Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (John 16:12-33) transports me to a conversation I had during seminary when I was helping out in a Sunday School class with developmentally disabled young people. Some were severely challenged, and had to wear helmets to prevent them from injuring themselves. Others could carry on a conversation, but generally at a pre-school level of intelligence. I remember one young man, in his mid-teens, who had been fascinated on hearing a story on the car radio that morning about a woman who had given birth in the mall parking lot, because they didn’t have time to get to the hospital. On this radio program, the dj asked people to call in if they had experienced any unusual birthing situations like this, and women called in with all sorts of stories. The young man in the class was telling me about these stories, and then he asked why no men had called in. Didn’t boys have babies, too? One other detail to mention, this young man was going through the expected adolescent body and emotional changes that gave him the clear message that he needed a girlfriend. While his brain functioning might have been delayed, his hormone functioning was right on schedule. As he asked me questions about child-birth and the role of men and women, I did what any good seminarian would do – tried to divert his attention back to the Jonah and the whale puzzle we were working on. Later on I confessed to his caregiver how ill-prepared I felt to give a birds and bees talk to someone whose body chemistry was far out-racing his capacity to understand. For that matter, there was a lot about biology that I wasn’t sure I understood perfectly, so I thought it best to quote Gone With the Wind’s Butterfly McQueen, I don’t know nothing ‘bout birthin’ no babies and leave it at that.
When the time came for Jesus to have a serious talk with his disciples, not about the birds and the bees, but about his impending departure, he did reach for a metaphor from the realm of birthin’ babies to explain what was about to happen. Men may not have firsthand knowledge, but they’ve been around enough women who do to get at least part of the picture – labor is hell. It is hard. All-consuming pain takes over, causing screams to fly and clenched fists to search for something to pound. And then, when the work is done, when a beautiful baby enters the world and is placed in the mother’s arms, the pain is replaced with indescribable joy that is all-consuming. At least that’s the narrative. It may not always work out that way. I can’t say for sure, never having experienced it myself. Neither had Jesus, but he employed the narrative anyway. His death would leave his followers with a painful grief, all-consuming. Jesus knew at this point that the disciples still didn’t understand his mission. God was, in fact, birthing something new into the world of faith. The disciples, like everyone else, had a concept of faith based on power and law and order; they trusted the righteousness of this system of faith. And the world was travailing in labor contractions as it readied to give birth to something new – a faith based on grace and mercy and compassion. Jesus understood the wrenching pain that accompanies such a birth. The disciples would feel it in the form of an all-consuming grief. It would be hell. But, he promised, the anguish would soon be replaced with all-consuming indescribable joy.
Bringing something new into the world sometimes requires long and hard labor, with excruciating pain. Whenever I look around at our world and see evidence of travail, of wrenching, anguishing pain that causes screams of rage and clenched fists searching for something to pound, I have to wonder, what it about to be born? What if we look around at the outrageous violence across our world, and we see it not as senseless acts of terror, but as a world that is travailing through a hard labor, as something new struggles to be born? Could it be that the world’s water has broke and a new experience of grace and mercy and compassion is about to enter our world? Sometimes I think that our world is a bit like those developmentally disabled young people I worked with – our collective body chemistry is changing at a rate that far out-paces our capacity to understand what is going on. We really don’t know much about birthing babies, when it comes to what God is bringing into our world. We’ll just have to trust the process, and anxiously await the day when the eyes open, and the first cry is heard, and the world’s pain is replaced with indescribable and all-consuming joy.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.