“The Gift of Emptiness”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Feb. 28, 2016 • 3rd Sunday in Lent
The Word in Song: “The Image of God”
It is an unwelcome but nonetheless true statement that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. We learn more from our moments of loss than from those of attainment. “Life, if we are honest about it, is made up of many failings and fallings, amid all of our hopeful growing and achieving.”[i] However, if someone were to ask any one of us, “Tell me about yourself,” not many of us would begin with the things we got wrong, or with a critique of our inadequacies, or an explanation of where we missed the mark. No, usually, we would tell of our successes, our accomplishments, our achievements. The “high lights” of our lives – the schools, the relationships, the jobs, the promotions, the recognitions, the marriage, the children, the cultural and social involvement.
But as we tell our stories, we know that we’re omitting all that other stuff. We don’t share that we sometimes feel guilty about the things we’ve done or not done; that sometimes it is difficult to accept ourselves or forgive others; or that we can be less than perfect parents, or less than perfect children. We have secrets which we’d be embarrassed to have revealed. Beyond our successes, life is stressful; we worry about aging and about dying. We’ve had our hearts broken more than once by loss or by betrayal. And when difficult times come, no matter how deep our faith, we beg for an answer to the question “Why,” or “Why me,” or “Why now?” Sometimes no amount of success can exempt us from insecurity and failure, even when we seem to be right on the path we’ve chosen, even in the midst of telling our success stories to another. Behind it all, there are times when we can feel empty, not good enough, and full of shortcomings and failures.[ii]
This uncomfortable place is what we’re calling “the dark wood” during these weeks of Lent. It is 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 or safety or self-worth. Barbara Brown Taylor calls these times of “endarkenment” as opposed to “enlightenment.” [iii] As gloomy as that may sound, the darkness is often where God is waiting for us. When our own pep talks and the power of positive thinking just don’t do us any good any more, God is there to free us from our fear of imperfection — not free us from our imperfections – because none of us will ever be perfect, no matter how flawlessly we present ourselves to the world. No, God is there to free us from our fear of being human, of being less than perfect.
Emptiness is another one of those unexpected gifts of the dark wood, of “endarkenment.” On first thought, that might seem like a terrible gift – more of a curse than a gift. But the truth is that only when we are empty, only when we have ceased frantically to grab and hold on to, and shore up what we think we have to have, who we think we have to be, can we be filled. That is why 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.
What would happen if we lost our fear of failure? What if we could get over obsessing about being perfect or having to be right all the time? What if we let go of the “imposter syndrome,” that fear that if people knew who we “really” are they would either reject us or think less of us? How might life be different?
When Jesus told his disciples that to save their lives they had to lose them, he was on his way to Jerusalem and to what most everyone there would see as the biggest failure of his life. This man that people were thinking might be the messiah, is arrested, accused of blasphemy by respected religious leaders, suspected of insurrection by political leaders, beaten, and crucified like a common criminal while all of his so-called loyal followers slip away and disappear into the crowds to see if they can salvage any of their old life, and leaving their friend abandoned and alone.
There were plenty in the crowd that day that were thinking: LOSER! And even Jesus, from the cross, had his doubts, and cried out to God (in Mark’s gospel) “why have you forsaken me?” Where was God? Jesus didn’t feel God’s presence. He felt alone, completely abandoned. Psalm 22, which includes Jesus’ cry of abandonment, speaks to his emptiness, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. . . . they stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves; and for my clothing they cast lots.” And in that time of emptiness, as Jesus looked for God, God found Jesus. And crucifixion became not the end of the story, but the beginning of something new.
At the place of our greatest despair over ourselves, our abilities, our situation, our condition; at the place where we feel least in control, least capable, least perfect; when we know for sure and certain that relying our own power, our own 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 greatest imagination, and who chooses to stay with us, to remain in relationship with us, regardless of the circumstances. And even in that darkest of places, we get a hint that life may not be over after all; perhaps it has just begun. Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way, “The night the old moon vanishes is the same night the new moon is being born.”[iv] The past is over; we can’t go back, but we can move on. And we don’t move on alone. We have lost our life to gain our life.
The gift of emptiness “is one of the happiest gifts of all” because it moves us beyond our constant worry over rightness and wrongness, of being worthy, of being perfect, of deserving merit – of living in that tit for tat world where everything is quid pro quo and all about tradeoffs – and moves us into the world of grace where we are in the presence of the Holy Spirit, and in true relationship with God . All of our imperfections are still with us, but not our fear of them. Imperfections are, after all, what make us human. We don’t have to be paragons of perfection; we can accept the fact that we will often fall short of the ideals we set for ourselves and expect of others. We know that we will all miss the mark, and sometimes live far from our God given potential. But by accepting the fact that we are not perfect, we can live without that “all or nothing” mindset that traps us in focusing only on our failures, and never thinking of how far we have come. Indeed, even as we concede our tendency often to fall short of our potential, we can remain ready and hopeful that opportunities will arise when we can live into our fullest abilities and humanity.
John Wesley was right, you know, when he spoke of moving on to perfection, by which he meant maturity, not flawlessness. It takes a lifetime of experience, of falling down and getting up again, and of offering our hand and our heart to those who are also in the process of falling and rising, of always looking ahead and never giving up. That is one of the reasons we’re here today. None of us is self-sufficient. None of us can do everything equally well. But we don’t have to because we have each other. In fact, the limitation of one person may open a space for the gifts of another. That’s why Paul writes enthusiastically about the varieties of gifts we each have that are all so necessary, and which are all activated by the same Spirit working within us. Thanks be to God that we can be here today to support one another as we each work to let go of our “old” life so that we may live fully into the new life that Christ has shown us and for which he has prepared the way!
[i] Richard Rohr, Falling Upward, 2011, xv.
[ii] Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seen Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and other Wanderers), 2015, 44-45.
[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, 2014, 87.
[iv] Taylor, 88.