This past summer marked the tenth anniversary of a fateful decision in my life. I had just started my hospital chaplaincy in Dallas and the two-year long relationship I expected to fill my free time had evaporated mere days before. So I picked up the game. Several of my friends played World of Warcraft, and they encouraged me to give this immersive online fantasy game a try. I did. And I got immersed. I got addicted. And I became detached.
When I returned to school that autumn 10 years ago, I was different. Friends will tell you that I barely left my room during my second year of seminary except to go to classes and meals. Some days were better than others. I could stomach watching a football game in the common room, for instance. But on the worst days — ones in which I had been invited out and had even made a vague commitment to going — I got dressed in going out clothes, laced up my going out shoes, paced the room, argued with myself, grasped the door handle half a dozen times, manufactured some phantom nausea, and put my pajamas back on. Then I logged back into the game. I hated myself those nights. Still coping with the loss of the long-term relationship, I dealt with that decoupling by detaching myself from everyone else, too. Turns out, I needed a coping mechanism for my coping mechanism.
My addiction to the game lasted nearly two years. More often than not, I would choose playing the game over any other activity, even when I didn’t really want to play. Classic addiction. One day, I made the unconscious choice to detach myself from all who cared for me, and the game was there to fill the void. This void was a great chasm of my own creation. At some point, my detachment began to define me and the chasm opened wider. Those words, “great chasm,” jump out at me in Luke 16. In the fanciful story of the afterlife, Abraham tells the rich man that “a great chasm has been fixed” between him and poor Lazarus. But this great chasm does not just exist after their deaths. No. The rich man had been digging the great chasm during his life.
His primary sin was not his indulgence in fine clothes and sumptuous feasts. His primary sin was the same as mine during my gaming addiction. His primary sin was detachment. Every day he walked by the diseased beggar at his gate. He even knew Lazarus by name. But the rich man never helped Lazarus. Even the scraps from his sumptuous feasts never made their way to the beggar’s shriveled stomach. The rich man lived in a gilded bubble, detached from the very need on his own doorstep. He walked by Lazarus every day, but he may have well been on the other side of the Grand Canyon.
How many great chasms do we dig in our society and in our own personal lives? How rare is it these days for well-intentioned folks on either side of a divide to have an honest, respectful conversation? We tend to segment into our subcultures. We pick a cable news channel of one stripe or the other and we never watch anything else. We fine tune our Facebook feeds to weed out anything that we might disagree with. We have forgotten how to listen to honest disagreement because too often these days honest disagreement is mutilated by ad hominem name-calling or internet trolling or simply by walking away from the table. Simply by detaching.
We may be more connected than ever by technology, but the chasms we dig are greater still. This detachment is a sin the church has indulged throughout its history of exclusion. But it’s also a sin that the church can remedy, with God’s help.
This is why religion is so important in today’s world of great chasms. Church, at its best, is a place of reattachment. I’ve mentioned before the popular descriptor of someone who is “spiritual, but not religious.” The popularity of this moniker stems from a misunderstanding on the societal level of what “religion” means. In the modern era, the terms “religion” and “church” took on the connotation of “edifice” — of imposing structure and immutable establishment.
But when we are living the mission God has given us, “church” ends up having little to do with a building and much to do with a people gathered. While structure and doctrine have their necessity, “religion” does not mean structure and doctrine. When you get right down to it, “religion” means “reconnection, reattachment.” Re-lig-io. Just look at the word and think of all the football players who have had surgery for torn ACLs. An ACL tear is repaired by reattaching the torn ligaments to the muscle and bones of the knee. Likewise, “religion” is all about reattaching us to each other, to the world in need, and to the Lord who sends us out to love and serve.
My third favorite musical of all time, Rent, offers a stark view of the reality of our society and shows the utter need for the resources of reconnection, reattachment, and relationship. Near the end of the show, after the characters have dispersed and gone their separate ways, Roger and Mark sing a song called “What You Own.” They begin the song in Santa Fe and New York City respectively. A great chasm of distance stretches between the two friends. In the song, they lament the fact that “living in America, at the end of the millennium, you’re what you own.” In other words, you are the rich man in his gilded bubble, willfully oblivious to Lazarus at the gate.
Then the song shifts to the bridge — the piece of the song that sounds different than the rest and connects the beginning and the end. They sing about that special Christmas Eve last year when their group of friends came together to celebrate life and love. They sing: “What was it about that night? Connection in an isolating age. For once the shadows gave way to light. For once I didn’t disengage.” Roger and Mark realize that opening themselves up to that connection with others leads them to joy and pain and life and death and the grittiness of a love that has survived all the assassination attempts by the forces of detachment.
By the end of the song, Roger has returned to New York and now the chorus has changed. No longer do they sing “You’re what you own.” The bridge in the song has spanned the great chasm. Now they sing: “When you’re dying in America, at the end of the millennium, you’re not alone.”
Church is a place for reattachment. When we go out into the world in peace to love and serve the Lord, we start to fill in our own chasms. We build bridges. We proclaim the shining truth of God to everyone who is neglected at the gate: You are not alone.