I have empty days. I don’t mean days of idleness with nothing to do. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I fill my days with so many projects and tasks that I fail to schedule in any Sabbath rest. At the end of my days, I fall into bed, exhausted—but not before fighting sleep like a two-year-old who’s afraid of missing something. I have days of too much with precious little to sustain the pace.
Imagine a cupboard. Here we might keep our stores of food, our nourishment. In our material world we have to work hard to keep these stores filled. We have to store food there so that we will not starve between harvests.
In the cupboards of our souls, however, it’s turned around. The harder we work, the emptier we get. Our souls need stillness, not busyness, to be restored. Quiet. A do-nothingness to counter all the busyness. Rest.
I have empty days because the cupboard of my soul is bare and I’m weak from the lack of nourishment a full pantry supplies. This is where my hungers get out of control. I get hungry and I start feeling desperate and cranky as if my blood sugar levels were too low and patience becomes a foreign concept. I snap at people because I have a headache and it takes a lot of concentration just to remain vertical. Someone comes along with a question or request and it seems so small and petty compared to my hunger and they don’t understand how small and petty they’re being and I wish they would JUST GO AWAY!
To understate, I am least Christian when I run on empty like that. It’s hard to follow Jesus when the hunger headache blurs my vision. Jesus who? Where?
Because I do want to be a Christian, because I would be a follower of Christ, I have to catch my self when I’m swatting at people like flies. I have to ask, “Where is God in all this?”
On my better empty days, I might stop, be still, and know that I am not God and ask God to come refill my cupboard. On the good days when I’m angry in that low-blood-sugar kind of way, I let God do the work at hand—stopping me, getting me still long enough to be restocked with the things I need.
Patience. Compassion. Understanding. A quiet mouth and a listening ear. Love.
But I have too many bad empty days, when I swat away God like another buzzing distraction. On those days, in my low-blood-sugar panic, I start to fill up on anything at hand, grasping at the great vending machine that is our culture. Vapid entertainment. Ephemeral fashion. Retail therapy. A lot of crap calories that sort of stops the headaches, but don’t really feed me, working for a lot on stuff that can’t satisfy. (Isaiah 55:2)
Work—yes, there is work to be done. Real work, real business to attend to. It is the cycle of storing and consuming. The opposite of running on empty is sitting with full storehouses, getting full and lethargic and apathetic and useless to any common good. There has to be a balance. We can have busy days without hunger headaches. We can have days full of busyness without running on empty.
But I still have empty days and on the days I crash badly, I resolve, again, to not let it get to this point, again. Well, resolutions aren’t just for New Year’s Eve and I would be a lot healthier if I recognized that I’ll have to resolve a lot of things over and over before my days are done. It’s not as if I have to do it alone, however. It’s not as if I have to fight my way through the things that keep my inner store depleted. This is not a job for Superman, who I think I am, which is how I get into this panicky, hungry, angry mess to begin with.
No, it’s a job for God, who I have to stop swatting away. It’s a job for the still small voice that whispers through the cacophony of the culture at large. And even God doesn’t do it alone. God sends me a church and other good friends (even friends who are not Christian!) who help restore my soul.
I have empty days and even they can be good when I stop just long enough to hear the welcome of Love (as George Herbert might have it). All my busyness won’t feed me, all my busyness won’t earn me the fullness that comes only from restorative stillness, from sitting at the table of Love and tasting the abundance that will give me the strength to do the work before me.
Central Texas native Neil Ellis Orts grew up on a farm on the Lee/Bastrop county line. He earned a bachelor’s degree in theater from Texas State University, a master’s of divinity from Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest and a master’s degree in interdisciplinary arts from Columbia College Chicago. He has published fiction and arts writing, including the 2004 novel Hidden Gifts. He also makes short performance pieces and has presented them in Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta.