Monday, March 9, 2020

The Intentional Conversation

John 3:1-17
Lent 2 / Year A

This year’s Lenten Gospel readings feature some “big” conversations.  We will hear four different encounters from the Gospel of John where Jesus is drawn into a significant exchange.  Next Sunday we will meet the Samaritan woman at the well.  On the 4th Sunday in Lent Jesus will engage a man born blind, who in turn will be confronted by religious authorities after he is given the gift of sight.  On the 5th Sunday Jesus will talk with Mary and Martha at the time of their brother’s death.  Today he meets with Nicodemus.  The circumstances and subjects of each conversation differ greatly and yet each is reveals how and why we might approach the Holy One ourselves.

Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees and secret disciple, seeks out Jesus under the cover of darkness because he believes Jesus is sent from God.  With this, the two enter into a widely cast discussion of a deep and (for Nicodemus at least) somewhat puzzling nature.  What sets this encounter apart from the next three is that Nicodemus deliberately seeks out Jesus because he is looking for answers.  So let’s call this first story “The Intentional Conversation.”

It stands for the many different ways we intentionally pursue the bigger questions of life.  One of these ways you are doing right now – listening to a sermon.  Week in and week out, I hope this activity challenges you to think and opens you to new possibilities.  The women who gather here on Wednesday mornings enter into an intentional conversation intended for mutual growth, support, and understanding.  The same thing happens when the Women’s Study Group gathers on a monthly basis.  Those of us who meet on Sundays at 9:30 to discuss the assigned readings for the day aim to gain a better understanding of their meaning and relevance in our lives.  Every time you open your bible, read a book or article with the goal of growing and maturing, or even watch a TV program or movie exploring life’s biggest questions you engage in an intentional conversation as Nicodemus did.

We human beings are on a constant quest to increase our knowledge base.  We want to know about the universe and the nature of life.  The Hubbell telescope provides us with breathtaking images of the incomprehensible expanse of the heavens.  Even more remarkable, as we come to understand the basic building blocks of all things, we realize the small world of quarks and bosons is even smaller than the universe is vast.  But beyond knowledge, human beings have a profound need to understand why we are here, what our place is in all of this, and what is the purpose to it all.

It is worth noting Nicodemus does not approach Jesus looking to increase his knowledge basis of the bible.  He is not asking about content.  He comes to Jesus intentionally seeking wisdom and understanding.  He wants to know what it all means.  Because this need is not physical, like food, water, and oxygen, it is referred to as a “metaphysical” need, literally a need beyond the physical.  Saul Levine, a retired doctor and professor, holds we have four great metaphysical needs: a sense of being, a sense of belonging, a sense of benevolence, and a sense of meaning.  We need to know who we are, that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, that our life makes a difference, and how all of this fits into a bigger purpose.  These things don’t come to us naturally, like breathing when we are asleep.  They must be sought with intentionality and cherished with passion.

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and neurologist who survived internment in a Nazi death camp, wrote about his experience in a seminal work titled Man’s Search for Meaning.  Common sense might tell you those who survived were physically stronger than those who didn’t, but Frankl learned otherwise.  He writes,

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.

The key to survival was not strength but rather retaining a sense of control over your environment.  Frankl notes Freud held the main drive in life is pleasure and Adler held it is power, but from his experience he states the primary motivation in life is to find a sense of meaning.

Frankl believed meaning can be found in three ways:

·    by interacting authentically with your environment, and with others,

·    by contributing to the world through creativity, and self-expression, and

·    by changing your attitude when faced with a situation or circumstance you cannot change.

“Those who have a why to live,” he said, “can bear with almost any how.”

Think about how Jesus’ life mirrors Frankl’s insight.  Did he interact authentically with the world and with those he met?  Yes.  Did he contribute to it by offering his unique gifts and insights?  Yes.  Did he change his attitude when faced with a situation he could not change?  Join us during Holy Week if you don’t know the answer.

You might say, “Well, having a sense of meaning might be helpful if you are in a prison camp or are the Savior of the world, but my life is fairly comfortable so why should I intentionally set out to seek the metaphysical when all I am focused on is my next smart phone upgrade?” 

Frankl’s response to this is something he called “Sunday neurosis.”  It refers to a feeling people have at the end of the workweek when, during a pause from the daily grind, they have time to realize how empty and meaningless their lives actually are.   To fill this void, Frankl says, we will engage in all sorts of excesses and compensations: neurotic anxiety, avoidance, binge eating, drinking, overworking, and overspending.  It may be a soothing balm in the short term, but does not offer the kind of peace found only in a sense of meaning and purpose.  As a result, we experience a gap between what ought to be or hope to be and who we actually are.  Eventually it becomes unbearable.  The resulting depression tells us something is wrong and changes need to be made.

This, I think, is what brings Nicodemus to Jesus and he senses it immediately.  He compares this search to being ‘born from above’, or, as some translations have it, being ‘born again’.  Unlike the altar calls in churches or the pleas to give your life to Jesus while on a youth retreat, Jesus seems to suggest this transformational experience is beyond our control.  It is like the wind, he says.  It blows from here to there and you know not why, only that it is blowing.  You can choose to go with it or hold firm to where you are. 

The truth is the wind of the Spirit blows more often than we realize.  The opportunity for discovery and renewal and growth is ever before us.  We can allow it to carry us off into a life filled with meaning and purpose or we can remain content to live merely on a physical and material level.  If we learn one thing from Nicodemus it is this: the wind of the Spirit may blow as it will, but a life of intentionality is the sail we hoist to harness it.  You may not know when the wind will blow – when insight and revelation will break into your life – but the chances of catching it are much better if you are looking for it… intentionally.  Are you seeking meaning and purpose in your life?  If so, what are you intentionally doing to find it?   If your answer is “not much,” you might want to make some changes in your life.