In the Dead of Night

Witness-ArtBy Elizabeth Glass Turner-

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” …  Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. …  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”   – John 3:1, 2,5,7,8

Recently I watched an enormous convergence of red-winged blackbirds dip and sway outside my second floor study window, unknowingly choreographing a mid-air dance to the Bach cello suites I was enjoying. Like a school of fish, they moved in unfathomable unity and rhythm, following currents I could not see. What made them land and take off, beat their wings or soar, I could not tell. What ballet dancers take years to perfect – spry grace, effortless motion, pivots, wheels and stops – these birds know by nature, from their first tumble out of the nest. I can become a skilled birdwatcher and still be unable to anticipate which way a flock of thousands will turn at the last second.

I cannot fathom. I can only witness.

I can make a lifetime’s study of birds and their habits and still not know which branch they will choose when it is time to build a nest. I can give my mind to ornithology and still not predict where in a shorn field a cloud of blackbirds will choose to land. I cannot fathom. I can only witness.

It fascinates me when Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit. It is, as it were, an insider’s view. “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Jesus speaks to the learned religious leader Nicodemus late at night, out of sight of prying, judgmental eyes. He gives Nicodemus a sneak peek of Pentecost, and Nicodemus simply doesn’t understand. His world is temple-centered, sacrifice-marked, roped-off Holy of Holies encased in thick, impenetrable curtain. Nicodemus is surprised quite naturally. It would be odd if Nicodemus weren’t astonished at Jesus’ words. But we see Jesus keep a wry upper hand by gentle instruction. “Do not be astonished.” And then – “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus, you won’t be able to fathom. But you will be able to witness. And when you’re born of the Spirit, that’s the natural state of things. Are you ready for a new normal? It’s like you’re going to be born all over again.

Jesus could speak with authority about the coming normal. The Holy Spirit always – always – witnesses back to Christ. The person of the Holy Spirit isn’t an untethered Holy Ghost, freelancing the Godhead in a hit-and-miss fashion, nor is the Holy Spirit confined to showing up when a priest prays over the elements of the Eucharist. The Holy Spirit is always shaping and molding into the image of Christ: the Holy Spirit helps us love as Christ loves, act as Christ acted, as individuals and corporately, in your soul and mine, in our nation’s soul and the world. Pastors pray the Holy Spirit will come upon “us here, and make this be for us the Body and Blood of Christ”: however we understand it, we believe the Holy Spirit even makes bread more like Jesus.

You and I can understand this truly but not fully or completely. Right now we see dimly, after all; then, face to face. We may grasp Truth without fathoming it.

You cannot fathom. You can only witness.

I know people who have, by the grace of God, been the means of healing another person in decisive and supernatural ways. I know people who have, by the grace of God, received physical healing through the means of another person, in decisive and supernatural ways. I cannot hope to fathom it.

But I can bear witness.

I can’t explain how the prison doors shook open in the book of Acts. I can’t explain how a devastated Methodist believer from an AME church stands and weeps and says, “I forgive you” to a stony young man who shot and killed members of a Bible study. I can’t explain how an embarrassed but ill Catholic priest sneaks to a charismatic healing service (sans collar) and comes away well.

I cannot fathom. I can only witness.

I can’t fathom how God sometimes orchestrates circumstances in my life with astonishing, miraculous swiftness, in ways that couldn’t have happened otherwise.  And I don’t know why a banner of blackbirds drifting through the air rises and lowers, sinks and elevates. They shift and merge, depart and gather. I witness their movement, even if I don’t comprehend it. I can speak of it truly, even if I can’t master its science – or improvisation.

“Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

We are called to watch out for the Spirit, as ardently as an amateur birdwatcher with binoculars slung around her neck, guide book in hand. We’re called to be ready to see the Spirit in action. We’re called to make a space for the Spirit, to pray, as 24/7 Prayer Movement founder Pete Grieg urges, “come on!” We’re called to stand on the windy porch, eyes on the sky, scanning the horizon.

But am I as agile as a red-winged blackbird? Am I as quick to respond to the current of the Holy Spirit? Can I dip and dive, rise and soar moment by moment, season by season, so that I fly with such quickness, such ready adaptability that my motions mimic the thousands of others’ around me? What may feel clumsy or wooden at first may yet become intuitive and natural. And while I may not be conscious of the ways my motions or seasons appear to others, when put next to the rest of the flocks’, a grand avian ballet may emerge.

And isn’t that the Body of Christ? This nimble flock of little birds, following the Spirit’s movements, no winged creature able to say to the other, “I don’t need you”? “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (I Corinthians 12:4-7). You cannot fathom. You can only witness, in your speech and soaring.

As this publication reaches its sage milestone of 50 years, we have the joy of celebrating many seasons of faithful witness to the work of the Holy Spirit consistently pointing to the person of Christ. We don’t just celebrate the founder, one person, or even an institution, but rather, we get to celebrate God’s faithfulness.

At the same time, we are compelled not only to celebrate how we started as nimble and responsive, but also how we may live into the future with elastic, intuitive readiness to the movements of the Holy Spirit.

This is essential. It is a full stop. We cannot rely on outwitting our opponents. We cannot rely on outfundraising those with whom we disagree.  We cannot rely on outlasting our rivals. Wit and resources and tenacity are important, but they are not the most important. They are not indispensable to any movement. It is dangerously tempting to rely on what we know – on facts, figures, data, on our own history, heritage, contributions. That was the move that experienced, educated Nicodemus made.

Nicodemus, you won’t be able to fathom. But you will be able to witness. And when you’re born of the Spirit, that’s the natural state of things. Are you ready for a new normal? It’s like you’re going to be born all over again. You’ll have to relearn how to walk and talk, how to eat and sleep. Are you ready for that? To be as trusting and dependent as a newborn?

Well – are you?

Sometimes artists stumble into Truths bigger than they’re able to comprehend. It strikes me that the lyrics from Paul McCartney could easily mimic Jesus’ thoughts as he watched Nicodemus walk towards him in the dark, one late night:

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night/ Take these broken wings and learn to fly/ All your life/ You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night/ Take these sunken eyes and learn to see/ All your life/ You were only waiting for this moment to be free.”

Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Are you ready, Nicodemus?

Well?

Are you ready?

Elizabeth Glass Turner is a writer and Associate Director for Community and Creative Development for World Methodist Evangelism. She is managing editor of www.wesleyanaccent.com and a frequent and beloved contributor to Good News.

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