A Person Will Worship Something

Sermon – A Person Will Worship Something
When my partner first started working for Lutherans, she came home one day and asked me if I’d ever heard the phrase “God-sized hole.” She said that one of her co-workers used it a lot to describe some people. Some folks, she says, just have a God-sized hole. Carri and I didn’t really understand it, but we were both kind of intrigued.

With some more investigation, we learned the phrase was a way to describe people who have a longing in their heart that they try to fill up with everything everything, but nothing satisfies.   It’s too big. It’s the size of infinity.

Initially we thought of a “God-sized hole” as kind of patronizing – like, if only the person would get religious – become Lutheran for example – their life would be complete.

But over time, we made our own meaning for the idea, and actually it started to make a lot of sense.  Because we knew people where it applied. Friends and family and clients and congregants who seem like they were born with a deeper sense of yearning than others,
an incompleteness, a sense of being lost and unsure of their place, a simultaneous pronounced desire to understand life’s meaning or purpose, along side an equally pronounced fear that it may have none at all.

And this same type of person seems to always be on a search to fill up that hole they feel, that constant craving. But nothing they do, nothing they ingest, inhale, avoid, perform,
nothing they do is enough. They have a God sized – or since then I’ve heard some call it a God-shaped – hole.

Maybe you know the sort of person I mean. Maybe it’s someone you know. Maybe it’s you.

A few weeks into my chaplaincy at a community hospital in the Denver metro area a few years back, this phrase and idea really started to sink in. I really started to understand it.

There are all kinds of stories you encounter as a chaplain. If you can imagine – you are suddenly plopped down into the middle of someone’s most vulnerable moment, again and again – plopped down into the middle of family dynamics and lifestyles and cultures and –
in the middle of deeply held beliefs being put to the test and hospital politics, and,
plopped down face to face with our universal helplessness, and ignorance, how much of life is really a mystery how at the mercy of fate, and chance and that whole pretense of accident and providence I spoke about a couple weeks ago.

Out of the many I sat with that summer, one stood out then, and sticks with me still, these many years later.

He hadn’t requested a chaplain, but we often would just knock and check in, especially to those rooms – like his – where we hadn’t observed any visitors. So, I knocked, and found him there, looking out the window. He was my age, maybe younger. Hard to tell. Though I didn’t know when I walked in what had brought him to the hospital, as soon as I sat down, I started to guess.  The look in his eyes was painfully familiar. A look of desperation, despair, profound longing, aching sadness. The day before I had sat with a woman who had attempted to take her own life; the looks were not so different.

It didn’t take long to realize, this young man, he had a God sized hole. He was there after many days of drinking had left him seizing on a sidewalk and someone called 911. He had detoxed in the ER and everything was quite on the surface. He told me about the loss of his young nephew, who had died not too long before, and he wondered if it would be better to go join him in heaven.

The woman I had visited the day before, the one who had taken a bottle of pills – she had guards at her door. It was a given that the chaplain would be called in to meet with her, several times, and she was not allowed to be discharged until there was a clear plan for continued psychological services.

But for this man, who had come in drunk and seizing, probably not even for the first time, he was discharged shortly after my visit, less than 24 hours after he’d first arrived.
If I hadn’t stopped by randomly, no chaplain would’ve ever been called.

No more than a week passed, and I saw his name appear again on our roster – this time in the ICU – Intensive Care Unit, reserved for the most fragile cases. He had accidentally set his apartment on fire after another binge. Smoke inhalation brought him into the ICU.

In rounds, the physicians spoke about his lungs. They mentioned his alcohol levels, but just to describe the medicine to help with his detox. Still, no guards, no psychological services, no automatic chaplain. I went into see him, but he was asleep. I came back the next day to check in – he had been discharged.

When I first shared with our Worship Learning Community that I wanted to offer a sermon on idolatry, they responded with both intrigue and confusion. Idolatry is one of those concepts that hasn’t been translated well in liberal religious communities – like, we don’t worship golden calves – right, so it doesn’t apply….and besides, as theological pluralists, maybe worshipping a calf should be considered a valid religious pursuit…?

In truth, guarding against idolatry is a very Unitarian Universalist practice.  As minister Marlin Lavanhar – the lead minister in the largest UU church in Tulsa, Oklahoma – says in his sermon, Why Atheists Go to Church, “When people ask me how we have atheists in our church, I tell them that in our church we are much more concerned about idolatry than we are about atheism. That usually gets me an interesting look, and people’s ears perk up.
I explain that idolatry, of course, is when someone worships something that is less than God or less than the ultimate good.

Whenever someone devotes their life and best efforts to something smaller than what is of ultimate value, they are committing idolatry. You know people for whom money, power, prestige, fame and fortune have become the driving force and the highest good in their lives – even if they might claim otherwise. [And here I’d offer the timely example of those who orient their lives around a blind nationalism…you might have seen some of them worshipping this weekend….Marlin continues,] At this church we offer better alternatives for what makes life valuable and meaningful.”

As our reading from Emerson asserts, we humans have this innate desire to orient our lives around something we can consider ultimately worthy, something so important that we can devote our attention and resources to it. And yet we aren’t always all that good at figuring out what is worthy of such devotion. And for some of us, it almost seems like we will devote our lives to the exact opposite of what would be worthy- things that it seems obvious to most everyone else won’t fill us up, but rather will take us, and everyone we love, down.

After my patient’s second discharge, I was feeling pretty confused, and heart broken.

How was I supposed to think about this man’s life, this little snippet I had seen of his life – and the ways we had just sent him back out there to – what? How was I to think about it – as a chaplain in this hospital, as a Unitarian Universalist, as a minister, as a fellow human?

My supervisor encouraged me to stay in the struggle, the pain – to know that these feelings of being lost and confused were not so far away from the place this man lived for much of his life. And as his spiritual companion, my confusion was simply a matter of effective empathy. I was doing my job.

Which I knew was true, and also: it wasn’t enough. Addiction had touched my life too often – I knew too well the devastation it brings to all who come near those in its grips –
to believe that my only job was to feel confused and heartbroken. So finally my supervisor gave in and suggested we spend a week studying addiction, using the book, Addiction and Grace by psychiatrist and spiritual counselor Gerald Mays as our primary text.

Mays’ subject is, as the title implies, theoretically about addiction. He worked for many years as an addictions counselor, and his writing comes out of these experiences.
But for me, his ideas far transcended the field of addiction and recovery.

His basic idea is – well, it goes back to that God-sized hole. But Mays doesn’t think that just some people have a God sized hole, he says we all do. Whether you conceive of it theistically or atheistically, we all have an inborn desire for the experience of unconditional, transcendent love. We are made by this kind of love, for this love, to further the ways of this unconditional, everlasting love. We want to experience and to further its reach more than anything else.

And yet, for some reason, we fill our lives up with things that aren’t this love. Compulsively. Hungrily. We prize an overbooked schedule, or knowing the most about the most things. We cherish a perfect performance at work, or those illusive six-pack abs.
We center our lives around a healthy and balanced bank account, or being constantly connected in our social network of choice. We devote all our thinking to our children becoming high achievers, or we arrange our whole lives based on what will save the most time. Whatever it is, we put these things first – maybe not even consciously – and we order our lives around them.  And this stuff is ultimately, of course, unfulfilling. Because they are not the ultimate good. They are idols.

Which means – we seek them even more, so we can fill up that need, that yearning inside us. And because we keep pursuing these other things, we sabotage our capacity to experience or further our true heart’s desire for the real big love.

As the early Christian writer Augustine observed, “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”

Our spiritual work, Mays proposes, is to empty our hands. Empty our hands so that we are free to fully experience, pursue, and further the ways of love. And here he makes an important distinction – he says – none of these other things are bad in and of themselves. Only when we orient our lives around them, when we “worship” them, treat them as ultimately worthy that they become a problem. Only then do they become idols.

What are you carrying in your life, on your heart, that is getting in the way of life’s gifts?
What are you orienting your life around that will not lead you to love, but keep you from it? What are you worshipping?

This is one of the important questions our interim minister is charged with asking us- as a religious community. Faith communities – even liberal ones – over time, start to think of certain practices or ways of working together as if they were carved on stone tablets by Divine Love itself.

But most aren’t. And if we treat them like they are, then they become the exact thing that will keep us from truly serving our greater mission, or from experiencing, or furthering the reach of that greater, healing, transformative love.

Letting go of these idols – in our personal lives or as a community – well to say it’s hard work is a profound understatement, as well as a mischaracterization of our clinging to these things in the first place. Because for Mays, all of these idolatries are in fact various types of addictions.

Whether alcohol, or technology; heroin or money; perfectionism or dieting – once these pursuits take hold of your devotion, you cannot use your will alone to un-do their grip.
However you might conceive of it, overcoming these compulsions, fully emptying your hands, resisting the pull to just fill them back up again with something new, requires grace.

I didn’t talk about grace in my sermon on providence a couple weeks ago, but I could have.
Grace is best understood as those gifts you did not earn or deserve, and yet they are yours nonetheless. Unearned and undeserved, not because you are undeserving, but because there is nothing you or anyone could do to earn or deserve them. I call my children acts of grace. I call my life a gift of grace. This beautiful day, in all its possibility, filled with grace.

Mays’ ideas about addiction and his framing it as idolatry – and then the way he applies it to all of us, and the necessary role of grace – these ideas didn’t make my patient’s story – or any of my experiences with addiction- any less heartbreaking.

But rather than thinking of my patient as broken in ways I could never understand, I started to see how we shared a common struggle. And I started to imagine that as partners in this great universe, bumping into one another, each in our own ways attempting to find and pursue the light – that we were in this together.

And showing up with unconditional love, at his bedside, that was all there was to do.
For those few moments, I offered him grace, and it was in his hands if he would cling to his addiction more tightly or begin to release.

This life is filled with so many things calling for our attention. So many things claiming themselves as ultimately worthy of our devotion, our private and public worship and tribute.

In our walk together may we be embodied gifts of grace for one another, gifts of grace for all of the world, and whisper to one another of the greater love at the heart of life itself, that love we long for, waiting for our free hands, and free hearts, so that it can give us all the gifts. So may we worship, so may we become.

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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