Empty, Needing to be Filled

by Danilo Sanchez, Conference youth formation pastor

I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table for our monthly worship planning meeting. As usual, we started out with “Dwelling in the Word” and prayer. For our “Dwelling in the Word,” we watched a video that illustrated the emptiness we often experience as humans in the world, whether an empty tank of gas, an empty fridge or bank account, or the emptiness we feel from the loss of a loved one.  The music was dramatic and called on my heart to think of its own emptiness.

I could relate to the father sitting in front of his computer looking at an empty bank account.

I could relate to the young girl who sat in a room full of people but sent a text to her friend saying, “I don’t know … I guess I just feel empty.”

The communion table at Whitehall congregation for the fifth week of Lent: “God Prepares a Feast for Us.”

About a minute and a half into the video, the mood shifted. Words faded in at the bottom of the screen: “Emptiness often means disappointment, misery, heartache, anxiety … except when it doesn’t.” The music swelled and cut to a scene of Mary Magdalene bursting into a room full of the empty-feeling disciples. She proclaimed, “Peter, it’s empty!”

What a powerful message.

As we reflected on our responses to the video, one person in our worship planning team said, “Oh, I’m sure you pastors never feel empty. You’re doing God’s work and I’m sure your personal prayer time is just amazing. I mean how could it not be?  I would love to just sit and listen to you praying to God.”

I didn’t know how to respond in the moment, but I had two reactions. First, I thought to myself, do I appear as “too holy,” like I never have problems or am never empty? That’s certainly not true. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt empty—in my role as a husband and father, from work demands, from being a pastor. Working on empty as a pastor is never good. Repeated patterns of taking on too much often lead to burnout. Learning to say “no” and have boundaries is something that every leader needs to learn, but for some reason it’s always hard to put into practice.

Learning to color as a way to “pray beyond words.”

My second reaction, which was much deeper than the first, were feelings of guilt and shame because my prayer life is mediocre at best. After all the praying I do in front of others or for others, it’s hard for me to want to pray privately because that feels too much like work. I’ll admit there have been periods in my life that I’ve been too empty to even want to pray to God, my Creator. With my spiritual director, I’ve been exploring different ways to pray beyond words, like coloring or sitting in silence before a dancing flame candle.  I’ve been using my body to pray through yoga; as I inhale, I say, “Christ in me” and as I exhale, I say, “Christ through me.”

This year during Lent, we have emphasized how we come to God empty, needing to be filled. In my emptiness, I long to find joy in the one who created me. I long to be refreshed and claimed by God, not because I’m a pastor, but because I’m a child of God. In the empty tomb, I long to find the Resurrected Jesus who fills my life with mystery and wonder.

This Easter season, in your emptiness, may you find the belonging, hope, and joy that only Jesus can provide.