The Gift of Emptiness
Southminster Presbyterian Church
November 8, 2015
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few.”
--Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p. 2
“The Dark Wood gift of emptiness brings us straight to this place beyond notions of wrongdoing and rightdoing. It’s not a place beyond morality. Rather, it’s where our fractured humanity finds its most intimate connection to divinity and an astonishing fullness is discovered within our deepest emptiness.”
--Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood, p. 42
--Don Cupitt , Emptiness and Brightness, p. 63
“Anyone who tries to do creative work finds that her best ideas are gifts that come to her with no giver.”
Leonard Cohen, Poems and Songs, p. 188
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, p. 532-3
If we affirm one single moment,
we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence.
For nothing is self-sufficient,
neither in us ourselves nor in things;
and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once,
all eternity was needed to produce this one event—
and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good,
redeemed, justified, and affirmed.
Gospel of Thomas 97
The Empire [of God] is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her along the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put down the jar and discovered that it was empty.
Don Cupitt , Emptiness and Brightness, p. 58
“…it is now even possible to venture the view that nihilism is a friendly doctrine. Nihilism is (in the Buddhist sense) ‘Empty’ radical humanism; nihilism is pure religious freedom in a world in which nothing is ‘absolute’ and everything can be reimagined; nihilism is our own anti-discrimination; and finally, what Nietzsche calls the advent of nihilism is pretty much the same event that an earlier teacher described as the coming of the Kingdom of God. It calls upon us to live in radical freedom as if at the End of the World.”
On the bulletin cover is the image of the Morton Salt girl. In 1911 Morton Salt came up with a process that would prevent salt from clumping. They added magnesium carbonate as an absorbing agent. Now they use calcium silicate. This absorbing agent allowed the salt to pour freely even in damp weather.
Thus was born the Morton Salt girl. The one image that is now iconic shows a girl in a yellow dress holding an umbrella in one hand and a canister of Morton Salt in the other. She walks along while the salt pours out from behind her. The caption reads, “When it rains, it pours.”
Piece of trivia. In 2013 the Timbers Army, the fan club for the Portland Timbers used the image of the Morton Salt girl on t-shirts and on a huge banner to support the Timbers when they kicked off the 2013 season against the New York Red Bulls.
The Morton Salt girl is in the Madison Avenue advertising Hall of Fame. She is a part of American culture.
But that isn’t why I put the image of the Morton Salt girl on the bulletin cover.
I didn’t choose it because of salt even as Jesus does talk about salt, as in,
Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?
It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile.
That saying of Jesus received a collective pink vote from the Jesus Seminar as in yes, likely authentic. Perhaps it might inspire us not to lose our saltiness, not to lose our taste, not to clump up even in rainy weather.
But that isn’t why I chose the Morton salt girl.
I chose her image because of another parable of Jesus that really has nothing to do with salt. This parable also received a pinkish vote from the Jesus Seminar. The seminar was a bit divided on this one. Some thinking it was the result of a later Gnosticizing of the sayings of Jesus. Others said it reflected the original voiceprint of Jesus but wasn’t picked up by the canonical gospels perhaps because of its disconcerting message.
It is a parable that is not found in the canonical gospels. It is likely that you haven’t heard of it unless you’re into strange sayings of Jesus that didn’t make it into the Bible. The parable found in the fairly recently discovered Gospel of Thomas, a sayings gospel of Jesus, is a bit odd.
The Empire [of God] is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her along the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put down the jar and discovered that it was empty. Thomas 97
Like the Morton Salt girl who is oblivious to the salt pouring out of her canister as she walks along in the rain, so is our woman carrying a jar full of meal in a broken jar. Oblivious to her loss she walks all the way home only to discover her jar empty.
Like someone pointed out to me last week as I was oblivious to the coffee dribbling out of my travel mug and onto my foot. My response is that I was exhibiting the kingdom of God.
Jesus’s parables were these weird little stories in which he would throw metaphors alongside each other. Parable comes from the Latin words para and bole or throw alongside. So Jesus throws this phrase kingdom or empire of God alongside a story or aphorism. The content of Jesus’s preaching was “the kingdom of God.” What is the kingdom of God? Well, it is like this, a woman was carrying a jar full of meal, the handle broke the meal poured out behind her. She didn’t notice it. She gets home and the jar is empty. Ponder that, Grasshopper.
That’s why they killed him. He was just so annoying. Give us the answer! No, he wouldn’t do that. Just tell quirky stories and make them guess.
That’s a good thing. It keeps us preachers employed. We can just make up stuff in trying to explain what he meant.
Let’s play with this a little bit. It isn’t a happy story, is it? Anymore than pouring coffee on my foot is pleasant. In her case, we could imagine it would be disastrous. This could be and likely was her food source for the next several days. It is more than pouring out some salt.
The kingdom of God, if anything, should be good news not bad news. One would think.
Robert Bly wrote about Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. Jung came up with all of that cool stuff like archetypes, collective unconscious, the complex and so forth. Robert Bly said this of Jung:
"It is said that whenever a friend reported enthusiastically, 'I have just been promoted!' Jung would say, 'I'm very sorry to hear that; but if we all stick together, I think we will get through it.' If a friend arrived depressed and ashamed, saying, 'I've just been fired,' Jung would say, 'Let's open a bottle of wine; this is wonderful news; something good will happen now.'"
Ponder that, Grasshopper.
When we moved from my first church to my second, from Lowville, New York to Billings, Montana, our daughter Katy was a Sophomore in high school. The following summer she invited a couple of her friends from back in New York State to visit. We drove them around. Took them to action spots like Roundup and Two Dot.
They had never been west of the Mississippi. Montana was a different experience. Near the end of the visit, I asked them what they thought of Montana. One of the girls curled her lip, sighed and said, “Its empty.”
True enough. Eastern Montana, like Kansas, excels in minimalism. Empty.
What is the feeling of emptiness?
The let down after the holidays when we say our goodbyes; the relatives go home, the voices and sounds and energy are now memories. We wave as the car goes out of sight, turn back inside and realize that the house feels bigger than it was. The stillness is a relief, yes, but melancholy. Empty.
What is emptiness?
The project is finished. The season is over. The degree is earned. The deck is built. The law is passed. The vacation ends. Now what? Empty.
When we experience emptiness, a first instinct is to fill the space. With noise, with actions, with thoughts, with plans, with people, with dreams. Why? Emptiness can be frightening. The void. Earth a pale blue dot in the midst of empty space. Empty of meaning.
We might say,
I feel empty. Empty of purpose. What do I do now? What is next for us? Do we have a five point plan?
Then Jesus. The empty broken jar. The kingdom of God?
The Buddhist holds up a glass. She says look at how beautiful this glass is. It is useful. I drink from it. I feel its smoothness. I am grateful for the energy, the work, the time of so many people to make this glass, for all the materials used for this glass from which I drink. But to truly appreciate the glass, I must know that one day this glass, this very glass I hold in my hand will be broken, shattered into a thousand pieces. I don’t know when or how. But one day, for sure, this glass will be no more.
Here is the challenge. Do we think about that or not think about that?
Yesterday at the seminar we had at the church, one of the speakers said, quoting someone else, I think, and I am paraphrasing from memory. So who knows how authentic this is? But this is what I remember.
He said, “Church can be a place where we lose our faith together.”
Of course that’s wrong. That is wrong as the kingdom of God being the discovery of an empty broken jar.
Church is where you build up faith. When that dark cloud of doubt lingers on the horizon, you shut it out, fight it off, say it isn’t so, believe harder, close your ears, cling to assurances, and if the doubt is overwhelming, you don’t tell anyone but you fade away, alone, outside, apostate, empty, once a believer, but now….
But what if we took up the challenge. What if, even if just for argument’s sake, we saw loss of faith as a gift of the kingdom of God?
You have lost your faith before. When you think about it, there are many things you no longer believe that you used to believe. Can any of you really say that everything you believed as a child you believe today? No, you lost faith. And it was a loss. It was wrenching. It was disconcerting. It might have caused feelings of sadness, anger at yourself, at others. You may have even felt betrayed. You may feel lost, empty, what possibly can you find now?
And yet, somehow you have managed. You don’t even think of it as a loss anymore, because, the loss opened a space for a new possibility. You couldn’t get there without the gift of being emptied.
So maybe we should lose our faith together in church. If we are going to lose faith anyway, how much better to lose it in community, with an openness about it as opposed to alone, outside.
Don Cupitt is a philosopher from the United Kingdom. He has written over 50 books. I have not read all of them, perhaps a dozen. His books are a progression of his own spiritual and intellectual journey. It is really fascinating. One of the things I admire about him is his courage to face it. What do I mean by “it”? Well, whatever is. To be honest and confident with what he really thinks, even if it takes him to a place that is not comfortable.
One of his books is Emptiness and Brightness. In the introduction he offers recommendations to get started, to give it a go. As he put it, to democratize religion. To admit that the truth is fluid, not absolute, that is not top down, but emerges from within. He offers four recommendations to get started and here is the fourth one:
“Don’t forget that it is necessary to pass through a stage of complete loss, or nihilism, in order to reach the new world and way of thinking. By nihilism I mean the questioning and the loss of all the deep philosophical assumptions that have underpinned Western culture since Plato. People who try to think out a new position without first clearing their heads merely repeat all the errors of the past: hence the plethora of muddled New Age movements, alternative cults, and complementary therapies that infest our contemporary world. Have nothing to do with any of them. Instead, follow the Purgative Way and go for nihilism. No cross, no crown, as believers used to say.” P. 6.
OK, what have we done here today?
I am suggesting. That is all I do. I make suggestions and then you decide whatever you want to do about it. My suggestion is that emptiness whether it comes from an experience of loss or existential angst or when our belief system develops cracks or when we realize that we aren’t as young as we used to be or however this emptiness manifests itself, is perhaps as Jesus said, like the kingdom of God.
Not insisting, just play with that. Entertain that your emptiness, your no answer, your no thing, could be a gift. It is what it is. You could deny it or cry over it or blame others over it or try to fill it or fight it until you are exhausted.
Or you could take a breath and say, well, now what?
Maybe this is an opportunity to begin again.