I have been on many teams in my lifetime, whether they were sports teams, the church or some in the community. The team of spiritual friends I am currently a part of is one of the best I with whom I have served. They are responsible and I often call upon them for tasks that are not directly assigned to their area of service. Besides that, they are open, honest and transparent about what is taking place in their world. I began the regular Tuesday night meeting by telling the group seated around the table how much I appreciate them.
Our study for the night was a conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus (John 3.1-13). I talked through the passage, explaining various aspects of the encounter as I went. Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews, which meant he was a member of he Sanhedrin, being one of seventy members of this ruling body in Jerusalem.
I told the group that Nicodemus started his conversation off poorly when he said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher sent by God” (verse 2). I said, “How many times have I come to God with what I know, rather than asking him what wants me to know. My ‘I know’ is often born of pride and self-sufficiency. God knows what I know. He wants me to quiet my own mind and find out what he knows.”
The next section is the famous “born again” part of the conversation. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “I am telling you the truth: no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.” The Gospel of John is full of words that can be taken two ways. “Born again” is an example of that. The word, “again,” can mean either “again” or “from above.” Nicodemus believed that Jesus was talking about being born again. That was evident by how the ruler of the Jews answered Jesus.
“How can a grown man be born again?” Nicodemus asked. “He certainly cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time!”
“I am telling you the truth,” replied Jesus, “that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. A person is born physically of human parents, but is born spiritually of the Spirit. Do not be surprised because I tell you that you must all be born again. The wind blows wherever it wishes; you hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. It is like that with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3.4-8).
I wanted to bring to life this familiar passage from the Bible, so I began talking about two of the most profound promises in the Bible that are found in the writings of the prophet Ezekiel. I have seen eyes light up with hope when I have read these encouraging words: “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36.26).
I said to my spiritual friends, “The heart of stone is our willfulness and self-centerednessand self-sufficiency. In fact, nearly everything that has ‘self’ in it is part of that heart of stone. God’s plan for us is to remove that heart of stone and replace it with a new spirit.”
People around the table were nodding with some form of understanding. It was time to consider the second promise: I told them, “God says, ‘I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life. . .'” (Ezekiel 37.14). “As we read the Gospel of John, we are going to see how Jesus fulfills these two promises. He works in us to set us free from a hard heart of willfulness, self-sufficiency, pride, and all of that. Then, he gives us his Spirit to truly bring us to life.” I didn’t have to say much more, because it is obvious that God has transformed the lives of my spiritual friends, as well as many with whom we attend church.
After this explanation, I asked my spiritual friends to describe for the group how they were born again, or born from above.
Born Again – Ricky’s Story
I heard Ricky’s story of being born again and from above in the church library over coffee the week prior to our normal Tuesday meeting. He sports a gray beard, wears overalls in the winter and shorts in the summer. There is always a ball cap on his head. In the winter he displays a Chief’s hat and in the spring and summer a Kansas City Royal’s hat. Since spring training had begun, Ricky was wearing a Royal’s hat, complete with overalls and shoes that matched his blue hat.
Ricky’s born again/born from above story began in 1997. He was in Two Rivers Psychiatric hospital. He said to me, “I was there by accident. I had come back from South Padre Island in Texas and had no where to go. Because I was in such a mess, my sister couldn’t let me live with her. I went to the Raytown Pool Hall just for some place to go. I remember saying to God, ‘Lord, I don’t want to live like this anymore.’ I wanted to go to Two Rivers, because I was looking for a bed and a phone.”
I don’t remember how Ricky was able to get a bed at Two Rivers, but he ended up in a room, lonely and in spiritual distress. I see Ricky as someone who feels very deeply. He still carried grief over the death of his mother, even though her death had been five years ago.
Ricky told me, “I picked up the Bible and just let it fall open to some place. It fell to First Corinthians 13.” First Corinthians thirteen is a chapter about God’s love. The first verses read: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
God used the number 13 to communicate to Ricky his love and grace. If I know anything about God, it is he loves people in a way that is beyond our comprehension. I never cease to be amazed at the variety of ways that God lets us know his love. God’s love for Ricky at Two Rivers hospital was a life-changing event for him.
Ricky has part of his right leg missing below the knee. He wears a prosthetic limb underneath his overalls. I asked Ricky how he lost his leg. In a very matter of fact voice he said, “My best friend and I had a chop shop. I took a Camaro for a spin, after we had fixed it up. I wrecked it and he was very angry.”
I asked, “Angry enough to shoot off your leg?”
Ricky said, “Well, that wasn’t all. There was a woman involved, too.”
I’m sure there is a very long story about Ricky’s experience of having his leg shot off. He didn’t seem to want to get into details, so I didn’t ask any more about his leg. I said to Ricky, “I thought you were shot at the same time you lost the quarter of a million dollars.”
Ricky said, “No, that happened in 2011. I was selling K-2 and made a lot of money. I had a childhood friend, who needed to get set up in business. I loaned him $25,000 and he just helped himself to the rest.”
It seemed to me that Ricky was more troubled over the losing of a quarter of a million dollars than he was of losing part of his leg. In fact, he carried a profound resentment for years over the theft of his money. He considered killing the man who stole from him, but wouldn’t do it. He turned his anger inside and experienced such deep depression that suicide was considered. Finally, in 2013 God gave Ricky relief.
Ricky said, “I went through three days of repentance. I wailed and cried out to God, begging him for forgiveness. I told him I was self-centered, nasty, ugly, and misdirecting my anger toward people. At some point during these three days my subconscious rolled into my conscience. I gave what was deep inside of me to God and he pulled me out of the pit of helplessness, hopelessness and despair. My mind was silenced and I could finally sleep at night.”
Ricky has been through a tremendous amount of pain – often self-inflicted pain – in his life. His experience of being born again in 1997, but turning away from Jesus is all too common in our world. I wanted to know more about what happened, so I asked him. I said, “So you had an experience with Jesus in 1997, but you weren’t exactly living like saint after 2000.”
“You know what?” he said. “I was making a lot of money at that time and thanking God for it everyday. The truth was that I was only trying help to one guy, me. I was living by the flesh, but not by the Spirit.”
We were nearing the end of our time, so I asked, “Tell me about your son.”
On June 10, 2014, my son died from a heroin overdose. What he took as 80% pure heroin. I was really torn up over his death.” Ricky frequently speaks about his mother, his son, the loss of his leg, and the loss of the money. How can anyone get through experience upon experience of grief and pain? God has given Ricky the number 13, almost on a daily basis, to confirm God’s love and grace to him. These daily reminders, along with visits to friends at homeless camps, AA halls and church, allow him to be a bright and genuinely warm man to be around.
I asked Ricky, “What advice would you give someone who wants to get free from drugs and alcohol?”
He said, “Get grounded in God. Find a spiritual understanding with God. Work the Twelve Steps. Seek a spiritual awakening. Surrender and ask the Spirit to help you.”
Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15.5). Jesus didn’t say we could live an OK, average life apart from him. He said we could do nothing. People like Ricky and me live well when we live in a friendship relationship with Jesus. When we walk away from him, disaster happens. I am profoundly thankful that Ricky is living in a grounded, spiritual, surrendered life with Jesus.
Born Again – Katie’s Story
I have known Katie longer than any of the spiritual friends who sit around the Library table on Tuesday nights. She lived across the street from one of Maywood’s finest, Louise Douglas. Katie and her mother cared for Louise, who was often immobilized by one of the most severe cases of rheumatoid arthritis I have even witnessed. I thought I knew Katie, until she began telling her born again experience to our group.
Katie works as a security guard in Northeast Kansas City. Northeast is one of the poorest and highest crime areas of the metropolitan area. She is definitely not a “rent-a-cop,” but is closer to a full-fledged police officer with training and ability. She usually has her hair pulled back into a loose ponytail and wears a t-shirt or windbreaker.
Katie looked around the table and began her story. She said, “I am from an Italian Catholic family. I have always known who Jesus is. There are wonderful women in my family, but I didn’t always feel wonderful. I was an angry young woman and pretty unhappy with life. I thought Confirmation would make a difference would make things different for me, but it didn’t.”
I knew Katie was active in sports in high school. The family was proud of her athletic accomplishments. I didn’t know what he told us next. She said, “I partied a lot in high school and I fought a lot. I was very angry.”
When she said that, I realized that the Katie I saw caring so loving for her neighbor had more going on than I ever realized. She told of moving to Manhattan, Kansas, to attend college. “I partied a lot,” she said. Even though she was studying criminal justice, she used drugs and alcohol on a very regular basis. She said, “I had a unique hair color back then. I had red, black and blond streaks in my hair. There was only one other girl in the school who had her hair colored like mine.”
While the group was processing the information Katie was giving us, she said, “One night I was leaving class. I was walking out of class with a paramedic friend, who was taking the same class as me. I had missed class because of my partying and he had class notes for me. Walking through the parking lot, I realized there were no lights where my car was parked. As I was getting ready to put my stuff in the car, I was hit in the back of the head with a metal rod. I was able to see that there were two ‘corn-fed’ girls who were attacking me. I knew this was a full-on fight. I thought I might die right there.”
Katie certainly had the attention of the group, who were probably wondering like me how she could survive a pipe blow to the back of the head. She continued her story and said, “Survival instincts kicked in. I knocked one girl to the ground. Then, jumped on the second girl. I had her on the ground and was punching her face as hard and as fast as I could. I blacked out. My paramedic friend, saw what was happening, rushed over, pulled me off and probably kept me from killing her. I actually thought I had killed her. As my friend looked at her injuries, I prayed the first prayer I had prayed in years. I told God, ‘If you can fix this, I am yours.'”
The good news is that the girl lived. Katie took off her shirt, having a t-shirt underneath, and gave it to her to help stop the bleeding on her face. The paramedic asked her if she needed an ambulance, but she declined. While the girls were recovering from the shock of being soundly beaten by Katie, they realized that they had jumped the wrong girl in more ways than one. They were after the other girl with a similar hair style to Katie. Katie believed that the other girl would not have survived the beating these girls were trying to give her. They offered to pay for Katie’s injuries and actually talked after the incident. Katie told her mother what happened and a month later moved home.
Katie said to us, “This was the first time I ever felt God’s presence.”
Just like Ricky, God shows up in unexpected places and in unique ways. He loves us profoundly and finds ways to demonstrate that love. You’d think the hard heart of self-will would be fixed after the experience Katie had in the school parking lot. What’s interesting about the human heart is that we have a unique ability to serve ourselves, even if it brings more pain.
“Things were good for a while,” continued Katie. “But it didn’t take long to put God on the back burner of my life. God reached my heart when our friend and neighbor, Louise Douglas, died. Her funeral was the first time that Miranda and I came to Maywood. The next day, we came to one of the church services and we have never stopped attending.”
Miranda and Katie have their “spot” at Maywood. They serve children, interact with women in a small group discipleship class, and serve a few special older adult women. As I think about God’s love, I see his love fulfilling the promise given in Ezekiel’s day. He takes out our self-centered heart and replaces it with His Spirit.