Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

October 14, 2012: “Blow on the Coals of Your Heart”

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.
If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.
Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing to you as no one ever has,
streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke ~
(Rilke’s Book of Hours:Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)

A few weeks ago, I had occasion to talk with several, different people of the chronologically advanced variety. And on more than one of those visits, the conversation eventually got around to the move “Hope Springs” with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. If you haven’t seen it, this is a movie about a couple in their sixties, who have lost their connection to one another and have slowly and insidiously become little more than roommates. After decades of gradual disconnection, Meryl Streep, who is profoundly lonely in the relationship, finally takes the bull by the horns and basically badgers her husband into a week of intensive, couples counseling. Tommy Lee Jones is a stereo-typical “man’s man” and goes kicking and screaming, and full of colorful comments regarding his feelings about therapy, to their therapist, played sensitively by Steve Carrel. The rest of the movie basically documents their process of trying to find their way back to one another, trying to break out of the relational slumber they have gradually fallen into, in order to find a new, vital and yes, passionate connection.

Because this movie came up in several conversations with people in this church, as well as with people in my personal life, I knew it had struck something of a nerve. Indeed, as someone who has been married thirty one years myself, let’s just say I know a bit of the terrain, because anytime you have been with the same person that long, you cannot avoid at least some tendency to take one another for granted, and I doubt you can avoid the need to be intentional about keeping things fresh.

I also know this to be true not only with our intimate relationships, but really, with most of our long term relationships, be they family, friends, colleagues, whatever. And I think this gravitational pull toward a numbing normalcy, toward a flatness of spirit brought on by same old routine, can get ahold of us not just in relationships, but in our overall experience of life in general. One of my favorite lines about daily life goes like this: “If it’s not one thing, it’s another, and if it’s not that, then it’s the same, damn thing.” And while there may be a certain truth to that, it seems to me that adapting that as one’s basic world view might be the very thing that prevents us from seeing that which is indeed new, fresh and life giving.

Scott Peck talked a lot about this in the last section of his 1980’s best-seller, The Road Less Traveled . In it, he considered the opposing forces of entropy and evolution in psychological and spiritual terms. His premise was that it is our calling, as both a species and as individuals, to grow and evolve, to become fully ourselves and to live from the ethic of love. The problem, he says, is that in addition to this evolutionary force that pushes and lures us forward in this process, there is another force as well. In the abstract, he calls it entropy, the tendency to lose energy and unwind, to follow, we might say, the path of least resistance. Finally, at the concrete, individual level, he calls it plain, old laziness.

I think he was on to something here, if you consider the word laziness not at the surface level, like when we sprawl in the deck chair and say “I’m feeling too lazy to mow the lawn,” but rather in a deeper sense, as that overall, subtle preference to avoid the effortful path, to slide ever so gently down the path of least resistance, to take the easy way out and demure the effortful processes that increase our spiritual fitness, our psychological competence and soul-strength.

I don’t know about you, but when I watch a serious athlete who has stayed with an effortful training process, it shows me in a moment the difference between these two approaches. When I watched those Olympic gymnasts, for example, it seemed like they were a different species from my version of “homo sapien.” I am to them what the big, old snoozy, domesticated orangutan at the zoo is to me. (It’s OK. I don’t hate myself for this. Its just the way it is.) And here’s the thing: what those finely tuned, explosively energetic athletes really accomplish, their real success, is at an everyday level. They can only do what they do in the Olympics because of the tedious, effortful process of overcoming that insidious inertia every day, of suiting up and showing up and doing the work, even when everything in them wants to go back to sleep.

And so it is with our relationships, and at an even more basic level, with our lives in general. The first century bishop, Iranaeus, in the admittedly narrow and biased terminology of his day, put it this way: “the glory of God is man fully alive.” That’s it! Our real challenge, even before we can look at whether or not our relationships are alive, is the question of whether or not we as individuals are fully alive! Are we suiting up and showing up each day to engage fully with the wonder of this thing called life? Are we willing to make the effort to keep growing, to keep evolving, to resist the ever present, insidiously compelling temptation of inertia, and stay in the game? Or are we unconsciously allowing ourselves, bit by bit, teaspoon by teaspoon, to die before we die.

I want to be clear here. I am not advocating here a culture of youth where we resist aging and do crossword puzzles hoping to keep the mind sharp, although for some people the latter might be part of it. What I am talking about is more subtle yet I think more profound than that. In fact, I saw it lived out by a woman in a nursing home when I worked as a hospice chaplain. She had had a stroke and was paralyzed on one side. Her physical body was declining day by day, and she was cantankerous of spirit, to put it mildly. But there was something about her that compelled me. Over the months, I came to realize that in a dramatic and startling way, she was staying in the game. Even though a large part of her was ready to be done, and in fact, she prayed for her own death, still psychologically and spiritually she was showing up each day. She was a passionate advocate for other residents on her unit who did not have her kind of voice. She had a penetrating stare and a sharp wit. And even though part of her longed to die, she was accepting of the fact that for now, she was indeed still here, and so she stayed engaged.

Unless we do this, we really don’t have a whole heck of a lot to bring to relationships. If we do this, then we have plenty to bring not only to relationships but to the rest of life as well. The problem is that it really is difficult to buck Newton’s first law of motion, you know, “a body (or in our case, a spirit) at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.” I think this is another way of saying what we all know to be true, which is that it is really, really, really hard to rise above whatever has become our habituated “normal.” There is even a whole line of theological thought about this, where God or “grace” is put in terms of “the novel” the new energy, the “outside force” in Newtonian terms, that finally interrupts whatever has become the normal, the the status quo, the sleepwalk through life, the path of least resistance, the other end of the spectrum from the glory of being fully alive.

In what part of your life has the fire gone out? Where have the embers grown cold? Is it in one of your primary relationships? Your work? Your creativity? Your spiritual life? Your willingness to keep up the daily struggle with an addiction? Well, take heart. It may just be a normal part of the ebbing and flowing of things. We cannot peak all the time, after all, and the same fields which produce explosively in the summer must lie fallow each winter. But maybe it’s more than that. Maybe your field has been lying fallow not just for a season, but for years on end. Maybe your fire has been rained upon for so long that you can’t see a single ember still burning.

That’s when it’s time to get down onto the muddy ground and start blowing on the coals. And if there truly are no living embers, then you try rebuilding the fire and striking a new match. Now let me also say that it may be that any one, particular fire could be not worth saving, because maybe it was never life giving to begin with, but that’s another sermon. Today, we are talking about the ones that are. And for those, it is well worth blowing on the coals. Because the spark of life, the speck of new energy, of grace, may be quantitatively smaller, but it is qualitatively more powerful by far, and can reignite in the most surprising places, in the most unexpected ways.

Are you willing, in whatever part of your life has grown cold, to blow on the coals? Or at least to be open to a new spark? And is there something you could do today, perhaps initiate a conversation or turn off the tv or go to a meeting or whatever is that you, deep down, really know you need to do…is there something you could do today to get it started?

If there is, or even if you are just open to the possibility that there is, then I’d like to invite you to act on your willingness right now. Because it is not enough just to think about it. So here, in this moment, in this sacred circle, I would invite you if you feel so moved, to light another candle. On the table right in front of me, there are another set of candles, and if you would like to ritualize some new beginning, some reengagement with your life, I would invite you to come down the side aisles, and literally engage a new flame, after which you can return to your seat by the center aisle.

And whether you come forward or not, please know that you are surrounded by the love and strength of your community as you make the effort to stay in the game. You are not in this alone. Blow on the coals of your heart.