Listenings: Emptying Before Filling

Henri Nouwen puts forth “emptiness” as the first step in the early movement of spiritual formation.  Using the memorable story of the empty tea cup, he says that the primary blockage to our formation is the simple fact that we are too full of “our” things.

The things can be anything:  our theology, our sense of self, our plans, programs, schedules, and priorities—our “musts”—anything.  As long as we are filled with these things, God will not be able to get in a word edgewise.

I confess that this is a “hard saying” for me.  For one thing, it cuts against the grain of my personality and the way I have lived so much of my life on the earth.  The idea of actually being “empty” is an unknown, and unknowns tend to be frightening.

It’s a hard saying also because I am at the end of a long period of “knowns” and beginning to make the transition into the “unknown”—into retirement.  My strong tendency is to keep pouring the tea, to keep moving forward with same dynamics in place.  But I know this is to miss the new formative movement God seeks to lead me to embrace.

It is emptying before filling.  That’s why Jesus began the Beatitudes with, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

There are a number of valid ways to interpret this statement, but today, this one suffices: “God I am now in a position to see what you want to give me, because I realize (at last) that I have nothing to give—except myself.  Well….here I am.”

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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4 Responses to Listenings: Emptying Before Filling

  1. Cindy Schutz says:

    My husband Fred just entered retirement and is in the place of being able to be more available to God and his plans. I just started at a new school and feel similar b/c everything is new and different and I am also offering up my empty tea cup as I try to be available in this new place. It’s exciting and a little uneasy, but then it’s not about me, it’s about finding ways I can reflect God’s love in this new place…blessings as you begin this new part of your journey!

  2. Tom Pope says:

    This is a good word for me today. I’ve been thinking lately of unknowing as an approach to embracing the unknown.

  3. I retired in 2008. I was relatively silent for three years, emptying myself so that I could be ready for the next thing God asked me to do…Academy. I wait upon Him as my life has become more about spiritual growth and bringing a deeper meaning to others through offering spiritual practices in my church. Thank you for being a part of that. Shalom, Karen

  4. MARIA says:

    I’ve been feeling this way, too, albeit my life’s experiences have been different from yours but am thankful you shared this today. For me, new city, new country, new neighbourhood, new (yet-to-make) friends, new church culture and here I am yearning for the old, familiar Methodist ways of living…I’m clinging to John and Charles Wesley!

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