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Posts tagged ‘Spain’

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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Doors and Prayers

Luke 11:1-13

During my travels in Europe, I was treated to an array of incredible architecture. Some of the oldest basilicas, cathedrals, and synagogues were feasts for my eyes. Like this building in Salamanca, Spain:

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Or these pictures of churches in Toledo, Spain:

ImageImageEach building, of course, had various doors for which to use as an entrance.

ImageImageImageI admit that I have always been quite fascinated with doors because they are the entry point for all of us. Even on the smallest of scales, when we enter someone’s house, we often knock on a door and then pass through a doorway.

What we see next is the inside. And we are now in a new place.

How do we react to that place?

What do we feel?

Do we feel welcomed?

Comforted?

Are we scared?

Do we feel out of place?

Is it cold? Hot? Dark? Light?

 Doors are an entry point.

 While in Europe, I thought a lot about how big, imposing doors can seem to say: Don’t come in here! Or: Enter if you dare…

Like this cave in Salamanca…

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 Or…they can say:
Come inside, because what you will see and experience will be amazing!

This is how I felt when I first saw Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain from a distance.

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 At the entrance I sensed that I was welcomed; curiosity overwhelmed me.

ImageImageYou quickly learn when you see so many doors and pass through so many architecturally wondrous sacred spaces that these buildings were designed differently on purpose. Basically, when you are in a basilica that was constructed in the Middle Ages you realize you are looking at history. People thought differently and their lives reflected that. The architecture reflects the feeling of the era and also how the people thought about God and themselves. Likewise, when you enter through a door to experience a Renaissance era cathedral, you see the vast differences in the structure that reflect the worldview of the people of that time and place.

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 We tend to assume that all churches, cathedrals, basilicas, etc. were built to be houses of prayer. We expect that upon entering the door to a church that we will feel comfort, welcome, peace, and perhaps even gain some clarity.

But if you’re like me and you’ve been to countless “places of prayer” around the world [both old and new] you have realized that many of these places are not peaceful or welcoming.

 This is St. Peter’s Church in front of the Vatican.

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After standing in line for a long, long time, you walk through the large doorway and then feel that you are in a museum or a king’s great hall.

It’s dark and full of towering sculptures of popes and other religious leaders staring down at you. It’s full of tombs and homages to the saints. There is actually very little space in which to pray. And those prayer spaces are only accessible to a few.

 Image In Paris, Notre Dame stands imposing as its gothic eyes stare at you.

ImageI guess I should say that eyes are literally staring at you—with their tongue sticking out!

Image Sad and scary faces don’t exactly say: You are welcome here!

ImageBut for some reason, as I entered Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, I felt different. The inside of the Basilica looked nothing like its Gothic counterparts. He chose to design a worship space that resembled a forest. Instead of towering pillars, trees. Instead of imposing sculptures of saints and popes, symbols of nature; instead of gloomy darkness, natural light.

 ImageImageImageI think that the doors to cathedrals are a good metaphor for our prayer life. Many of us struggle with prayer because we often fear knocking on that door. Perhaps life has beaten us down so much that the door is too big and scary. Maybe people have hurt us enough that we don’t feel adequate and therefore could not possibly enter through that door. Or possibly we have entered through these doors, but once inside we have not felt welcomed.

That is why I particularly like this passage in Luke in which Jesus gives great insight into prayer. Of course, many people know this passage for what we call The Lord’s Prayer.

But the actual words that the majority of Christian churches say are a combination of two passages of scripture, Matthew 6:9-13 [part of what we call Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount/Plain] and this reading from Luke 11:2-4. Take a look at the two scriptures side by side.

Matthew 6:9-13  

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.

Luke 11:2-4

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.

Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

 

11Give us this day our daily bread.*

Give us each day our daily bread.

12And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

13And do not bring us to the time of trial, *but rescue us from the evil one.*

And do not bring us to the time of trial.

14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

 

Luke’s version is sandwiched between two parables—teaching moments. The bottom line is that Jesus never prayed this prayer, nor was it actually a prayer per se. It is a teaching tool to learn about prayer.

Jesus is pushing his disciples [and us] to think more like children do—wondering and asking questions. Children are curious and keep knocking on doors, honestly asking, “Why? How?” “What next?”

I think we get an answer, but not in the Lord’s Prayer.

There was a man who went to his friend’s home at midnight. The man needed three loaves of bread for another friend who staying with him. Three loaves of bread in that place and time meant one meal for a person. But the friend didn’t want to help the man, because his door was already locked. Everybody was already snoring. “Don’t bother me,” he said. Yet, in the end, the friend did give the knocking man three loaves of bread, not because he was so concerned, but because of the man didn’t stop knocking and asking.

Hmmm…are we supposed to nag God, until God answers?

Look out…big-white-bearded-God-Dude-about-to-smash-you-with-big-sandal!

No, actually.

If we ask God for something, God doesn’t answer only because we keep knocking. This story was a typical tale from a teacher to show movement from the lesser to the greater. The lesser is the friend, who was reluctant to help his pal. He responded at the very end; it’s the least someone can do. Now move to the greater–if even this reluctant man responds to the friend’s request, how much more will God respond! 

The second parable is about a parent and child. If a child asks you for a fish, would you give her a snake? If a child asks you for an egg, would you hand him a scorpion? Of course not! That’s the lesser part of the story. Now, the greater. If we as human beings, who are so capable of hurting each other with words and violence would give the fish and egg instead of the serpent and scorpion, shouldn’t we expect that our loving God will give us everything we need and more!?!

The stories teach us about prayer.

We don’t really know what we’re doing.

Yet Jesus made it very clear to his dearest friends that this shouldn’t stop us from praying. We should never be afraid to knock on that door.

Prayer’s door is not huge, not imposing, not locked.

It’s not supposed to strike fear in our hearts or make us feel inadequate or awful.

Prayer’s door invites us in, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey. And inside prayer’s space, we find healing, forgiveness, acceptance, peace.

And prayer doesn’t just benefit us. Prayer also helps us treat others well.

People who honestly knock on prayer’s door and enter in, are inspired to love; they show compassion; they build bridges; they heal wounds.

Praying people believe in forgiveness. They think mercy is real and that everyone deserves it.

Prayer moves us to not let prejudice rule our thoughts; prayer helps us see the world as one big family.

Prayer opens doors even when the whole world seems to be closed shut.

Friends, every door in life is not so inviting.

I can remember many doors on which I did NOT wish to knock. Doors so uninviting, dangerous, scary, cold and dark. Each time in my life when I have started something new, the door has always been in front of me, and I have had to walk through.

The path was uncertain, scary; what would come next?  

But God invites us to knock on new doors.

God welcomes us inside the prayer space.

We are not judged; we are loved.

So knock on that prayer door.

Ask. Seek. Find. Amen.

Our Own Two Hands: the Better

Luke 10:38-42    

ImageSalamanca, Spain is an amazingly beautiful city that impacts you the moment you arrive. It’s incredibly old and historic, but also quite modern and it is a city truly never sleeps. The people of Salamanca have a different rhythm to their lives which I find quite refreshing. They take time to sit and eat. Unlike our U.S. obsession with fast food, drive-thru service and to-go boxes, the people of Salamanca take their time. From 2pm to 5pm, most people go home or to a café restaurant to sit and enjoy food and drink. There is no eating at your desk or microwaving some strange concoction that you will devour in five minutes and call that lunch. They sit and eat real food.

The picture above is a a view of the famous Plaza Mayor during the day—a place full of restaurants and cafes, and always full of people.

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And after you eat, you might want to walk it off by heading down one of the beautiful streets or simply admiring the architecture.

ImageImageImageAfter 5pm, good luck finding a place to eat. Restaurants close. Until 9pm, that is. And many stay open until 2am. It’s tapas time! Yes, the awesome, unique tradition of eating small plates of delicious and fresh seafood, hams, cheese, vegetables with delicious, fresh bread and incredible wine.  

ImageImageImageTapas, and the fellowship of people simply gathering together to sit and talk, lasts well into the late hours of the night. In Salamanca, you can easily forget what time it is, for at 10pm [or later] the sun is still out.

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And as I quickly learned, children were still at play. You see, in Salamanca, it is common to see a group of kids playing soccer in the street late at night. It is common to see parents or grandparents with infants or toddlers eating tapas in the Plaza well into the night. There is a strong focus on sitting down to share food and fellowship—for all ages.

Unfortunately, there are some [mostly in the U.S. and some parts of Western Europe] who criticize the amount of time that Spaniards take to rest, eat, and fellowship. Shouldn’t they be working? Honestly, they do work—just as much as we do in the U.S., but they also stop to play.

It is a balance. 

The tale of Mary and Martha is a short story about balance, and for some, a confusing story. Martha, the diligent, hospitable, hard-working person is wrong? How? And Mary, the sister who left Martha with all the work, is better? How? It’s a story about siblings. Anyone who has a brother or sister knows how this goes. Often, parents present us siblings with choices. And the parents, quite often, may try to influence us by saying: make a better choice. That better choice ranges from eating all your vegetables and not regurgitating them and then hiding them in your napkin to saying I’m sorry to your sister rather than nah, nah, nah, nah…ppfffhhttt!

But siblings, more often than not, do not make the same choices. Jaclyn’s favorite color is green but Juliette’s is pink. Jimmy chooses to listen to a certain kind of music while his two sisters prefer something else.

In my house, my brother and sister and I were often presented with this choice: what do you want to eat tonight?

Me: chicken.

My sister: stuffed green peppers with rice.

My brother: spaghetti with no sauce.

Parents: when would you like to visit grandma and grandpa?

Me: now.

Sister: tomorrow night.

Brother: will there be spaghetti involved? With no sauce.

Guests are coming over.

What should we make them for dinner?

Which part of the house do you want to help clean?

What games should we play?

Three different answers.

That’s really what happened with Mary and Martha. Guests were on their way. So Martha chose to dedicate her time and energy to prep. Martha chose to clean, cook, and prepare for guests. Not a bad choice at all, actually. Great hospitality. Martha’s hospitality choice wasn’t the problem.

The problem was in Martha’s reaction to Mary’s different choice.

You see, Mary chose instead to sit at the feet of their guest, Jesus. Rather than cooking and cleaning, Mary chose to listen to what Jesus had to say. Now, Martha wasn’t happy with Mary’s choice. She was jealous. Martha complained. Lazy Mary. Leaving me to do all the work. Look at her. Sitting at Jesus’ feet. Who does she think she is anyway? Martha must have felt overwhelmed, stressed out, weighed down by heaviness. She certainly was not at peace and at rest as Mary was. Maybe that’s why she got mad. Mary was able to rest, to just simply sit and listen. Martha wasn’t.

Sound familiar? In the U.S., people live at a breakneck speed. It’s one activity to another activity to another. It is almost encouraged in this culture to accomplish every task on your list, and oh by the way, if you finish the tasks on your list, you better fill that extra time with something else that you should be doing! Sitting, resting, taking a break? Impossible! Lazy! 

But the story challenges this. Jesus, you see, also wanted Martha to experience rest. But Jesus understood that like many of us, Martha was caught up in a busy and “important” life. Often we claim that our work, projects, calendars, appointments, and tasks are so important. And when we see Mary so care-free, playful, curious, at rest—we resent her.

I see Mary as a child in this story. Jesus so often lifted up the example of children as a model for the adults to follow. Kids are more open, freer and less focused on the so-called important tasks.

We say: I don’t have time to play or to waste my time on such things.
Can’t you see that I have work to do?!

I’m not making Martha out to be the bad character in the story. I just think that this story is more about finding a balance.

The balance is remembering that all of us are CHILDREN of God. This helps us to focus on the better thing—what actually is important. God wants our whole selves.

God accepts us as we are.
That should give us rest.
That should give us peace.
And this rest and peace ought to inspire us to be more like children—having the attitude that the work of our hands is important, but our lives are much more impactful if the work we do is balanced by joyful and free play mixed with rest—meaning no resentment, regret, or heaviness.

I’m struck by how this story breaks stereotypes. First, Mary is a woman and her household is hosting someone, and she isn’t isolated in the kitchen. Second, she sits at the feet of a Rabbi [Jesus] and is taught. Rabbis in this time did not teach women. I find this story to be a continuation of Luke’s focus on the question: who is my neighbor? Jesus’ handling of that question turns the tables on the typical religious responses. A Samaritan is the hero and shows mercy when others don’t. A woman is the student and sits at Jesus’ feet; she does the better thing. Once again, we find Jesus calling attention to certain groups of people who are often left out or considered lesser. Samaritans, women, tax collectors, lepers, and oh yes—children.

I hear the story telling us that kids have a lot to teach us. Unfortunately, kids are often looked at as immature or not ready for big and important things. Often the work of their hands is considered a nice, cute thing, but not nearly as important as what we adults do. But that just isn’t true. I have always believed [and still do] that kids have so much to offer the world [and us]. Their ideas, perspectives, and the work and movement of their hands are essential in the world. If we don’t pay attention to them, if we do not participate with them, we lose so much and risk losing the rest we desperately need to be alive; if we don’t embrace the lives of children, we risk missing out on a blessed teaching that could change our perspectives…for the better. 

The truth is, from Jesus’ time until now, I don’t think much has changed. We still single out certain groups of people and say that they are lesser. We still say that some deserve to be taught [educated] and others do not. We still say that certain people should always fill certain roles, no matter what. We still think that people in Salamanca might be crazy, unrealistic, or perhaps not hard-working.  

And then this crazy Jesus says the opposite.

The better thing? Rest; sitting; listening.

Children? Let them come and learn. The kingdom of God belongs to them. Unless you adults receive the kingdom of God like children, you won’t enter it. Why? Because kids get it! For them, it’s not about theology or creeds or doctrines or denominations or money or traditions. Kids want to be loved and accepted. And they want to learn. They are like human sponges for love and learning. If they feel loved and accepted by people who love and serve God, then the kids feel that this God loves and accepts them, too. If loving and caring adults teach them about Jesus’ love then the kids feel that the adults care enough to share this with them. And, if the adults choose the better thing and actually listen closely to kids—look out! Good things might actually happen. Changes might occur for the better. Because kids, cared for and loved and taught—are inspired to use their hands and feet, mouths, minds, and bodies to do good things in the world.

 And yes they can and yes they will.

Often people say that cliché thing about how kids help us remember what’s really important. Well, it may be overused, but it is true. In our world, full of distractions, busyness, stress, and “important” work to do, we can easily get distracted and weighed down. We can easily neglect the moments of rest and peace offered to us. We can easily forget that we too are children. And we can easily miss opportunities for mercy-sharing, forgiveness, joy, and flat-out godly play!

Look friends, we need to be balanced. Sometimes, we need to stop that “important” work we’re doing, sit down, and listen. What we can learn is that Jesus’ burden is light and the teaching is full of mercy and blessing. 

And as children [all of us], we can recognize that kids, youth, adults—we all have hands that can bless, forgive, heal, work for good, build bridges, plant trees and gardens, clap and lift up, praise and elevate, and clasp to join the hands of others.

And this IS the better thing.

So spend time sitting and resting. Don’t worship busyness and tasks. Listen to the merciful one. Be filled and refreshed. And then, Inspired by the rest and peace and teaching offered to you, inspired by the children around us, commit to living in this way. May the work of all of our hands make a lasting, blessed impact in the world. Amen.

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