Paula Anema Sohl

28 January 2018

Born from Above: Redefining Human Possibilities

John 3:1-21; Poems by Hadewijch


Do these babies make you think the stork might have brought them? and that they have been “born from above?” (3 dolls in pride flag stork slings hang from ceiling) Well, we teach Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum here and we don’t subscribe to the stork story. In fact our dolls are anatomically correct in case you were peeking. And as an advertisement, we will will be hosting an OWL information event here on April 6 as we gear up for our summer program for grade school age children and our year long program for 7-9th graders starting in September. So, bring your friends and family members to help us be OWL-vangelists in our community. This is where we begin early to explore and develop healthy understandings of diversity, respect, consent, health, and of the goodness of our bodies.

So, back to the babies. Nicodemus, who we read about in the text from John, was a religious leader who had recognized that Jesus was offering some teaching that resonated with him and he was impressed by the signs he had seen. But, he went to see Jesus in the night, perhaps so no one would see him. Maybe he was still skeptical and cautious, perhaps a man used to playing by the rules of convention.

Jesus immediately says to Nicodemus that if he really wants to understand what is going on with Jesus and his ministry, he’ll have to be born anew. And Nicodemus goes right there—to the baby excuse. He says how can anyone be born again and return to their mother’s womb? He has some good understanding of where babies came from, but not a lot of imagination about what Jesus might be trying to invite him to consider.

So, we are going to use our imaginations a little. I have another baby here that can go back into the womb, or the uterus. It’s a teaching baby called Neo Natalie.

In just over a week, my husband Bryan and I, Kay Sandberg, and some other people from Ashland will be traveling to Bangladesh, where there is a huge population of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. One of the ways we are prepared to serve is that we are taking five Neo Natalies and five Mama Natalies along to train people who are working with refugees and others with limited access to hospitals to help babies and mothers survive birth. Usually birth goes fine, but sometimes, mothers can bleed to death after giving birth, and sometimes, babies need help to get their breathing started.

So, here’s how the training practice goes: the baby goes into the uterus and the mom does the work to push it out. When the baby is pushed out by the mom, we give her a shot to help her uterus squeeze down so bleeding won’t be a problem. Then we check to make sure there is not a twin. Then we cut the umbilical cord and help her deliver the placenta. Meanwhile, we dry off the baby and put a hat on her and wrap her up warm on her mother’s chest and make sure she is breathing. If she isn’t, there are a few things we will do to help her get started on breathing.

There are close to a million Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh. It is projected that 48,000 babies will be born in these camps in the next year. The Rohingya people have been forced from their homes in Myanmar by the military in what has been described as ethnic cleansing. Many were also killed and their villages destroyed.

When children live in refugee camps they will often make their own toys. Here are some photos of the toys children have made and here are some supplies for the children here today to make their own things.

The need for aid for the Rohingya is overwhelming as this refugee situation worsened so quickly since August this last year.

  • The whole refugee population requires food aid.
  • 21,677 children under five have been treated for severe acute malnutrition
  • 315,000 children under 15 years of age have received a five-in-one vaccination
  • nearly 45,000 temporary emergency latrines have been built by the Bangladesh military
  • 21,000 metric tonnes of aid has been delivered in 17 airlifts
  • So far, UNHCR (UN High Commission for Refugees) has distributed 30,000 shelter kits and has a target of 80,000 by March.The kits include bamboo, rope, plastic sheeting, and a bag of tools with hammer, nails and plastic ties.

According to the UN refugee committee of 1951, “A refugee is a person with a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

“65.6 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as eduction, healthcare employment , and freedom of movement.” Somewhere around 30,000 people are forced to leave their home every day; that’s more than 20 per minute.

Thank God for the organizations and individuals who respond to their needs. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has 11,000 staff members who work in 130 countries to respond to this unprecedented migration of people.

I want to return now to the story of Nicodemus, his middle of the night visit to Jesus, and his certainty that a man can’t be born again. There are three things that I want to point out about their conversation.

First, Jesus brings up this idea of our being born from God. One way of thinking about God is as our mother whose womb we grow in and from whom we are launched into the world. That helps to explain why we usually begin the Lord’s Prayer, saying: Our Mother, Our Father. We understand God in many ways and one important way is as the One who births us.

Second, the words “born from above.” Now, just like we don’t think babies come from the sky from a stork any more, many of us also don’t think of God just being up there, but rather, present in all things like we sang: God with us in joy and pain, God with us in the mundane. The word in Greek anothen, means two things at once. It means from above, but it also means anew. So, Jesus is telling Nicodemus, he’s got to have a new birth, a fresh start, maybe even to become a child again in some way. So, this birth is from the Mystery beyond, later he calls it a birth of the Spirit, and it is about redefining human possibilities. Nicodemus is stuck on what’s possible and impossible because his imagination is not ready for what Jesus is proposing.

The third thing is that people who have this kind of new birth from the Spirit might be unpredictable, like the wind; we don’t always know where the wind is coming from or where it is going: where Spirit will send us, how Spirit will transform us.

When we hear statistics like the ones I shared with you a moment ago, and when we read our news feed each day, we, like Nicodemus, may lack imagination, feel hopeless, and doubtful. We may feel unwilling to trust in the possibility that God is truly with people, even in the worst of times, and that the possibilities for humanity evolving are real.

But Hadewijch, in the 13th century, who also thought of God in feminine terms, and who also conflated God with Love as we often do, inspires with her passion for renewal, saying:

God must give us a renewed mind

For nobler and freer love,

To make us so new in our life

That Love may bless us…

(and in another poem)

Since I gave myself to Love’s service…

I am resolved;…

Whether I lose or win;

I will stand in her power.


So, here are a few things to keep in our empowered, renewing minds: some stories of hope to remind us that we stand in the power to be born anew to the possibilities of God who is Love who is with us.

Everyone of us is an immigrant or the descendent of immigrants. It is a human right to migrate and for people to want to improve their lives, to search for opportunities, stability, and prosperity. Movements of people across borders has certainly escalated.The world is shrinking and people from different cultures and religions are going to have to learn to live with each other. We could say, we get to live with each other in our difference more richly as we welcome strangers and are enriched through the exchange. Ai Weiwei’s new film Human Flow offers a textured look at this migration.

And as impossible as it seems, many things are improving. These calculations from Max Rosa reflect transformational changes in human society and the power of humanity to thrive: every day the number of people living on less than $2 a day goes down by 217,000. Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity. And 300,000 more gain access to clean drinking water.

In the 60’s a majority of people in the world were illiterate, now fewer than 15 percent are, and fewer than 10 percent live in extreme poverty. In another 15 years, illiteracy and extreme poverty will be mostly gone. Since 1990, the lives of more than 100 million children have been saved by vaccinations, diarrhea treatment, breast-feeding promotion and other simple steps.

This week in the news, we passed the Oregon health care bill! The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled against a pattern of gerrymandering legislative districts! Salmon in Bristol Bay are safe for the moment from Pebble Mine. An ecumenical delegation of 50 went to Honduras as witness to the ever more visible corruption there. And in Michigan, 156 powerful young women spoke to their victimizer as brave and articulate survivors, shining light on what had been a shameful secret. Their testimony has reminded us to listen to children and make sure they know about their right to manage their own bodies.

I will finish with 4 more stories of young people born into this world of new possibilities.

There is a young Afghan woman named Sultana. She was forced to drop out of elementary school. But she had the internet in her home. So she taught herself English, algebra, calculus, physics, string theory, philosophy, and read the New York Times. She is now taking graduate classes at Arizona State University.

Faraj is a 21 year old Muslim man. He fled with his family from Syria in 2012. He traveled from Egypt to Turkey and finally to England. He was granted refugee status and began volunteering and cooking at a church. He now stays with a devout Jewish couple who adore him. After praying five times a day, Faraj attends the synagogue and helps the rabbi. He hopes to become a psychologist.

Carolina is from the Dominican Republic. Although she is currently working with students in the Rogue Valley, she and her husband run a mission where they feed lunch every day to 4,450 children who live at the border between Haiti and the DR where Haitians have been forced from their homes.

Taylor is a young woman who was born in Ashland 24 years ago on Christmas Eve. Her mother almost bled to death and she, the baby, wasn’t breathing for a while after she was born. But people knew what to do to save both their lives, and now Taylor has grown into an adventurous young woman who works helping to save the lives of refugees. We are hoping to see her when she meets up with us in Bangladesh.

The wind blows where it pleases and new possibilities for our future will surprise us. May we not deny what is possible.


The Lord’s Prayer (from the New Zealand Prayer Book)


Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,

Source of all that is and that shall be,

Father and Mother of us all,

Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!

The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!

Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.

In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.

From trials too great to endure, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever.






Love With Us–Ben Grace


In the heat and in the fire

You see all that our heart desires

In the darkness and the flood

Always with us and always love

Always with us and always love



Love with us in joy and pain

Love with us in the mundane

Love with us until the end

Always only our true heart’s friend

Always only our true heart’s friend


In confusion and questioning

When to futile thoughts we cling

When we’re muddled up in shame

You insist that it’s not our name

You insist that it’s not our name




In our aimless wandering

On the days we can’t bear to sing

When we circle round and round

You say that the lost are found

You say that the lost are found




Chorus 2:

Love with each and everyone

Love for daughters and for sons

Love for enemies and friends

Love with us until the end

Love with us until the end


New Century Hymnal 427 Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth

New Century Hymnal 467 God Made From One Blood