Monday Over Coffee: "Agility"

Published September 25, 2023 by Greg Funderburk

There are definitely two camps on this: Some parents like to know the gender of their baby beforehand; some don’t. My wife, Kelly, and I fell into the latter category, but at a prenatal appointment related to the upcoming birth of our first child, our sonogram technician—while scoping out the monitor—made a comment. “Pretty as a peach,” she said.

Based only on that remark, we soon purchased an ornate crib, painted the baby’s room in a color that reflected our expectation, and picked out a name—Susan Patricia. After our mothers. We were going to call her Trish. By the time we checked into the hospital, the belief that we were having a girl had settled in as gospel truth. But at the moment of delivery, before the doctor was able to make any sort of announcement—before Kelly could even lay her eyes on Baby Trish—everyone in the delivery room heard me exclaim, “It’s a boy!” Kelly responded incredulously, “No, it’s not.” After the doctor helpfully seconded my opinion, he handed Kelly our new baby boy, soon to be named Hank. 

Once our minds settle on something as being true, it’s really difficult for us to consider we could be wrong. We simply fail to imagine it. However, if we’re to see the world clearly, perhaps we ought to maintain a certain agility of mind, asking God to gently show us our blind spots as we develop a habit of continually questioning the prior assumptions we hold both about our faith and the world in which we live. 

Scripture has some great examples of people who were able to do this—to change their minds—but my favorite one is introduced to us in John’s Gospel like this: “There was once a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council who came to see Jesus at night.”

Right off the story begs a major question—why would a leading rabbi of the day feel obliged to wait until dark to visit Jesus? Well, let’s imagine Nicodemus’ backstory. It probably went something like this: There was once a young Jewish boy, a student so exceptional that the most respected rabbi in town took him under his wing. The lad advanced quickly, surpassing even his teachers in ability, memorizing not only the Torah, but the oral tradition—the thousands of laws, statutes, and interpretations that had emerged over the centuries within the Jewish faith. The young man soon came of age and took a sacred oath promising not just to obey them, but to uphold them in his community.

For decades now he’s sat with other teachers in the synagogues, interpreting for his flock how the law should be applied in disputed situations. Next, he takes on students of his own and is elevated to the Sanhedrin, a supreme court of sorts that holds jurisdiction over the lives of everyone in the faith—overseeing its law, protecting its culture and its traditions. He’s become one of the most respected men in the country.

Can you conceive of someone with more to lose if the system in which he’s risen is toppled? Can we conceive of anyone who’d be more likely to hold on to his own way of thinking, to fall into the trap of motivated reasoning, and to get stuck in the echo chamber of his own confirmation bias? From where Nicodemus sat, when the ancient prophets so central to his faith had written of a Messiah long ago, they could scarcely have been describing the 30-year-old carpenter’s son from Galilee who lived down the street, consorting with sinners, and turning water into wine at local weddings. Nicodemus must’ve struggled with how visiting Jesus might seem disloyal to everything in which he believed.

On the Gospel stage briefly, Nicodemus gets only a few lines in Scripture. But, following Christ’s crucifixion, along with Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus brings a mixture of myrrh and aloe, about 70 pounds of it (the equivalent of $150,000-$200,000), takes Jesus’ body, and wraps it with the spices in strips of linen in accordance with Jewish burial customs. It was Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, who took the body from the cross and prepared a carpenter’s son for burial as if he were a king. Why? Because he had concluded that he was one. 

What if, like Nicodemus, we began to look to our faith not always to reinforce what we think we’re right about but rather to instruct us on what we might be wrong about.

God—May I take from the story of Nicodemus the idea that You’re always doing something new in the world. Grant me some agility to keep up. Amen.