A mulligan. Golfers know it as a their term for a free “do-over,” the opportunity to replay an errant, unproductive stroke. It’s not allowed by the rules of the game, but it often used in friendly games, within agreed upon limits. The origins of the term are unclear; several versions have been offered, none with a sufficiently corroborated body of evidence. No matter. We use them on occasion. And we wish they were more generally available in life.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
As I write this post I am listening to a rather strong wind making significant noise outside the window of my study. Where it came from and where it goes from here, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, are unknown to me. I could learn the direction easily enough; origin and destination, however, are other matters. “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” In what way?
Life in society requires some degree of predictability. There are patterns of behavior and action that we rely upon toward and from one another. We get to know where people are coming from and where they are going, what they are almost surely going to do because we know the starting point. Jesus suggests to his evening guest, however, that the way things are, the places, attitudes, assumptions, goals, aspirations, and expectations people live with are insufficient for their real purpose. A reorientation of mind and heart so radical that it can only be described as a new birth is what we need. We need one, big, all-encompassing mulligan—a decision to center the life in God’s version of the world and of ourselves as participants in it for His sake and not our own. It’s a decision that leaves others wondering where we came from, and unsure of what we will do next because the normal expectations may no longer apply.
Birth, however, implies growth and a maturing process. As with physical life, there are things that hinder and things that spur healthy development of life. Without a maturing process our big mulligan turns out to be less helpful to us in life; we’ll continue to take bad swings at the challenges before us, we’ll misread the direction the wind is blowing and watch our efforts sail out of bounds, into the hazards and places from which only penalty strokes can extricate us. As has been suggested in this series of Lenten reflections, we do need to think about our swing in life—we need to remember that the Teacher has given us a new way to approach the day and its inevitable encounters with all manner of people and unseen potential hazards in the form of decisions, attitudes, and hoped-for outcomes. That new way may well invite puzzlement and ridicule. And when we succumb to that pressure we’ll need a few more “do-overs” supplied by grace. Fortunately, the Pro is along with us—if we invite him.