When our church announced their annual women’s retreat, I’d only been at the church a few months, but B had already jumped into the sound ministry, leaving me feeling left out and disconnected with a church he was already building a history with. Making friends is really hard for me. Not only am I an introvert by nature, but I’ve also been burned many times by fallen relationships. Add to that a low self-esteem and I’m a recipe for a wallflower.
This time would be different, though. As I felt God’s pull to sign up, I looked forward to the retreat, eager to build the friendships for which I longed. As luck would have it, the week of the retreat found me in one of my darkest places. I’d dropped back into bad habits, and the resulting stress and hunger left me drained, anxious, and short-tempered. I muddled through it, my eyes on the fill-up a weekend spent with God and great women would provide. On Friday I headed out with my best friend, who had graciously come along to support me. Did I mention how hard being social is? Being away from my family is even harder. But we were determined to make the most of it.
It was one of the hardest weekends of my life.
I’m not sure where the disconnect was. From the moment we arrived, I was overwhelmed by the difficulty of meeting people. They seemed distant, unfriendly. This was surely not how they felt, but as time passed I saw more of their coldness, my eyes blinded by my own hurt. By the end of the weekend, my broken spirit had hardened into bitterness, both with the church and with God.
Why ask me to come to this retreat? Why make me suffer through this? How, when I’m so empty, can you not just fill me up?
Where are you, God?
But just as I had reached my breaking point, the tears that wouldn’t stop nearly driving me from the final worship service, God spoke.
I am right here.
But I’m empty, I protested. You can’t be here because if you were I’d be full again.
I am right here, with you in the emptiness.
And He was. He was embracing me, lonely and miserable. He was comforting me, hurt and bitter. He was with me, but I was still empty.
I know I’m filled to be empty again, the seed I’ve received I will sow.
This was the last line from the song we were singing at that very moment. But in my rush to be filled, I assumed we were not meant to be empty, that empty was a state away from God, and that filled was a state full of God. Instead, what God pressed on me was the fact that sometimes we need to be empty. Maybe even really empty, maybe even for what feels like an eternity. Like plants, maybe we need to dry out sometimes to really force our roots further down. Maybe our vessel needs to bake in the sun so that it doesn’t mildew the fresh water. Whatever analogy works for you, the point for me was that God may need me to be empty in this moment.
And not just empty in seed, in the energy to give, but also in friendship. One retreat was not going to build the history with my church that I am sorely missing right now. I did meet some really sweet people, but standing on the outside, their friendships seemed so hard to penetrate. And why shouldn’t they? They had a strong fabric of countless retreats, events, life stories shared together. Our stories are just beginning, and yeah, that feels kind of empty. But empty is also a starting place. All strong fabrics start with a single thread.
I’d like to say that I am relishing the emptiness, but honestly, it still sucks. I’m thankful, though, because it’s driven me to understand how very much God loves me, how very present He always is, even in the emptiness. And I’m working on being empty, doing things that I know are restorative, understanding that it may take longer than I want for their effects to take hold. That’s okay with me. I’m just reserving the right not to like it.