Ruth Woodliff-Stanley

Year A

Second Sunday in Lent

Nocturnal Visits

March 8, 2020

Revised Common Lectionary

Hi Everyone,

Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.

This week, I've been thinking about how difficult it can be to construct interactions that elict one's essence to come forth and therefore allow transformative exchanges, such as the one between Nicodemus and Jesus, to occur. Take a look at the interdisciplinary lessons. Then, you'll find this week's collect and my reflection.



Spirituality & Psychology

Healing Civilization: Interview with Claudio Naranjo

Eleonora Gilbert

Interview with Claudio Naranjo about the core wounds within human civilization and how to heal them.

Consider your experience of the three brains Naranjo describes and reflect on the circles in which you experience each.

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The Power of Conversational Leadership

Carmen Nobel

Harvard Business School

Article detailing the properties of a good organizational conversation

Reflect on the four “I’s” of effective conversation and think about how you are able to show up when these are present and when they are not.

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What are the nocturnal visits you need to make in order to find rebirth?


“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." –John 3:16

John 3:16 is one of the most over exposed portions of the gospel we can find. Like a photograph left too long in the developing solution in the old days before digital cameras, this gospel has been exposed to the point at which its original image can hardly still be discerned.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Somewhere along the way, this verse, more than any other, became the fight song for a popularized version of Christianity, commonly dubbed "born again Christianity." Combined with earlier references in the chapter about being born from above, or born again, it came to describe in that context, a moment in an individual’s life when that person finds the magic formula to avoid eternal damnation. So thoroughly has this version of the faith infused popular culture that we can hardly hear this passage without something like this paraphrase running through our minds: ‘If you say the right words in a prayer asking Jesus into your life, you will avoid the fires of hell. Otherwise, as is said in the movie Taken, "Good Luck."

Is it still possible for us to peel back that modern and narrow reading and return to Jesus’ and Nicodemus’ nocturnal exchange, a time when Nicodemus is asking for new birth? Can we revisit the idea of new birth for ourselves and for the communities in which we live and move and have our being?

There is a painting of this scene between Nicodemus and Jesus painted by an artist in Cameroon Africa in the seventies. In it, Jesus, robed in red, is speaking to Nicodemus. The most notable aspect of the painting for me is the light. It moves across Jesus’ face and upper arm, making the unseen candlelight evident.

I appreciate this detail because it brings the viewer back with one glance to the initial context of the exchange, namely a secret meeting in the night by candlelight. A meeting for the purpose of seeking wisdom.

Little is known about Nicodemus. He appears three times only in the New Testament. Here, then later to argue that Jesus deserved a trial before being condemned and finally, as the one to anoint Jesus’ body at death.

What we can infer from the simple fact of his status as a Pharisee is that he was an educated man. Nicodemus, like Joseph of Arimathea, brings the story of Jesus squarely into the world of the erudite.

While Nicodemus could not risk a meeting in broad daylight, his fascination drove him to seek Jesus out in the secrecy of the darkness. In the flickering candlelight, he seeks to understand the mystery that is pulling him toward this unlikely, uneducated but clearly wise teacher.

So, what does Nicodemus glean?

The easy part of the answer comes from the first portion of the passage: for God so loved the world that he gave.... That love and gift are at the heart of the divine-human relationship makes sense.

The more inscrutable part of Jesus' message to Nicodemus is what comes next:

That whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

In born again Christianity, this has come to mean, if you give assent to the premise that Jesus is God’s only son, you will live forever. Otherwise, you will perish. And worse—you’ll burn in hell.

The context for this statement appears two verses earlier when Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the servant in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” This is an allusion to Numbers 21 where the serpent bit the Israelites after their complaining. When they looked up at the bronze serpent, they could live. Jesus on the cross will become the completion of this image.

Belief in Jesus has to do with keeping one’s eyes fixed on him in the midst of challenge. Belief is about where we choose to focus our attention, to whom we give ourselves. The image of the serpent helps us get this because the Israelites were saved as long as they were looking upon it. This isn’t like holding your breath under a tunnel—where, if you let up for one second, you’ve lost the dare. It is, rather the path of giving oneself, one’s full being and attention, to that which transforms one in the midst of a myriad of other things clamoring for one’s primary attention.

In the past couple of weeks, I have had the gift of being in more than one circle of people in varied settings. All of them caring folk. In these gatherings, I was reminded of the choices we have, each time we interact with others, about what we fix our eyes upon in the midst of many competing demands for our attention.

adrienne maree brown says that there is a conversation that only these people in this room can have. Find it. (Emergent Strategy, p. 41) When I read that sentence, it took my breath away. I cannot count how many times I have had, even recently, conversations that were not those most important ones, like the one held by candlelight between Nicodemus and Jesus.

There may not be any single thing more important than constructing our interactions with one another in ways that invite us back to the flickering candlelight, back to questions that are real, that are alive in us. And doing so in ways that allow us to listen and to share wisdom where ego falls away and essence can at least peek through. Such encounters do not just happen in any context; this is a truth of which I am painfully reminded from time to time. Too much of our precious life energy is spent on the noise of conversations other than those that we need desperately to find. We find them only when both parties must lean in with curiosity and without hindered, clouded motives.

In the interview in our spirituality and psychology lesson, Enneagram teacher and human potential leader Claudio Naranjo describes the primary wound of human civilization as the patriarchal constructs that have led us to lose touch with our instinctual (body-centered) brain and our heart (mammalian) brain in favor of only listening to head cut off from these other centers of knowing. It is compelling to consider the many ways in which we construct our interactions with others that cut us off from the wisdom of our bodies, our spirits, and our hearts.

In our business and technology lesson, Carmen Nobel identifies four qualities of organizational conversation (intimacy, interactivity, inclusion, intentionality), that Groysberg and communication professional Michael Slind outline in their book Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power their Organizations. "Intimacy is about leadership," Groysberg explains. "Interactivity is about channels. Inclusion is about content. And intentionality is about goals, vision, and the strategy of getting things done.

Even the most adept leaders can find it difficult to manifest these qualities in stressful, rushed, or ill-conceived environments. Building this level of conversation is a discipline requiring immense patience, forgiveness of oneself and the other when we miss the mark, and a lifelong commitment to getting up and trying again–and again, and again. And, not every group of people is capable of doing this work together; not every group of people is meant to do the work together. Sometimes, the stars are simply not aligned in our pysches, and the conversation by candlelight is not possible. Sometimes, the best we can manage is an interaction that feels more like a quiz show than the communion of souls. This is a painful but necessary truth to apprehend; when we cannot find the conversation we need to have, we must be gentle with ourselves. Usually, there is a reason we cannot find it; the psyche knows why even when the ego does not. In those times, we need to wait, to listen, to look for the stars that do align. Finding the nocturnal visits that are ours to have leads to our rebirth.

In one of the circles I joined in recent weeks, a wise facilitator invited us into “the repeating question.” I’ve endured more mixers than I care to count, most of them with no real deepening potential. But this one was different. In it, two people pair. The asker simply asks the same question, given by the facilitator over and over until the bell chimes, and then the roles switch. Each time the responder answers, the asker simply says “thank you,” and asks again. So, for example, if one is asked, “What prevents you from being here fully now?” eight times within a brief span of seconds, by the eighth time the responder answers, both people have received a gift. The responder has been heard to her depths. The asker has learned about her, in a matter of moments. The two have given and received love. I am learning with a beginner's mind, though I have practiced for years as a facilitator of spaces, how truly material our choices are in how we use time together. How we invite one another to show up can make all the difference.

I imagine Nicodemus, by his choice of timing, through the setting, through his questions, invited the best of Jesus to join him. And I believe Jesus, in his responses, with his voice, his body, his leaning in, brought out the same in Nicodemus.

In that candlelight, Jesus, in what I imagine were barely audible tones, whispers to Nicodemus something we need to hear anew. When I listen to John 3:16, I imagine Jesus whispering to me, and the gist of what I hear is this:

At the heart of reality is love marked by open hearted generosity with what is most precious to us. And at the heart of human existence is an invitation–to reorient our lives to love in the same way, with the same open heartedness. Reorienting our lives to love marked by this kind of generosity brings freedom from the limits of living primarily out of our own wounds and fears. And it takes everything in us. That is the believing part—not mere intellectual assent, but a giving ourselves to a way. Living this way opens an infinite horizon to us and brings us into the true fullness of our existence.

What do you hear?

In these days of a present, rapidly spreading pandemic that elicits our fear of our own mortality, of sharpened global division that elicits our pettiness, of extreme poverty that elicits our shame and sense of culpability, and of the visible demise of our planet’s stability that elicits our despair, isn’t a nocturnal visit to seek a way out of our self-limited smallness long overdue? Let us make haste and go by candlelight, while there is still time, to rediscover what an open heart looks like.