Monday, March 6, 2017

Nighttime Calls

I keep my cell phone with me almost all the time. I'm not really happy about that, and, as I wrote a few months ago, I'm working on leaving it behind more often. When I am honest with myself, I admit that I primarily keep my cell phone close by because I enjoy being able to look at the news, check e-mail, or browse Facebook anytime I want. But there are pastoral reasons for me to stay in touch, too. My cell phone is the way parishioners contact me in a pastoral emergency. I give my cell phone number out freely, and, if you call the church office and get my voice mail, the message will tell you that, "If you need to reach me more immediately, you may try my cell phone..." and then it gives the number.

In a decade or so of ordained ministry, my phone has rung in the middle of the night with a true pastoral emergency fewer than a dozen times. And, every time it has, it has been a privilege to answer the phone. There is no place I would rather be than at your bedside or in your hospital room when you need someone to hold you, pray for you, and cry with you. Although it has probably happened, I cannot remember a single time when someone has called me in the middle of the night with something less than a true emergency. Thankfully, people seem to know that 2:30am is not the time to bother someone who has four children because they want to ask what time the midweek service is or because they want me to know that their power bill is past due. The true middle of the night seems off-limits for those kind of inquiries, but that isn't true for earlier in the evening.

My phone rings a surprising amount between 8pm and 11pm. Maybe cell phones and the ability to call one person in a household instead of the entire house (or, back when there were "party lines" a whole string of houses) has shifted what is decent, but not that long ago it was considered rude to call someone after 8pm. When my phone rings at 10:30pm, Elizabeth and I give each other a look because we know this will either be really important or really not important. For some reason, there doesn't seem to be any middle ground at half-past ten. Sometimes it's someone with a recent hospital admission or a death, but, more often than I'd like to admit, it's someone with the sort of question or issue that should wait until the morning. Thankfully, caller ID and voicemail help me sift through the calls that can and cannot wait, but, still, to reach out to one's pastor after the sun goes down usually means someone is desperate even if the situation isn't as bad as it seems.

In John 3, Nicodemus comes to Jesus "by night," which is to say "under the cover of darkness." The text doesn't necessarily tell us that he was hiding from something, but, since John goes out of his way to tell us that he was "a leader of the Jews," it may be safe to assume he didn't want to be seen by his peers. Or maybe, like the people who call me, something urgent was going on. But, as my father would say, nothing good happens at night. In that culture, people didn't make house calls at night. There weren't street lights. A knock on the door after dark was never casual--always urgent. Nicodemus, therefore, has something that cannot wait until a more reasonable hour.

I like to imagine that Jesus stood there inside the door with his arms folded across his chest, waiting on Nicodemus to explain why he was calling on him at night. We don't know what was communicated without words, but we do know that, by the time Nicodemus spoke, he still didn't quite have his thoughts together: "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Flattery is probably a good way to begin, but what is he really getting at? Why has he bothered Jesus at night? Jesus knows what's in his heart--that this man is looking for answers--and he responds, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."

In the conversation that follows, there's a lot said about this "being born from above." It's as if Jesus hit on something Nicodemus was wondering before Nicodemus even realized it. Like most nighttime inquiries, the conversation doesn't end with any clear resolution. If you read through chapter 3, you'll see that Jesus offers a gentle pastoral rebuke: "But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God." I like to think of that as Jesus' way of saying, "Why don't you call me in the morning when we've both had time to think about it." Still, even though the conversation does not reach a clear conclusion, we know that, later on in 7:50, Nicodemus sticks up for Jesus, reminding the leaders that guilt is only assigned after a fair hearing. Then again at the end of Jesus' life (chapter 19), Nicodemus, whom John reminds us had gone to Jesus at night, is the one who buys the oils and spices to anoint Jesus' lifeless body. In other words, the nighttime call may not have brought resolution, but it was an important encounter that bore considerable fruit as the story progressed.

What do we bring to Jesus at night? Sleepless, anxious, agitated, desperate--what do we knock on Jesus' door to say? Is there something gnawing at us? What is Jesus' response? Sometimes knocking on the door is enough to get things started.

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