I love fiction. I love getting totally swept up into the story, captivated by the characters. But at the beginning of the pandemic, I found it almost impossible to read fiction. Even new novels by some of my favorite authors just didn't grab me. And then I read The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia. Suddenly I was able to get lost in the story again. It's a historical novel that is both simple and playful while at the same time kind of mystical.
Set in Mexico, the novel traces the life of one family as they flee the horrors of disease and death that plague their town during the 1918 pandemic. Before anyone realizes what is happening, death swoops in and begins to rob family after family of their mothers and their fathers and their children. The townspeople are so frightened of this new flu that they stop having funerals, for fear that more will catch the deadly disease when they go to the church or attend the graveside service. They simply then carry their deceased family members out in front of their home, place them by the edge of the street, and wait for the undertaker to stop by with the wooden cart and carry the beloved family member off to the cemetery for a burial all alone. One day the undertaker finds that the teenage boy he is just about to bury is actually moving.
When the priest discovers that the boy who was dead is now alive, he's shocked. He sends a telegram to the archbishop. "Miracle happened. Come urgently." The priest and the doctor go to check on the boy. The boy begins to explain that when the undertaker came by, he was just too sick to move. And when he awakened in the cemetery, he was just too weak to walk home. But actually, he never died. The priest is devastated. Quickly, he sends another telegram to the Archbishop: "Never died. Never resurrected. Just recovered by himself. Forgive me." The embarrassed priest feels like this must be the worst day of his life. But the Doctor steps in and tries to reassure the priest telling him, "It's actually the best possible miracle." For the first time, they realize that you can suffer with this new influenza and survive! You can live!
Today's scripture from John describes Life. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life." But sometimes you and I read this just like that priest read the miracle in the novel. We think that the only thing that matters is what happens after we die. But in so doing, we might miss the real miracle, how the fullness of life can be available to all of us right now, before we die!
One of the reasons we miss the miracle is because we zoom in on this one verse so closely. But if we pull back the focus from verse 16, and we get the wide-angle view of this famous verse, a fuller picture emerges. Jesus and a man named Nicodemus are having a conversation. Nicodemus comes "by night" to ask Jesus, "the light of the world," a question. He wants to know how to be born again, how to be born from above, how to experience a spiritual rebirth. And Jesus tells him, "God so loved the world... God already gave you the fullness of God's love. God did not send me to condemn you but to offer you this gift of life!"
The word life or eternal life repeats some 30 times in John's gospel. Sometimes it refers to life after death - an extension of life. But often it refers to the life that we have access to on this side of the grave. The gospel of John sees what the doctor in that novel sees when the boy had the flu and then he lived. A whole new realm of living is possible. Nicodemus is trying to figure out the one, two, three steps to the spiritual life. But Jesus tells him, God has already issued the invitation.
I remember years ago when I went with a group from our church on a trip to Guatemala. We were building a Habitat for Humanity Home in a village with no running water or electricity. Our group was having a profound experience - all of us stunned by the poverty, by the pigs running through the houses, by the women getting up before the sun to wash dishes and working well into the night to make dinner again for the family.
One day, though, we took a break and went to the beach. I was walking with one of the young women on the trip and she was saying how she intended to live differently once we got back to our home. She wanted to give herself more fully to her faith. She wanted to serve others, and so I mentioned to her that we had something like that for young adults at the church, and it was during the week. And she said, "Oh! Oh, that sounds good. I really want to participate." And then she said, "Wait, I don't know about during the week. I don’t think I can do church two times a week." And we all laughed. Sometimes we say we believe, but do we want to trust our whole lives into God's keeping? Maybe not.
If you have ever read the spiritual memoir of Anne Lamott, you know how she resisted saying yes to God. She didn't grow up with parents who practiced Christianity or any religion, and she became an addict. Slowly she began to emerge from her addiction. And she began exploring the faith. But when she describes her confession of faith, she says that finally she just said to God one day something like "Oh, what the heck, God, come on in."
Although I grew up in a household that worshipped every Sunday in a local church, I find that I still have to decide on a daily basis if I will give my life over to Christ or not. I have to get up most mornings and decide again whether I will sit down and pray, light a candle and meditate. Some days, the answer is no. Some days I refuse to listen again for God's spirit in the depths of my soul and the world around me. Some days, God and I socially distance.
God invites, but God leaves it up to us as to whether we choose to receive the love that God offers. The gospel of John describes it like this. "The light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil." (v. 19) But I really like the way Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message: "God-light streamed into the world but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness."
At first this verse made me squirm. Why would anyone run for the darkness? Can we really reject the light God offers? But then I stopped to remember how often we choose to nurture our resentments at one another rather than to seek reconciliation with a friend or family member. Some days it seems easier for me to buy myself something new rather than invest my resources in empowering the poor. Some of us cling to our addictions rather than to seek professional help from a psychologist or step foot into AA.
I remember last summer when our city was responding with nightly protests to the racial violence throughout our country. Some local churches in our city organized a night of prayer on a street called Troost, which is the historic black/white dividing line in our city. I was uneasy about going. I'm not really the protest type. I'm not even the pray-out-loud-in-the-streets type. I didn't quite know who was behind this prayer vigil, and so I was reluctant. But I went, along with eight other friends and family members, some of us black, some of us white. And when I got there, a man next to us in the prayer line - a man I had never met - reached out in friendship, introduced me to his young son, his wife, and he offered to pray with me. It was an unsolicited gift of grace from a kind and gentle Black man I had never met. And I was elated that I had surrendered to the invitation. As I left to drive home, we drove clear down Troost. All along the street where thousands of Black and White and Brown and old and young all lined the streets in prayer. The sun was setting, but it seemed like God's light was dawning in our city.
John's gospel says we are invited to "come to the light." John invites us to receive the love God offers, to place our trust in God's abundant love, to give ourselves over into God's keeping, completely and fully. Come to the light. It's more of a surrender I guess than a simple choice. It's a movement of trust towards the one who loved the world by giving us Jesus in the flesh. As biblical scholar, Sandra Schneiders says, "Jesus is an invitation to accept the unreserved divine love, to respond in love, and thus to create a shared life with God. God, says Jesus, desires intimate friendship with us."
The choice we have to make is: Will we receive that friendship? Will we trust in that God? Will we give our lives over into that holy relationship? After Jesus and Nicodemus visit, Nicodemus fades from the story. And we don't know quite what happens to him. He reappears briefly a few chapters later, as the authorities question Jesus. Nicodemus rides the fence. He is not quite with Jesus but not quite against him either. And then he surfaces again near the final end of the gospel. He shows up to anoint Jesus' body for burial. I wonder if that means he did choose to accept God's invitation. We cannot keep God from loving us. We cannot even prevent God from saving us, but we can decide if we will receive and trust in that love each day.
Here is a story of how one man faced a choice. Dr. Jay Wellons is a pediatric neurosurgeon. He shared this story in the New York Times about a year ago. He was a doctor, a young doctor in his first year of practice in Alabama, when he got a page about a 9-year-old girl who had been in a car accident some 100 miles away. She had a brain injury and needed immediate surgery. The ER doc in the neighboring town didn't have the ability to tackle such a complex surgery. Dr. Wellons was annoyed. "Why don't you already have her in the air?" The ER doctor explained that the weather was too bad, the helicopters couldn't fly. It would take too long to transport her by ambulance on the ground. She would not survive if they moved her that way. Dr. Wellons took a deep breath. It was time to make a choice. And then he said, "Are those Blackhawk helicopters still stationed at the base near you? You know, those guys will fly in anything." Suddenly things were set in motion. Dr. Wellons prepared the operating room. The ER doctor called in the Blackhawks. And 30 minutes later, the 9-year-old girl arrived. The doctor performed the surgery. It was pretty straightforward, and the girl lived with only minor complications.
Over the years he followed her case. He watched as she won a beauty and talent competition. She graduated high school. She went off to graduate school later. He always enjoyed receiving Christmas cards from her or letters from her parents about her progress. And then one day, he received a hand-written invitation to her wedding. And his mind flashed back to that 9-year-old girl on the operating table. He realized how often she had inspired him to make the right choice as a doctor. He said, "All of us need a living, breathing reminder to just keep pushing on."
For Christians our living, breathing reminder is Jesus. In him we see that God so loves us. Will we receive that love? Will we come to the light?