The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Have you had the experience of being a college freshman and being paired with a roommate with whom you had nothing in common? That was my reality at UC Santa Barbara. Conal was a tall, wiry guy from the Central Valley, studying math, and who was a committed Evangelical, who was convinced that my soul needed saving. He offered me many invitations to join him at his church, and I eventually accepted. As a teenager who had been raised in a nice New England Congregational church, I wasn’t fully aware of what a charismatic Christian service would be like, and as the service progressed, I felt increasingly out of place and totally uncomfortable. I remember them stressing the importance of being born again, as if it was a one-time gateway to salvation after death.
That phrase — this whole text — has been coopted by white Evangelicals and assigned a certain meaning to “born again,” indicating the separation of the saved from the damned. That is a shame, because it is a truly meaningful and important text. Perhaps because we have had experiences like I did in Conal’s church or because we were raised in such churches or because we’ve seen the fruits of conservative White evangelicalism, we’ve been too quick to dismiss this passage from John’s gospel. But we should be careful not to throw away our inheritance as if it was dirty bathwater. Too often, we in the mainline church dispense with the notion that we’ve missed the mark and that we need to change and experience a rebirth. The late Irish poet, priest, and philosopher, John O’Donohue, writes, “Change is so difficult for us. So often we opt to continue the old patterns rather than risking the danger of difference.”
Often, we associate change with loss, which, especially if you’re over 50 or have a degenerative disease, is natural, because as our bodies “mature,” there is a loss of function, facility, and flexibility. But other changes — spiritual, psychological, wisdom — can represent gains, rather than losses.
In terms of spiritual growth, who wouldn’t want to sense rebirth and renewal? It’s actually a wonderful opportunity if we try to see the world with new eyes or to see the world through the lens of Christ…through the lens of hope. That would be a rebirth for some of us!
Last week, I got a fund-raising letter, and most of them find their way right into the recycling bin. But not this one; it was from the Center for Action and Contemplation, Richard Rohr’s organization in Albuquerque. Here is what stuck with me:
“The Gospel message is one of hope — not because it changes what we see, but because it changes how we see….The gift of hope during such a traumatic year is the gift of a new way of seeing in difficult times….The commitment to see the world through a different set of eyes and show up as a hopeful presence is a huge act of participation in transforming oneself and the world. Fr. Richard speaks to the power of this…: ‘I think we’ve been led into a period of exile again, both as a culture and as a church. In the periods of shadow, we feel a lot of hostility. We take it out on other people by blaming them. Often, all it takes to stem this process is for one person to take a hopeful stance.’”
Here are some visions of hope that I’ve heard from our congregation in your response to our pandemic worship, meeting, and communication survey, about what you have learned these past 15 months:
What lenses have you been wearing? Has your prescription changed during the months of our separation? I had an eye exam last week and my astigmatism has worsened and distorted my vision a bit. Perhaps what we all need is a slight change in our individual spiritual lens prescription. And perhaps that’s what we need in our congregational prescription lenses, too: a tweak that will help us see things more clearly, through the lens of hope, not just for ourselves, but for every life we touch.
So often, we American Protestants have thought about God’s salvation only on an individual basis and not as collective salvation of all God’s people and creation. So, what would it look like if our church was to be born again or born anew? What if we, as a congregation, could be reborn in an evolutionary or even a revolutionary way as we step over the threshold of post-pandemic life? How might we, as a congregation, deepen our pilgrimage?
John O’Donohue writes, “When the grip of some long-enduring winter mentality begins to loosen, we find ourselves vulnerable to a flourish of possibility and we are suddenly negotiating the challenge of a threshold.”
Thresholds are times of new beginnings…of begin born again or born anew. Just as the buds on the trees have burst open with the spring, our congregation, too, can be born anew, as we emerge from the long winter of pandemic.
O’Donohue continues: “A threshold is not simply a boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms, atmospheres. Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience or a stage of life that intensifies toward the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged or woken up. [Dare we say born anew?] At this threshold a great complexity of emotion comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope. This is one of the reasons such vital crossings are always clothed in ritual. It is wise in our own lives to be able to recognize and acknowledge key threshold: to take time; the feel the varieties of presence that accrue there; to listen inward with complete attention until you hear the inner voice calling you forward. The time has come to cross.”
What emotions are coming alive for you at this point in our collective journey? Are you excited to be back in our sanctuary? Confused about whether it’s safe to be out and about? Afraid that it won’t be the same? Excited for the new directions our Strategic Plan will lead? Anxious about how it’s all going to shake out? Hopeful that new beginnings will bring new possibilities and new people into our midst? Personally, I’ve had all of those feelings, and I suppose most of us have. But if we keep our hope-filled lenses at the ready, we’ll be prepared to take that step forward across the threshold.
We’ve been in a liminal space — a long threshold — since March 2020, and we’re finally nearing the point where we actually step across it. As a congregation we can lean on God and one another to be courageous and emotionally vulnerable as we prepare to be born anew as people of the Spirit.
May we open our hearts, our minds, our hands, and our doors as together we are born again.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space between Us. (NY: Doubleday, 2008), loc. 752.
 CAC Spring 2021 appeal letter.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.