Inspirational message “Gifts of the Dark Wood: The Gift of Emptiness” by Pastor Toni Carmer from Sunday, February 25th.
Gifts of the Dark Wood: The Gift of Emptiness
Mark 15:22-38; Luke 17:33
First United Methodist Church, February 25, 2018
Pastor Toni Carmer
I don't remember the details of our lives during that time. I know that our 3 children were still at home, between the ages of middle school and high school. At least one of them wasn't making the best of decisions, and that was difficult, being a parent attempting to be on top of things, providing the right balance of love and coaching and discipline. We were dealing at the same time with Scott's health, trying to figure out why he couldn't eat, why he was having trouble swallowing, and it seemed like no one had answers for us. That was all very stressful… Scott was serving a church full time and so was I. I was on a large staff with 3 pastors and there were always lots of good things going on and needing to be done. I was having a great time, and I loved it. I was doing the balancing act that we mom's do [I know dads do that, too, but I'm working out of this mom's perspective]. I think I was doing it all pretty successfully, from what it looked like on the outside, but I remember that when things would quiet down for a bit, thinking—I don't know how long I can do this. I'll give them all I've got, until it's gone, until I'm empty.
I didn't know what else to do. I didn't know exactly what being empty meant; but I know I didn't consider the possibility of it being a good thing.
On this second Sunday in Lent, we are exploring those dark places in our lives—those Dark Wood moments that we would prefer to avoid, but can't, because they are a consequence of being human. This morning we are invited to explore the gift of emptiness.
I know I'm not the only one among us who has experienced this "gift." Perhaps you're experiencing it now. Would you have thought to consider it a gift? I'm guessing not so much. But let's see if we can put this gift of emptiness into perspective this morning.
Our desire is to have full and abundant lives. We interpret that so often as filling our lives with good things, being busy at doing good things. As being our best. As being at the top of our game, whatever that game may be. We want to perform well, to look good, to do good. To represent well, who we are.
Scott and I have been watching the Olympians perform over the past couple of weeks. We want these athletes to perform well. They've trained so hard, they have become skillful in their sport and we would love for them to achieve their personal best, to be judged on what they really can do, rather than a mistake made in the moment. Sometimes that happens, and sometimes it doesn't.
That's how it works for the rest of us, as well. We want to do our best, to give our best, to look our best. But sometimes, we, too, lose our balance, over-calculate or misjudge. We fall short of our personal expectations. And sometimes, it's as though we're doing our best just trying to keep up with the music that seems to be dictating the dance of our lives. I watched a young figure skater who technically was hitting the marks of her program, but it wasn't graceful, it didn't flow. The music seemed to be moving so quickly that it was propelling her across the ice; I'm not so sure she COULD slow down so that we could all experience the beauty of what she was surely capable of doing.
Sometimes the beat of the music of our lives moves so quickly that we, too, just hit the marks of doing what needs to be done, and we end up missing out on what is of greater importance…on what has deeper significance…on what can truly bless our lives and the lives of those around us.
Maybe it's time to take a deep breath and to let go of what we think we need to be and to do, to make a place for something better.
This morning's text from the Gospel of Mark is a preview of what's ahead, and helps us see how deeply aware Jesus was of the absolutely necessity of emptying himself of his own wants and desires in order to complete the mission that God had called him to do. To some witnessing his understated responses, his submission to the religious authorities, the Roman guard and then his death on the cross—all this could be interpreted as a sign of powerlessness.
Sometimes even today, you and I will struggle to understand the necessity of his death on the cross. We believe that Jesus is the Son of God and he could surely have negotiated other options. Why would he allow this to happen to him? Why didn’t he call upon the angels to unbind him and set him free? That could have been a pretty amazing demonstration of the power of God and the Sonship of Jesus, don’t you think? Why didn’t Jesus do something? And why would God even require his death? (And such an awful one at that). Did that really have to happen? Even Jesus asked at one point: Why have you forsaken me? Why have you left me all alone? Tell me again why this is necessary! And yet as he maintained his commitment to God's will being done rather than his own, we realize the full impact of his death that led to the resurrection—was greater than anyone at that time could have imagined. Lives began to change, even at the foot of the cross (if not sooner) as one of the Roman centurions who saw how he died proclaimed: "this man was certainly God's Son."
"Whoever tries to preserve their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life will preserve it," Jesus had said. Emptying ourselves of our wills and our ways opens us up to hearing and responding to God's will and way.
With all this in mind, here are four things I think are worth considering as we talk about the gift of emptiness:
The first is this: I believe that the reality of our lives is our tendency to look to our own resources first. Some of us are very good at saying—wait—before we start brainstorming all the alternatives to this situation, let’s pray for God’s guidance. Then we all bow our heads in prayer, and instead of hearts and minds being focused on our request to God, we’re beginning to make a check-list of our options, to start the conversation going. Or—we don’t even think about asking God for help until our well is dry. When we’re empty because we’ve tried everything else, and nothing has worked, we turn to God— “can you help us out here?”
There’s intentional emptying and intentional listening…and then there’s the other kind that we’re all too familiar with: I don’t know what else to do, God: help me through this.
Second thing: So many of us are so busy moving from this place to the next that we don’t think about slowing down, emptying ourselves and listening.
A year or so after I began serving as a pastor, I had a cyst in my tummy that had apparently grown into the size of a grapefruit that you would think that if I would have been still for long enough, maybe I would have noticed. But I didn’t until it ruptured and then I felt awful. I was prepared for surgery, being told, there’s something in there, we don’t know what it is, but we’ll deal with it. Thankfully it was benign and surgery took care of it, but I remember thinking—really, Toni? Why didn’t you listen? Why didn’t you pay attention to your body?
I'm afraid that too often we pay about as much attention to God as we do our bodies.
But what if we were to allow ourselves some down time, listening time, praying time, when we actually stop talking and trying to figure things out all on our own—and allow God to speak to us? Pay attention to what God might be saying to us?
Third thing: If that emptiness that we’re experiencing is not intentional, but comes in the wake of fear, or depression, or loneliness or grief or whatever it might be…what if, instead of considering the emptiness as an unwanted and frightening enemy, if we tell ourselves instead—Ok, this is okay. It’s hard because I’m not used to it and it doesn’t feel good. But may this be a growing time, a learning time, a listening time. This isn’t fun, Lord, but help this emptiness to ultimately draw me closer to you. Pray it every day…every few minutes if necessary…remind yourself that God does work, and is working in those Dark Wood moments.
And finally the fourth thing: When we’re experiencing emptiness, whether we’ve done that intentionally or unintentionally, how can we know if it’s God voice or our own obsessive/compulsive thoughts keeping us awake or calling us to action?
That can be hard to distinguish—but perhaps the most important thing to remember is that God will not fill our emptiness with words that are hurtful or disparaging to us or anyone else. We might be called to an awareness of the need to repent, to apologize, to respond to someone with courage and love—and that could be tough—but God won’t fill our minds with hate or harm. We do enough of that on our own.
But there are times when God calls us to respond or to do something that we don’t understand or doesn't make sense. We may never know the full reason of what God is calling us to do, but when we listen, when we respond—we might change someone’s life.
Elnes shares in chapter 3 of his book about how a friend of his laid awake one night; he couldn’t get a friend of his out of his mind. He just had to go to him. He felt compelled. So he woke up his wife, told her what he was doing (she thought he was being a little nutty), but he went to his friend’s house and knocked on his door at 3:30 in the morning. It took a little while for his friend to come to the door (which wouldn’t be unexpected), but he was invited in and they sat down and talked for a while. Then, apologizing again for his middle of the night visit, he left.
Several months later, the friend who he had visited dropped in unexpectedly and said that he hadn’t told him the truth that night. At the time the knock came at the front door, he had been sitting in the dining room in the dark with a loaded revolver in his hand. And then he said, “You didn’t have to say a word. I knew only one power in the universe could have brought you to the door at that particular moment. I had drifted far from God, but in that moment I knew God still cared about me. So I decided I better hang around a little longer to see what God wants me to do.”
Was it gut instinct? Intuition? Insomnia? God’s voice?
Do we allow ourselves to listen?
Where might you find some space in your life to welcome emptiness?