Emptiness and Void

Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC
©Michael Hendricks
October 1, 2017

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Good morning.  This morning Pastor Alison is away.  I want to thank her for offering me this opportunity to share some reflections with you.  I want to thank you as well for your support.

This reflection grew out of conversations, Alison and I have had about hard issues facing young people today.  As many of you know, I have been working as a church school teacher here for more than twenty years.  Wait.  What?  Yikes.  As it turned out, in some ways, this reflection addresses why somebody might do that.

For most of my time teaching, I have been teaching the Story Tent curriculum in which we dramatize stories from the Bible.  Over those years, we have dramatized many, many stories.  And a few of them, we have even turned to more than once.  But the story we have worked with the most – by far – is Creation.  And for some reason, every time I turn to those early stories, I find something in them – something powerful and insightful – that I never noticed before.

A professor of mine, I recall saying once, that any time we try to understand things by talking about how they began, we are really talking about the way those things are.  There is so much in just the first chapter of the Bible that addresses how things are, I will just assume that we will be back there in Story Tent again before too long.  And, if you’ll bear with me, today we will be going there again.  Back to the beginning.  The very beginning.  Before even the garden.  Before even the seven days.  Before God even said “Let there be …”, well, anything.

Today, we will look at what comes before.  At what was first.

Please pray with me.

God the Creator, You took emptiness and chaos and made everything.  We ask you now to look at the emptiness and chaos within us and to fill it with your greatest creation.  Speak to our hearts and say, “Let there be love.”  Then, with your help, may it one day be written of your world, “And there was love.” Amen.

Many of us have the familiar words of the first verse of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” committed to memory.  That verse summarizes what the first chapter of Genesis will describe.  Here is what is coming.  Here is how everything that is came into being.  Which is great, but it is not until the third verse that Creation – with God’s powerful words, “Let there be Light.” – that the act of Creation actually gets started.

And the Light is so much like a bright, shiny object designed to capture our attention, perhaps in some ways similarly to the way a magician’s right-hand moves so we don’t see what the left is doing, that maybe we don’t focus enough on what comes before.

But in the second verse of Genesis 1, the Bible describes exactly what came before.  What there was before God ever said, “Let there be Light.” What there would still be now if Creation never happened.

The New International Version says the earth was “formless and void.”  The World English Bible calls it “formless and empty.” The Good News translation calls the world “formless and desolate.”  My favorite of these, the Living Bible, calls it a “shapeless chaotic mess.”

There is a reason for these differences.

The words in Hebrew are actually Tohu and Bohu.  Or in Hebrew, Tohu Webohu.  And nobody knows exactly what they mean because nobody has ever found another instance in all of ancient literature where these words appear – so we have no other context in which to understand them.

What was there before God got started?

Nothingness.  Emptiness.  Chaos.  Tohu Webohu.  And we don’t even know exactly what that means.

And maybe that’s okay because the thing that strikes me as important is that it comes first.  Emptiness and void come before the wonder of Creation.  Emptiness and void come before God’s love comes and makes everything else possible.

And here’s the thing that I can’t help thinking.  What if, as my professor suggested, this observation about how things began is just as much, if not more, an observation about how things are?  What if that truth of the Creation story continues to be true?  Maybe or maybe not so much in a science class way, but just as true nevertheless.  What if the person we were created to be is preceded by a bit of tohu and bohu, a bit of chaos and void, within each of us?

I’m not sure if it’s the same for everyone, but the more I look at the world, the more I hear of violence and hatred and all the horrifying behaviors that fill the news on the television and internet, the more convinced I am that the Tohu Webohu chaos that came before God’s choice to bring Creation into existence is still here living in the human heart.

In my heart and maybe in yours.

And maybe there’s a logic to it.  A beautiful and sacred logic that you would expect from the Creator who designed us.

That hole in our hearts might be that emptiness that God gave us as a gift – that empty place inside us that we are intended to fill – to fill with love.  What if the tohu and bohu void that existed before Creation almost sparked God to respond, responding with everything as an answer to nothing?

In that same way, what if we were given an emptiness at our core so we would know that we were never intended to be complete in and of ourselves?  What if we were given a void within ourselves so we would need connection, so we would need love, to become who we were created to be?  What if the culmination of Creation as it is described in Genesis is not the creation of a human being, but as it clearly seems to be, the creation of two human beings – the creation of relationship, and, by extension, the creation of love?

But that’s the way it’s supposed to work.  What happens though when God’s love doesn’t fill us?

Whether it’s because we turn away or because no one’s convinced us of it, what happens to that emptiness at our core?

As I said, I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know for sure, but I do know there is a saying in science that nature abhors a vacuum.  Somehow, some way, with something, our emptiness will get filled – and that’s what I’m so terribly sad about, so terribly afraid of.

Because if that’s true, what it means is that it puts an awful lot of pressure and responsibility on us to be agents and ambassadors of God’s filling love – knowing that when people’s emptiness and void isn’t filled with God’s love it will surely be filled with something else.

Like what, you ask?

Do you remember that horrible “How did we get here” feeling when you first heard about a young man or woman with their whole lives ahead of them deciding to strap on an improvised bomb and sacrificing their life for the sole purpose of spreading fear and terror?  It’s a big world out there so of course, it’s easy to think there might be one person out there like that.  But that’s not the terribly sad thing about our world today.  The sad thing about our world is that there seems to be an almost endless supply of people whose inner emptiness is being addressed with a binding community of anger and resentment that encourages both self-destruction and an outer violence.

Did you ever wonder why just two generations after their grandparents risked their lives to free the world from the horrors of Nazism, that there are young people in our country who are attracted to the very same or similar ideology?  And now it’s almost worse, because perhaps a case could be made that when young Germans first embraced that evil, it’s at least possible that  they might not have realized where it would lead, but we have no such excuse.  We know exactly where it leads, and yet you still see that there are those in our country today – young people – whose inner emptiness is filled with the community of shared hate.  In fact, that community, if anything seems to be growing.

Did you ever wonder why in this day and age – only a few decades after the Civil Rights movement at great cost finally helped put our nation on a more just path – we still see the KKK marching more openly than ever in cities and towns across America?

Did you ever wonder, why at this time in our country, the rate of suicide in middle aged men has grown so great that it has actually impacted the average life expectancy of our nation?

Did you ever wonder why even in this wonderful community that we are privileged to live in, that I have been fortunate enough to raise my family in for almost 30 years, that we, like so many other communities in our state and our nation, have opioids as an issue facing some of our young people.

Talk about emptiness!

Talk about trying to address your emptiness by embracing the ultimate void of all.

That emptiness we are born with is a sense that something is missing.  And what we believe as members of this community of love and faith is that God’s love that was designed to answer that void is infinitely filling and always within reach.  A great message, but our nation’s children, the world’s children, are telling us, screaming at us actually, that they are empty and God’s love is not reaching them.

We have to do a better job of reaching them.

But, if I’m the means by which God plans to spread God’s love, I must confess, for the sake of the world, I wish God had a better and more consistent and more persistent agent. Because I’m not always on my game.  And I get tired.  And grumpy.  And discouraged.  And frustrated.  And sometimes I still have my own emptiness issues.

But you and I, I believe, are what God chooses to work with.  Maybe because we are not always suited for it, it means more that we keep coming back and trying to live God’s love into this world.

Because, brothers and sisters, if I know one thing in this world to be true it is this: It matters.  Right here in this church.  Right now, with everyone you meet.  With everyone who might have an emptiness inside them just looking for something to fill it.  In other words, with everyone.

That’s what we are here for.

To help point the way to fill in the Tohu and Bohu emptiness in the world, in each other, with God’s love before it is filled by something else, something less, and something potentially and profoundly much, much worse.

I’m pretty sure I don’t believe that as Christians we have any special claim to God’s love.  I’ve seen too many powerful expressions of love arising from other places to really believe that.  And, sadly, I’ve heard too many words spoken in the name of the faith I’ve been called to follow that sound nothing at all like the love I believe we’ve been called to.

In fact, it’s really the opposite.  As Christians, we should not expect, nor do we deserve, any extra share of God’s love.  If anything, as Christians, we’ve taken on a special obligation to extend and put ourselves at the service of that love.  We’ve chosen this, we’ve affirmed it, and we have no excuses.

To help live God’s love into God’s creation.  To do what we can to bring in God’s Kingdom.

To be filled.  Then help fill others.

Take that deep and spirit-filled breath we always talk about.  Know that you are loved.  Be filled with that love.  Then share that love with others.