A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.
May 12, 2018
As many of you know, I’ve been getting to know birth family the past 4 years. So much of it has been blessing upon blessing. And even the part that has been difficult has been better than the alternative of not knowing—which is how I spent most of my life as part of a closed adoption. I’m the kind of person who wants all the facts, even the bad ones.
One of the difficult parts of the story has involved my birth mother. While I have met her, it has become clear that there will not be much of a relationship moving forward. There are many reasons why that’s the case, and I’m not trying to cast aspersions on her or her motives.
At the end of the day, though, I’m left with a birth mother who isn’t going to be in relationship with me. And so I am ever, and always, grateful for the people who do want to be in relationship with me. My adopted parents, my family, my friends, you. I am well loved by many people. AND I am not in relationship with the woman who gave me birth.
Sometimes life is that kind of tension. Where two disparate facts have to reside in your life at the same time. I am very loved by lots of people. AND there is an empty space in my heart where her love could be, but isn’t.
I’ve been thinking about this empty space. I picture my heart as a big house, with lots of rooms. And I have a room for my birth mother in it. I’m not hiding that room in the back, where nobody would see the pain of my loss. I’m keeping it up front, near the entryway. I’m not going to turn that space into something else, like the yoga studio my kids are afraid I’m going to make out of their bedrooms now they are out of the house. It’s her space.
It’s not that I’m under any illusion that she wants the space, or is planning on moving into it soon. For me, the space I hold empty for her in my heart is not about her, or about changing her behavior. It’s about me, and who I want to be in the world. I want to be the kind of person who can hold space for other people in my heart.
To hold empty space, however, is tough. I recognize my tendency to fill the empty spaces in my life. Often with guacamole.
We fill silence with noise.
We fill time with busy-ness.
We fill ‘having enough’ with wanting more.
We fill vulnerability with shows of power.
I’ve also observed how difficult it is for us in our culture to hold space for grieving, loss, and pain. How often have we tried to do this with all the best of intentions when someone that we know has struggled with complicated relationships? Telling them that it’s better than they think it is, how we are certain that person loves them, or how a great relationship for us is just around the corner. I recognize that when we do this, we are only trying to protect each other from pain or from a bad ending, or from grief. And we can try to fill the empty spaces in our lives where we have pain, and grief. And we do. It doesn’t actually remove the pain. It just hides it, fills it.
Holding empty space is exhausting for me. It’s like being in the trash compactor on the Death Star—trying to keep the walls from closing in on Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie.
We can ponder the impracticality of the Death Star’s trash disposal system over dinner tonight, so come up with an image that works for you—when you try to hold empty space in your life without filling it, without letting outside pressures encroach and push in it’s walls.
In some ways, I think our congregation, maybe the church in general, is in an empty space. Or maybe an in between space. We know that the ways we have historically been church together are not working quite the same way in today’s culture. We can’t quite see what God is working out for our future, but we know it’s coming. So we are holding space, maybe a doorway, between the past and the future. We can’t go back to where we’ve been. We aren’t sure what’s next. We are at a threshold, where we wait, where we hold space and prepare.
The empty space can feel anxious and jangly. We want to do something, know what’s in store, be there already. In a few weeks, we will have a congregational meeting to elect officers. You will also be hearing some updates about the building plans, and a few other things the session has been working on, as we stand in this in between space, holding it open so we can wait for God to fill it with what is next for us.
I was talking with a clergy friend about this sermon, and she reminded me of something Barbara Brown Taylor said about this:
“That hollowness we sometimes feel is not a sign of something gone wrong. It is the holy of holies inside of us, the uncluttered throne room of the Lord our God”
(Barbara Brown Taylor, “Settling for Less,” Christian Century, 18 February 1998, p. 169).
I was grateful to see Paul’s letter to the Philippians as our assigned text today. Because, for me, it is a reminder of the blessing that comes from empty space. Paul describes Jesus as someone who emptied himself.
When Jesus emptied himself, he didn’t clear things out so he could fill himself up with power and might. He emptied himself and took the form of a slave, humbling himself with obedience to God, even obedience to the point of death. The world shows us how to be full of power and might and pride and posturing. Jesus shows us how empty space allows for humility, vulnerability, compassion, and obedience.
Paul tells us to let the same mind be in us that was in Jesus. Which is not to say that we will become saviors of the world. It is to remind us to value what he valued.
The opening verses of chapter two started with this:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
I confess that the first time I looked at these verses when preparing the sermon, I thought of at least 15 people from the news who needed a reminder not to act from selfish ambition or conceit, and a few more who need some humility to regard others as better than their mean selves.
And then I thought, “empty yourself, Marci”, and I took a deep breath. Breathe in God’s mercy. Breathe out God’s love for the world.
And I remembered Jesus has yet to ask me to fix anyone else. I suspect he hasn’t asked you to fix other people either. And so I read Paul’s words as if he meant me, he meant us, that we are supposed to be the one to have compassion and sympathy and humility and concern for the interests of others.
And I realized if I want to participate in making Paul’s joy complete, it will require more empty space, where I leave room in my soul for God to be at work in me, enabling me both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure, as Paul said.
Listen to this fable:
“Once upon a time, there was a woman who set out to discover the meaning of life. First she read everything she could get her hands on–history, philosophy, psychology, religion. While she became a very smart person, nothing she read gave her the answer she was looking for.
She found other smart people and asked them about the meaning of life, but while their discussions were long and lively, no two of them agreed on the same thing and still she had no answer.
Finally she put all her belongings in storage and set off in search of the meaning of life. Everywhere she went, people told her they did not know the meaning of life, but they had heard of a man who did, who lived deep in the Himalayas, a tiny little hut perched on the side of a mountain just below the tree line. She climbed and climbed to reach his front door. When she finally got there, with knuckles so cold they hardly worked, she knocked.
“Yes?” said the kind-looking man who opened it.
Ecstatic she blurted. “I have come halfway around the world to ask you one question,” she said, gasping for breath. “What is the meaning of life?”
“Please come in and have some tea,” the man said.
“No thank you,” she said. “I didn’t come all this way for tea. I came for an answer. Won’t you tell me, please, what is the meaning of life?”
“We shall have tea,” the man said, so she gave up and came inside. While he was brewing the tea she caught her breath and began telling him about all the books she had read, all the people she had met, all the places she had been. The man listened and as she talked he placed a fragile tea cup in her hand. Then he began to pour the tea. She was so busy talking that she did not notice when the tea cup was full, so the man just kept pouring until the tea ran over the sides of the cup and spilled to the floor in a steaming waterfall. “What are you doing?” she yelled when the tea burned her hand. “It’s full, can’t you see that? Stop! There’s no more room!”
“Just so,” the man said to her. “You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There is no more room in your cup. Come back when it is empty and then we will talk.”
(Taylor, Barbara Brown. 1996. “Stay for tea, Nicodemus.” Christian Century 113, no. 6: 195-22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost)
It’s human instinct, perhaps, to rush in and fill the space, to fill our cups, with our power, our judgment of others, our noise, our activity. It’s divine instinct to empty.
How do you hold empty space in your life? Does it ever feel like a blessing?
Sitting in silence for 15 minutes each day is helping me keep space.
Richard Foster, in his book, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, writes,
“In contemporary society, our Adversary majors in three things: noise, hurry, and crowds. If he can keep us engaged in “muchness” and “manyness”, he will rest satisfied. Psychiatrist Carl Jung once remarked, “Hurry is not of the Devil; it is the Devil.” If we hope to move beyond the superficialities of our culture, including our religious culture, we must be willing to go down into the retreating silences, into the inner world of contemplation.” (pg. 15)
How is God inviting us to empty out a space in our lives, so there might be room for us to talk? May it be God who is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. Amen