Starve the Emptiness and Feed the Hunger

Starve the Emptiness and Feed the Hunger
Douglas Taylor
5-22-05

“Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

“Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

This is a little snippet of a song by Emmy Lou Harris I heard on public radio once.

“Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

And I wish I could remember the rest of it, but it had a sort of an Ecclesiastes message to it:  Been there, done that, didn’t help.

              “Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

Ecclesiastes says, “I applied my mind to seek and to search by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.  I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:12-14.)

              “Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

Why?  What’s going on that we need to look for a deeper well?  This is not a new song; it’s been around for over a decade.  It picks up on the growing desire for depth and meaning in life.  Spirituality is bursting out all over the place.  Something has been building over the past several years, but it is hard to really pin down what.  Along with an increase in conservatism in politics and public morality, there has been more reaching out to other cultures and between different faith traditions.  Many walls have been built up, but many more have been torn down.   Interesting isn’t it, the parallel explosions of very shallow, surface level exclusivity and narrow-mindedness alongside unprecedented cultural exchange and a startling openness and mingling of religious practices and understanding.  I remember reading an article in a conservative Christian magazine that warned its Christian readers against the practice of Yoga because it could lead people to Hindu beliefs and away from pure Christianity.  Like Yoga is some massive secret plot against Christianity!

More and more, people are experiencing other cultures and other religious practices and mixing things together to create a satisfying spiritual life independent of the exclusive rules of most religions.  Religious conservatives and fundamentalist see this as a big problem.  I see it as people yearning and searching for something meaningful, for something deeper.  So many people come through our doors searching for connection and meaning.  They are lonely and empty.  So many people, to one degree or another, feel empty and they hunger for something more.

            “Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

Why the increased interest in looking for a deeper well?   What’s wrong with what we’ve already got?  The problem is: it’s empty.  What do you do when you’ve spent your life trying to gain financial security, only to lose the reason why you wanted to be secure?  What do you say when you spend your life making a name for yourself, only to forget what your name means. What do you do when your well is empty?

“Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

Our society actually encourages this emptiness.  Your emptiness is not a problem, only an as-yet unmet market niche!  So many people buy into this success-oriented, achievement-driven, market-manipulated, soul-draining way of life.  When we find that we are empty, we reach for anything that we think can fill the void… romance, a job, a fast car, a big TV, status, power; anything, even religion.

Everybody gets lonely.  Everyone gets that gnawing emptiness every now and then.  When nothing works and no one seems to understand or care.  When the students don’t respond to your carefully prepared lectures, when your parishioners doze through your thought provoking sermons, when that attractive person you’ve tried to impress doesn’t pick up on your obvious hints, when your boss dismisses your suggestions, when the committee you’ve been steering still can’t get anything done.  We all know that sense of futility, where you burn with such a passion for something, only to get burned out.  And we find ourselves alone and empty.  What was it all for, anyway?  And it doesn’t matter if it is burn out, depression, or just general aridity, it is borne out of desperate encounters with loneliness and emptiness.

So what do we do?  Where are we to turn?  Where do you go when you are empty?

Well, there was one time when my life seemed particularly empty and dry, and I jumped into Lake Michigan in the middle of December.  I was in the midst of a very difficult time with depression.  Different people experience depression different ways.  For me, there is a Psalm I have found which really hits the nail right on the head and describes what it feels like.

I am poured out like water, and my bones are all out of joint.  My heart is like wax; it has melted away within me.  My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; I am laid in the dust of death (Psalm 22:14-15.)

This is the same Psalm that begins: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Number twenty-two.  The next one is number 23, famous number 23, “The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, …”  great psalm, beautiful psalm.  But this one, oh!  So, after a week of my life tasting like ashes in my mouth, a friend suggested that, as a winter solstice ritual, we jump into Lake Michigan.  I have pictures.

I don’t know if any of you are familiar with Chicago, but my friend Daniel and I went out to the beach next to Lakeshore Dr., just off of 57th street.  We had striped down to our swim trunks and Daniel looks at me solemnly and says, “This is my way of letting winter know I’m not going to hibernate.”  I looked out at that cold, churning lake and tried not to think about what I was about to do.  “Ready?” “Yeah,” I said and I took off running down the beach to the water with Daniel right next to me.  I bounded in, ten feet, twenty feet, I got in up to my waist, (it was shallow) about forty feet out I’d guess, when suddenly I stopped.  I looked down at my legs and said “What?!?”  My legs looked up at me and said “Hey, we’re cold.  Besides, he said we could stop.”  I looked behind me and sure enough; there was Daniel about ten feet back shouting: “Uh, I think this is far enough.  Let’s get this over with.”  So we dunked under and ran back to shore as fast as we could.

As I dried myself off and wrapped up in a towel, I yelled something like, “So there, Winter!”  (Not the most eloquent of prose or protest, but I was quite numb at the time.)  I had exposed myself to the bitter winter wind and waves, and was still able to cry out in response.  From the depth of my wintering soul, I was able to respond.

So, you’re lonely, you’re empty.  Find a way to respond.  Find a way to get meaning into the equation.  Reach out.  The answer almost seems too simple.  We need to get out and do more together.  We should be community-oriented.  To starve the emptiness, we must engage with other people; respond to the loneliness by reaching out. Unfortunately that is only half of the possible answer.  The other half centers around the idea that to really starve the emptiness we must first be truly empty.  To relieve the loneliness we must learn to be alone.

We seem to have this notion that we are called to relieve one another’s loneliness, to eradicate all the emptiness.  Not so.  We need lonely times.  Loneliness is powerful.  It keeps us grounded in who we are.  Henri Nouwen, the author of our reading this morning, writes: “When all our attention is drawn away from ourselves and absorbed by what happens around us, we become strangers to ourselves, people without a story to tell or to follow up (p. 96 Reaching Out.)”  The empty times in our lives are often openings into greater depths, or at least clues that such openings are available.

If you are following me, you’ll see I said at the beginning that in our loneliness we lose sight of who we really are.  Now I say that only in our loneliness can we see our true selves.  This is not a paradox or a religious puzzle sort of thing.  It is simply this: to counter this epidemic of emptiness, to stop it from enveloping you, you need to embrace it.  It is within moments of withdrawal and lonely silence that you find both the emptiness and the hunger; the emptiness that will pull you down and the hunger that free you if you will but follow it out.

Henri Nouwen says in another book, “Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our lives are in danger.  Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.  Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our actions quickly become empty gestures.  The careful balance between silence and words, withdrawal and involvement, distance and closeness, solitude and community forms the basis of the [religious] life and should therefore be the subject of our most personal attention.” (pp 14-5 Out of Solitude)  We talk a lot about community and service and justice.  But I say that all of that action needs a source, a source from within you; a source that will not simply drain you and burn you out.

I am reminded of the parallel which I love in the early part of the Moses story where God appears as a burning bush.  I think that is a really fantastic image: what is God like?  God is like a bush on fire, but the fire doesn’t consume the bush, it’s just on fire.  You’ve got to watch out; I’m teaching a course on the Bible right now.  I should have warned you earlier to watch for the Biblical references, see how many you find in sermon.  Anyway, one parallel of the story of the burning bush is found in the chapter immediately preceding.  Moses, witnesses an Egyptian beating one of the Hebrew slaves.  Moses gets angry at the injustice; he gets hot, and he rises up against the Egyptian and kills him.  Then he gets scared thinking that he’ll be found out, so he runs off to the desert for a few years, working as a simple shepherd, which is where he bumps into the burning bush.  And it’s like God is saying, I burn and do not consume.  Moses, you burn with your passion and it burns you up.  You burn and all you do is consume.  Your fire burns out of that empty desperation.  You need to be tapped into the source of life, that source from within you that is a hunger.

You’ve got to watch out, though.  I don’t want to make this seem to easy.  You need to watch out because the emptiness and the hunger can look a lot alike.  If the fire that burns within you burns from an empty desperation, then it is a fire that will consume you.  And that is not why this community is here.  We are not here to fill up people’s empty places; we are not here to serve your burning need to consume.  Ours is not a consumer religion.  This is not a consumer church.  Ours is a community of faith and justice where people come with longing, thirsty souls to get away from the emptiness, to get away from your market niche, to tap into your source and to find your hunger.

As Ecclesiastes says, “It is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.  I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after the wind” (1:13-14).  Anything you set yourself to do, any task or dream you pursue, any injustice you seek to make right, anything can be motivated by vanity and the need to fill that emptiness.  Likewise anything can be motivated by a hunger from your soul.  One of my favorite quotes, and I can’t recall who said it now, is:  “Do not ask what the world needs, instead, ask what makes you come alive; then go do it.  Because what the world most needs is people who have come alive.”

To fight against this invasive loneliness, this epidemic of emptiness, you need to find a lonely place, a place of solitude: a source.  Before you can love your neighbor as yourself, you must love yourself.  For this, you will need to learn how to sit with your solitude comfortably.  Embrace the yawning cavern of emptiness with you; do not seek to fill it.  Move through it unto your very source and find there your hunger.

This is my source.  That lonely place in my life is where I find the strength to go out to the world and serve others.  When I can remember to lay down my burdens at the riverside, I know I’ll be able to see and recognize my emptiness and my hunger.  When I can stand even in the bitter winter of my soul and remember that I am not alone, I can be about the business of healing the brokenness in the world.  I put it to you then, find your source and your hunger, and take it to the world.

“Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

“Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

In a world without end, may it be so.