“The mind that is not baffled is not employed.” I found this quote from Wendell Berry while searching the web for one of his poems. I printed it out and stuck it to my desk because I have been feeling baffled. Perplexed. Puzzled. And I do not like it. For whatever reason, I always feel like I should be able to figure things out; to find a way through; to come up with a plan that will lead to a solution. And when I can’t do that, I run judgment tapes in my head: “A smarter person, a more-in-tune with the Spirit person, a more disciplined person would not be baffled!”
The fact is, I know better. I know that the more fully engaged we are with other others and the more engaged we are with the world around us, the more puzzlement we will experience. If you don’t want to be baffled, you have to make your world really small. You have to make your life, your mind, your heart really little. It is not possible to participate in the life of the Old Dutch Church and keep your life really little. Which means there will be bafflement. Which is why Wendell’s words came as gift: “The mind that is not baffled is not employed.”
His words are timely for me, and timely for engaging the story of Nicodemus. He is baffled by Jesus, but rather than make his heart smaller, rather than try to get a tighter grip on what he already knows as a teacher of the Jewish law, rather than put his life in lock down, Nicodemus gets goes straight to the one who baffles him. He comes at night because he doesn’t want his colleagues on the Jewish law faculty to catch him hanging with Jesus. They already experience Jesus as a threat and intend to shut him down. Nicodemus doesn’t want to be judged and rejected by them, so he comes in secret.
Jesus’ miracles have convinced him that this Jewish man has come from God and lives from the life of God. Nicodemus sees something real, authentic, something of God in Jesus. What baffles him are questions about who Jesus is. Where has he come from? Who authorized him to teach and do miracles? Nicodemus and his colleagues did not get the memo informing them that this new guy would be doing ministry in and around their territory. He is a free agent. They can’t control him. And people are drawn to him. Jesus is charismatic. He is in the Spirit. He is not pinched, or dull, or putting on airs, or reciting the law or on the look out for people who break it. Jesus is fresh and full of newness, full of God, full of love, full of Spirit freedom.
Nicodemus deals with the law. Pretty much black and white. If there are grey areas, he clears them up. So the words coming out of Jesus’ mouth are more than baffling. “You must be born from above. You must be born from the Spirit.” The only way that Nicodemus can make sense of what Jesus says is to try to fit it into his existing mental map. He knows where babies come from. And he knows that grown men cannot get back into their mother’s wombs to make a second trip down the birth canal. Jesus might as well be speaking Swahili.
How can a person be born from the Spirit? There is something in it that we do not control, any more than we were in control of our own biological conception and birth. Birth happens to us. We undergo it. We receive our lives and arrive in this world in total dependence on others. I understand Nicodemus’ bafflement. He is a man accustomed to being in control. He sustains his relationship with God by trying to keep every jot and tittle of the law. He teaches it and does his best to make sure that others keep it so they can live in peace with God. There is a list to follow and a clear way to live. Something in us likes this kind of orderliness, clarity, and certainty. It is restful in a way. We don’t have to figure it out.
But there is also something about it that we don’t like, even as children, but especially as we grow and mature. We want to think for ourselves and draw on our own experience and wisdom. We want to live from our hearts and discern a good way to live. But in both cases, whether it is a matter of keeping the law, or working to find our own way, what we want is to have some control over our own lives. Some sense that we have power, that we are doing what we can to direct our lives. So I get Nicodemus’ bafflement—neither he nor we can control our being born from the Spirit because the Spirit is free. She blows where she wills. She is like the wind—you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. And says Jesus: “so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
On Thursday I sat on one of the benches in front of the Church to watch the leaves blowing around in the wind. They moved in a skittering line, then in swirling circles. They were carried high up in the air and gently landed yards away. When I watch leaves blow in the wind, I always imagine they are happy and enjoy the freedom of this wind dance. They love the tumbling. They love the surprise of traveling from the Church yard up the sidewalks of Uptown. Of getting blown up against someone’s leg and feeling what it feels like to walk. And as I sat there watching, it dawned on me that leaves can dance with the wind because they are no longer attached to anything. They aren’t holding on to branches for dear life. They have let go and let the wind take them where it will.
The Spirit is like the wind and “so it is with every person who is born of the Spirit.” They simply let go of certain attachments and let the Spirit take them where she will. Obviously, we are not like leaves. Leaves do not think things over and decide to let go. It happens naturally. But for us, there is volition, there is willing, there is choosing to let go of attachments that keep us bound. We don’t control the Spirit; we don’t cause ourselves to be born from the Spirit. But the Spirit is always right here, God’s gift, as close as our breath, the source of our life. She is prompting us to let go of attachments that prevent our experiencing new life, new birth, in the Spirit.
Six years ago, this Church decided to let go of certain attachments—big barriers that kept certain neighbors out—and to extend God’s radical love and welcome. Since then we have been swirling in the fresh winds of the Spirit. Blown into new realities that are both pure gift and the source of some bafflement. Old ways are dying, new ways are in process of being born, and there are plenty of days that things feel a bit out of control. And, alive in the Spirit, we just can’t live little again. We are learning to see and let go of attachments that take all the fun out of being birthed by and moving more grace-fully with the Spirit of God.
I realized this week that I am really attached to NOT feeling baffled and really attached to thinking I must be and can be there for every person in need. These are not small attachments for me, and to some degree they are wrapped up with my ego, and a drive to prove to God and others that I am a competent and good person. I am praying and inviting others to help me let go of these attachments. What is it for you? What attachments keep you trusting God’s unconditional love for you, and from living more freely, more fully in the life of the Spirit? What attachments keep you from loving yourself and others more generously and joyfully? The Spirit is with us, inviting us to be re-born, and to grow in our attachment to God. God is in love with the world, attached to the world, and attached to us—so attached, so in love that God withholds nothing, gives us everything to show us how immensely we are loved. Gives us the Son Jesus, and gives us the Spirit who makes it possible for us to let go, and live large, and be baffled, and stay curious, and receive it all as blessing from the Spirit of life who blows where she will, and takes us along.