Will you pray with me: Holy one, help us to see beyond the horizon line that we have drawn for our lives. Deliver us into a place of our unknowing so that through you we may begin to know what is possible not just for each us but for us together and for our world. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you our rock and our redeemer. AMEN.
It is great to get to get to a place in our lives where we pretty much know who we are and what we want. It is good to feel secure in our own identity and to have discovered what we are good at, how we can earn a living, and hopefully even contribute something to the world as well.
It takes a lot of hard work and time to get to this place. According to Catholic priest, teacher and theologian, Richard Rohr, doing so is to be our primary task in the first part of our lives. Our first work is this. It is to “create a proper container for our lives, he says and we do so with our resume, accomplishments, education, status, — with what we have and can show for ourselves.
This task of understanding who we are and what we are going to be about in the world is not just something we do by ourselves. We are also shaped in this task by those around us. People reflect back to us what they see in us and we are constructed by their projections of who we are.
I remember when I was a young adult and home from college, I was talking to my mother about two friends of mine who had had a falling out and how upset I was about it. My mom, turned to me and said “Don’t worry. You will figure it out. You are a peacemaker.” Whether that is true or not, the idea of being a peacemaker became very much who I understood myself to be. And still is.
Out of all of this, we come to know who we are. We create the container of our selves. But over time, this container can began to feel like a cage. Over time, how we see ourselves and how others have come to see us can become so entrenched that we can begin to feel restricted, held captive by it.
We label and get labeled and settle down into calcified way of understanding who we are that can crowd out and shut down other possibilities, or new understandings.
And then, without even realizing it perhaps, we can begin to play it small. We stay within what we know about ourselves and the world.
But Richard Rohr insists that there is more. Much more. “Far too many people,” he says “just keep doing repair work on the container and never find the actual contents that the container was meant to hold and deliver. The container is not an end in itself but exists for the sake of our deeper and fullest life, which we largely do not see and do not know about ourselves.
I read recently a really interesting article about our propensity to not see that really struck me. It as an article in Science Daily about a phenomenon called “Inattentional Blindness.” In a study conducted at Brigham and Women’s Hospital here in Boston and published in Psychological Science in 2013, researchers pulled together a cohort of radiologists and asked them to perform a familiar lung nodule detection task. Each radiologist was asked to examine five scans. Each scan contained an average of 10 nodules. But on the last scan, researchers inserted a picture of a gorilla amidst the nodules. The researchers found that 83 percent of the radiologists did not report seeing the gorilla in that last scan despite the fact that it was 48 times larger than the average nodule. The researchers tracked the eye movements of the radiologists and found that the majority of those that missed the gorilla, actually did look directly at it. The radiologists missed the gorillas not because they could not see them, but because of the way their brains had framed what they were to do. They were so focused on the task at hand, looking for nodules that they missed all together the gorilla that was there in plain sight.
The senior psychologist on the study and director of the Visual Attention Laboratory at the Brigham concluded that people tend to see what it is they expect to see or are looking for and will miss altogether that which they do not expect. He says the study illustrates that what we focus on becomes the center of our world, and shapes what we can and cannot see.
I find this remarkable and wonder how often we do the same. Are we so used to seeing ourselves and those around us in a certain frame that we overlook what else may be right before us? Are we so sure in who we are and in how the world is that we have become blind to the possibilities that are right before us?
This question brings us back to Nicodemus and to his visit to Jesus that night. What lead Nicodemus to get out of bed, slip on his sandals and make his way across town to Jesus that night? What was it that stirred him, and unsettled him that he would show up on Jesus doorstep? I wonder if somehow, through Jesus, Nicodemus had caught a glimpse of that proverbial gorilla that was right before him, but that he had never before seen.
I wonder if through Jesus, Nicodemus had caught a glimpse of himself as being more than who he had thought he could ever be and of a life that was more meaning drenched and radiant than he had ever thought possible.
For Nicodemus had gotten to that place in his life where he pretty much knew who he was and what he was doing. He had gotten to that place where he was secure in his identity and had a good sense of what he was good at. He was a Pharisee, a learned man who would have had status in his community as a leader. He is also thought to be a man of means who therefore, would have been living a rather comfortable and somewhat secure life (as secure as life could have been in that time, under Roman occupation).
But there must have been something about Jesus that stirred and intrigued Nicodemus. There was something about Jesus that hinted to him that he may not know all that it is to know about himself and what is possible. There was something about Jesus that began to throw open the door to that which he did not even know he did not know.
For sure enough, Jesus’ words that night astonish Nicodemus. When Jesus throws wide open the door to Nicodemus’ unknowing saying that “You must be born from above. The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus stammers “How can these things be.” There is just too much information. Nicodemus does not understand. I imagine him standing there too astonished for words, but knowing that something profound had just happened to him and returning to what was would no longer be possible.
What Nicodemus experienced that night reminds me the in T.S. Eliot poem ‘Journey of the Magi” in which one of the Magi, the Kings that travel to see the Christ child recounts the effect of such an encounter. The final stanza of the poem reads:
This? Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth certainly.
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth but
Had thought they were different this birth and death;
this birth was hard and bitter agony for us.
Like death, our death. We returned to our places,
these Kingdoms, but no longer at ease here,
in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
I think that how Nicodemus felt that night when he returned home. Was his encountered with Jesus a birth or was it a death? Was he too, now no longer at ease in the old dispensation?
Do we too long for such a birth? Such a death?
The Gospel of John is full of such births, such deaths. People encounter Jesus and through encountering Jesus something about who they have known themselves to be falls away. There is a death of sorts, but also a birth as they come to know themselves in a new way, a freer, bigger, more expansive and alive way than they had thought possible.
We see this in the very next chapter in the Gospel of John, Jesus is resting beside a well. It is not now the obscurity of night but plain day, about noon. A Samaritan woman comes to draw water. She encounters Jesus and in doing so begins to see something about her self that she had seen before. She discovers her thirst for new life and through her encounter with Jesus is born again, is born from above and she is changed.
In the early church, Lent was a understood to be a time of conversion. It was the time when those who wanted to walk in the Way of Jesus underwent an intense time of learning and formation. It was a time that then culminated on the Saturday before Easter where these new converts would be baptized, dying to self and rising to new life in Christ.
We may not be able to fully step out of the demands of our lives during these 40 days. We may not be able to sequester ourselves for an intense time of learning and spiritual formation, but Lent does invite us to look with greater clarity about who we are. Lent invites us to look beyond the container that defines us, to step out from behind the scaffold of labels and accomplishments that construct our identity. Lent invites us to step into the unknown where we will meet the transforming presence of the one who has come to deliver us.
So during this time of Lent, let us strap on our sandals and go to Jesus. Let us drink of the living water of his presence so that we too may be brought into newness of life. Thanks be to God. Amen
 Richard Rohr. Falling Upward. Jossey-Bass publisher. 2011.
 John 4:5-30