The words of John 3:16 are one of the most well known verses and most quoted of Jesus’ sayings – and behind them lies another story.
Please read John 3:1-21
Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews. It’s possible that throughout his life, Nicodemus may have simply accepted all that was taught to him by the Jewish rabbis. Learning the Psalms and the Law. Listening to the story of how Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt. Acquainting himself with the acts of Abraham, David Elijah, Elisha and so many more. And leading others in doing the same.
But now, afraid to show his interest to his fellow Pharisees, Nicodemus has encountered someone who challenges all that received and perceived wisdom. A man who performs miracles. A man who is different to any other teacher he has ever known. Nicodemus knows that Jesus comes from God: he’s seen the miracles (‘signs’ as John calls them) and we can assume he’s heard the teaching.
Sounds familiar? Years of going to church. Singing choruses and hymns. Hearing the same liturgy (or not). And maybe we also feel uncomfortable with some of it. We don’t like to hear some of it. We’re happy with the easy bits. We decide what’s interesting or important. We tack on the bits we like to make them fit the way our churches do things and other aspects of the system we already live with. We come and listen when it suits us, and go back to our ordinary lives when we need to.
‘There are many ways through the garden,’ someone once said to me. Our journey through the ‘Garden of Faith’ has the capacity to take us in different directions, going deeper and deeper in to the growth and the undergrowth that exists there. It is up to us to sniff the flowers. To climb the trees. And to dig up a few weeds.
If we have been used to one particular type of church or a specific approach towards the teaching from the Bible, for example, it can be confusing when God begins to take us to a new part of the Garden. We may be reluctant to get up from the particular bench (or pew) we’ve sat on for years or to turn away from the view we’ve always had. It can be unsettling and disorientating. We may feel lost. Cut adrift from God. We crave stability but the ground in the garden is shifting.
The ground under Nicodemus was shifting and he began to realise there was another way through the garden: that there was more to God than he had ever thought. God will always take us to an even better place. A place of growth and depth beyond our expectations.
Nicodemus came, in the darkness, seeking spiritual direction. In times of our own spiritual ‘darkness’, it can be helpful to seek assistance from someone else to take us through the garden. A guide. A companion. A wise teacher. While none of us will be able to have a spiritual guide quite the same as Nicodemus, seeking out such advice and support can be helpful.
One approach can be to have a spiritual director. It may well be helpful to seek such direction or accompaniment from someone who is not in the same church as you are. Maybe also from a different background or tradition or churchmanship: if we need space to ask questions or explore uncertainties it’s important to be able to do so with someone who is going to travel with you and not dismiss your explorations. Of particular importance is to see someone who has received formal and structured training as a spiritual director. If you are part of an established church (e.g. Anglican, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, URC etc) then contact a central body (e.g. Diocese) for information about what is available. Guided retreats and Quiet Days can also be helpful: taking time out of the demands of everyday life for prayer and reflection. (Maybe take a look at retreats.org.uk)
Which part of the garden do you want to explore?
Would it help to have someone to guide you?
When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.