Preached on Nov. 27 at Douglas UCC by Rev. Andrew DeBraber, the first of an Advent series titled "Prepare the Way: A Spirituality of Emptiness."
Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37
Dale was a tree hugger. He hugged trees and he taught and encouraged others - especially children - to hug trees. He hugged big old maple trees and small birch saplings. He hugged dark, round black walnut trees and smooth, light beech trees. Nose to bark, he could smell the tree’s essence and feel its pulsating energy. Body pushed up against the trunk, he found support in the tree, not only for his leaning body but for his soul.
On one particular tree-hugging day - a day a lot like today, cool and cloudy, Dale prepared to grab hold of a decent-sized red oak. He stepped up close, put his arms gently around the tree, laid his head against the bark, and began to lean into the hug. Suddenly, Dale and the tree were on the ground.
Surprised, shaken, and dirty, Dale slowly righted himself. Looking down, it became clear: this tree, this promising mighty oak, had no roots. It looked fine from the ground up, but that which is unseen, that which is in the dark, that which sustains life, had been neglected. Without roots, the tree toppled easily.
Like, one might say, a Christmas tree. Or a Christmas people without Advent. Advent, these next four weeks, is about paying attention to the darkness, the places that appear to be filled with emptiness. Advent is about preparing the way by making space within our lives, our hearts, our souls, for the in-breaking of the Divine in new and surprising ways.
As a people, we are generally afraid of the dark. When this season rolls around, we put up as much light and glitz as we can. Yet there is a time to embrace the darkness. There is a time to let go of the need for light and noise, a time to let go of all images, if we are to birth authentic images in our lives, work, prayer, and art. For growth of the human person, like the roots of the tree, takes place in the dark. We are first developed in the darkness of the womb. Our bodies and psyches grow in the darkness of sleep. Our organs operate in the darkness of our bodies.
And just as God is Light, God is also Darkness. TS Eliot writes, “I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you, which shall be the darkness of God.” Drawing on the image of the tree, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Yet no matter how deeply I go down into myself, my God is dark, and like a webbing made of a hundred roots that drink in silence.”
The prophet Isaiah perceives God’s darkness as God having hid from the people. Or could it be that the people are hiding from God? Or looking only in the light, pushing over tree after tree?
A spirituality of emptiness does not mean being empty forever. “To be empty is to be available inside to attend to something other than the self” (Joan Chittister). To be empty is to prepare the way. A spirituality of emptiness asks if there is such a thing as emptiness. Can something ever be truly empty? Or is it only our perception of emptiness? Is is only that we are expecting one thing to be there and thus don’t perceive what is really there?
When we can be still enough and quiet enough, we can begin to let go of what we expect to be there - we can let go of our expectations. I remember once as a child at Christmas opening a bag from my Grandma with a gift in it - I don’t even remember the gift. But I remember after receiving it looking into the bag and voicing something to the effect of “What else is in here?” Only to find it empty. I was, as you can imagine, chastised for my ingratitude, for the bag was not empty, it was filled with what my eyes could not see: a love that cherished and blessed me.
Keep alert, keep awake, Jesus urges in our story from Mark. Both the Markan and Isaiah passages talk of great and noisy goings-on. Those things are happening even now. Apocalypse is happening at the hands of humanity and God is moving in incredible ways. Yet unless we let silence be silence, unless we are willing to delve into the darkness, we will not perceive God at work, we will not hear the creation crying out, we will not make room for God to be born in us again this season.
Keep alert, keep awake, for fresh possibilities for deliverance and human wholeness. Turn off the noise and light that, ironically, puts us to sleep to what is happen right next to us, right below us, right inside us. Keep alert, keep awake, for the Divine is happening.
Very practically, try turning off the radio or television or phone for awhile. Or not turning it on when the impulse strikes. But don’t turn it off just to turn it off. Turn it off to be present to the silence. Focus on your breath. Take some time in nature, which is so silent this time of year. Try reading small bits of poetry or Scripture. Or play with children and animals.
And if we’re really brave, we can join Meister Eckhart, who “prayed God to rid me of God.” Not even our names and symbols for God can go unchecked. We pray even to let go of God. Here, if anywhere, lies ‘sheer abandon.’ Here, if anywhere, stand trees strong enough and rooted enough to wait in silence, to let go of expectations, and to birth the Divine in most amazing ways. Let us attend to the silence, the darkness.