Full of Empty

“Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.” 
                                                  –St. Hilary of Portiers, quoted by Kathleen Norris

Here in the the Dakotas, we have nothing if not emptiness.

I didn’t appreciate the abundance of that resource until my family and I moved to Mitchell, SD, four years ago. The few times I’d been through eastern and central South Dakota, I saw it as pass-through country, nothing more than necessary terrain on the road to somewhere else. But when I took a job at Dakota Wesleyan University, the prairie became not just a scenic backdrop, but a destination.

My new hometown is not exactly an outpost. Mitchell is home to two schools of higher education, a world-renown tourist attraction, a Walmart, and a Cabelas. At about 16,000 residents, we are the sixth-largest town in the state. Compared to much of South Dakota, Mitchell is downright urban.

These are all relative, boasts, however. We’re still a small fish in a vast, sparsely populated pond. if I bike three miles in any direction from my house, I can be on backroads that carry only a handful of cars each hour. If I drive west past Chamberlain, across the Missouri River, I can find even greater solitude, miles and miles with nothing but wind and wildlife.

That may sound romantic, and it is–for about fifteen minutes. It’s easy to crave space and silence when you’re living at the break-neck pace of modern American life. It’s natural to think that getting away from everything might be the cure for what ails you.


Sunset over the chapel at DWU. If we had more on the horizon, we’d miss the glory of the skies.

The reality, however, is that entering into emptiness requires a certain amount of detox. We are all wired to need people, albeit to varying degrees. And with so much connectivity available to us via digital technology, most of us don’t know how to be alone without also being lonely–much less how to be lonely in a spiritually beneficial way.

Surprisingly, even in a land with such abundant emptiness as the Dakotas, I don’t find many people who readily defend its merits. Like just about every other place in America, we tend to fill up our time with one thing or another until we’re frantic with activity. Rather than see the emptiness around us as fertile ground for spiritual renewal–the silence as clear air through which to hear the voice of God–we ignore it, except for agriculture. Emptiness is a condition in which we work, not a vehicle for our salvation.

Kathleen Norris is among those who remind us to see the emptiness of the Dakotas differently. Norris, who left New York City to spend decades at a family ranch in Lemmon, SD, writes of the richness of empty space in her classic Dakota: A Spiritual Geography:

“Maybe the desert wisdom of the Dakotas can teach us to love anyway, to love what is dying, in the face of death, and not pretend that things are other than they are. The irony and wonder of all of this is that it is the desert’s grimness, its stillness and isolation, that brings us back to love.” (p. 121)

Emptiness invites us to open our eyes. To let go of the illusion that our activity makes the world go round. To embrace our smallness and transience, and to find freedom in those things. To embrace a paradox, that a land that seems empty can fill us with a wonder we didn’t know we needed.

Power, More or Less

As soon as I laid eyes on Niagara Falls, I knew I had to message my brother Mike.

Mike loves power. All farmers are amateur engineers, and Mike is no exception. Virtually every piece of machinery he owns has been adapted, rebuilt, or somehow modified toward more effective and efficient use of power. His tractors and workshop and even his mailbox all attest to his philosophy, learned from our father: anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

So Mike was first on my mind earlier this summer when our family vacation took us to Niagara Falls. This time of year, a staggering amount of water goes over the falls—176,000 gallons every second, descending 188 feet to the river below. On the Canadian side, you can look right over the edge of Horseshoe Falls, the most famous view, and watch the water dive over the edge.

It is terrifying.

A view from above the Horseshoe Falls.

This is why I wished Mike were with me at Niagara Falls. Although he loves power, he is also a control enthusiast—a family trait we both share. The thought of careening down the Niagara River, through the rapids and eventually over the falls, relinquishing all control to the forces of nature, makes us cringe. I would have loved to see that inner turmoil on Mike’s face as he wrestled with his passion for power on one hand and his need to maintain control on the other.

I feel a similar tension in myself quite often these days—particularly when I read the news*. Every cycle seems to bring word of scandal, blame, lies, hubris, and violence. As I write this, children are being separated from their families at our southern border, detained like criminals even though some are not old enough to tie their shoes. I want to stop this and a hundred other things I read about every day, national sins perpetuated by greedy and thoughtless people who love power more than they love other humans.

But I can’t stop anything. Sure, I can call my congressional representatives and vote in elections, but that has about as much impact in my neck of the woods as spitting in Niagara Falls. I can name the atrocities and speak against them, but the current isn’t going my way. For all my outrage, I have no real power.

That’s how it feels some days.

I have to remind myself that it’s also a lie.

One of my favorite things about the stories of Jesus is the radical empowerment of the left-out and looked-over. Jesus spoke about against the atrocities of his time, but he never tried to grab for the power to fix them. Instead he talked to people on fishing boats and hillsides and olive groves, caring for individuals in his path, trusting that they would do the same for others. This was how the fabric of society would change—by making people more aware of and compassionate toward their neighbors.

My friend Omar al Rikabi made this point in a sermon to his church in Heath, TX, on Sunday. He doesn’t suggest that we give up on collective action, even political action. Neither do I. Rather, he suggests that the starting point for change is much nearer.

Regardless of how powerless we may feel—how strong the current or how threatening the falls—we can still love our neighbors. And that matters, maybe most of all.

* I mean read the news, not watch it. Giving up cable news channels was maybe the best mental health decision I’ve made in the last year. I’d highly recommend it.


Here we go again.

When I gave up on Monday’s Penny nearly four years ago, I thought I was done with blogging–maybe even with writing. I was coming off several stunning failures–the death of a friend, the unraveling of a career, the dissolution of what I thought were solid relationships. The entire world seemed angry and noisy and pointless, and I had no idea how to address it. So I just stopped trying.


I always try to see the pennies, because they are the easiest to ignore.

And then, as she has done a thousand times before, Anne Lamott smacked me in the head. I listened to her TED talk, “12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing.” While she is certainly wrong about some of what she says–chocolate with 70% cacao is not, as she would have it, less than real food–she is on point with most of what she says, including this:

“Publication can’t save your life. But writing can.”

She has more to say on the subject, all of it good. But that phrase was enough for me to realize how depressive and defeatist it was to kill Monday’s Penny. The blog had not been “successful,” at least not in terms of building a large following or develop a brand. But it had helped me sift through a lot of big questions and–even more importantly–had kept my eyes open to good things in my world I might have otherwise overlooked.

When I stop to think about it, what publication success I’ve had in recent years has taught me more about the publishing industry, which is of course helpful. But it’s the writing process that has taught me about life and love and what it means to be human, what it means to be a child of God.

Giving up on Monday’s Penny didn’t cheat anyone out of my opinion. In fact, the world has functioned much the same without my insights as it did with them. But my hiatus made me a little less hopeful, a little more blind to the wonder that can come just from noticing a penny on the sidewalk.

I’m a better person when I am hopeful in a disciplined way. And I’m more disciplined and more hopeful when I write, regardless of how many or how few read my words.

And so I’m resurrecting Monday’s Penny, even as I myself am continually being brought back from the deadness that modern life can inflict on us all. My prayer is that you will find some life here too, that you’ll open your eyes to the insistent goodness that’s waiting to be found right under our feet.