The first section of this article was adapted from a devotional published by pastor and Tao te Ching translator Marshall Davis, whose work I use frequently in my podcast. I have included a paraphrase of the original TTC chapter he used at the end of this article.
The God who lives in empty spaces
When the Roman legions conquered Jerusalem in 70 AD, they sacked the Jewish temple. They entered into the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, which for centuries only the Jewish High Priest had ever set eyes upon. They expected to find treasures galore, like they had found in every other temple they had ever looted.
They found sacred objects of gold in the Holy Place outside of the innermost chamber. The Arch of Titus in Rome shows the famed seven-branched candlestick, a table for showbread, and sacred trumpets being carried out by Roman soldiers. But in the Holy of Holies they found nothing. It was empty.
There was no famed ark of the covenant or anything else. This was not because the ark had been safely hidden away for Indiana Jones to later find. The holiest object of the Jewish religion had been lost centuries earlier and nothing ever took its place. There remained only the empty space to symbolize the presence of God.
Even when the Hebrews still possessed the ark, there was no image of God on it. On the lid of the ark were two cherubim facing each other with their wings outstretched. God was said to dwell in the empty space between the cherubim. Yahweh was unique among the gods of the Ancient Near East. Whereas all the other gods were depicted with images, the Hebrew deity was imageless.
The ark itself was originally just an empty box as well, before the Hebrews began to fill it with sacred objects, such as "the golden pot that had manna, Aaron's rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant" according to the Letter to the Hebrews. That is the way we religious people are. We tend to fill up the empty places with material objects, doctrines and traditions until there is no place left for God.
On Earth Day the pastor of our local church began a series of messages on the biblical creation stories. Last Sunday she pointed out that in the first chapter of Genesis, God spent the first three days making empty spaces and the next three days filling them in. I had never thought of it that way before. Emptiness and fullness. Like any good sermon her words kept me thinking long after the benediction.
The universe started off as “empty and void” according to Genesis, and God preserved the emptiness in the midst of the fullness of creation. God created things but then separated them in order to maintain empty spaces. Separating the light from the darkness, separating the heavens from the earth, and then separating the waters on earth to form inhabitable land.
God is in the empty space. That is what the spacious interiors of the great cathedrals communicate. That is why the wide expanse of the heavens amazes us. That is why mountaintop vistas take our breath away. That is why the Grand Canyon awes us. That is why prayer and meditation are so powerful. We encounter emptiness at the center of our being.
The God who meets us in empty spaces
When Moses was on the mountain, waiting to receive the Ten Commandments, he made a surprisingly bold request: “Now show me your glory.” It’s no small thing to use an imperative with God. Fortunately for Moses, here was the response:
“I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord [Yahweh], in your presence. ... but you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live. … When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” (Exodus 33:19-23)
God stuck Moses in an empty space and covered his eyes. He promised to proclaim his name, Yahweh, which is an “empty” word.* Moses had asked God for his name way back before the Exodus because he needed to know who he was representing. All of the tribes and nations had names for their gods that described what they were lords over - but Moses simply received, “Yahweh”, which was not a calling card or even really a name, but simply “I exist.”
So he got what he wanted: to see God’s glory. And what was that? The sound of an empty name* and the “back” of God - or more accurately, the empty space where God just was.
When Elijah was running for his life from a regime that wanted to kill him, we find him hiding in a cave - or a cleft in the rock (sound familiar?) - when he heard a message that was an unmistakable throwback to Moses:
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” (1 Kings 19:11)
Ringing any bells yet? I’m sure Elijah was thrilled to be given the same honor as Moses. But what happened next?
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13)
Elijah sees literally everything that would have been considered a “sign of the gods” in his day - but Yahweh wasn’t in them. Yahweh was in a voice so soft that it could only be heard in an empty space.
The empty spaces are where the divine and the human can meet. When Jesus would go to pray, he would slip off quietly into empty spaces, preferably on a quiet mountain (Mt 14:23; Mk 1:35, 6:46; Luke 6:12, 9:18). And he would do it often (Luke 5:16). Clearly there’s a pattern here.
It’s a beautiful sentiment, but what does it mean? Sorry, let be more clear: what does it mean for me? No, here’s what I really mean: what does it mean for me right now? Sadly, the fact that these are the kinds of questions we ask are just another symptom of how hungry we are to fill the empty spaces. We want to unlock the secrets so we can make them (i.e. make God) work for us. Unfortunately, there are no secrets in emptiness. Emptiness has nothing to hide.
The God who calls us to empty spaces
The same God who lives in empty spaces and meets us in empty spaces also calls us to make empty spaces. Immediately after God “showed himself” (but not really) to Moses, he gave him the Ten Commandments. The third of the ten was, “Honor the Sabbath day.” A day designed to intentionally make empty space in our weekly rhythms. Space for holy rest, which is different from apathetic laziness. Space for contemplation. Space for Yahweh.
Americans are in the “business of busyness.” There’s always an ongoing competition about who can be the most productive, the most efficient, the most effective, the most successful - in other words, the busiest. We complain about how busy we are to our friends and family all the time (which is actually just a way of bragging about it). In fact, many of us even feel guilty if we’re not “busy enough.” Making empty spaces is not the American way.
But the same God who lives in empty spaces, meets us in empty spaces, and calls us to make empty spaces also tells us that, shockingly, emptiness is sacred, and the empty are blessed.
“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,
for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
God blesses those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
God blesses those who are humble,**
for they will inherit the whole earth.”
-Matthew 5, NLT
The poor, the mourners, the weak, the humble, the hungry - the empty ones - are the ones who are filled, rewarded, satisfied, and blessed.
Americans may be in the business of busyness, but we are most certainly not in the business of emptiness. We are perennial consumers, desperate to fill all the empty spaces, not just in our schedules, but in our homes, our closets, our camera rolls, our bank accounts, and yes, our Amazon carts. Blessing emptiness is not the American way. But it is the way of Yahweh. Those who are empty have nothing to lose and everything to gain - and they know that true gaining has nothing to do with consumption.
Only one whose stomach is empty
can be filled.
Only a soul that is hungry
can be fed by The Way.
Be like the wagon wheel,
the center hole, the middle void,
makes movement possible.
Be like a clay pot,
let your emptiness
be for the use of all.
Be like a house,
room between the walls
makes life for others possible.
Be like music,
space between the notes
transforms sounds into a song.
-Jones, David W.. The Way and The Word: The Tao of Jesus
It’s the space between the notes that transforms sounds into a song. Any good jazz or blues soloist will tell you that a good solo isn’t about how many notes you can play in a short time. The key to a great solo is knowing that the spaces, the rhythmic choices, the staccato, and the unexpected pauses or turns are just as musical as the actual notes.
And maybe that’s just one tiny example of what it means to honor the empty spaces in our lives. Because in empty spaces, we have freedom: to adapt, to improvise, to respond appropriately, to be present - and yes, to listen.
*By calling Yahweh’s name “empty”, I do not mean to imply it is meaningless or powerless. In its original cultural context, though, it would have seemed quite vague, confusing, and indeed, empty.
**The word “humble” in this version has traditionally been translated as meek. Per Strong’s Concordance, “Meekness toward God is that disposition of spirit in which we accept His dealings with us as good, and therefore without disputing or resisting. In the OT, the meek are those wholly relying on God rather than their own strength to defend against injustice.”