Rev. Kathleen Ellis
September 29, 2013
The Episcopal Church taught me everything I knew about God. I had absorbed the idea that God is Love, Jesus was my friend, and of course, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Details of theology like the virgin birth, resurrection, the Trinity, or salvation only through Jesus, never made logical sense to a literal-minded 10-year old. I loved the music and my friends and stayed with the church through high school.
I found my way gradually to marriage, motherhood, and Unitarian Universalism.
When the boys were grown I followed my heart into seminary—Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. That’s where God was ripped away suddenly and without warning.
Let me explain. I had long ago left behind my childhood notions of God. It was a challenge to study religion in a Christian seminary where I was pushed toward a new understanding of theology. I wanted to stand on the edge of religious knowledge where it meets a great mystery beyond human understanding. What was the underlying message? What values still inform my life? We seminary students tried out all sorts of theories in class and in the weekly Chapel services.
Perkins Chapel is a lovely, old-fashioned chapel with a tall steeple and white columns at the top of a hill. Inside, there is a plain wooden cross on the sanctuary wall—it is part of Southern Methodist University, after all. One night in the middle of Domestic Violence Awareness Week on campus some students had prepared a special worship service to raise awareness. For this particular service, a startling image appeared on that wall. A photograph was projected and superimposed over the foot of that cross. It was the image of a naked woman–curled up on the floor, face down, utterly defeated. It was a jarring image of domestic violence.
I was stunned. Shocked. Furious! How could God let this happen?! Where was God for that woman when she needed help? I jumped to an obvious conclusion: There really IS no God!!
I turned and fled. . . . I ran sobbing back to my dorm room with my best friend in pursuit. I had a head start on her, though, and slammed my door with a bang. I wouldn’t let her in. She knocked, she pleaded, she slipped notes under my door. But I couldn’t face her or anyone else. I had to face my own fury and my ultimate isolation. God was dead to me.
I know I’m not alone in my divine isolation because I’ve heard stories from others. Writers, poets, and singers for over a century have declared the Death of God but neither God nor Goddess will ever die. Hindus incorporate thousands of deities; Buddhists have developed a religion with none. Atheists reject them all and agnostics continue to probe, explore, question, and doubt.
A young man approached me after a service. He was anxious and agitated as he waited to talk to me and finally blurted out, “I don’t love God anymore.” He went on to explain that if God knows everything that’s going to happen, why does he let bad things happen? He still believes in Jesus— and has no quarrel with the man. But he doesn’t love God and he doesn’t know what to do. It was an echo of my same feelings at Perkins Chapel.
The Rev. Joanna Crawford said that when she was a student minister, a woman came to her to talk about God. She was clearly upset. She had been raised “a believer,” but had learned more church history and how books were chosen to be included or left out of the Bible, and had learned that some of her Sunday School lessons from long ago were not literally true. She searched for a new church home and found Unitarian Universalism. She was reasonably happy there. But now she missed her prayer life, even if it no longer seemed real.
In the course of the conversation Joanna gently asked her, “Are you missing God?” The woman’s eyes welled up and she said yes.
She had what has been called a God-shaped hole in her heart. So did the young man who spoke with me. So did I that night at Perkins Chapel. It’s a hole that opens up when doubt overcomes belief.
This idea has resonated for centuries. In the 18th century, philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote,
There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.”
Today we can read it in the lyrics of a song by Tiffany Lee[i]:
“. . . Does the world seem gray with empty longing
Wearing every shade of cynical
And do you ever feel that
There is something missing?
There’s a god-shaped hole in all of us
And the restless soul is searching . . .”
We’re a restless people, working at work or home, endlessly engaged with electronic devices, computers, and games, serving as volunteers, driving our children to enrich their lives through art, music, and sports, cooking, cleaning, eating out. When anyone asks how we are, the typical answer is “busy.” Who has room for anything more?
Dr. Brené Brown is the Houston researcher we ministers have been studying for weeks. She describes the defensive shield of “numbing” that protects us from the crazy-busy lives many of us lead. When we don’t take the time for our souls to catch up with our minds, our feelings go numb. We might not do this compulsively or chronically, which is addiction, but we have a strong tendency to minimize our feelings, both positive and negative. Why in the world would we minimize positive feelings? One answer is that something wonderful is too good to be true. Disaster must be lurking around the corner. So instead of feeling joy, we try not to tempt fate and bring on that disaster.
It’s easier to understand why we might want to numb negative feelings. As Brown points out, “Americans today are more debt-ridden, obese, medicated, and addicted than we ever have been.” She goes on to say that in 2011 “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that automobile accidents are now the second leading cause of accidental death in the United States. The leading cause? Drug overdoses. In fact, more people die from prescription drug overdoses than from heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine drug use combined.”[ii]
Numbness. Isolation. A joy-shaped hole. How do we cope? We don’t have to use drugs. We can sedate feelings with a brownie, maybe 2. We can anesthetize feelings with wine. But the truth is that significant feelings don’t go away for long; they just get bigger. Feelings tug on you to pay attention to them. There is nothing inherently wrong with brownies OR wine. There IS someone wrong with using them to disguise, diffuse, and detach from the emptiness of your spirit.
Emptiness was sudden that night in the Chapel. The very idea of God was ripped from my soul like ripping away my skin. It felt raw and painfully tender for a long time. It was the wrenching loss of relationship like the death of a human love. My antidote to all of the losses and numbness was a sense of gratitude and attention to spiritual needs. Gradually I refilled my God-shaped hole with the practical idea that we are her hands and heart because clearly, we are not in control of creation or tragedy. Instead, we are the ones who respond with compassion to the terrible things that happen in our lives and those around us. It is not God’s responsibility but ours.
With gratitude and spirituality we can begin to believe in something bigger than ourselves—as big as our galaxy. Start by gazing into a starry night. Do we remember stars, we city dwellers who rarely see a night without light pollution? I remember stars.
On a memorable trip to Australia my first husband and our two sons drove an RV up a mountain to a campground. It was a clear, cold night—so cold that ice formed inside the windows, so clear and cold that stars filled the night sky all the way to the horizon in every direction. They made unfamiliar patterns, because we were in the Southern hemisphere. We were inside a bowl of stars! It was a sacred time to see so many of them at one time. Two messages came to us in that moment: One, we are tiny dots in the universe … and two, we belong to the universe just as surely as every other person or rock or tree.
And when we make that connection we have found Sacred Space.
Much more recently, and on my sabbatical two years ago, I traveled to India with a group of Unitarian Universalists. We were on a spiritual pilgrimage led by the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, a UU minister and a native of south India. We visited ancient and modern temples, mosques, and churches, taking in the diversity of religious practice along with the complexity of India. A pilgrimage is a way to touch the sacred in our lives.
The Shiva Temple in Chidambaram, India, had enormous impact.
A nightly ritual (to put the statue of Shiva “to bed”)
Roof open to the stars
Bells of all sizes ringing wildly in the stone temple (Inner thought–this is not noise! these are sound waves!
Hundreds of oil lamps burning
Hundreds of people pressed together, hands raised in homage
Priestly ritual, priestly blessing; a garland from Shiva presented to me by a priest, with a blessing (as though I had been ordained as a Hindu).
Without having to travel thousands of miles on a pilgrimage, you have probably read about them. Journeys to Mecca, to the Wailing Wall, Chimayo. In northern Spain, pilgrims since the Middle Ages have walked El Camino de Santiago Compostela. It became the subject of a film entitled “The Way.” Martin Sheen directed and starred in the story of a father whose estranged son had died on El Camino. He didn’t really understand why, but when he traveled to Spain to claim his son’s belongings—a backpack and all the necessary gear, the older man followed in his son’s footsteps and was himself transformed.
Sheen said that the story is about the search of every person on earth, whether we believe in God or not, for a singular “moment of clarity” when we realize we are loved. The Way—the Camino—attracts 100,000 pilgrims every year. Many of them are truly on an inner journey to find healing: a “moment of clarity” when they realize they are loved.
Sacred Space is available every day and everywhere because it relies on you. You just have to pay attention. When you are open to life or you are opened by life, you have entered sacred space. You don’t have to have a particular ritual or an intermediary. Rituals simply provide an experience that reminds you to open yourself to the sacred.
Sacred is the feeling that you belong and that you are connected to something beyond yourself. You might connect with a person, but it doesn’t have to be a person. Children’s author Byrd Baylor tells about following deer tracks when she looked up and saw “a young coyote trotting through the brush.” They stopped and looked at each other, unafraid, just a couple of “creatures following another rocky trail.” They looked at each other for a long time before they went on their way. Because of that encounter, Byrd Baylor says she “never will feel quite the same again.”[iii]
A farmer’s market is another example of sacred connection if you think about it. All those fruits and vegetables were planted and harvested by fellow human beings; they were probably grown in soil enriched by compost and worms, pollinated by bees or other creatures. The market brings together sellers and shoppers of all ages. We are all connected.
Someone sent me a photograph of a baby last week. This was no ordinary baby to me, because he was the son of a member of a church I once served. Tears sprang to my eyes because I don’t know that baby. I don’t even know his mother, who had joined the church after I left, but I did know the people who surrounded her with love. In the picture, mom held him in a fabric sling. His back was snuggled against her chest and his face looked straight out into the world. His eyes looked bright and curious. What kind of world will he inherit? How will he continue to feel that secure connection while he ventures forth into a universe not of his own making?
That one photograph reminded me how we of all ages share basic needs: Our bodies require nourishment or we will die. Our spirits require sustenance of a different kind or we will limit the full meaning of our lives. Whatever you believe to be sacred, be at one with it. Fill the God-shaped hole, the joy-shaped hole, the star-shaped hole, the fill-in-the-blank shaped hole.
You are a child of the universe for a lifetime.
You have enough. You do enough. You are enough.
Sacred wisdom is waiting for you.
Sacred wisdom is waiting inside you,
With a unique voice you join the chorus of humanity
Where all beings interconnect into a larger whole.
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.