“This must be what it feels like when you begin to die.”
That thought hit me one day when I was sitting alone in my room in the hospital. It wasn’t a melancholy thought: it wasn’t despairing. It was more of a stop-breathing, “whoa” moment. Because it was true.
I had just finished a week-long stint of a lethal chemo conditioning, preceded by an experimental radiation treatment. I say “lethal” because this was not a dose that the human body could survive without immediate and radical medical intervention: the treatment decimates your bone marrow (the place where new cells are created), leaving a wasted, lifeless husk in place of the once-thriving cellular factory. And, without its cells, a body doesn’t survive. It can’t.
But then, just when a person begins to flounder, the medical team injects him with stem cells (in my case taken from me a few weeks earlier) that latch on in the bone marrow and, within a couple of weeks, start growing him a new immune system and fresh blood cells.
Thus, a day or two after the last chemo, I wasn’t just being dramatic about my condition: I really was dying inside.
One night Jesus was awakened by a Pharisee who crept in to see Him under the cloak of darkness. This holy man’s name was Nicodemus, and he wanted to question Jesus away from the prying eyes of his fellow Pharisees.
Jesus completely sidelined the conversation, though, by telling this man that he needed to be born again to inherit the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus, like many others throughout history, was thoroughly confused.
“How can a man enter a second time into his mother’s womb?” he asked.
In the hospital with me was a woman named Karen. My wife, Sarah, and Karen’s mother, Barbara, became fast friends. Barbara was believing against all hope that her daughter would survive, but as the days drew on Karen became sicker and sicker. Every direction they turned the doctors seemed to hit a brick wall. Finally Karen said that she was tired of fighting. So the doctors changed gears and started just trying to make her comfortable.
Jesus told Nicodemus that unless we are born again of water and Spirit we can in no wise enter the Kingdom of God. He said that what is spirit and what is flesh are categorically different. Their conversation continued on, but it is not mentioned what Nicodemus finally came to think.
Over the course of a week my old immune system died. In the days that followed, a new immune system was born. I look the same. I sound the same. I act the same. But I am not the same. Fundamentally, I am a different person. A new person. I am starting the new year with what so many desire: a fresh start. It came through pain and hardship and losing 30 years’ worth of immunity. But it came nonetheless.
On the day we were set to leave the hospital, Sarah went up to see Barbara, Karen and Karen’s husband, Dan. Both Sarah and I had been praying heavily for Karen and her family. I had tried to post an emergency prayer page update for her and a couple of others, but every time I tried my website crashed. This and a growing feeling Sarah and I had made us start to develop an uncomfortable suspicion that we weren’t in Karen’s life to pray her to health. So, hours before we were set to leave the hospital, Sarah went up a floor to Karen’s room, and asked if she could pray with her. They were all very receptive and welcoming, even though they were exhausted, quiet and preparing for the end. Sarah knelt over Karen’s bed, love in her eyes, and began to pray. She told Karen that God was telling her that He wanted her to say “Yes” to Him, and that she would know what that meant. Karen couldn’t speak any more. All she could do was hiccup, open her eyes and moan. But what she could do, she did.
Sarah told Karen and her family how much they were loved, by us and by God. It was a holy moment. And then she left.
When Sarah returned to our room, she told me what had happened. I burst into tears. I didn’t know that she was going to see Karen and her family, but the whole time she had been gone I had been praying in anguish for these people, pleading for God to touch them. And He did. A couple of hours later we left the hospital. About one day after that Karen did, too.
How can a person return to his mother’s womb? How can we be born again?
How can we look the same, act the same, talk the same, but be fundamentally different people?
I have never before experienced such a clear analogy between the new man and the old one, nor do I expect to again. Not everyone will go through the things I have, nor would I want them to. But perhaps, in looking at my situation, we can all see the rebirth that is accessible to each of us in our inner man. What happened to me physically can happen to everyone spiritually. I’ve certainly experienced that rebirth of the soul, as well. In fact, I feel like I’ve experienced that rebirth over and over again, as I grow to know God deeper. Each time is like hitting the reset button. Each time is like a new beginning, with a past that informs but is also distinct. There is Before, and there is After. And to go back would be, in most cases, beyond question. This rebirth doesn’t require deadly chemo, mouth sores and nausea, but it does often come with its own unique growing pains. You sacrifice something when you are reborn. Sometimes it’s a substance, sometimes it’s a way of thinking, sometimes it’s the people who kept you in that place of darkness (at least for the time being.) It hurts to be reborn. But the rewards are incomparable.
Having said all that, I think Jesus was discussing two distinct things when He was talking with Nicodemus. I absolutely know He was describing a here-and-now rebirth, but I also think He was talking about another one as well: when we cast off these earthly shackles and stand anew, afresh, and astonished before Him. When all of the pain, discomfort and darkness suddenly makes sense. When, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, even our darkest hour becomes light.
As we move into this new year, my prayer is that we would all be able to say that we are starting anew, washed in the blood of Jesus and lit by the Holy Spirit’s marvelous flame.
For Karen. For myself. For you. Let our exultation be:
We are reborn. Praise God.
Lewis, C.S. “The Great Divorce” (HarperOne, 2009.)