I don’t know, I guess I kinda just feel like something’s missing in my life… you know how people talk about that God-shaped hole or whatever…?
The person on the other end of the phone was young, a member of the disappearing (in church circles) and much-coveted millennial demographic. I was initially taken aback. I had been anticipating a riveting morning of responding to emails and doing a bit sermon prep while a blizzard raged outside. But wait, what’s this? A spiritually sensitive young person calling a church to ask halting questions about God, meaning, life?! It’s the kind of scenario that many pastors assume doesn’t really happen anymore. Except, well, maybe to other pastors in other places with bigger churches.
But there we were. This person had called, ostensibly, to inquire about our worship service, what time it started, what kind of church we were, who was welcome, what to wear, whether or not there were any young adults, etc. It was a conversation punctuated by long, semi-awkward pauses, the kind where you’re reasonably sure that the reason the person is calling isn’t really the reason they called, and where you’re wondering if they’re beginning to regret calling in the first place.
I did what I often do in such situations. I just asked questions about their life. Before long we were talking about rodeos and American Thanksgiving and being snowed in with no transportation and being grudgingly dragged around to all kinds of churches—LDS, non-denominational, Anglican—by their parents as a kid. This last one caught my attention. “So it sounds like you didn’t care much for church in your younger years. Why are you calling a church now?” And this was the question that prompted the quote at the beginning of the post.
We talked for a while longer. There were a few more long silences. My young conversation partner didn’t sound at all convinced that a visit to our church was in their immediate future, but they were open to getting together for a conversation once the snow relents. I hope this happens. I really do. I can imagine it takes no small amount of courage to phone a random church on a Wednesday morning and talk about “that God-shaped hole or whatever.”
I just sat there for a while after I had hung up the phone, staring at the snow angrily lashing my office window from the north. I wondered if I had said enough, said too much, not read the situation properly, etc. I also thought about the article I had been reading when she called. It was a piece in the New York Times about how life expectancy is, for the first time in decades, actually going down in America. People in mid-life are, evidently, dying before they’re supposed to. It’s the economy, of course. And it’s politics and polarization. And it’s fentanyl and the opioid crisis. And it’s suicide and addictions and overdoses and the so-called “deaths of despair” fuelled by anxiety and depression and social dislocation and who knows what else. It’s all of the above and many more things, no doubt.
It’s also, almost certainly, a crisis of existential meaning and hope. It’s embarrassingly easy to forget this as a pastor. It’s surprisingly easy to just go through the motions, week after week, preaching the sermons, saying the prayers, interpreting the Scriptures, responding to the needs, keeping the machine going, and all the while forgetting that there is an incredible urgency to the work of the church, particularly in these hopeless times. People actually are desperate for connection, for transcendence, for something worth living and dying for, for a mercy that outruns all of our blindness and folly, for a forgiveness that can wash over our darkest secrets and most shameful deeds, for a joy that is not tied to the ups and downs of our daily lives, for a love that never lets us go and a hope that stretches out beyond what we can imagine.
People actually are eager to hear and to experience good news. We’re actually not all ok out there doing our own thing, no matter what image we might project to the watching world. Perhaps one of the reasons that life expectancy is trending downward is because we increasingly don’t know what, if anything, we ought to expect out of life. We have spiritual itches that we feel powerless to scratch. We have been told by the media that we gluttonously consume that life is mostly about pleasure and comfort and accumulating stuff/experiences/relationships, but over time we discover that these never really do the trick. We have abandoned the anchors and institutions and rituals and communities that once gave life solidity, structure, and purpose. We have, perhaps unwittingly, consigned our young to the terrible predicament of having to choose everything for themselves, to make up their lives as they careen down a highway with no guardrails.
We have forgotten that as human beings we actually do have “God-shaped holes or whatever.” And yet the memory remains. We somehow know, deep down, that we were made for more than our selves. And every once in a while, we summon the will to say this out loud. Sometimes, we might even pick up the phone or darken the door of a church.
I hope that I get a chance to speak to this young person again. I would love to speak (and listen) more about life and what we might expect out of it, about the “God-shaped hole or whatever.” These are, after all, desperately urgent questions. We are, quite literally, dying to talk about them.