Into the Light

Darkness conjures up all sorts of images and memories, especially from childhood.  Like the absolute certainty that there really was a monster, or some creepy thing under my bed that would grab my leg the minute I put a foot on the floor to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.  No – I didn’t have a night light.

As the situation became more and more urgent, I began to bargain and calculate in my mind as to how I could leap across the fifteen feet or so from my bed without “it” getting me.  Or how long I could wait.  After what seemed an eternity, when urgency was upon me, I would screw up my courage, jump out of bed and rush to the bathroom.  Turn on the light — Just in time!

Darkness may hold terrors, may provide the cover for secret escapades, may hold surprises and unimagined opportunities.

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”  (Probably some women also.) The Shadow knows.  I remember surreptitiously listening in my bed as my mom and aunt would tune in that creepy program most evenings out in the living room.  Then have nightmares.

Darkness and night may be metaphors for hidden deeds one wishes to keep secret.  Unsavory conniving of which your parents would not approve.  And other activities which might transpire with a young love in the darkened “Tunnel of Love” at the pike in Long Beach.  Definitely, another activity unapproved of by parents and adult chaperones.

Darkness.

In our story of Nicodemus, it is under the cover of darkness that he dares approach Jesus.  This opening presents what would seem to be a very bizarre conversation.

Nicodemus is presented by the writer as one of the cultured elites.  He is a ruler of the Jews with a very advanced theological education – well-versed in the intricate details and customs of his religion.

He acknowledges also Jesus’ mission as being from God – “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs apart from God.”

Nicodemus is drawn to Jesus, but, worried about his reputation, perhaps does not want to be seen coming in daytime.  In fact, each one of us approaches Jesus out of our own darkness.  It is our existential human condition.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to see the Kingdom of God, to see the very nature of the divine, one must be born “again” – or from “above.”  The Greek word John uses here, anothern, means both.[1]

Which is to say, you will have absolutely no idea of what Jesus and God are all about when trying to understood by conventional wisdom.  This is an opening to eternal life way beyond religious rules, regulations, creed and dogma.

Jesus speaks in metaphor, alluding to what he is about.  It’s like the obtuse husband who hears the words his wife says but completely misses the emotional message, leaving her feeling unheard.

It’s like a bit from T.S. Eliot on a hike through the hills of England picking blueberries.  “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”  To approach the event from “meaning” would certainly have transformed the experience.  It’s the desire to go deeper – or, in the word from John’s gospel, from “above.”

Nicodemus, being a literalist, misses all this.  Just like some husbands miss the most important part of what their wife is saying – much as I did early on in our marriage, which drove Jai crazy.  I didn’t “understand” her.

Now, I am sure there are some women similarly obtuse, but I can only speak for one man – myself and my experience.

As the discussion progresses further, Nicodemus is further and further from “getting” it.  Dense to the max!

Nicodemus’ understanding Jesus’s teaching to be physically “born again,” is wondering how he might, as a grown man, now climb back into this mother’s womb.  We go from absurdity to absurdity.  He understands nothing. 

Jesus, in exasperation exclaims, “You are a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”

Nicodemus is mired in a most inadequate understanding of his religion.  Like I was when stuck in my fourth-grade Sunday school theology.  He misses the spiritual dimension completely.  That’s because the Spirit is “like the wind.  It blows where it will…you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from and where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

For the rules-bound literalist, Nicodemus, this is way too WOKE.  “Far out, man, far out!”  And he would be correct.  What Jesus is asking here is a matter of the heart.  Get out of your head, Nicodemus!

And, that is why many of our churches are dying.  Folks have lost track at a much different level of what God is all about.  But there’s hope…

As Paul says, “Do not conform yourselves to the world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind; then you will be able to do the will of God.”  That is John’s purpose in presenting the Jesus he does.

One commentator on John’s gospel states that maybe the real prologue to this work is not, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God;” as majestic as that is, and as theological important as it is as a restatement of Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created” – there’s another introduction.

Prior to the opening, “In the beginning was the Word,” is the proclamation from the letter of John,[2] “God is Love and those who abide in Love, abide in God and God in them.”  This relationship is the eternal operative principle of creation – Love – the spiritual foundation of the cosmos.  The Gospel of John is all about relationship with God and with one another.  That letter, First John, should be considered the real preface to this gospel.

Love – sometimes so difficult to comprehend.  Like love for country.  When the Former Guy visited Arlington and “blew off” visiting a World War graveyard in France he was reported to have commented to his aide that he didn’t understand why these fallen had even enlisted, let alone why they would they die for such a cause. “What’s in it for them?”  Trump asked when walking among the headstones of the fallen war dead.  They were “suckers.” – all quotes confirmed by his favorite propaganda station, Fox (News).

Like Nicodemus, the Former Guy could not understand anything that is beyond the hard, cold, physical stuff of the world.  It’s a much higher order of existence far beyond his capabilities.  It’s not hard, cold cash.  As he noted, those dead were “hardly paid anything.” 

It’s all about Love.  “For God so loved the world…”  To “believe in Jesus” is to enter into a Love relationship with God, with all creation. 

That is what John alludes to in the understanding of baptism.  It is to be “born of water AND the Spirit.”  One is a free agent of this Spirit, going where called.  But the “water” part indicates a real world, physical aspect.  Real stuff pulled into a new reality by the Spirit.  And, of course water might call to mind the water of the amniotic fluid as well as that used in baptism.

Let me tell how this worked out in one small community of eighteen thousand in Ohio: Portsmouth.  This town on the Ohio River, across from West Virginia had fallen far from the bustling city it had been in the early twentieth century.

A shoelace factory and a couple of shoe manufacturers there produced over ninety percent of all shoelaces in the United States.  They and a steel mill, and all this provided prosperity for all the other businesses and professions.

When they closed up, half the population left, tradesmen and local independent business owners.  Buildings and houses stood vacant.

The story of Portsmouth is also the story of Josh Wood and others like him.  Pain-pill addiction and it’s fallout soon overwhelmed the town, public services, police agencies, health clinics.  “Town governance disintegrated into back-biting and recalls.”[3]

Josh had come to Portsmouth from a small hamlet in northern Ohio, Crooksville.  At thirty-two he had spent much of his life addicted to heroin and methamphetamine.  He’d sold his car to support this habit, and spent most of his time looking for more dope.  Then he was arrested.

He had heard that the town of Portsmouth offered job training to recovering addicts, and asked to be sent there.  “On paper, Portsmouth was the least likely place anyone like Josh Wood would turn to for sobriety.”[4]

On this first night, upon arriving in town Josh went to an AA meeting at All Saints Episcopal Church.  It was unlike any meeting he had ever attended.  Instead of the usual fifteen or so, the room was packed with almost two hundred people – folks standing and sitting along the walls and wherever.  There he found something that gave him encouragement.  He found Life.

A year later, Josh was no longer gaunt, and undernourished, the result of all the years of dope.  He had filled out some.  And he had met Tiffany Robinson, another addict who had requested to be sent to Portsmouth.  Thus began a relationship unlike any either had known while using.  Life was no longer grim and they had fun enjoying each other’s company.

Wood now supervised a small construction crew rehabbing abandoned buildings.  He began to feel part of something.  Purpose was creeping into his life.  He felt a joy he hadn’t experienced for years.

He was part of a crew that installed the first ice skating rink that brought families with kids together – the first public space in Portsmouth since the public pool had closed long ago.

Part of the rejuvenation of Portsmouth was the expansion of Obamacare which for the first time covered addiction treatment.  Over the objections of his own party in the legislature, Governor John Kasich, a Republican, got the state expansion of Medicaid passed.

All the old, abandoned buildings were also a big assist.  “The Counseling Center refurbished and expanded into forty-eight of them.”[5]  Addicts were now flooding into Portsmouth for treatment.

As more and more addicts seeking recovery arrived in Portsmouth, these folks were about as welcome as a plague of locusts.  Many flooding in came for The Counseling Center (TCC).  Soon eleven treatment centers were operating in Portsmouth.  From this work, sober living homes repurposed a number of the stately old run-down mansions in town. 

One local resident, Dale King, had returned from Iraq where his job was to train Iraqis as special forces.  One way to provide physical challenges and build comradery was through strenuous exercise for these trainees.  On his return to Portsmouth, discouraged at the way drugs had devastated his town and leaving a starter job he hated, Dale opened a CrossFit gym.

One of the lawyers for the Counseling Center began paying for workout sessions at the gym.  Soon many that Dale King had known and despised as addicts began to show up “running, squatting, pumping, pulling themselves up.  Finally, he had to learn their names.”[6]   Josh Wood joined this group.  The workouts released his brain’s endorphins.

The incipient economic activity downtown encouraged Dale King to open an apparel line and an all-natural skin line.  In time, King had eighteen people working for him in three companies.

Another returning veteran who had spent time rebuilding Iraq, Tim Wolfe and a partner, began remodeling one of the old downtown buildings into apartments.  He thought this shouldn’t be too hard – here he was not getting shot at while mixing cement.  Since workers were scarce, Wolfe helped those entering sobriety pay the needed fines to reclaim drivers licenses.

Two essentials were needed for employment:  a clean drug test and a driver’s license.  TCC soon opened a center to help addicts pay fines to regain those licenses.  They expanded into medical care. 

Wolfe employed Josh, paid his fines, and set him to work rehabbing the downtown buildings, teaching others the necessary trades.

Wolfe opened a restaurant downtown, the first in years, which attracted people to a downtown that had been empty for years.  Above it he renovated apartments for his workers.

Seeing all the new energy in Portsmouth, Shawnee State University opened a center for entrepreneurial training downtown.  Recovering addicts were one of the two growing sectors in the city – students being the other.

Tiffany and Josh married, Josh starting his own business, “Woody’s Remodeling.”  Tiffany opened her cleaning service called, “Get it Done.”

They and a whole bunch of other recovering addicts saved the day.  These, the “Least of Us” … these have completely restored hope and have breathed life back into Portsmouth.  Imagine that!

This is the Gospel of John’s message — Jesus is about Life.  Eternal Live Now.  Not after one dies.  Fully alive to oneself and others right now!

Josh and Tiffany were part of a collective rewiring of the brain’s reward pathways in Portsmouth, toward enjoying again the dopamine release by what our brains had evolved to prize:  exercise, moving forward, and being with others in public the way townspeople did…”[7]

The dream, the reclaimed lives and restored town – all a version of “water and the Spirit.”  Those who supported recovery, those who dared to begin recovery – all a part of overflowing Love of those abiding in God. 

It took real effort, work, sweat and it took those venturous souls willing to be carried by the wind of the Spirit.  Beyond rules, beyond fears, beyond stunted imagination, beyond caution.  That’s the message of John’s Gospel.  Won’t make any sense at all to the religious bean counters.

And so it has ever been with those born anew from above.  A whole bunch of recovering addicts saved themselves and the town of Portsmouth – leading this darkened, drug-infested place into the Light.  Another resurrection story of “by water and the Spirit.”  Indeed, a For-God-So-Loved-the-World story.  Amen.


[1] Gail R. O’Day and Susan E, Hylen, John (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 43.

[2] 1 John 4:16.

[3] Sam Quinones, The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021), 376.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Op. cit., 379.

[6] Ibid, 382.

[7] Op cit., 389.

March 5, 2023, Lent 2

“Into the Light”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

1st Reading:  Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121;
2nd Reading:  Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; Gospel:  John 3:1-17

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