Last week, we held the first of our two summer Book Club gatherings. I am thankful to the Spiritual Life Commission for organizing it, to Ellen and Charlie for hosting it, and to the many people who came out on a rainy Wednesday evening to share in the fellowship and discussion. We had a very good discussion, and I enjoyed every bit of it. I was unusually quiet, as I've learned it sometimes pays to have others do the talking while you do the listening. In the early pages of the book, I came upon this story that I'd like to share with you:
It once happened that the people of a West African tribe noticed their cows were giving less milk than they used to. They couldn’t understand why. One young man volunteered to stay up all night to see what might be happening. After several hours of waiting in the darkness, hiding in a bush, he saw something extraordinary. A young woman of astonishing beauty rode a moonbeam down from heaven to earth, carrying a large pail. She milked the cows, filled her pail, and climbed back up the moonbeam to the sky. The man could not believe what he had seen. The next night, he set a trap near where the cows were kept, and when the maiden came down to milk the cows, he sprang the trap and caught her. “Who are you?” He demanded.
She explained that she was Sky Maiden, a member of a tribe that lived in the sky and had no food of their own. It was her job to come to earth at night and find food. She pleaded with him to let her out of the net, and then she would do anything he asked. The man said he would release her only if she agreed to marry him. “I will marry you” she said, “but first you must let me go home for three days to prepare myself. Then I will return and be your wife." He agreed.
Three days later she returned, carrying a large box. “I will be your wife and make you very happy,” she told him, “but you must promise me never to look inside this box.” For several weeks, they were very happy together. Then one day while his wife was out, the man was overcome with curiosity and opened the box. There was nothing in it. When the woman came back, she saw her husband looking strangely at her, and she said, “You looked in the box, didn’t you?”
“Why?’ the man asked. “What’s so terrible about my peeking into an empty box?” He asked. The woman responded that she was leaving the man. "I am not leaving you because you opened the box; I thought you probably would. I’m leaving you because you said it was empty. It wasn’t empty; it was full of sky. It contained the light and the air and the smells of my home in the sky. When I went home for the last time, I filled that box with everything that was most precious to me to remind me of where I came from. How can I be your wife if what is most precious to me is emptiness to you?”
I have, since reading the story, reflected long and hard about the Empty Box - the idea that the very thing which proffers meaning and value to one person may be regarded as empty and meaningless by another person, especially someone so dear. Indeed, we all see things differently, and we may interpret the same quantity of water in a glass as either being half-empty or half-full. But nothing so diminishes a person than the suggestion that his or her gifts - that which offers true meaning, or the piece that he or she cherishes as defining who they are - may hold little to no value to another, or that their box is empty because that’s only what the other sees. Remember, your eyes can also play tricks on you!!
Beyond that, there may also be times when we are tempted to characterize our own boxes as being empty. Those are the moments when self-doubt, pessimism, or 'doom and gloom' take over us and turn the things that we ought to value into things of no benefit. Or, worse still, material possessions may blind us and so prevent us from fullness of our own lives, and that of others. No one has an empty box. No one person’s cherished box is insignificant. Each box is full of something; it may not be visible to us, but it is nonetheless full of something valuable and meaningful. As a community of faith, our question is, "How can we faithfully serve if we consider a box to be empty?" No box is an empty one; each box holds something special, valuable, precious, and significant. However big or small that box may be, it is never empty, and for that reason you can cherish service to others, not as the giving of a half-empty self but as giving more than the self - the fullness of you, the box, if you will.
I’d like to conclude with an African proverb: “Not everyone who chased the zebra caught it, but he who caught it, chased it.” In much the same way as to catch a zebra is to chase it, so is your box and another’s box full of amazing gifts, talents, promises and affirmations. You only have to open your eyes wide enough to see it.