Half Empty, Half Full

September 25, 2011

by Emily Brown

Have you ever read that book The Giving Tree? It’s a children’s storybook by Shel Silverstein, and when I was a kid, someone would read us The Giving Tree during the weekly “children’s sermon” at church about once a year. In the story, there are two characters: a tree and a little boy. The tree provides the boy with everything he needs: apples to eat, branches to play on, shade to sit in. The boy grows up, and the tree gives more and more, until one day the boy, all grown up, wants to sail away and see the world, but he has no boat. The tree offers itself as wood, allowing the boy to chop it down. Years later, the boy comes back, now an old man. “I’m sorry,” the tree, now a stump, says, “I have nothing left to give you.” But the old man just wants a quiet place to sit and rest, and the tree is delighted to oblige. The end.

I can’t stand that book.

Or more accurately, I can’t stand the idea that that book promotes, at least in the context of those children’s sermons: the idea that the meaning of life is giving of yourself until you run out of self.

The book was inevitably read to us by someone who was giving and giving and giving in their own lives – to their spouse, their children, their parents, their work, their volunteering. And as they read us this story, they would tearfully speak of self-sacrifice and giving everything you have, and we, the Sunday school children, would listen and nod, and bow our heads in prayer that God would help us to have generous hearts so we could give cheerfully of ourselves always, and hold nothing back.

Do you know where that idea comes from? Actually, I’m not quite sure where that idea originates, but I can tell you who is responsible for propagating it across the face of the globe: Paul. Paul did that, and he did it most famously in today’s text from Philippians.

This text comes from the letter to the church in Philippi. Paul is writing to them from prison. The Philippian church loved Paul dearly, and they had sent one of their members, Epaphroditus, to visit him and take care of him while he was imprisoned. Incidentally, as inhumane as the justice and prison systems are in contemporary America – and if you followed the execution of Troy Davis this week, you know it is horrifically broken – we do at least feed prisoners. As far as ancient Rome was concerned, there was no reason to use government resources to keep prisoners alive. If they didn’t have people who wanted to come and bring them food, they could starve to death. So Epaphroditus has come to Paul in prison and tells him how things are going in Philippi, and carries this letter back with him from Paul. In this section of the letter, Paul urges the Philippians to “make his joy complete” by loving one another, caring for one another, and being humble. And then he goes on to this little snippet of poetry, which most scholars think is a quote from a hymn that the Philippians would have known:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
Did not regard equality with God
As something to be exploited,
But emptied himself,
Taking the form of a slave,
Being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
He humbled himself
And became obedient to the point of death –
Even death on a cross.

It is a lovely poem, and it espoused what were, at the time, revolutionary ideas: the idea that lowliness is not shameful. The idea that glory and power and status are not objectively good things that we should pursue at all costs. The idea that God can be found in the most humble of places.

Those ideas are beautiful. Those ideas have inspired Christians to work with people who are despised and rejected by society. Those ideas have empowered Christians to stand up to injustice even when it means risking their lives. Those ideas have encouraged Christians to be suspicious of the pursuit of wealth and power and prestige.

But some of the ideas in that ancient hymn have also been very harmful. That hymn is one of the roots of the idea that the appropriate response to suffering is submission. That idea, the belief that the good and godly thing to do in the face of suffering is meek acceptance, flows so naturally into passivity in the face of injustice.

There is a bit of suspicion in American culture about people advocating for themselves. Although we are a nation born out of colonists’ demand for justice, I hear a touch of skepticism, a bit of hesitancy, when we talk about movements of people demanding justice, whether they be racial minorities, LGBTQ folks, or labor unions. I wonder whether there’s some connection between that hymn urging people to emulate Jesus by humbling themselves and the idea that oppressed people should stop making trouble and just take what they can get. I believe there’s some connection between Paul encouraging us to be like Christ, who “humbled himself to the point of death – even death on a cross” and those children’s sermons about the tree whose greatest joy was in giving itself away until all that was left was a stump.

I wonder if we can find something life-giving and life-affirming in this text? I wonder if there is a way to read it that condemns selfishness and self-centeredness without condemning self-ness, without condemning the selves which we believe are created in God’s own image? Is there something in this hymn that can teach us how to give without being destroyed in the process like the giving tree?

I think there is. And I think it might be in the word kenosis. Kenosis is a term from Christian theology that means “emptying.” It’s used in that hymn where it says that Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” Kenosis has since become a much-loved Christian theological term. John of the Cross talks about emptying ourselves of our own wills in order to make room for the spirit of God. Early Christian theologians debated to what extent Christ did in fact “empty” himself, since they didn’t believe that he had entirely given up his God-like-ness. Much later, C.S. Lewis compared God’s kenosis to the work of a painter, who pours herself or himself into the act of creation without giving herself or himself up.

I had always envisioned kenosis kind of visually, and I pictured it as something like pouring the liquid out of a bucket, or scooping the goop out of a pumpkin. As I was studying this week, though, I discovered that that doesn’t seem to be what kenosis means at all. While the theologians were arguing about Christ’s kenosis, Greek-speaking folks went right on using that word casually, in everyday life, and this is how they used it: kenosis is the process that happens between meals – you eat something and you’re satisfied, and then you gradually become hungry again, and that is kenosis. Or it could describe the moon: you see the full moon, and then it begins to wane, and that is kenosis.

Kenosis is not something that occurs once and for all; kenosis, normally, is cyclical. Kenosis is not so much a tree being chopped down, but maybe more like a cow being milked. Kenosis is not a final act, but something we do over and over again.

I started lifting weights a couple of weeks ago, and while I was researching weight-lifting programs, I learned something that shocked me: we don’t get stronger by lifting weights. We get stronger by recovering from lifting weights. During that lifting session, you challenge your muscles, and if you’re challenging them the right amount, you damage them just a tiny bit. Between workouts, they heal themselves and that healing makes them stronger. If you don’t take days off, they don’t have time to repair themselves, and they will get weaker and weaker and weaker, and if you don’t rest them, you’ll eventually injure yourself. But if you do it right, if you push yourself and then recover, push yourself and recover, and after each recovery you are a bit stronger and you can do more and more.

So how do we do that cycle? Where can that restoration come from, and how can we make sure that we find the right balance of giving and receiving? I think Paul’s epistle to the Philippians gives us a clue: this epistle is not a letter to one person; it is a letter to a community, and it urges them toward kenosis in the context of that community. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” If we are alone, like the giving tree, giving and giving and giving, we are liable to give until nothing is left of us. But Paul isn’t writing to one person telling him or her to give of herself without self-interest: he is writing to a community, telling each of them to look out for the wellbeing of others – both those outside the community, and one another. In community, we can care for one another, help one another through tough times, see that each of us has time to rest and be renewed.

I learned something this week about how community can help us be whole and well, how we can heal each other even in the process of kenosis, as I followed the campaign to save Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia on Wednesday. Troy was executed despite a worldwide campaign of letters, petitions, phone calls and protests, and shortly before his execution, he penned a letter to his supporters that rings with some of the same hope that I hear in Paul’s letter from jail: “I am humbled by the emotion that fills my heart with overwhelming, overflowing Joy. I can’t even explain the insurgence of emotion I feel when I try to express the strength I draw from you all, it compounds my faith.”

People emptied themselves for Troy Davis. People gave of their time and their energy; they called and tweeted and emailed; they stood vigil and fasted in solidarity; they hoped and prayed and finally wept with the family. But they didn’t do it alone. They – we – maybe some of you – did it together. And when all of that work failed, and Troy Davis was executed on Wednesday night, they – we – maybe some of you – strengthened and energized each other to keep striving for justice. In community, we find hope in the midst of despair, light shining in the darkness, fullness even as we empty ourselves. When we work together, we’re not like the giving tree, giving more and more until we run out. The more we give, the more we empty ourselves together, the more we care for one another and the world, the fuller and stronger we become.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Ancient Testimony     Philippians 2:1-13 (NRSV)

Modern Testimony – Mother Teresa

“What I can do, you cannot. What you can do, I cannot. But together we can do something beautiful for God. Yes, you must live life beautifully and not allow the spirit of the world that makes gods out of power, riches, and pleasure, make you to forget that you have been created for greater things – to love and be loved.”

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