Driving on empty

Father David Epps's picture

I read an article this week in “Sharing the Practice,” the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy, of which I am a member. The title of the article was “Driving on Empty.” It hit home.

A few weeks ago, I failed to take notice of my gas gauge in the car. When I finally did glance at the dashboard, the gauge read empty. The problem was that I was on a country road late at night and had no idea where the next gas station was or, even if I found one, whether it would be open.

With my anxiety level on high alert, I turned off the air conditioning, lowered the windows, and even turned off the radio. I don’t know if that made a difference in the gas consumption, but I was taking no chances.

I had run out of gas once in Colorado. It wasn’t a pleasant experience and I was in no hurry to repeat it — especially not at night somewhere in the country with nary a house in sight.

The prospect of driving on empty is frightening and discouraging. One doesn’t even know whether one will make it to the end of the journey.

A national news magazine published an article on Mother Teresa’s “driving on empty” for much of her life. St. John of the Cross referred to “driving on empty” as the “dark night of the soul.” That’s where I am these days. Not every day, but too many days for my comfort.

Sunday night, I woke up somewhere in the wee hours. In that place between alertness and slumber, not knowing what was real and what was not, I thought, “It’s a nightmare. It’s all a bad dream. I’ll wake up and everything will be okay.”

The last four or five months have been difficult. A dear friend has suffered a stroke and he and his family have been constantly on my mind and in my prayers. A couple I love deeply has divorced. My son’s house has burned down leaving him, his wife, and five children living away from their home until repairs are made.

I have been diagnosed with sleep apnea and will have to wear a mask to bed — a very non-sexy mask that looks like it belongs on a World War II fighter pilot.

A tragedy has occurred in the life of a family close to me and the future for them is hazy. A friend of mine — a hero of mine, actually — is in jail and I haven’t been able to see him lately.

A minister I respected in another state has fallen into immorality and ruined his ministry and, possibly, his life and family. Another clergyman that I watched grow from a worldly lifestyle into an ordained minister has said he is leaving the ministry. And, honestly, it is all the tip of the iceberg.

In addition to all that, there is the “normal” routine of ministry which is anything but “routine.” In the midst of it, I have been elected to serve as a bishop in my denomination.

While a great honor, in some ways it is part of what I thought was a nightmare in that “not quite awake or asleep world” the other night. I cannot think of anyone less worthy or prepared for such a task. Yet, here it is, falling upon my shoulders. I already sag under the weight and I haven’t even been consecrated yet.

“I will wake up and the world will be all right,” I thought as I dozed back off. But I awoke and the world was not all right.

One man who is almost like a son to me is in Iraq facing death daily. Another young man that I have watched transform from a troubled teenager into a fine soldier is on the way to the war zone. Some people in my church, with families to feed and bills to pay, are unemployed.

I am awake. It is all real and so is the feeling of helplessness that I often experience when I feel that I ought to be able to fix everything, I am “low on gas” to the point of “driving on empty.”

I am not complaining or whining, although it certainly seems so. This is the life I have chosen and to which I have been called. One of our deacons stopped by this week. He sat in my office and asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Would you like to be a bishop?” I asked.

“Hey,” he replied, “I don’t even want to be a priest.”

“Me either,” I said. “Not today. Me either.”

It wasn’t true, of course. I live to be a priest. I do believe that I am to serve as a bishop. That was just a symptom of “driving on empty.”

I do know what to do, however. I do know to spend time alone with God in prayer, to get into the Bible, to offer praise and worship and to confess my sins. But I also feel the pressure that I must not falter, must not fail, and must not quit. I know that I need to make adjustments, as I did in the car a few weeks ago. I need to exercise more, eat less, and get to bed earlier.

In the meantime, I think I am driving on the faithfulness of the people who I know are praying for me and in the strength of Him who “never leaves or forsakes.” In my own strength right now I am close to empty. Others are sustaining me until I can get my tank full.

Perhaps it’s not very pious to admit such weakness, but I’ve never tried to act pious anyway. Besides, I am too weary to worry with it. But of this I am certain — God is in control and I will make it to the end of the difficulties. He is faithful — always has been, always will be.

There are others who share my plight and my journey. But for all of us who are on this road together, there is this promise: there is an end to the “dark night of the soul.” I have been there before and the Light always comes.

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Submitted by d.smith700 on Thu, 10/25/2007 - 6:49pm.

I too wear an Apnea mask. I have heart troubles. I am a diabetic. I have severe destructive arthritis in my spine and hip and shoulder and other places. I take strong medications--8 types.
I have has three eye operations, and several tooth implants so that I can eat. I am overweight, take a mood lifter, and fully realize it is a race to the coffin before maybe I fall dependent.
Yet, like you, I know just how much worse things could be, so I am not unhappy, just frustrated as you seem to be.
My kidneys function at 10%, I have no gall bladder nor appendix, and one-third of my heart has been excised.
I can not exercise but can still walk some and take care of myself, but little else.
I have children and grandchildren also, and sure would like to do more with them.
However, my career is basically over as far as making a living and I fully realize that I will have left a mark--not for posterity, but for me only as long as I do live.
Don't go to the Monastery, make wine and loaf just yet.

Cyclist's picture
Submitted by Cyclist on Thu, 10/25/2007 - 6:55pm.

You are all messed-up.
Caution - The Surgeon General has determined that constant blogging is an addiction that can cause a sedentary life style.

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