The Gift of Emptiness – February 21, 2021

For the majority of my young life, the only thing that I felt gave me a sense of worth was my academic success.  Being recognized with awards, with scholarships, receiving the praise of my parents reinforced this.  It was not my looks, not my athletic skills, not my popularity.  And it was the need to continue to reinforce this sense of worth, along with some strong urging from my parents, which drove me to attend law school.  Finding my worth in my academic success transformed in adulthood to finding my worth in my career.  It was this desire to feed a sense of worth within which led me to a job at a law firm in Chicago.

There were a lot of accolades that came with practicing law, a lot of things which fed that need for self-worth.  When inviting my friends over to see my apartment on the 30th floor in Chicago, having them over for a party on the rooftop, I felt that I had value in their eyes.  When I would look out of my office window, I felt a sense of accomplishment.  When I would walk to the courthouse in my suit from Brooks Brothers, I felt like I was living in a television show.

But despite these perks, I was miserable there.  I hated practicing law.  I knew that this would be the case in law school, but if I quit what would be left of me?  What value would I have?  And that fear was paralyzing, kept me locked in place, prevented me from seeking a new path rather than continuing to wander in the Dark Wood.

After Kathy and I married, I took a job working for legal services.  There was a hope within me that this position would allow me to hang on to my legal career.  By mixing social work with law, perhaps I would find a sense of fulfillment which would fill that emptiness inside.   And while I found my work meaningful, I was still miserable.  Within me, I knew that I needed to make a change.  But I also feared that change would fill me with an emptiness that could not be filled.  If my identity was built around my career and I left that career, would there be anything of value remaining?

Many of us sometimes feel empty inside.  We sometimes fear there is nothing there of worth.  Whether it is because of a relationship which has failed, a goal we never achieved in our lives, or a painful upbringing which kept us from understanding the nature of unconditional love, many of us live each day with a sense of hollowness inside.  And we think that hollowness will never go away, that it is part of who we are, a burden we are meant to carry for the rest of our lives.  But what if we reframed that?  What if we looked at our emptiness not as a burden to carry, but as a gift?  Emptiness is not a feeling most of us want to experience, not something we think of as a gift.  But is there something that we experience only when we name that emptiness?  Is there a way we can be filled if we never acknowledge its presence?

In our text for this morning, Moses is in the middle of the Dark Wood.  The story from the book of Exodus about Moses’ early life is that he was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter after finding him in a basket in the river.  His mother hid him so that he would not be killed like other Israelite children at the order of Pharaoh. And while the scriptures do not provide a lot of detail on his early life, it is safe to assume that being raised as the son of the daughter of Pharaoh, Moses enjoyed significant privilege.  Like any member of a royal family, it is likely that his identity was built around that privilege.  That the only way he viewed himself was as a grandson of Pharaoh.  That it was the wealth, the status, that defined who he was, that filled him inside and gave him a sense of worth.

But in our reading for this morning, Moses finds himself losing the status and wealth he had always known.  After killing an Egyptian man, Moses learns that Pharaoh is seeking to take his life.   So Moses had to flee, had to leave all that he had known.  And he went into the land of Midian.  He settles in a land not as prosperous, not as civilized, and completely unfamiliar.  Moses finds himself in a Dark Wood.

We don’t know a lot about what was going on in Moses’s mind when this happens.  But I have to imagine there was a deep sense of emptiness.  Once highly favored in the eyes of others, enjoying all of the privilege that living in the royal court of the rich land of Egypt had to offer — all of that is lost in the blink of an eye.  He now finds himself without resources, without any of the things he had built his identity around.  But once he embraces this emptiness, he is given a new purpose, a new sense of meaning.  It is only because he experienced this emptiness that he took on a key role in the liberation of the people of Israel from their slavery.  Only then that he is given a sense of true purpose and connection to the Divine.

In his book which our series is based on, Eric Elnes quotes the book “Lovecraft.”  The preface to that book says: “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, or both.  You are a frustrated husband, wife, or partner, or you are frustrated not to be a husband, wife, or partner.  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 to 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.”

These words speak to the fact that all of us, to one degree or another, feel a sense of emptiness, a sense of inadequacy.  We all go through times when we feel we don’t measure up to other people’s standards, or we aren’t meeting our expectations of ourselves.  We wonder how others would respond to us if they knew who we really are.  We may have even gone through experiences where we have been rejected by those we have allowed to know us on a deep level, and that fear of rejection penetrates the rest of our lives.

But as painful as those experiences of emptiness are, those times when we feel bereft of value, of meaning, of a sense of belonging, perhaps we can view this time also as a gift.  Because it when we embrace our own emptiness that we are able to stand in reverence before something beyond ourselves, something greater than our imperfections, our brokenness, our emptiness.  And rather than a place of despair, it can be a safe place, a beautiful place.  Even though our imperfections are still with us, we no longer fear them.  In their place, we embrace a humility which allows us to move past our feelings of inadequacy, our feelings of emptiness.  Recognizing the emptiness as a gift, we are able to find a new sense of purpose, a new sense of meaning and healing of our spirit.

As Rumi says in our second reading for this morning, emptiness is what our souls want.  We are so easily influenced by what others want from us, by what society tells us we should be and our own insecurities which result that our souls become diseased.  But when we embrace that emptiness, as Rumi states, it “brings peace to loving.”  Peace which comes from loving what is true for us, not what is imposed not us by others, not what is expected to give us meaning but what truly does.

When I finally decided to leave my legal career, I felt an intense sense of emptiness.  I was incredibly depressed.  I put off telling my friends of my decision for fear of what they would think of me.  I worried about how my parents would react.  I struggled to find a sense of worth within myself.  And while I wandered in that Dark Wood of emptiness, I began to wonder if that feeling would ever go away.

Being able to let go of my obsession with worthiness, I was able to recognize that being empty was the best way to be filled something of greater — the best way to move forward on a new path, to walk out of the Dark Wood with a renewed sense of purpose, a renewed sense of meaning, and a new sense of worth.  And while there are still days I struggle with my own sense of worth, when I struggle to see my own value, I am increasingly able to look beyond others and even beyond myself to find it.  No longer clinging to what I think gives me worth in the eyes of others, I can see emptiness as opportunity, an invitation to a new journey of finding meaning.

There is a tradition of tying ribbons to trees as a symbol of prayer.  This is perhaps most common in the tying of yellow ribbons around trees as a prayer for the return home of people when they are away.  But when I thought of trying to find our way out of a Dark Wood, I also thought of the ability to tie things to trees as a means of knowing where you have walked through the wood and where you have yet to go, a means of not backtracking and finding your path forward.  I wanted to invite us to do something to connect us to one another, even though we cannot be together in person, and to do something tangible to mark our journey through the Dark Wood during the Lenten season.

I invite you each week to take a piece of ribbon you have in your home and tie it to a tree branch outside your house to mark this journey we are taking together.  You may even which to post a picture of it on social media and share with others this journey we are on together.  And as we drive by each other’s homes, or see each other’s posts of Facebook, we recognize we are not alone as we walk through the dark wood.  The background for our slides this morning is the ribbon I tied to a tree outside my living room window.  Even this week, when feelings of emptiness came, I saw that ribbon as a reminder that I am not alone in those feelings, not alone on this journey, and that there is a path which leads out of the Dark Wood.

Today we tie a ribbon as a prayer that we will embrace the gift of emptiness.  That rather than holding on to that feeling of hollowness which remains after we have lost what gives us a sense of value, we will not continue to wander.  But that we will embrace that emptiness.  And in that embrace, that we will find a new sense of purpose.  That we will be filled in a way we did not think possible.