Being Born Again
by T. J. Pancake
I took freshman-year health class as a sophomore in high school. It’s mostly about sex, which you would think 15-year-olds would love, except that it’s all in this maximally-awkward, birds-and-the-bees kind of way. It is, essentially, the worst.
My teacher was one of those overly peppy, athletic health-nuts. For part of the class, she forced us watch NOVA’s Miracle of Life video, which walked us all the way from conception to birth in a very informational, mature way that our pubescent minds weren’t nearly ready for. I remember being warned by a friend that this video ended with footage of a real-life natural birth, which, obviously, is totally disgusting. So, to avoid mental scarring, I brought a book to class that day. Amidst the uncomfortable laughter and the snickering of the kids in the back row, I was lost in a world of fiction, where bloody umbilical cords and placentas did not exist—or at least were never mentioned.
Jesus, up late talking to this curious religious guy named Nicodemus, tells him, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
To which Nicodemus replied, horrified, “How can someone be born when they are old? Surely one cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
At this terrifying proposition, mothers everywhere held their breath waiting for Jesus’ answer because “there is no chance I am doing that again, Jesus.”
The thing about birth is that it’s nothing like the stork version that we’re told when we’re little. The one where little boys and girls just show up one day on our doorsteps, brought by this messenger-bag-toting, postal cap-wearing bird with weirdly long legs. The cute, bundled children weren’t there, and then suddenly they were.
But real birth takes time. Real birth is messy. It’s completely and unashamedly disgusting. There’s blood and other unidentified body fluids everywhere. The mom is alternating between screaming and hyperventilating. The doctors are rushing around giving orders. Then the baby comes out, confused, frightened, crying.
Yet, we watch NOVA’s video and we call birth a miracle, because we know that piercing through all of the pain and all of the mess is something inexplicably beautiful. That something that wasn’t, now is. And it took a long time, and it didn’t look the prettiest, but it’s there. A new, untainted life, waiting to take on the world.
For some reason, when we started talking about being born again, we cleaned it up. Our intentions were good. We wanted people to see the beauty of it, the incredible life change that happens when Jesus grabs ahold of a soul and turns it inside out. So, we created the two-minute testimony. Tell us how you got born again, they said. Now do it again, faster. Smooth out the wrinkles. We aimed for the dramatic. We had to show how unflinchingly un-born we were, and then how impressively born we became, all overnight, all on one, specific date, all in a Moment. We were dropped on the doorstep by Jesus, the stork.
I used to tell people that I was born again when I was five years old, on red carpet steps thinking about Jesus literally walking around inside of my heart. But something in my story didn’t feel right. I didn’t have the Moment, where I wasn’t, and then immediately I was. I just kind of always was. I think now that maybe I was being born again all those years. That I was conceived there on the red carpet steps, and then I just grew in the womb, receiving nutrients through the umbilical cord of my parents and my church. Then came those dreadful Middle School years, and it started to get painful. I realized that it hurts when you get kicked off your friend’s lunch table.
Slowly, like a train gaining momentum, I started to wonder about God. I realized that I didn’t know what happened to babies when they die, I didn’t know what the words “atonement” and “salvation” and “redemption” really mean, and I didn’t understand why God wouldn’t just show up and say, “Here I am!” And I realized that I wanted to know these things. And I was asking Him to help me out a little bit, and I started to care about other people, and I got less angry—but I sometimes still got angry—and I learned, over time, to believe that Jesus is the center of it all. It was imperfect, but it was beautiful because through all the time and all the tattered moments, I was being born as something different, something completely new.
The problem is that we forgot that the beauty of new life is so bright that it could never be dimmed by an imperfect birth. That being born again is a process that ends beautifully. It’s a lot of not believing, then a lot of half-believing, then some believing with some not-believing thrown in there. We are not reborn in a night. We spend a lot of time in the womb, warming up to the idea of a world outside of our world, a world where God would send his own Son to bring us out into the light. And when we finally come out of the womb, it’s usually screaming and crying and terrified. All of our questions haven’t been answered and our objections haven’t been proved wrong. We just are pushed out and hope that God is there to catch us.
I don’t remember what version of the confession he used, but it sounded different than I’d heard before, older, more solemn, like a medieval rite of passage. We stood in the waist-deep baptismal, and I confessed into the microphone, “I do.” Like a wedding. And then I was plunged under the water, stormy waves spreading out from the point of my submersion. My eyes were closed. It was dark. It was quiet, except for the swish of the water.
I was pulled back out of the water to sound of clapping from the church body. The lights were brighter than I remembered them. Water was dripping down my face. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but I knew I was alive. I had been born. Again.
TJ Pancake went to Cedarville University, where he studied to Preseminary Bible in preparation for becoming a pastor. Through the years, he has continually rediscovered a love for writing. He lives in Dayton, OH where he is helping to plant a church and hoping to improve his writing skills. His essay, “Against Grandiosity,” appeared in issue 9 of Mock Turtle Zine. He also loves food. Especially when it’s fried.
Image is from here.