Emptying into Peace

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                                 Dec. 9, 2018

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-70

The book of Malachi was written during a time when those who had been exiled had returned. They had settled down long enough to begin to grow a bit complacent with their faith, a bit lax in their givings, a bit nonchalant about a growing gap in wages between the rich and the working poor.

Malachi contains a message of warning: “Wake up—be alert to what is happening around you and be aware of what you, yourselves, are doing to contribute to injustice and faithlessness.” Malachi predicts the coming of a messenger—reminding me of Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come: there will be a messenger who will suddenly appear to prepare the way of the Lord. This messenger will ominously point toward the refiner’s fire of purification.

John Calvin wrote that there are two purposes of the refiner’s fire. The first is to burn away any impurities or corruptions. The second is to purify and strengthen the core material. What aspects of our lives are distorting who we really are at the depth of our core? What needs clearing out and cleaning up in our home, in our church, in ourselves?

When sliver is refined, it is treated with carbon or charcoal to prevent the absorption of oxygen so that it can shine a pure silver. “A silversmith knows that the refining process is complete only when she observes her own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal.”[1] What are our shadow sides that might be blocking our core’s reflection of the image of God? For we are each made in the image of God—and every one of us has shadows. If we can acknowledge and identify our shadows when they begin to show up and then work through them, we’ll be able to start polishing away the tarnish and see a reflection of God looking back at us.

Handel’s Messiah includes a few pieces inspired by this passage of Malachi. After the first performance of the Messiah in 1741, Handel wrote to a friend, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.” The refiner’s fire sounds harsh, but there is a way to be gentle with ourselves and our shadows in order to ease them into remission. And we will be the better for it.

We are entering a season full of stress and unrealistic expectations. I have a friend who is a therapist and her client base almost doubles at this time of year. Stress brings out our shadow sides—we snap more easily, are more impatient and critical with ourselves and with others. The first step in dealing with our shadow side is to acknowledge it. We each have different shadows—our task is to know them and address their needs before they take over. Even more, our shadow sides have valuable lessons to teach us. If we don’t pay attention to them, they will simply grow larger until we have no choice but to listen to them.

Ask yourself why your shadow of irritability or fear or self-belittlement is beginning to grow. Is it pointing to a need you have neglected, such as some quiet moments, an unhurried pace, quality time with a partner or friend? Hildegard of Bingen tells us that our vices are the flip side of our virtues. What is the opposite of our shadow? Can it help us address the needs of our shadow?

One of my shadow sides is a need to be liked by everyone. This places my worth in the hands of others. It triggers in me a fear of not belonging, a fear of being rejected. Its opposite is an inner confidence that I am worthy before God just for who I am—nothing more and nothing less. My work is to settle comfortably into the opposite of my shadow.

A few weeks ago, I received a “Dear Jane” response for a wider church volunteer position. I was fine with someone else being chosen, but there was one line in the letter that shook me. It said that they decided to go with newer people. What is the opposite of new? For the first time in my life I was considered too old for something.

It is true that I turned 60 last week, and I’ve been seriously reflecting on this. As Dorcas and Kirk’s card to me said, “Well, that came up rather suddenly…DIDN’T IT??? I asked my hairdresser last week how old he thought I was. He replied, “In your late 60s.” I assured him that his guess was fine—that for the first time in my life, I was not mistaken for being too young. It seems as if I’m finally acting my age! But he kept trying to back peddle for the rest of the haircut. Why is it that our culture wants us to be younger than we are? An Indigenous Elder once said, “No wise person ever wanted to be younger.”

My spiritual guide told me that I’m entering the year of nothing. Zero is nothing. I’m realizing that this might best be a year of subtraction, not addition, as I prepare for a decade that will be full of transition, letting go, clearing out and emptying. I have a lot of fear about this, as I’ve based my value upon doing. As my wider church commitments come to an end, I fear that I’ll be forgotten. But in the emptying of positions, in clearing away what doesn’t really matter, I pray that I might find the purity of peace that reflects the image of God. Richard Rohr writes, “Your false self is your role, title, and personal image that is largely a creation of your own mind and attachments. It will and must die in exact correlation to how much you want the Real. How much false self are you willing to shed to find your True Self?”[2]

In his book Falling Upward, Rohr suggests that we have two halves of life. In the first half, we establish an identity, a home, relationships, friends, community and security. If we are fortunate, we develop a healthy ego in this first half of life. But there is a second half of life that most people miss. Instead of enforcing boundaries and repairing our foundation that were both essential for the first half of our lives, the second half allows us to fill this foundation with wisdom and meaning.

The problem is that we usually need to empty our lives of non-essentials so that there is room for a higher stage of life. We don’t go willing into this second half of life. It usually takes some kind of crisis, or suffering or failure that causes us to push the pause button, let go of some of that ego and find a deeper meaning in life. It is those very stumbling stones that allow us to stumble into the grace of God that offers Christ’s peace in the midst of life’s increasing limitations. We may then see our loss as a gain.

I have a friend who is severely compromised on what she can now do. She is completely blind, has Parkinson’s, diabetes, and a fainting condition. But she and her partner have told me that they have learned to live life to its fullest, no matter what its limitations. They have done more than simply resigning themselves to the aging and deterioration of their bodies. They might even have more joy and contentment in their lives than ever before. They live wisdom and peace. They have learned how to live the second half of their lives.

Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was struck speechless at John’s conception and words escaped him until John’s birth. Zechariah was forced to listen, to observe, to empty himself of the world of words. This enforced retreat of subtraction allowed him to see with prophet eyes. When his tongue was finally loosened, he talked about serving God without fear. “By the tender mercy of our God,” he proclaimed, “the dawn from on high will break upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

In the fullness of Christmas preparations and parties, may we be blessed with moments of stillness, when we can attend to our shadows and our fears and can empty ourselves of that which tarnishes. Rohr writes, “All the emptying out is only for the sake of a Great Outpouring. God, like nature, abhors all vacuums, and rushes to fill them.”[3] If we can prepare our hearts to the same degree of thoroughness as we prepare our hearths for Christmas, our feet will be guided into the way of peace.

[1]David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 30.

[2] Richard Rohr, Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), p. 85.

[3] Rohr, Falling Upwards, p. 160.