Parachutists have a phrase they call “ground rush.” Now I have never jumped out of a plane, so I can’t vouch for this personally, but apparently, when you first make the jump and you are falling through the sky, but have yet to open up your parachute, you have this feeling as if you are falling - dropping towards the ground at a completely reasonable speed. You have time to take in the scenery, and while it’s exhilarating, your sense of time slows down completely - the ground, after all, seems very far away. But once you fall a certain distance, your perception shifts - and it’s not the falling that you’re aware of - it is instead the ground rushing quickly towards you. In that instant, one might imagine that Time speeds up rather quickly. And you are probably awfully keen to pull your parachute cord. It has been suggested that this might make a good analogy for the way we experience life - the first half of which we might spend enjoying the feeling of time travelling slowly, and the second half, suddenly realizing that time is ticking down. Of course, time is always ticking down. It is only our perception that changes.
Lent, of course, is meant to be one of those perception-changing seasons of the church. Forty days to contemplate the passage of time, both to slow it down, like the parachutist first emerging from the plane, but with a sense of its passing quickly, like the second half of the descent. These are the two postures of Lent: slowing things down, then speeding up, or focusing on what is important. It is a difficult one for us to master, since we most naturally fall into the opposite pattern: that is, speeding up, or focusing on, all the things that are the least important. Much is of this is a matter of perception: from what angle do we see the world? Where is the countdown clock in our lives? Do we lament our lack of time with our kids, only to spend precious moments with them on our iPhones? Do we wish for a better marriage while devoting the best of ourselves to work? Do we write an ending for our lives without seeing the journey we have to take?
This morning’s gospel features a wordy debate between a Pharisee and Jesus. The Pharisee - Nicodemus - is trying to pin Jesus down, to get some specifics on heaven and the spirit. But Jesus dodges the questions: he leaves his answers open-ended. Clearly, this frustrates poor Nicodemus, who wants it clearly mapped out. To use our parachutist analogy, he wanted to know that when he jumps out of a plane, he will fall for exactly so many seconds, pull his chute at this time directly, and land in this place precisely. But Jesus denies him this kind of answer. “The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”
Jesus speaks of us in two parts - flesh and spirit. The first, we understand better: it is the most animal part of it - hunger, thirst - even those baser human emotions such as anger. Love for our families and spouses we might add to the flesh side of our lives since they come naturally. But the spirit, as Jesus would say, works more mysteriously - it is that human quality that is harder to understand, the one that makes less sense in a Darwinian world, the acts of charity and kindness toward strangers, sacrifices we make not for ourselves, but for others. It is the feeling of euphoria when time does not seem to matter, when the wind is blowing us, but we don’t know where and are prepared to be led by it. Part of Jesus’s frustration with the law-oriented society into which he was born was just that: so focused on rules, they were not prepared to be led the way the wind blew them. They wanted to know the destination before they took the next step.
That’s hardly how life works, in any event, so it’s an attitude that holds us back from the real decisions we must make.
Certainly, this week, witnessing the horror of the migrant tragedy off Italy’s southern coast, we have seen people moved by the spirit. I think of the rescue crews who worked tirelessly trying to find survivors. Expressions of grief from around the world. And the demands for action that were split between the imperative of humanitarian treatment and a crackdown on traffickers. Sometimes it takes a tragic story to move our spirit. That is the unquantifiable element of humanity - the part that brings us closer to God - the part we cannot explain. It is not complicated to understand our definition of heroes and martyrs - they are the people that choose the spirit over flesh. They are the people that choose faith over law.
Let us return to that airplane, with us about to leap out of it. An analogy for life, but also for every day. And certainly, one that works for Lent. What Jesus wants for us is to experience, every chance we can, these two seeming contradictions of life - the ability to see the big picture, and the capability to respond in small and significant ways to improve that picture. Jesus wants to us feel both time moving slowly, and time passing by. This is also the discipline of Lent - both contemplation and action, which in partnership require an awareness of life at its largest, and an ability to distill it down to specifics. If we stay too long in the first, we forget to pull our parachute cord.
And I like the parachute analogy for one other important reason: who is our parachute, after all? Our gospel gives us this answer: For God so loved the world that God gave Jesus so that everyone who believes may not perish but may have eternal life. And just in case we didn’t get it the first time, we have this clarification: Jesus didn’t come to judge us or condemn us. Jesus came to save us - that is, to guide and comfort us. That is the parachute that helps us see life large, and act upon it. It is the spirit that moves our flesh into faith, that carries us forward to sacrifice for others, that inspires heroes. Don’t be like Nicodemus arguing semantics with Jesus. Listen for the wind, savour the view, and pull your parachute cord.Amen