by Robert Calhoun
This past month, during the first week of May, I was sitting on a bench outside a coffee shop beside the Big Thompson River as it coursed its way through Estes Park… a cool day, the water level on the rise with spring rains and early snow melt. Sipping coffee with a book, notepad, and pen in hand. People passing by.
When first sitting down, I noticed a large fluffy gray jay…gripping tightly to a lone boulder in the middle of the stream. A mature bird, feathers periodically ruffled by the breeze…he appeared comfortable…I imagined him to be contemplating what he saw both near and far…as he held this space on the boulder in midstream. My eyes often returning to my winged friend, wondering what he saw, what he knew. He was there for what seemed a very long time, while pages turned in my book.
And then, at one moment looking up from my reading…. I saw the boulder was bare. I had not seen him fly away. Now just a bare boulder, a space that earlier was filled with my feathered friend.
I was surprised how the image of that empty rock grabbed… held my attention. This empty, vacated, space without the gray jay had my full attention now.
Empty spaces. What to do with empty spaces?…….spaces where what was is no longer; or spaces where something has always been missing, spaces yet to be filled……spaces that appear suddenly or spaces that capture our attention slowly over time? Empty spaces due to the natural changes of life…..spaces ripped open by the unexpected. How do we experience, how do we respond to, those spaces before us and within us?
Empty spaces call up many feelings and reactions…curiosity, compassion, excitement for a new start, hopefulness ….or confusion, heartache, doubt, fear, hopelessness…… it is not unusual for us to fill empty spaces with distractions, even false gods, so as not to even notice what is missing.
What do we do, how do we wait… for what or for whom do we listen?
My thoughts went to Good Friday at noon-time in our Plymouth sanctuary where I and one other…were in that quiet space for almost an hour, a space which spoke of emptiness, waiting. What or who if anyone holds that space with us?
Perhaps Jesus wondered, as he waited….in the wilderness....or in the garden.
Or Mary outside the tomb.
Or twelve apostles “all together in one place,” and Mary, the mother of Jesus, as they gathered in a house on Pentecost, along with the many others who gathered as was the Jewish custom at the end of the grain harvest…..The twelve apostles aware of an empty space, remembering, wondering what to expect, waiting for what may be next if anything….
I have read about Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, theologian and mystic… at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Street in downtown Louisville, Kentucky in the 1950’s… watching, waiting, not yet imagining what was about to come….
You have had your times….I have……moments when what has your full attention is the "bare boulder," the empty space that cannot be ignored….times when the messenger has disappeared, belief seems hollow…when what you thought you believed no longer makes sense, even belief in yourself….times when nothing seems to be holding the space in front of you…when what was reassuring…is gone and its absence is what fills you.
Life………waiting for the phone call that does not come…… receiving the phone call you do not want to receive….starting out in life without a clue where to go…..a sudden lack of purpose….the end of a relationship…
…standing at the grave of your parent, child… partner…….or times when the thoughts of past traumas take over your mind…. perhaps the "empty-nest" time, or the aging process and the awareness of approaching death……
… spaces that speak of emptiness….These days, the nightly news often speaks of empty spaces: uncertainty, lack of civility… divisiveness…one more shooting…. excluded from entrance for simply being who you are….us against them.
The twelve apostles gathered “all together in one place,” in a house, and the many others gathered as was the custom at Pentecost.
Perhaps that is the meaning of faith…to gather together, to still gather even when the space before us is empty…still gather when the road ahead is unclear.
Perhaps that is faith… for us to keep gathering as a Plymouth community, week after week, even in times when the "boulder" is empty, when something is missing, the promise seems distant…..still gather when our efforts to be welcoming seem futile…. to gather together, share bread together… where we hold the empty spaces for each other…and together see what is, what is not, and what has always been. To still gather, remember, wait……wait for the signs of reassurance, wait for our eyes and hearts to open to the loving presence that holds the space with us, shines light into dark places……
…reminding us of our birthright, that we are not alone, as love unfolds before us and among us and we move out into the world with boldness and compassion knowing that "God is still speaking."
These things I pondered sitting on a bench outside a coffee shop on a spring morning alongside the Big Thompson River. And then, as if unaware until that very moment, I felt the rush of the wind upon my face, the branches waving, and heard the loud, mighty, sounds of the rushing water as if many voices were speaking all at once….and now all of that energy had my full attention and I left that bench and began walking on the crowded sidewalk, enlivened by something familiar but for which I could not name, with the sense we were not separate, not alone, but were all walking together with the One who breathes with us.
Robert Calhoun is a member of Plymouth and serves on the Pastoral Relations Committee.