For the empty days
No one ever tells you about the empty days. This is interesting, I think, because the empty days are much more frequent than social media and conversations with friends and family would lead us to believe. Empty days, as I call them, are when the cup of our lives are drained due to loss or grief or to-do lists and messes that seemingly never end. They are days when the people in our lives or the commitments in our lives demand from us a great deal of energy and effort--so much effort, in fact, that we feel emptied through the giving.
Not talking about empty days doesn't make them any less prevalent...it just makes us question them and question ourselves. As if we might be doing life wrong or something if we are feeling unproductive, fruitless, or even useless. As if the emptiness is somehow outside of our human experience, rather than a regular and integral part of what if means to be alive.
This couldn't be farther from the truth! No one is meant to spend their lives full--in body, mind, or spirit. For a constant fullness leaves no room for anything new to be added. It leaves no room for growth and evolution and transformations.
Author and spiritual midwife, Joyce Rupp, says, "While the process of emptying may be painful, it can also be 'growthful.' The empty times may feel useless, fruitless, and non-productive, but they are actually a means of our falling into the immense depths within ourselves where we see more clearly, learn to be less controlling, long more deeply for God, and touch life with greater reverence and gratitude. We enter into the deep realm inside of us that is filled with the mystery, awe, and endless beauty of God. Emptiness is a gift that opens us further to the transforming power of God."
You see, Dear Ones, the empty days are no reason to panic. We can breathe through them and be filled--in time--by them. We needn't rush to fill them with insights or feelings or "good vibes only"...we can just look into the emptiness. We can just abide with the emptiness. We can, as Joyce Rupp proposes, simply "go inside the emptiness and be with God."
Gazing into the gift of emptiness with you...even when it doesn't feel like such a gift,
This past weekend we had the pleasure of having my two younger sisters, my brother-in-law, and our little nephew down for a visit. My spouse made a delicious lunch complete with a beef brisket that we all shared and enjoyed together after a group of us got back from taking my nephew to Autumn Acres out at Stam Garden Center.
I, personally, had never been out to Autumn Acres (I always thought I would look kind of silly showing up with no kid), but it really did not disappoint. There were cannons and slingshots and sandbox filled with corn. There was a corn maze, goats and a donkey, a hay bale run. And, of course, there were tractors.
This, by far, was my two year-old nephew's FAVORITE part: The tractors. There was a tractor that we sat behind on a trailer as part of a hayride through the corn. There was a tractor staged just for picture taking. And there was a lawn tractor pulling a train of modified barrels for children and their adults to ride.
Near the end of our time at Autumn Acres, my nephew saw the tractor we had ridden behind for the hayride pull up to the loading area to take a new group of people on a ride. Before any of us could blink, off he ran, trotting down the hill with abandon, just as fast as his little legs could carry him, pointing and joyfully shouting "Tractor, Tractor!" all the way down the hill.
As I watched him running, I couldn't help but smile. Then I began to wonder: When was the last time I went after anything with as much abandon as my little nephew went after that tractor? When was the last time I was so filled with joy? But all the while I was scanning the memories of my heart and my mind for the last, great, joyous moment in my own life, I was missing the fullness of this joyous moment with my nephew.
Brene Brown says, “Twinkle lights are the perfect metaphor for joy. Joy is not a constant. It comes to us in moments – often ordinary moments. Sometimes we miss out on the bursts of joy because we’re too busy chasing down extraordinary moments. Other times we’re so afraid of the dark that we don’t dare let ourselves enjoy the light. I believe a joyful life is made up of joyful moments gracefully strung together by trust, gratitude, inspiration and faith.”
Sometimes I think we get really focused at finding the next big, great moment--the next big experience, the next big event, the next big milestone--that will bring us joy, but I wonder if while we're looking for joy, it's happening without us? Maybe we're so busy running with abandon toward the next extraordinary moment that we think will bring us joy that we're missing the little bursts of joy happening right in front of us in this very ordinary moment? Maybe the only reason joy is missing from our lives is because our presence to the current moment is also missing?
In Psalm 30 the psalmist reminds us that "Joy comes in the morning." We often read that as a future promise, rather than a right now truth. But friends, what if "the morning" that the psalmist is talking about is THIS morning? What if joy is here right now, in the simple act of waking up next to the person you love the most for another day? What if joy is here right now, in a steaming cup of coffee? What if joy is here right now, in something as innocent and frightening and wonderful as a little boy running down the hill after a tractor?
May you run with abandon toward the joy that is permeating your life in the ordinary little moments, and may those moments take your breath away.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat
On Sunday evening I felt myself getting what some in the online stratusphere call the "Sunday scaries." According to the Cleveland Clinic, “The Sunday scaries are feelings of intense anxiety and dread that routinely occur every Sunday. They often start in the late afternoon and continue into the evening. However, depending on a person’s level of anxiety, these feelings can start as soon as they get out of bed,” says Dr. Albers.
My "Sunday scaries" don't tend to happen often, partially because my work week is structured somewhat differently than most. I work on Sundays, so my Sunday night tends to be more like most people's Monday nights. But I don't really get the "Saturday scaries" that often either. The "Sunday scaries" only seem to come most regularly when I am coming back from vacation.
But the truth is, I had a wonderfully healing vacation last week. I accomplished two fairly significant goals this week physically, as I was able to hike 3/4 of a mile on my rehabilitating knee with my spouse, and I was able (with knee pads of course) to get down on my knees in our garden to help plant garlic. On Sunday morning, I got to eat brunch at the Drake Diner in Des Moines with my spouse, I got to do a quick bit of shopping, and I got to see my stepdaughter and her boyfriend for a quick visit. I made the decision to do what I could to not let the thought of re-entry into my usual routine steal my joy and the healing I found over vacation.
So Sunday night, just as the scaries were setting in, I put down my phone. I turned off the TV, and I took the dogs outside for the night. Then, I did the few dishes we had. But I didn't do them to get them done or to keep my hands busy while my brain went wild, I did them as a grounding practice.
In choosing to focus only on doing the dishes, I found that the Sunday scaries went away. My mind wasn't racing with who might have emailed while I was away or what might have happened in my absence, or what pace my schedule was going to demand of me with the new week. My mind was focused only on what was before me. The feel of the hot water on my hands. The way my hands split through the water and the suds to find the dish rag or the next dish that needed cleaning. Lathering the dishes with hot, soapy water. Rinsing each dish with a quick run of the faucet. Repeating the process again and again.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat. These became my only thoughts. These became my tethers to the present moment. These simple actions became enough to chase the Sunday scaries away.
I wonder how many times "the scaries" of some sort creep into our lives and steal our joy? I wonder how often we have found deep rest only to experience equally deep unrest because we are grounded not in the present, but in the unknowns and anxieties of tomorrow or the regrets of yesterday? I wonder how often we might benefit from grounding ourselves in the simple things, the ordinary things, that keep our feet and our minds rooted firmly in the present moment? And I wonder how this spiritual practice might help to mold us into a more resilient people?
I pray you will ponder these questions for yourself this week, and see if you might find something simple that can help ground you to the present moment. For it is in this moment alone where love lives and where the Divine Mystery can be found.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat as needed,
This is where the cowboy Rides Away
It caught me off guard. I was getting into my truck on Monday morning to come to work, and the radio was on (I usually just leave it on when I turn off the truck). As soon as I turned the key, I listened and heard a song playing, and then heard some familiar lyrics to a George Strait tune begin to spill out of the speakers: "Oh, the last goodbye's the hardest one to say. This is where the cowboy rides away."
I stopped everything immediately, and just sat there for a minute as my mind and my body were transported to an early November day 6 years ago. That was the day of my Uncle Ralph's funeral. He was only 54 when he passed away, and he had always thought himself to be a bit of a cowboy. Though he had struggled with some chronic health issues, they had been pretty well under control, so his passing was sudden and tragic, and took a toll on everyone who had known him and loved him.
The George Strait song? Well, that was played as the casket carrying my uncle's body was wheeled out of the church I grew up in. The church I was baptized in and confirmed in. The church my parents had been married in...the church my uncle and aunt had been married in. We all filed out of this same church, behind my uncle--one of my dad's closest brothers and friends--saying our last goodbyes as George Strait laid the soundtrack to our grief: "Oh, the last goodbye's the hardest one to say. This is where the cowboy rides away."
It's funny how a song can touch a nerve like that--how a nothing-special Monday morning can turn on a dime and transport us to another place and time. It's funny how something I thought I had buried so easily came bubbling up with just a few chords and George Strait's twangy voice. It's funny how the grief is always there...even when it feels like we have--for the last time--dealt with it.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “For in grief nothing “stays put.” One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?"
Grief, we keep learning over and over, is not a straight line through the well-known 5 stages of grief. It is a spiral--an unpredictable, spinning, spiral. And we will be on that spiral until the day we take our last breaths. There is no "getting over it" or "moving on," there are simply seasons when we walk through the world relatively oblivious of our grieving hearts. And then there are seasons that simply take our breath away--days that feel as fresh as the moment we first knew grief for ourselves. And both are sacred spaces and hallowed ground, where we affirm again and again one of the deep truths of being human: That the price of love is loss.
So please, friends, walk softly today. Make space for the grief of others. Make space for your own grief. And remember, there is no time table for when you should stop loving someone or missing them and the light their presence brought into the world and into your life. Let the grief spiral carry you someplace deeper, someplace higher, someplace more lovely, yet filled with more heartache than you knew yesterday. For this is the stuff of being human, and grief over what we have lost is, ironically, how we know that we yet live.
This is where the cowboy rides away...
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.