Easter comes in our season of spring: snow changes to water, frozen earth to green grass and yellow dandelions, and frozen streams turn to cascading flows.
Nature is reveling in new birth.
But I recall images of sorrow and death scrolling across my TV screen – mountains of rubble littering entire city blocks, the results of a 7.6 earthquake that shook the ground beneath Turkey and Syrian cities.
In that devastation, tomblike silence, and impenetrable darkness lay Olcay, dirt threatening her breathing, masking the face, and creeping into the mouth. Her body occupied a small enclave of space beneath her collapsed apartment.
Cold, thirst, and solitude, the thump of her heart in her eardrums, and the rise and fall of her chest confirmed life, but, day after agonizing day, Olcay lay feeling life’s gradual exit.
Miraculously on day seven, she was withdrawn, gently, headfirst from her tomb. Lying in her hospital bed, feeling the warmth from her mother’s hand while attempting to comprehend the joy of being alive, she said, “I feel as if I have been born again.”
Born again to what? – no home, her city in ruins and 53,000 of her fellow citizens dead. How might Olcay respond to her new chance to live?
Dostoyevsky as a young man in 19th century Russia, was arrested for belonging to a group judged treasonous. Tsar Nicholas I, sent the conspirators to prison to be brought out eight months later, taken to the public square to hear disturbing news: “Condemned to Death.”
A firing squad stood ready. Robed in white burial shrouds, hands tied behind their backs, three of them, selected to be the first to die, were tied to the posts, the order given, “Ready, aim.”
Only the rustling of jackets as guns were hoisted to shoulders and the click of rifles being cocked disturbed the early morning silence as Dostoyevsky waited for the bullets. Just at that moment a horseman rode in with a message from the Tsar – sentences commuted to hard labour in prison.
Dostoyevsky wrote to his brother, “Now my life will change. I shall be born again in a new form.” This new life, this being born again, was more than a second chance to live, Dostoevsky repurposed his life.
The opportunity of a second chance is beautifully illustrated in the life-changing events of John Newton a slave trader. He scavenged the African coasts for human beings, to capture and sell for profit. On one journey, to seek out more human cargo, Newton and his crew encountered a storm that swept some of his men overboard and left others, including himself, likely to drown.
After eleven hours of doggedly steering his ship against this storm, Newton and the remainder of his crew found safety. During those hours, Newton had cried out, “Lord have mercy on us.” Given a second chance to live, his life was miraculously changed.
As I ponder Easter, these three stories speak to me about the opportunities of second chances – not only a chance to continue living, but to be reborn to live differently.
Two stories from the New Testament speak to the difficulty of making that change.
A well off, highly educated, religious man named Nicodemus, unsatisfied with his life, and longing for something better, confronted Jesus. “Yes, he is told there is a better life, more to life than your position, privilege, and piety. You must be born again to know this new way of living.”
“I’m confused. This seems impossible. How does this happen?” He questioned, being disturbed by what he had heard.
Another rich, religious, young man came to Jesus requesting how he could experience more meaning to life. “I have piously obeyed all the commandments from my youth ...” Jesus replied, “You have done well, go sell all you have and give to the poor, come follow me.”
The requirement being too great, he went away disturbed having great wealth.
How is one to understand this topsy-turvey, new-birth world Jesus invited these men to enter? Its challenging priorities and lifestyle for these two individuals were beyond their capability, too much to give up.
For Dostoyevsky and Newton and possibly for Olcay it took a near-death experience to capture its essence. It is more than a religious commitment, but a commitment to put into practice Jesus’ request, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
So, what does this new life, this “love-one-another-as-I-have-loved-you” life look like?
In May 1981, Pope Paul II was hit by the bullets from an assassin attempt. Two bullets lodged in his lower intestine, and the others hit left and right arms leaving him severely wounded. The Pope spent many weeks in hospital and his health was never the same again, In July of 1981 Ali Agca was sentenced to life in prison. The Pope asked people to “pray for my brother Agca who I have sincerely forgiven.”
Two years later he took the hand of Ali Agca, in prison, and told him he had forgiven him.
The Pope developed a friendship with Ali’s mother and brother. In June of 2000 Agca was pardoned by the Italian president at the Pope’s request. Agca later sent a letter to the Pope wishing him well and at the Pope’s death a letter came from Agca’s family saying their entire family was grieving and the Pope had been a great friend to them. Pope Paul II demonstrated through his “born again” living the power of forgiveness.
A devout woman, Anna, handed Dostoyevsky a New Testament, the only book allowed in prison, upon his arrival to the Siberian prison camp. Believing God had given him a second chance, Dostoyevsky, while in prison, read the New Testament several times. Upon his release from prison his forthcoming novels, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, and The Gambler, described down-and-out characters who experienced God’s love, and forgiveness, thus, motivating Dostoyevsky, to write stories of God's love for hurting people.
John Newton, who also having experienced by God’s grace and love a second chance to live, went from slave trader to ordained minister and slave advocate. His literary works against the slave trade encouraged William Wilberforce, a member of the English parliament, to fight against slavery in England. Newton lived to witness the Act of Abolition of the Slave Trade. His hymn, Amazing Grace lives on to encourage others to renewed living, three hundred years later.
At Easter, Christians celebrate God’s love displayed through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the life changing possibilities of new life. It may begin with a decision, a one moment, once in a lifetime choice, to repurpose one’s life, but it grows into a daily call to rethink life and love differently.
How does being “born again” speak to our concern for Olcay and her return to devastation?
How does “born-again” living speak to our attitude and concern for God’s creation, our environment?
How does “born-again” living speak to care and respect for our aboriginal and marginalized peoples? Another aboriginal woman was found in a Winnipeg landfill just this week.
How does being born again affect our attitude to who and how to forgive?
Nicodemus and the rich young man had difficulty with the magnitude of “born-again” living. It can be equally challenging today to practice the degree of love Jesus calls for.
“You are never more like God,” I read recently, “than when you are helping hurting people.”
Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, and theologian suggests the question to be asked every morning is, “How do I love God today.... "
Spring brings new live to nature; Easter brings new life to each of us.
Please share your ideas about “born-again” living in the comment area.