Just When You Think It’s Dire…SURPRISE!

 John 21:1-14

Right now I have been thinking about a number of people—people who are going through extremely difficult moments in their lives. It’s broken relationships, physical and mental illness, great loss, loneliness, or a feeling of complete uncertainty and no sense of purpose. It is painful for them in so many ways. And, to be honest, I don’t know what to say. I don’t blame them for thinking:

There’s no way out.

What they feel is intensely real, and intensely awful. It cannot be explained away by positive thinking or quick-and-easy solutions. And these types of feelings can lead to desperation, fear, and even hatred. As much as we try to avoid getting to that place, it’s possible.

So let me ask you:

Have you ever felt so low and desperate that you saw no way out?

Have you ever felt that life has no meaning?

Are you feeling that way right now?

Let me say straightaway that I don’t think that desperation is a sign of failure. In contrast to what much of Western society propagates—the idea that we should always be in control and calm, collected—I’m not buying it. Desperation can actually be a sign of something good to come. Desperation can be a gift. Why? Because when we feel desperate, we can find an otherwise unnoticed ability to change—to change behaviors and life habits that we thought were not possible to change.

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A feeling of complete desperation has also been described by many as the “dark night of the soul.” This phrase, in its original language of Spanish, la noche oscura del alma, is a title given to a poem by 16th-century Spanish poet and Roman Catholic mystic Juan de Yepes y Álvarez, often referred to as Saint John of the Cross. Juan was born and raised near Ávila, España into a converso family (in other words, he came from a Jewish family that converted to Christianity]. Juan did not entitle his poem “the dark night of the soul”; it is instead called Spiritual Canticles and was written by Juan when he was imprisoned and tortured in Spain due to the tensions between certain factions of the Roman Catholic Church and monastery orders.[1]

As with any work of spiritual or religious mysticism, Juan’s poetry is symbolic of both religious and theological leanings, but also of the inner psychology of the human experience. His poetry, for the most part, focuses on the mystical union between a human being and Christ.  Many people, including those who are non-religious, have embraced Juan’s poetry, finding some connection to his expression of the dark night of the soul. Even rock bands like Depeche Mode.

depecheMode In their song “I Feel Loved,” they sing:

It’s the dark night of my soul and temptation’s taking hold, but through the pain and the suffering, through the heartache and trembling I feel loved…

Eckhart Tolle, philosopher and author, who is best known for his books The Power of Now and A New Earth: Awakening to your Life’s Purpose, shares some helpful insight about the dark night of the soul.

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It is a term used to describe what one could call a collapse of a perceived meaning in life…an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness.  Nothing makes sense anymore, there’s no purpose to anything.  Sometimes it’s triggered by some external event, some disaster perhaps, on an external level.  The death of someone close to you could trigger it. The meaning that you have given your life, your activities, your achievements, where you are going, what is considered important, this meaning collapses. What has collapsed is the whole conceptual framework for your life, the meaning that your mind had given it.  So that results in a dark place.[2]

The Gospel of John is no stranger to this idea of dark places and the possibility of light breaking through them. The symbols of light and darkness are all over John’s story.

After Jesus of Nazareth dies, his friends and followers are indeed in a period of the dark night of the soul. And only by passing through it can they experience the light of the dawn. Keep in mind that the appearances of Jesus to his friends after his death are not concrete resurrection proofs that you can point to and say “aha!” Jesus rose from the dead! These appearances are very contextual, psychological, and unique to the individuals involved. So let’s not try to “figure out” timing or details of these appearances, because such things don’t exist.

That being said, this story is about some of Jesus’ followers who were fisherman. After Jesus’ death, they went back to what they knew—fishing. But it was night [notice that] and they were not catching anything.

it was a dark night for them. Jesus was gone, they were alone, and they were failing at the one thing they knew how to do.

Business as usual, the old habits, they just didn’t cut it.

Then, morning came. Daybreak! A new beginning.

And along came a “stranger” who asks them if they’ve caught anything. They respond, “Nope.” Then the stranger tells them to go back out on the lake and drop their nets on the right side of the boat. That was weird. Fishermen mostly threw their nets right over left, to the left side of the boat.

Well, they decided to do it, finally. And when they threw out their nets, they were not strong enough to draw them back in because they were too heavy with fish.

One of the disciples said: “It is the Lord.” Simon Peter heard that, put on an extra layer of clothes, and threw himself into the water. The other disciples, in the little boat, drew in the net of fish, and when they got to land, they saw a charcoal fire and fish laid upon (it) and bread.  The stranger [now called Jesus] said: “Bring from the fish which you have now caught.” So they ate together, but the disciples were afraid to ask the stranger who he was.

What do you glean from this story?

For me, it’s a relevant story if we notice the symbols of light and dark and also the impetus for a change of perspective.

Jesus was dead. His friends and followers were in a low place, a dark night of the soul. They were desperate, they were confused, and they felt like nothing had meaning.

But being in that desperate place was an opportunity to emerge out of it into a transformed state.

Life could have meaning again, but it will not be the same meaning as before.

Emerging from the desperate and dark night of the soul means awakening into something deeper, which is no longer based on the concepts we have in our minds. It means seeking a deeper sense of purpose or connectedness with a greater life that is not dependent on explanations or anything societal.

Within the dark night of the soul, things lose the meaning that you have given them—all the things that you were conditioned to think and believe.
This is scary, of course. For the world you thought you knew has faded and the world you now see is something you no longer understand.  But we have the chance to live in this world without interpreting it compulsively. We can look upon events, people, etc., with a deep sense of aliveness, on we stop trying to fit our experiences into the same conceptual framework.[3]

I return to the questions I asked at the very beginning:
Have you ever felt so low and desperate that you saw no way out?
Have you ever felt that life has no meaning?
Are you feeling that way right now?

Friends, wherever you are on your journey, remember that being in a desperate place, a dark night of the soul, can be an opportunity. It can be a chance for you to leave behind old habits or ways of seeing the world, a chance to break down your conditioned responses to people and the world, an opportunity to see things with new eyes.

A chance to see the dawn and sun coming up on a new day.

Don’t be afraid of the dark night. Embrace it, and discover the surprises that come with it. Pass through it, learn from it, and seize the opportunity to change.

[1] http://elvelerodigital.com/apuntes/lyl/nocheoscura.htm

[2] https://www.eckharttolle.com/newsletter/october-2011

[3] https://www.eckharttolle.com/newsletter/october-2011

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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