Lent 2(A): Push Through the Pain
By: Dani Scoville
I used to think of being born of the Spirit as “born again” — my beginning evangelical theology where praying a prayer made the soul cross some mystical threshold from “not saved” into “saved.” A one and done kind of transformation. It was (and is) a limited and, I believe, inaccurate way of interpreting what Jesus is saying here.
When I think of birth, actual childbirth, I think of incredible pain and then joy, hope, and possibility of new life. Contractions and ripping, blood and piss, and then this tiny being who arrives, the epitome of beginning. So what if being born of the Spirit is something more like that? But not just one and done. In my experience, being born anew—the pain and the beginning—is an ongoing series of births: repeatedly over the years, multiple instances of ripping pain and rushes of joy, hope, and possibility. (I sat across from my spiritual director the other night lamenting that I had JUST birthed in August, and feel myself now having contractions again!)
The birth pain, while at times due to external circumstances, most often for me is internal—realizing that I am not seeing clearly (and not living aligned to reality) in one way or another. From my role in the systemic oppression of others, to the reality of family dynamics, these realizations are not comfortable experiences. Each time it is a blast to my ego. And while I’m going through the birth pains, I feel the steady gaze and unchanging love of my divine parent with me. Which is an ego blast too: that my people-pleasing games don’t increase or decrease the overflowing acceptance of God. It simply is there and always will be. It is this love that makes me feel safe enough to work through the discomfort of the birthing process into new ways of seeing and living.
In the midst of each birth of the Spirit, there’s a certain amount of familiarity and deepening—which is both comforting and completely frustrating. At stressful moments, I exasperatedly yell “I already learned this one, God! Can we please get on to something else?” At more calm moments, I laugh at my ego and recite Rilke’s poetic line “I live my life in widening circles.” Each birth brings me further down into the holy place where the Spirit resides and shares her wisdom.
Each birth, no matter what the topic is, is an opportunity for me to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, for the sake of transformation in myself and in the world around me. Each birth invites me to follow that holy wind of the Spirit, and be attentive to where it pushes me. And I’m finding that past the ego discomfort is a richer, more holy comfort. It awakens me to the sacred available in every moment: daily and small, to eventful and large.
Recently I attended a protest at the San Francisco Federal Building opposing the Keystone Pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline. It was after work and I was worn out, but as soon as I saw the banners and people holding candles, I knew this was a holy experience, something that would feed my soul. I didn’t come assuming that there would be a meal, but was grateful to eat with this congregation.
This is how I feel most Sunday mornings before church too. I’m tired, I don’t want to deal with this or that person, and my church is on the other side of my city. And then I get there and I smell the incense, pet a church dog, and hug one of my human church family members. And I’m fed and can continue my work, inside and out.
That Thursday night, the church of the #NoDAPL was a massive crowd huddling together, feeling the energy of something larger than ourselves. The indigenous leaders opened and closed the protest with prayer and sacred words. Different leaders from across the Bay Area led us in song and chants.
There were speakers who taught on the reality of the systemic oppression of indigenous people, and how white people participated in and benefited from it. It was a powerful sermon, moving through the initial discomfort of hearing truth preached, and proclaiming holy comfort in the hope and possibility of seeing more clearly and living more into reality.
After the ending prayer, the crowd sat together with our banners and candles in middle of Mission Street while the leaders sang and marched around the large group, while someone recorded it all to send back to Standing Rock. I walked away a little tired, but energized by hearing the sound of the Spirit blowing there.
My “wanting to know and understand it all right now” ego is frustrated by Jesus saying “[t]he 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 who is born of the Spirit.” Being born of the Spirit is a liminal space — something is forming, but until it bursts into the world, it remains something of a mystery. So with each birth, I push through the pain and discomfort, for the holy comfort and new beginning that is promised to come.
Dani Scoville is a certified spiritual director practicing in San Francisco. She is particularly curious about spiritual developmental stages, individuals’ personal experiences, and the relationship between attachment styles and God images. To find more of her writing, visit her blog.