Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Hungry Heart

Last week I was invited to preach at Bethany United Methodist Church in Noe Valley, which I pastored for 12 years. By the time I left, one third of my life had been spent in that community. So last week was a wonderful reunion, we hadn’t seen each other in 5 years and we just had a great time telling stories about our time together.

I was reminded of one fall when a flustered parent handed me some items for a rummage sale. As the bag passed from her hand to mine, I saw signs of relief wash over her: "I am so glad to be rid of that Barney doll" she said, with a sigh.

I placed the bag in a closet near the office, and it wasn't very long after that I learned why the mother was at her wits end: every time a truck rumbled past the church, it would trigger a mechanism in the doll, and Barney would sing through the church: "I love you; you love me."

"I love love me." on and on the Barney doll would call out. I tried moving the doll further away from the office, but even muffled, I could still make out the song. People who would come to the office for pastoral care would role their eyes when the song rang out. One looked disgusted and said, "Barney, ugh."

What is it with all the bad blood around Barney? Why does a low-tech, purple-plush dinosaur stir such negative feelings? The message sounds pure enough: "I love you, you love me..." Yet, something about it makes most adults cringe and turn away. Could it be that Barney makes it sound too easy, this loving thing? \"I love you, you love me, we're a great big family, with a great big hug and a kiss from me to you, won't you say you love me too?"

What does Barney know about 3am feedings and nightmares? What does Barney know about the tension between wanting to provide for your children, but then working so much you barely have time for them? What does Barney know about life on the streets and being worried sick wondering if your son will come home alive, or if he will become one more addition to the prison pipeline? What does Barney know about infidelities and other betrayals?

I love you? You love me? Does Barney have any idea how hard this loving thing really is? Does he know about the frustrations, the despair, the longings that come with love. "I love you, you love me"...if it were only that simple.

And maybe I am projecting something here, but whenever I hear that grating, “I love you, you love me” line, it sounds to me like an obsessive, compulsive lover. I love you. You love me? I love you. You love me? You love me?

Maybe that’s it. The ears through which I hear Barney’s words are more than just a bit jaded by my own baggage that I have brought to love. Barney reminds me of my own hungry heart, one in which love was absent, which sent me bingeing on all sorts of activities and things that never helped fill the pangs of desire that were within me. Do you know something about that? Have you had a hungry heart, where the expectation for love was unfulfilled, or, once you got it, was unfulfilling?

And, in a mad, crazy attempt to fill the emptiness, you grabbed whatever came your way: a revolving door of lovers, overwork, drugs, alcohol, food, risky behaviors, relationships that only compounded the hunger. I think this hungry heart is a phenomenon many of us are acquainted with, and I am reminded of a song by the Boss, Bruce Springsteen, who wrote a song about it:

Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back
Like a river that don't know where it's flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going

Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybody’s got a hungry heart

I met her in a Kingstown bar
We fell in love I knew it had to end
We took what we had and we ripped it apart
Now here I am down in Kingstown again


Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don't make no difference what nobody says
Ain't nobody like to be alone

(Copyright © Bruce Springsteen (ASCAP))

Everybody’s got a hungry heart. Perhaps Springsteen points to what is one of the biggest reasons why so many hearts are hungry: “Everybody needs a place to rest, everybody wants to have a home.” We are a people who have lost the ability to be at home.

I am not talking about the physical place of a home, which some of us are in need of. I am talking about something even more basic than that: being at home with ourselves. Being alone with ourselves drives us up the wall. If we can’t stand ourselves, how can we expect anyone else to?

Too many of us have run away from home, run away from ourselves. Because of the way some people treated us in our past, the messages they gave us, the way they used or abused us, the way they made us feel about ourselves, we have distanced ourselves from our Self, wearing a mask that has become a permanent part of our persona. When that happens, we have run away from home. As a result, we are not even at home in our own skin.

With no home of our own, is it no wonder why our hearts are so hungry, why, when we or others say the words “I love you” it comes out feeling a little like a disembodied echo, reverberating in the hollowness of our empty heart?

In Psalm 32 we are invited to rediscover a home in our heart. The psalmist cried: “When I kept it all inside, my bones turned to powder, my words became daylong groans. The pressure never let up; all the juices of my life dried up.” Signs of a hungry heart.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way. We are invited to bring our whole self before God. We are reminded that “GOD holds nothing against you and you are to hold nothing back from God.” Give it all over to God, your pain, your shame, your wounds and scars, your secret fears, your anger, your brokenness. Give it over to the one who loves you with a love that will never let you go. With this assurance, drop the mask you have been wearing and find yourself coming home to your Self.

It is then that we will grow comfortable in our own skin, our own body, our own life. It is then that we will hear the divine voice say clearly: “I love you.” And our hearts will be hungry no more.

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