This season of Lent, we are exploring Dark Wood moments in our lives that most often we prefer to avoid, but ultimately can’t, because they are part of what it means to be human. This morning we explore the gift of emptiness. Do you remember the nursery rhyme Old Mother Hubbard?
Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to give the poor dog a bone. When she got there, the cupboard was bare and so the poor dog had none.
I had no idea there were more verses because the first verse speaks so powerfully to the fear and prospect of emptiness in our lives. How do we feel or experience emptyness in our lives? Remember at the beginning of the pandemic – we all felt like Old Mother Hubbard going to the store with so many empty shelves and Cupboards, a bank account, loneliness grief, depression, emptiness of a home or one’s heart. Anxiety can feel empty.
Our desire is to live full, abundant lives. Often we interpret that as living the good life, however we define it, filling our lives with good things, material possessions, adventures. Being busy at doing good things. As being our best, being at the top of our game. We want to perform well, represent well, do our best, give our best, look good, do good, be good. When meeting a new person we often try to get to know them by saying, “Tell me about yourself.” What do they lead with? When you are invited to share about yourself, what do you lead with? Not many of us lead with the things that went wrong, that we got wrong, the times we were rejected or felt rejected, or with inadequacies, or an explanation of when and how we missed the mark. What do we lead with instead? We offer a “highlight reel” of our lives – schools we attended, jobs, promotions, recognitions, relationships, civic involvement. Usually, we tell about our successes, accomplishments, we keep it light.
But as we tell our stories, we know that we omit some stuff. We don’t talk about emptiness of our lives. We try to fill emptiness with work, volunteering, family, distractions – not always bad things. But what happens when a relationship falls apart, when we lose a job, when we lose a loved one, when the foundation falls out from under us like a pandemic & we face a new paradigm?
In this chapter on emptiness, Eric Elnes quotes Rev. Forrest Church from his book Lifecraft: “Let me begin by telling you a little about yourself.” To one extent or another the following is true:
You are self-conscious about your appearance.
You feel guilty about things you have done or failed to do.
You sometimes have a hard time accepting yourself or forgiving others.
You are a less than perfect parent, or a less than perfect child of imperfect parents.
You have secrets, which you might betray, or which might betray you, at any moment.
However successful you are, you fail in ways that matter both to you and your loved ones.
Beyond all this, your life is stressful, your happiness fleeting, your health insecure.
You worry about aging. You sometimes worry about dying.
More than once your heart has been broken by betrayal or loss.
And however successful you may be, however deep your faith, when the roof caves in,
you shake your fist at heaven, the fates, or life itself.
You beg for an answer to the question “Why? Why this? Why me? Why now?”
You wonder what your life means.
Does any of this list resonate with you? And, when asked to tell people about ourselves, we don’t necessarily lead with those things. We don’t share that we sometimes feel guilty about the things we’ve done or not done; that it is difficult to accept ourselves or forgive others; or that we can be less than perfect in our relationships. We don’t share some things because we are embarrassed to have it revealed. We fall short of our personal expectations of who we think we should be.
Why do our shortcomings have so much power over us? Most of us live life assuming that if others knew the “real me,” they would reject us. This can carry over into our relationship with God as well. Maybe that’s why we avoid spiritual practices that move us to more intimate places with the divine, for fear of being exposed before God as a fraud or imposter.
Elnes: No amount of success, brilliance or published works exempt you from insecurity, short-comings and failure even when you are walking squarely on your life’s path, even in the midst of telling your success stories. In those Dark Wood moments, feelings of inadequacy, of not measuring up, of failure & incompetence, feelings that tell us we’re not enough force us to encounter our emptiness. That place where we come face to face with something we’d rather avoid, we’d rather not think about; something we fear; something that threatens our sense of control, safety or self-worth. What would it be like to be free – not of your faults but your fear of them. This is what the gift of emptiness brings. When our pep talks don’t work any more – it’s possible we might fall into God’s grace. God is there to free us from our fear of imperfection— not free us from our imperfections. God is there to free us from our fear of being human, of being less than perfect. Instead of letting that emptiness define us, we can reframe it. We can use that emptiness, deliberately let go of all those things that pull our attention away from God and stirrings of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Distractions, Worries, Fear, Busy work, Faults, Insecurities, Mistakes, Excuses
So, imagine having all the things that fill our lives, things that we take for granted stripped away. Having everything you rely on like strength, courage, your reputation, your accomplishments, the support you rely on stripped away. Feeling empty is not something most of us gravitate to. And yet, Elnes suggests that we can find gifts even in times of great difficulty – those disorienting experiences in life that feel like being lost in the woods. We can find new understandings in confusing and painful times that inevitably come in our life. The Gift of Emptiness isn’t a gift most of us would be excited about opening. It doesn’t sound like much of a gift. And yet, we all end up in life situations not of our choosing. What if we embrace the ground beneath our feet and discover fertile soil where insights might grow? It is often in the Dark Wood that we learn something new about ourselves, God and others, and it is a powerful gift God can use to enrich and bless our lives.
Jesus told his disciples that those who try to save or preserve their lives will ultimately lose them, but whoever loosens their tight grip and lets go of their life, will find it and save it.
This paradox shows up multiple times in the gospels. The enigmatic saying is part of Jesus’ way of saying the Kindom of God is among you, within you. The reality & power of God is with you and within you. Not many of us want to intentionally lose our lives or feel that kind of emptiness, but what if we interpreted these words like this: “All who want to come after me must say no to their worries, their fears, their insecurities, their excuses, and take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to come after me must say no to the mistakes, the failures, the wrong turns that hold them back, take up their cross, and follow me.” Instead of trying to cling to our life, what if we release it to God? The gift in such emptiness, in losing a sense of ourselves can be discovering a deeper sense of who we really are in God.
When Jesus told his disciples that to save their lives they had to lose them, he was on his way to Jerusalem where he would be arrested, accused of blasphemy by religious leaders, suspected of insurrection by political leaders, beaten, crucified like a common criminal – all while his followers disappear to see if they can salvage any of their old life, leaving their friend abandoned and alone. One of the most poignant stories in scripture is when Jesus cries out to God on the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” This cry speaks directly to human experience of emptiness. On the cross Jesus experienced ultimate emptiness: betrayal, mockery, rejection, humiliation, excruciating pain – all the things we fear most, including death. He felt alone, abandoned. And he cried out to God. Crucifixion became not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new one – not because Jesus found God as he stared into the vast emptiness of the heavens, but because from within this Great emptiness God found Jesus.
Our tendency is to look to our own resources first. Check out our options. We don’t think about asking for God’s guidance or help until our well is dry. Not until we’ve tried everything else, and nothing has worked do we turn to God and say “I don’t know what else to do, God: help me through this.”
If you yearn to find God, the spiritual practice is to get empty or to embrace the emptiness when it finds you. Allow yourself some down time, listening time, praying time. Stop trying to figure things out on our own—and allow God’s presence to be with you. Allow God to find you. In the wake of fear, depression, loneliness, grief, instead of looking at emptiness as an unwanted intruder, pray like this —Dear God, this is hard because I’m not used to it. It doesn’t feel good. But I trust that this may be a growing time, a learning time, a listening time. This isn’t fun, God, but I trust it’ will be ok. Please help this emptiness to draw me closer to you. You may need to Pray this prayer every day to remind yourself that God can do God’s best work in those Dark Wood moments.
Parker Palmer talks about this emptiness as a gift. “My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.”
Why do we have to wait until we’re broken down, why wait until we’ve lost everything of value? When we’re at the end of our rope, feeling lost, uncertain? Part of the reason is because when we think we’ve got it all together, when everything is going well, there’s not as much room for God. We’re satisfied with what we can do with our own human abilities, resources, ideas and plans. We’re satisfied with the world we’ve created. When it falls apart, we are no longer limited by our plans and our abilities. When we discover the limits of what we can do or believe. When we’re lost, when we’ve lost everything that we’ve grounded ours lives on. When logic fails, that’s when Jesus tells us the empty are filled. Instead of filling the emptiness with things that won’t last, we offer it to God. I am not my job, my beliefs, my relationships, my hobbies, my failures. We can then see what God sees beyond all that, beyond our fears and insecurities, God sees us – all that stuff stripped away and God calls us to courageous new beginnings. At the place of our greatest despair; at the place where we feel least in control, least capable, least perfect; when we recognize that relying on our own power, intelligence, even our own faith is insufficient, THAT is when we are open to discover the presence of God, there all the time, who loves us beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life.
Episcopal Priest & author Barbara Brown Taylor:
“The night the old moon vanishes is the same night the new moon is being born.”
Emptiness is a strange gift. But it is a holy gift. When we feel empty, when much of what we know is stripped away, we may discover the stirring of a greater strength and a deeper presence, beckoning us forward. Birthing new life out of death, calling us back to life, back to ourselves, back to God, to a deeper level of living and giving. We are then free to discover that the center of who we are is God and with God all things are possible. We worship a God who emptied God’s ownself for us so that we might live. It is a doorway to life.
Our Prayer hymn was written by y Marty Haugen for Holden Evening Prayer: Let My Prayer Rise Up Like Incense. It’s a beautiful prayer of emptying ourselves and our lives and our prayers before God.