Sermon preached Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2015
Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Robert Bly is a Minnesota poet. I first read one of his poems in a college English class, and found it intriguing. I thought it was pretty cool that there was this poet from Minnesota being taught in college. The poem itself was about waking from an afternoon sleep where the poet thinks about an old Norwegian bachelor farmer who sold his farm and left town. When he wakes up he goes out to the old farm place where he finds in the abandoned house old books including “instructions to Norwegian immigrants.” I was fascinated by abandoned houses, and that drew me into the poem.
When I was a doctoral student at Southern Methodist University, Robert Bly gave a poetry reading on campus. I went, and loved the way he read. After the reading I introduced myself and told him I was from Minnesota. He asked me what I was studying and I told him “Religious Studies.” He said that could be good, “if you have the right teachers.”
When I was a district superintendent, Bly’s hometown of Madison, Minnesota was in my district.
A few years ago at UMD, Robert Bly gave another poetry reading. This time I brought a couple of his books and now have two signed books of his poetry.
I would like to share a poem from this Minnesota poet who I have had the privilege of hearing twice. The poem is entitled “A Home in Dark Grass.” Bly’s poems don’t always tell a story, rather they often move from image to image in ways that suggest a deepening of experience. This poem is about challenging emotions, our theme for Lent. It is about digging deep. I will suggest that it has something to do with the words of Jesus in Matthew 6.
In the deep fall, the body awakes,
And we find lions on the seashore—
Nothing to fear.
The wind rises, the water is born,
Spreading white tomb-clothes on a rocky shore,
Drawing us up
From the bed of the land.
We did not come to remain whole.
We came to lose our leaves like the trees,
The trees that are broken
And start again, drawing up on great roots;
Like mad poets captured by the Moors,
Men who live out
A second life.
That we should learn of poverty and rags,
That we should taste the weed of Dillinger,
And swim in the sea,
Not always walking on dry land,
And, dancing, find in the trees a saviour,
A home in the dark grass,
And nourishment in death.
Can you hear the poet diving deep into his soul, daring to dig even deeper inside. “We did not come to remain whole. We came to lose our leaves like trees, the trees that are broken and start again, drawing up on great roots.” One of the things I find really interesting is that in one collection of his selected poems, Bly changes that stanza. It is not our job to remain unbroken./Our task is to lose our leaves/And be born again, as trees/Draw up from the great roots.
It is not our job to remain unbroken. I think of the distinction Parker Palmer makes between a heart broken apart and a heart broken open into a new capacity (A Hidden Wholeness, 178). I think that’s what Robert Bly is writing about. Our job is not to remain unbroken but to allow ourselves to be broken open so we can grow. We did not come to remain whole, but to become whole by digging deep, by not always walking on dry land, but by dancing and finding a home in dark grass.
Jesus in Matthew seems to be suggesting that digging deep is a vital part of the Christian journey, an important dimension of having a significant and growing relationship with God. The heart of a relationship with God is not outward piety – the giving of alms so others can see, praying long and loud in public, fasting so everyone notices. The heart of a relationship with God is a matter of the heart, the inner life. Digging deep is part of the journey of faith.
We need to be careful here. Jesus is not posing an absolute distinction between outer acts and the inner life. There is not a thick wall between being spiritual and being religious. Last week when I was looking something up about Abraham Maslow and peak experiences, I came across these words: I see in the history of many organized religions a tendency to develop two extreme wings: the “mystical” and individual on the one hand, and the legalistic and organizational on the other. The profoundly and authentically religious person integrates these trends easily and automatically. The forms, rituals, ceremonials, and verbal formulae in which he was reared remain for him experientially rooted, symbolically meaningful, archetypal, unitive. (Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences, vii). The organizational and experiential, the ritualistic and the spiritual can be woven together in a healthy relationship to God, in a healthy life of faith. And without a doubt, a healthy spiritual heart moves us to live with compassion and a concern for justice and peace.
What Jesus is asking of us is a spiritual discipline to dig deep, to look inside, to find a home in dark grass, to not always walk on dry land so that the experiential and behavioral are joined together, so that the inner and outer remain linked – our behavior shaping our souls, our souls being expressed in our actions. The problem of those Jesus criticizes is that they lost the connection between soul and action. They were going through the motions, but their actions were not connected to the heart, to the soul.
This discipline of digging deep is not often or always easy. We live in a culture that frequently stays in “the shallows,” the title of a book on internet technology (Nicholas Carr). The author, in response to the first edition of the book had received a number of notes from people about “how the Web has scattered their attention, parched their memory, or turned them into compulsive nibblers of info-snacks” (226). I enjoy the internet, and I understand how it might keep us in the shallows – moving from link to link to link, never fully digesting the information, never letting it penetrate deeply, never giving us the space to ponder or to muse. We also live in a culture enamored with the short-term. Digging deep to ask ourselves about our souls takes time. It can be counter-cultural.
Yet I think it is necessary for our spiritual health, for connecting more deeply with the God of Jesus Christ. A few months ago I read an interview with a man named Francis Weller, a therapist about whom I knew nothing. I continue to be deeply moved by his insights. It was Weller who wrote about our need to “carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them” (The Sun, October 2015:7). We will visit that idea later on this Lent. Weller also offers this: In this culture we display a compulsive avoidance of difficult matters and an obsession with distraction. Because we cannot acknowledge grief, we’re forced to stay on the surface of life…. We find ways to deny the reality of this rich but difficult territory, and we are thinned psychically (5). He goes on: Think about how much energy we expend trying to deny and avoid these parts of ourselves. What if all that energy were available to us again? We would laugh more. We’d know more joy (6).
So this Lent we are taking a journey together into the inner recesses of our souls. We are going to deal with challenging emotions and challenge ourselves to work with them in helpful and healthy ways. God did not create us to be surface creatures, but people of depth. We did not come to remain whole. It is not our job to remain unbroken. Our task is to lose our leaves like trees and start again, drawing up on great roots. We should swim in the sea, not always walking on dry land. We should dance and find a home in the dark grass, storing up treasures of the heart in the deep places of our souls. We begin that journey with a reminder that we are dust and stardust, and with bread for the journey. Amen.