on that “forever empty”: 1 Corinthians 10.

read 1 Cor. 10.  Why do many of us find ourselves talking about the same issues, over and over? Don’t we have anything else to talk about than that person who slighted us, or how we didn’t get into that stupid college twenty years ago, or how that annoying person dumped us, or how our genius child should have started instead of warmed the bench, or how that gorgeous though aging celebrity sneezed in our direction two weeks ago and actually wiped their nose on our sleeve?  Are we THAT boring? Do we have some kind of collective Terrets?

Maybe.  But there’s several reasons for the way we keep scratching the same itches, the way a mangy dog goes wild trying to catch the same wily flea.

First of all, if this shoe fits you, Cinderella, there’s good news.  Apparently Vincent van Gogh called the phenomenon of revisiting the same ground repetition.  Van Gogh painted the same scenery and people over and over again.  Each time he focused on a different aspect.  He used different mediums, techniques and kinds of paper.   In some he used a flurry of strokes, suggesting he painted outdoors.  In others, he gave the same scene a more refined, perhaps less immediate, feel probably because he did it from memory.  Sometimes he even copied his own work.  Some think he even traced his own work.  An ear appears in one portrait of a postman, whereas it disappears in other portraits – and we’ve all heard of poor van Gogh’s fixation on ears.  He makes some props pale and other times paints them in dramatic dark black to make them pop.  The differences are subtle but real.  Seeing Double: Van Gogh the Tweaker, NY Times.

Why would Van Gogh do this?  Was it just a crisis of imagination, as some critics say?  Or is this how the creative process has to work?  Is TENDER IS THE NIGHT just a more unwieldy scene study for the elements Fitzgerald worked out to perfection in THE GREAT GATSBY?  As someone who thinks THE GREAT GATSBY is the perfect American novel… yes!   We humans work through our creative ideas, concepts, pasts and dreams, over and over, trying to refine them until we get them right.

Sometimes we’re the ones who have to be ‘gotten right’.  We might have a dream, but we might not yet have the character to carry it out.  As Joyce Meyer said in her TV show today, when God is preparing us to fulfill our dreams, He often waits to make us sweeter.  He perfumes us with His qualities.  He gives us His humility and His kindness.  See “Have a Dream for Your Life: Part 2“.

Because a successful person who is hard-hearted is a danger.  A synonym for hard-heartedness  is being insensitive: “callously indifferent (blinded, hardened, and made insensible).” Romans 11:7 (Amp. Bible).  Insensitivity can strike any of us at any time.  One of the problems of being insensitive is that we can see it in others but not ourselves.  We become insensitive to our insensitivity.  So how do we escape its subtle chains?  One way is to learn its side effects; to track its symptoms like clues.  The comedian Louis C.K. said recently on Conan O’Brian that he hates cellphones.  Here’s why.  He says children try out different behaviors, and that it’s good for them to experience the consequences of their bad behaviors. “Kids are mean,” Louis C.K. said.  “They say, ‘oh, you’re fat.’  Then they see your face scrunch up and they feel bad.  They think: ‘Oh, I don’t like how it feels when I do that.'” Louis C.K. went on to say that we shouldn’t let kids text because they miss out on seeing people’s reactions.  He added that we shouldn’t text, either, because we should sit in our own emptiness.  Here is how he put it:  “Underneath everything in your life, there’s that thing.  That forever empty.  You know what I’m talking about?  The knowledge that it’s all for nothing, and you’re alone…. The knowledge starts to visit on you.  Life is tremendously sad.”  See: Louis C.K. on Conan.  He asked Conan if he felt the forever empty, too, and Conan nodded.

Haven’t we all felt the forever empty?  And don’t we feel it curl in on us when we hate?  Somehow the forever empty is tied up with evil.  That’s strange, if we think about it, because we associate emptiness with nothingness.  But somehow evil, including hate, discrimination, disdain, and sneering, lead us straight down the path to a horribly empty feeling.

For instance, when we start feeling cold toward someone, it feels really bad.  Coldness is terrifying.  It makes us feel inhuman.  It makes us feel like there’s something wrong with us.  Why can’t we be more loving?  But instead of escaping our inner coldness by distracting ourselves or instead of spiraling into self-hatred, we can use a coldness in our hearts as a clue.  Somewhere, we’ve gone wrong.  We’ve slipped into hard-heartedness.  The Bible would tell us that our coldness suggests pride has crept in and taken us captive while we were looking the other way.

Luckily, there’s an antidote to a hard heart.  It’s called truth.  And truth, luckily for us, is a person named Jesus.  Jesus came to soften every heart, even our own.  Jesus’ tender love for each of us teaches the truth about love.  Love is patient.  Love is kind.  Love is rich in mercy and slow to anger.  Love is willing to sacrifice everything it has for the one it loves.

Therefore the only reason we can feel hard hearted toward a fellow human is that we’ve forgotten grace.  We’ve slipped out of God’s safe arms, like a toddler wriggling away near a busy highway.  Like a child, we race out into the middle of the road and – SLAM.  A case of hard-heartedness takes us over.  Just like that.  We forget we’re saved by God’s mercy alone.  We forget we can do “nothing” to earn our salvation. See e.g. Romans 11.  We start to believe the lie that we’re superior because we can manage to do a small number of things on a small list we’ve made up for ourselves – and we even forget that we can’t even live up to our own small standards most of the time.  We’ve taken our eyes off of true holiness – God – and fixed them on our own navels.   But if we look up for just a moment, even a mountain can remind us how enormously great God’s standards are.  If we crack open the Hebrew Scriptures, we’ll be reminded we can’t covet, we can’t lust, we can’t have a moment’s greed, we can’t have even a whiff of a mixed motive – or boom – we’re excluded from a perfect and holy heaven.

It’s as if we’re standing on the outside of Gramercy Park in New York City with our noses pressed between the spaces in its wrought iron fence.  We’re looking at the flowers in its gardens, but we’re not even able to get close enough to smell them.  That’s the way of the world.  It’s where you have to earn your own salvation by living according to a set of rules – and it’s a harsh way.  It’s an impossible way.  It’s a way without forgiveness.  It’s a way that excludes constant beauty joy and meaning.

Which brings us to the second, and less good, reason we repeat the same stuff over and over.  We keep trying to force our own way into heaven.  We want to break down the iron gates with a crowbar.  We don’t want to have to give up our bad habits or do anything that might cause us discomfort.  How do we know?  Because right here in 1 Corinthians 10 Paul tells us: “the temptations in your life are no different from what others experience.”  1 Corinthians 10:13.  When other people do bad stuff, we can’t pretend we haven’t thought of doing the same thing.  Scripture reveals to us our hearts.  This chapter implores us, for instance, not to crave evil things; not to put anything ahead of God in our hearts; not to be sexually immoral; not to put God to the test; and, lest we imagine we’re safe from anything of those, not to GRUMBLE.

And even if we delude ourselves into thinking we’re not grumblers — by forgetting whatever it was we just complained about under the guise of ‘solving’ a problem –, Paul adds that if we think we can stand, we should be careful.  The same temptations beset us all.

The only way to get inside Gramercy Park in New York City is by buying one of the adjoining apartments.  The old owner will hand the key to the new one.  But what if we have no money?  What if we can’t afford the price?

Luckily the owner of all earth wants to let us in.  “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”  1 Cor. 10:26.  The owner is holding out to each of us the key to the most beautiful garden of all.  Jesus is the key.  The only way we can get into the garden is if God Himself comes and lifts us up and brings us in.  That’s what the cross was for.  He wants to carry us in.

All too often, we feel like God shouldn’t do that.  We think we don’t belong.  No, no, we say, when we see ourselves as if from a distance, enjoying the lush lawn, the pink roses, the cherry blossoms and the flowing fountain.  We don’t belong there.

And God says: I know you don’t.  But I want you there anyway because I adore you.  So that’s why I took the punishment for you, so I can bring you into my garden and enjoy it through your eyes.  So stop resisting me.  Don’t fight me off.  Stop having trouble believing that I actually love you.  Accept my love.  Let me in.  Let me take you where I want to take you, because only I know the way.

God’s way is very similar to the creative process, as God is the Creator.  He gives us a vision for our lives.  He gives us a deep knowing that we want to be loved, that we want beauty, that we want unity and peace.  He also gives us an inner restlessness to drive us away from the safe and boring toward Him.  He gives us the desire to be sweeter, and then He wants us to let Him sweeten us.  He asks us to keep going, keep painting, keep processing, until we let go of all our hurts, fears, bitterness, envy and rage, and let Him paint the poems of our lives.

God is turning His ear in heaven, listening for the sound of us sighing for Him. How do we know?  Listen to these verses from the Hebrew Scriptures:

“The Lord says, “I was ready to respond, but no one asked for help. I was ready to be found, but no one was looking for me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am!’” to a people that did not call on my name. Isaiah 65:1.

If we can hear the emptiness at the core of our lives the way we can hear the sea in a seashell, why wouldn’t we do the simple thing?  Why wouldn’t we ask the maker of the seas to fill us?  What’s stopping us except perhaps something we probably shouldn’t trust – our hard-heartedness?  So maybe we should use even our disbelief in a creative way.  We can turn it over and over, and ask the question of God in new ways every day: help me!  Show me yourself!  Help me find you!  Show me your glory!  I’m empty and I want You.

If we hold out our hands, who knows what the Creator will put in them….

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on October 9, 2013.