Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘meaning’

Communal Seeing

Luke 24:13-16; 30-35

Image result for seeingOkay, let’s be clear here. If you identify as a Western Christian, you’re just a couple of weeks removed from April Fools’ Day—I mean, Easter. The dyed eggs are old and crusty, you’ve finished all the jelly beans, and Peeps are on sale at the grocery store.

And yet, the story in the NT Gospels is stuck on that first day of the week, you know that day when Mary Magdalene and others found a cave-tomb empty and told other disciples who didn’t believe a word of it. People are still lost in the story, mourning the death of their teacher and friend, Jesus of Nazareth. Some are locked behind closed doors for fear of the Romans or the Sanhedrin. Pretty much everyone [besides the women in the story] is befuddled, sad, confused, and lost.

And why is that? Well, think about it. Imagine you have been following a teacher or a mentor for a considerable amount of time. This teacher spoke to you in a way that moved you to action, filled you with confidence and love and encouraged you to live a full life.

You were changed by this teacher.

And you had such plans. Such plans you had. You would conquer the evil and injustice, make things right, restore harmony to creation!

Image result for superhero justice

And now your teacher is dead. Gone. Nowhere to be seen. Nowhere to be felt.

The dream is over.

For those who followed Jesus of Nazareth, they had found a purpose. Prior to meeting and following Jesus, they had been asking those questions that humans often ask—existential questions that are quite annoying because they never have an answer. It’s like what Peter Rollins discusses in his book The Idolatry of God. He labels these questions as existential grievances that occupy the human heart.

Question one: why does the universe exist?

Question two: what is our role within this universe?

Those who followed Jesus most certainly were asking these questions—both of themselves and of Jesus. But in following Jesus, they embarked on a journey towards Jerusalem–a purposeful one that involved justice-seeking, forgiveness, healing, and hope. This had meaning for them.

But…things went sour in Jerusalem. And once Jesus was dead, they had the same questions. Why does the universe exist? What is my role in it?

And so, it’s no surprise, is it—that in this chapter of the story, on a road to a town called Emmaus, that ex-followers of Jesus are still mourning and wondering whether there is any purpose left and if the world really should exist at all. Neither is it surprise that all of a sudden, Jesus [although the resurrected Jesus] starts walking with them and they have no clue. They are still living in their existential crises and do not recognize Jesus at all.

I would argue that it’s because they were stuck in the old paradigms. After all, those two existential questions are circular, aren’t they? I don’t know the reason the universe exists off the top of my head. And day by day I’m still trying to figure out my place in it.

Image result for existential questionsIt’s easy to get stuck in the cycle, stuck in the fixated dreams that the Emmaus walkers had for themselves and for Jesus and now it was all gone. They felt like they had nothing left; they had no purpose. So of course they wouldn’t recognize the resurrected Jesus.

And a quick word about this whole resurrected Jesus business. I’ve gone on record to say that I don’t think it’s really, really important for you to believe or not to believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead in bodily form. There’s a lot of history behind the Gospel stories about that, and certainly a LOT of interpretations over the centuries. They are all guesses.

So instead of running around in circles or taking a polarized view of resurrection, i.e. he fully resurrected or he didn’t at all—I find much more meaning in viewing the Gospels as unique stories and voices that are not necessarily trying to prove something physical or scientific. Instead, the Gospels on the whole present the resurrection of Jesus as both mystical and spiritual in nature. The focus is less on the physical body and more on what the people seeing Jesus need to see, need to touch, need to hear. But as always, don’t take it from me. Think critically and decide for yourself.

And now, back to story…

Eventually the ex-followers of Jesus made it to a village where they needed to stop for the night. They invited the stranger walking with them to come and stay. Then they sat down at the table to eat and then…they finally saw Jesus’ resurrected form. After seeing, they changed direction completely [I guess Emmaus didn’t have much to offer] and headed right back to Jerusalem. The existential, circular questions were irrelevant now. They had found purpose, a reason for being.

And they found it in community.

They didn’t find the comfort and peace they were looking for by getting their existential questions answered. They didn’t get to lean on their limited and nostalgic view of Jesus; they couldn’t see the world [or themselves] in the same way. They were pushed back to Jerusalem, the place of death and betrayal and cowardice and hopelessness and injustice.

Because that’s real. That’s life.

There were no tidy answers to make them feel better or any spiritual experience that would ease their doubts. Like Thomas the twin, who doubted freely that Jesus could be alive after dying, the Emmaus road walkers were given an opportunity—to be resurrected. To start anew. And the way to do that was in community.

For when we are in authentic community, i.e. with people who accept us as we are—flaws, scars, craziness, and all—when we are with such people, our existential questions become less important and we stop running around in circles seeking meaning and purpose. In community, around a table even—our eyes open. We see new life—in ourselves, in others, in the world. We notice the possibility of change. But at the same time, we don’t ignore the pain, the suffering, injustice, the mourning, the lack of hope.

In community we hold all of those things together and embrace them all.
We become lovers of doubt and we embrace new questions.
We become students of people’s lives and explorers of new ways to show love and compassion, new paradigms with which to tackle the injustices all around.
And we do this in community.

I’m interested, friends: how has community helped you to find purpose?

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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.

JuanCruz
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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