, material possessions, recognition, good name, good health, good looks, and sexual attractiveness) are no longer what ultimately gives us life. We still want these things, but we no longer build our lives around the fear of losing them. They still provide some life and nourishment, but we now begin, bit by bit, to draw life from something beyond them. We sense ourselves as hooked to something deeper, a spirit and a person who offers us the meaning that dwarfs what we now have.
The more we begin to draw life and nourishment from this new source, the more we begin to give up on fear because what we are now receiving is not experienced as precarious, as is the case with our present meaning and joy. We are being pushed through a new birth canal and as this happens we begin, little by little, to sense that in this new place we don't need to possess things, defend ourselves, cling so desperately to health, youth, and good looks, or fear that joy and meaning can be taken away from us. Life in the spirit is not a precarious thing that can slip away from us like the things of this world. Like its author, it is immune from threat. We can give up on fear.
This doesn't happen all at once, although there can be some dramatic, break-through moments along the way. Being born again is about seeds growing silently when nobody is watching, about unseen yeast leavening a batch of dough, and about an umbilical cord inside a dark womb supplying nutrients for an unknowing child to grow and be born. Gestation takes time. Growth works slowly. Life, whether in the body or in the spirit, has the same dynamics.
The comedian, George Carlin, once quipped that when he was born, he was so stunned that he couldn't speak for two years! That, I suspect, is also the case when we are born again.