The Importance of What Is Not

Ancient Testimony - Tao Te Ching, Verse 11

May 30, 2010

by Catherine Bordeau

“Thus do we create what is, to use what is not.” The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote this verse over fifteen hundred years ago. As legend tells it, he worked for the imperial court of China as a record keeper. But when he was eighty years old, he became saddened and disillusioned with his growing realization that people were not willing to live a path of natural goodness.

So, he did as any learned and disillusioned man would do, he hopped on a yak (a sort of long-haired cow) and headed to Tibet. The legend continues, saying that when he got to the border of China and Tibet at the Han Gu Pass a guard realized he was leaving—permanently. The guard asked him to write down his wisdom before he crossed, and so he did. He hopped down from his yak as swiftly as any eighty-year-old might, and, at the gate on the border of Tibet, he composed the entirety of his text that we now know as the Tao Te Ching. Afterwards, he crossed the border and was never seen again.

I looked up his legendary travel on Google maps, and, as any technology-lover might do, I asked for walking directions from Luoyang, China, to Tibet. Not surprisingly, Google provided me with not one but two routes and estimated that the journey would be 2500 miles. I did a little math, and I estimated that would mean about a half-year of walking.

This might be the only time you’ll hear me say this, but I have to admit I’m thankful for that border guard. The guard had the foresight to ask Lao Tzu to write down his wisdom before he crossed into the independent territory. His prudence made these verses possible because without his request, the verses of the Tao Te Ching would not have then passed through the millennia. Each of the 81 verses carries tidbits of wisdom applicable to many areas of life. Today, we are looking at one.

This legend is set in the sixth century. This was the time when Greece was being lectured by Plato and Socrates; India was being enlightened by the Buddha; and China was figuring out the riddles of Confucius and Lao Tzu. What a century!

In Verse 11 of the Tao Te Ching, for which this sermon is titled, the importance of what is not is recognized in very concrete terms. A clay pitcher is useful only if it’s hollow; if it’s empty. A clay pitcher is useful because of the emptiness within. Walls and doorways are the physical boundaries of a room or a building, but the space within those boundaries is what makes it livable. We create what is, to use what is not. This sanctuary would be a hollow hall if no life breathed in it. This church was built to stand as a symbol, but it would be a dead symbol if you were not all here, living out the legacy it represents. Thus do we create what is, to use what is not.

It’s a strange way to think about things, I know. Because there is intentional emptiness, it can be filled. But even before there can be emptiness, the physical structure must be constructed. This calls us to contemplate the importance of what is not—sort of like looking at things from the inside out. I invite you to journey with me now as we consider some ideas along these lines that are a bit more abstract.

You will have seen that your bulletin covers are marked as pages that are intentionally left blank. This was—as it says—intentional. That is because this thinking about “what is not” can be applied to many areas in our lives.

A sort of complicated example can be found amongst a recent story coming from Haiti. Monsanto, a company that is the leading producer of genetically modified seeds and herbicides, announced that it was donating 60,000 seed sacks of hybrid corn and other vegetables to Haitian farmers. Monsanto creates seeds that do not reproduce on their own, therefore upsetting a practice farmers have always depended upon. Gardeners beware! Here is where we see the more insidious nature and purpose of the donation. Almost imperceptibly, the objective of the seed donation was the perpetually enforced, oppressive dependence of farmers on the company’s seed products. Seeds packaged to look like earthquake relief assistance were actually seeds that would have undermined the Haitian farmers’ independence. Thankfully, the leader of the Peasant Movement in Haiti recognized this ploy and counter-announced that he would be burning the seed sacks—all 60,000 of them.

In doing so he created a movement—that amorphous, abstract and sometimes elusive phenomenon—in order to use what is not: the viral messaging that the Haitian people will continue to rely on their own seeds, that the Haitian people will not be duped by a donation of seeds that might very well leave them more impoverished than before. In this scenario, the leader of the Peasant Movement was like his own border guard, gleaning the suppressed wisdom about seeds and life and freedom from capitalism’s never-ending quest to control the means of production.

Here at Judson, we are also building a movement, for immigration reform. We claim that immigrants are people, real human beings who are more than just an identity of “illegal.” We know Jean on a personal level, and so we know that we could never call him illegal. He’s our friend.

A more easily relatable example from a well-known movement might be seen in the lives and history of women. Bella Abzug once said that “women have been taught to walk softly and carry lipstick.” Thus do we create what is: the culturally generated, the patriarchial-ly oppressed, the familial-ly taught, the socially reinforced, and the often-times theologically grounded notion that a woman has a certain role in the family, in society, in the church, and in the world. Thus do we create what is: an ideal of the submissive woman; to use what is not: a proliferation of the widely-held view that because of her gender, somehow a woman owes her individuality and her life to her husband and children, that she should submit her dreams to addressing piles of laundry, to cooking endless meals, and to mothering all for eternity. Her labor exploited, her independence seceded, and her value lower than that of any man around her, women in this country realized how they fit into this idea of creating what is in order to use what is not. The construction of the female ideal benefitted those who told us where our place was within a patriarchal culture, and the women resisted. We’re still resisting. We’ve fought to become the border guards who began to tell and pass on the untold stories and the wisdom carried by the beasts of burden to the edge of the world as we know it.

This begs us to ask ourselves how this type of knowledge is constructed and what other areas it might be applied to. For one, I could imagine us definitely relating this way of thinking to the construction of race as an identity marker and note the many ways it was and is used to oppress people of color. Thus do we create what is: an understanding of another individual as morally and intellectually inferior based on the color of his or her skin. We create what is, to use what is not: a seemingly justified exploitation of peoples through slavery, colonialism, segregation, and even just ignorant hatred or the maintenance of stereotypes.

Are you getting an idea yet for what you might put on your bulletin cover? Discovering the importance of “what is not” calls us to listen for the stories that aren’t written down, including the histories and wisdom of people—women and men from around the world—who have not been allowed to cross the border into the realm of the dominant group. In my studies of history during my time at university, I began to learn that the history I had always been taught held vast voids of knowledge. My professors began to teach me how history is written and that sometimes—well, most often—its writers have a specific purpose in mind. That purpose is often to present a world, a reality that is skewed in favor of the group writing the history. Or the science, the philosophy, the theology and, in another way, the newspapers we read, the sermons we hear, and so on and so forth.

Experiencing this kind of learning was powerful for me. I often vaguely understood the reality presented to me in the classroom as our normal everyday culture. Before undergrad, I wasn’t generally aware of it, much like a fish isn’t aware that it is living in water. I asked questions in highschool, because I had a feeling there was something missing, but I backed down when my teachers told me I was wrong. Have you experienced this? I have a feeling that we aren’t generally aware of how our culture is shaped and formed, nor how our culture shapes and forms our outlook on the world. What does our clay pitcher look like? Why?

In our modern testimony from Doris Lessing, she describes this pattern even in our educational system. She outlines how the educational system does in fact present a case for a particular reality, thereby creating what is constituted as culture and how people conceive of and perceive the world around them. This is no accident. Surely you’ve heard about the controversy over what can and cannot be included in textbooks in Texas. Same thing.

Certainly, in some ways, I can also see this in my own life experiences with certain dogmas and doctrines of the church. The system that educated me theologically while I was growing up worked the same way. A certain set of facts were presented as the whole truth, the only, holy, and absolute truth. Questions were not encouraged. Yikes! I guess that’s where we get the saying, “You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.”

Or can you?

From my experience in the church and now in seminary, asking questions is now a regular practice that is encouraged. I see now that a different church is possible; a different reality is possible. I see this at work here at Judson, and the results are really quite beautiful.

Hanging a question mark on things I’ve taken for granted as true is a healthy practice. Asking those questions into the beyond of our own experience is like crossing a border into a new land from which we will never return. For me, asking questions about theology and doctrines means I will never be able to return to the land of belief in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. I will not be able to return to the land of not seeing our current immigration system as unjust. I will never be able to be the person I was before my education. Nor will I even be able to be who I was before asking the questions that helped me to write this sermon.

Lao Tzu wrote down his wisdom and never looked back. In thinking about the legend of his journey, I have to wonder what our world might be like if only all border guards asked for people’s wisdom to be written down before they crossed. Imagine the border guards in Mexico collecting the stories and the wisdom of immigrants before allowing them to cross. If we listened to these untold stories, what might we learn and how would that change us?

I also wonder in what ways we serve as our own border guards, limiting the edges of our vision of the world to the comfortable and familiar. How have we been taught to limit our own borders? In what ways do we keep ourselves from crossing our own borders, away from the familiar and into the unknown? What have we taken for granted? What yak are we riding? And perhaps most importantly, what wisdom would we write down when we crossed that border?

I have faith that we have it in our power to change some of these systems that have been created. It is our time to ask questions about the world that we envision. How are we going to shape the clay pitcher? What will constitute the space within? It’s time to awaken the spirit of change within each of our individual selves and to ask for the wisdom knocking on our borders. The importance of what is not is waiting in those spaces.


Ancient Testimony ~ Tao Te Ching, Verse 11

We join thirty spokes to the hub of a wheel,
yet it’s the center that drives the chariot.

We shape clay to birth a vessel,
yet it’s the hollow within that makes it useful.

We chisel doors and windows to construct a room,
yet it’s the inner space that makes it livable.

Thus do we create what is,
to use what is not.


Modern Testimony ~ from The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing

Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: “You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others, will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself—educating your own judgment. Those that stay must remember, always and all time, that they are being molded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.”


55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844