A sermon preached on February 17, 2008, based upon Genesis 12:1 – 4a and John 3:1 – 17, entitled, “The Two Journeys.“
Reading the two scripture lessons, I was struck by the fact that neither Abraham or Nicodemus were spring chickens. When these stories took place, they’d both been around a few years. Abraham is 75. Genesis describes folks in those days living a lot longer than they do these days; as such, it would be safe to call Abraham “middle aged.”
Nicodemus was up there in years as well, because we know that he has established his place as a leader in his community, and we can assume it took some time to establish such stature. He also speaks this poignant line to Jesus:
“How can anyone be born after they are old?”
Nicodemus expresses a kind of despair, and a longing, as if to say,
“I am old. My life is passing me by. I don’t have the same vitality I once had. When I was younger, I’d jump out of bed in the morning full of vim and vigor, ready to make my mark on the world; these days I just don’t have the same enthusiasm. When I was younger, I longed to attain the place in which I now stand now, with the respect and admiration of my community. Now I mostly have what I once coveted, and I find it isn’t everything it was cracked up to be. I need to be reborn, sure, but that’s impossible. Isn’t it? I’m over the hill.”
Both Abraham and Nicodemus find themselves at this relatively late stage of life on the threshold of an entirely new kind of journey — one where the old maps don’t work. Abraham is called by God to leave behind all that is familiar: his home, his community, his family — and journey to an altogether new place.
Nicodemus comes to see Jesus because there is something about Jesus that is calling to him, but he senses that this something will require his giving up all his old understandings as well as his established place in his community, which terrifies him, so he comes by cover of night, unwilling at this point to publicly associate himself with this man.
You could say there are these two journeys we have to make in life. The first is there from the beginning, but is embarked upon seriously when we cross into adolescence. It involves creating a sense of identity and place in this world. It invariably involves some degree of competition, because we establish our sense of identity and place over against the identities and places being established by the others around us.
This journey is necessary, indeed unavoidable. As we grow up, we need to be able to come up with some kind of worldly answers to the questions, “Who am I? Where is my place in this world? What are my unique sources of drawing pride in myself?”
We worry about kids who don’t seem to be making any headway on this journey, who don’t have any endeavors for which they get charged up about — who don’t have anything they feel like they are good at — better than others.
In this journey, our egos are smack in the middle. We are on this journey trying to accumulate ego strength. Money, appearance, positions, attention and praise all tend to be major concerns in this journey as indicators of having succeeded in making our place in the world.
This first journey, although necessary, eventually reveals itself to be ultimately unsatisfying. In spite of attaining some measure of success, an emptiness remains, and the first response to this emptiness is to assume that our problem is simply that we’re not succeeding enough, and to reach all the more desperately for new signs of success.
And so an aging professional baseball player can begin secretly shooting his body
up with steroids, even as he is telling kids, “Don’t use steroids,” because he realizes that without the competitive edge the steroids that give him, he will soon be washed up, a “has been.”
The awareness of emptiness is, in fact, the sign that it is time to embark upon the second journey of life in earnestness — to attend to what Jesus was referring to when he said,
“What does it profit a person if you gain the whole world, but forfeit your soul?”
It involves the realization that our egos are not the same thing as our souls; that our little egos are simply inadequate to hold the center around which our life revolves.
Before I try and talk about the nature of this second journey, it is important to note that the timing of these journeys vary from culture to culture. In our culture, everything tends to get delayed. When, for instance does a person feel like they truly have reached adulthood? It is not uncommon for people these days to still feel as though adulthood has not yet fully arrived for them even as they pass the age of 30.
In other cultures there are certain rites of passage that clearly mark the arrival of adulthood, and these often take place in the early teens. The teenage girl is given in wedlock and quickly finds herself a mother. The boy is given a job with important responsibilities, with perhaps a wife and child to care for. They both know that now they are adults.
Likewise, when does the onset of “middle age” occur? It is interesting to note that Jesus did not begin his ministry until he was in his early 30s. In our culture, this is an age when a person can still be clinging to childhood, but in Jesus’ day, a man of such an age would have already been an adult for over fifteen years and would have been considered to be well into middle age. With the shorter life span, a 32 year old in those days could safely assume that he had already lived the majority of his allotted years on earth.
The great psychiatrist Carl Jung treated patients throughout his career who came to him seeking help with some sort of emotional distress. He alluded to this second journey of life when he said that in his experience, all of his patients in what he called “the second half of life,” which he defined as past the age of 35, were all ultimately in search of a vision of life of the sort offered by the great religions of the world.
These days, the terms “middle aged” and “elderly” keep getting put off to mean something that comes upon a person at a later and later age. Most 35 year olds are reluctant to label themselves “middle aged”, and most 70 year olds resist the term “elderly.”
The significance of this for our present discussion is that it makes a difference as to what stage a person understands themselves to be in life in regard to their readiness to enter into the second journey, which, I would suggest is the one with which the “the Christian life” is primarily concerned.
When Jesus said,
“If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life ill lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,”
he was talking about something that is near impossible to do if you haven’t made some measure of progress on that first journey; some degree of success in defining yourself, and coming to a sense of who you are and where your place in this world.
You can’t give up something that you don’t yet have.
You can’t sacrifice yourself if you haven’t yet come into possession of a self.
I think this is important to keep in mind when we think about what we are trying to achieve when we provide our children with “Christian Education.”
Children aren’t yet ready to be born from above, because they are still in the process of being born of the flesh. At this stage, we hope to plant seeds that will be more fully harvested later on in their lives, but to push them hard in regard to making a Christian commitment would be a mistake.
I understand that the Amish have a ritual that appreciates this fact. In their later teen years, the Amish youth are encouraged to leave the community and go and live for a year in the world — to sow their oats, so to speak.
It is as if their community says to them: “Go taste the pleasures that the flesh have to offer; get your ego gratification, and see what it brings. Then you can choose, for, or against, living in our community.”
Typically, the Amish young people experience that emptiness of which I spoke,
and after a year away freely choose to return to the community, giving themselves over to the pursuit of the higher, spiritual values upon which their community is founded.
Like the prodigal son, they are now in a position to truly appreciate life in the father’s house. The elder brother in that same parable is an example of someone who early on in life tries to skip over the first journey in order to prematurely enter into the second journey, and in doing so the second journey becomes something of a charade.
The truth of the matter, though, is that in reality the two journeys tend to overlap one another. We can, indeed, hear the higher calling when we are but a youth, but our response at this point will necessarily be limited. There are children who we sometimes refer to as “old souls” because they seem to intuitively sense at an early age the call of the second journey; they sense truths that don’t usually become evident to people until much later in their lives. Perhaps they have dealt at an early age with the reality of death, leading them to seek the eternal rather than the merely temporal. But although these children should be affirmed in their spiritual insight, they should still be encouraged to be a kid.
And as we age, we are not immune to the pull of that first journey — to engage in competition for our place in this world — and we are better off acknowledging it than pretending we have left it all behind.
There is, of course, a lot of ambiguity here, and the potential for a great deal of deception and pretense. Religions arise from a sincere desire to pursue this second journey, but religions cannot avoid becoming institutionalized, which means having to deal with money and statistics and the hierarchies of power and status that are so much a part of the first journey. And in doing so, it’s easy to lose touch with the second journey. This is where Nicodemus, a leader in the synagogue, finds himself.
Now you may have noticed that in this strange sermon I have neglected to talking specifically about what is involved in what I have referred to as “the second journey”. The reason for this is that it is hard to do so, as the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus clearly indicates. Nicodemus becomes frustrated precisely because he just doesn’t get what Jesus is talking about when he speaks of “being born from above,” and who can blame him? How do we, as Jesus says, speak of “heavenly things?” How do we make sense of the Spirit, which, like the wind, is invisible and utterly out of our control?
Success in the first journey, “the earthly things”, seems easy enough to measure. But how do you measure success on this second journey?
You can’t — not really, because the second journey is about love, which, as the apostle Paul says, is the only thing that never ends, and the only thing, in the end that truly matters. And love can’t be measured — not really. How to you measure an act of kindness offered from one person to another? Only God knows for sure what it means.
But here is one thing that is for sure. Unless we enter into this journey of being “born from above” — of replacing our ego-centered life with a life that is centered upon the Spirit — we are certain to become more and more bitter and despairing as we age.
Scott Peck, the psychiatrist and Christian writer, tells a story of working with four remarkably similar women in their late sixties and early seventies who came to him with the same chief complaint: depression at growing old. Each had a lot of money, had beautiful children. It was as if their lives had gone according to a script.
But now, in various ways, their bodies had begun to deteriorate, and they were angry and depressed. This certainly wasn’t how they would have written the script.
Peck saw no way to help them apart from offering them a vision of old age as something more than a meaningless time of watching themselves simply rot away. In various ways he said to them, “Look, you’re not the scriptwriter; this just isn’t your show.”
Three of the four women weren’t interested in changing the way they saw their life. They were accustomed to being in control, and they weren’t interested in letting go of the illusion of control.
The fourth woman was losing her eyesight — she was 90% blind, and it depressed her terribly. Fortunately, however, she was in the habit of listening for God’s voice in her life. “I just hate it when they have to take hold of my arm to help me out of the pew or walk me down the steps at church,” she ranted, and, “I hate being stuck at home. Lots of people volunteer to take me places, but I can’t ask my friends to drive me around all the time.”
“It’s clear to me,” Peck told her, “that you’ve taken a lot of pride in your independence. You’ve been a very successful person, and I think you needed that pride for your many accomplishments. But you know, ife is a journey from here to heaven, and it’s a good rule of journeying to travel light. I’m not sure how successful you’re going to be in getting to heaven carrying around all this pride. You see your blindness as a curse, and I don’t blame you. Conceivably, however, you might look at it as a blessing designed to relieve you of the no longer necessary burden of your pride. Except for your eyes, you’re in pretty good health. Likely you’ve got at least a dozen more years to live. It’s up to you whether you’d rather live those years with a curse or a blessing.”
When she returned for her third session, her depression of four years’ duration had lifted.