LENTEN 2021 REFLECTION SERIES
Wednesday, March 10, 2021
"Sweeping Up the Heart” by Robert Raines
On January 16 seven years ago my wonderful eldest daughter Cathy died. Leukemia took her in three months. She was 59. As our family gathered in those anguished days to grieve her death and celebrate her life, an Emily Dickinson poem comforted and instructed me.
The bustle in the house the morning after death
Is solemnest of industries enacted upon earth.
The sweeping up the heart and putting love away
We shall not want to use again until eternity.
There we were sweeping up the heart and hearth of Cathy’s life, and our lives too. So here we are in the middle of Lent 2021 sweeping up the hearts of over 500,000 fellow citizens who died of Covid-19. Wearing masks, social distancing, getting vaccinated, the sweeping goes on. Most of us have also lost a loved one, or many, in recent years: grandparent, parent, spouse, partner, sibling, child, grandchild, friend, colleague. We see a gallery of beloved faces on the retina of our hearts, and sometimes we may feel a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, our angels of friendship and family, our balcony people cheering us on.
It is a precious ritual to remember and salute those who have gone before us, not only to honor them and comfort ourselves, but also a heart opened to one sorrow is opened to the sorrow of others. In an old Hasidic tale, the pupil comes to the Rebbe and asks, “Why does Torah tell us to place these holy words upon our hearts? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts? The Rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy word in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts and there they stay still until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”
Our hearts have been broken many times. When our hearts break, God does spiritual open heart surgery on us, healing our hearts and opening us to feel the suffering of others. Compassion is borne of grief. Only broken hearts grow gentle and tender. Aeschylus wrote, “In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
In January 1983, Alex Coffin, oldest son of William Sloane Coffin, drove off a bridge into Boston Harbor and drowned. A week later, Bill, then Senior Minister of the Riverside Church in New York, preached a sermon about Alex’s death, in which he said, “The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die, that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
God is the great sweeper up of hearts and Paul reminds us that even though we do not know how to pray, the Spirit searches our hearts with sighs too deep for words. We don’t have to beseech God to come to us. Our very sighs, groans and mute yearnings are already responses to the Spirit moving within us. Isn’t that a comfort!
Prayer is as natural as breathing. When we pour out our deepest fears and hopes, we are praying. When we cry out in rage against injustice, we are praying. When we praise the source of all beauty, and delight in human love, we are praying. Prayers of the heart need no religious language or any words at all. Yet, theologian Abraham Heschel says that when we pray from the heart we hand over our time to God in the secrecy of single words. So, for me, prayer comes down to such words as: bless, thank, help, forgive, heal, deliver, comfort. (All verbs)
History belongs to the intercessors who believe the future into being. Though our efforts for peace and justice fail, and our hopes be disappointed again and again, nothing in all creation can stop the tide of judgment. No dikes can forever withstand the rolling waters of justice, nor defend against the healing river. Time, space, death wash away like sand. All that is, was, or ever shall be is porous with praying.
Frederick Buechner reminds us of our loved ones when he writes, “It is not just the saints of the church that we should remember in our prayers, but all the foolish ones and wise ones, the shy ones and overbearing ones, the broken ones and whole ones, the despots, tosspots, and crackpots of our lives who one way or another have been our particular saints, and whom we loved without knowing we loved them and by whom we were led to whatever little we may have or ever hope to have of some kind of seedy sainthood of our own.”
So we do not lose heart. We savor each new dawning, the sight of a beloved face, birdsong, the sound of music, the touch of a loved one – knowing our time is precious and fleeting, wanting to be fully awake. With Blake, “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower, to hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.”
So we do not lose heart, though we lose more loved ones year by year. We might think of them in the way James Reston of The New York Times eulogized his colleague Orvil Dryfoos. “The death of Orvil Dryfoos was blamed on ‘heart failure’ but that obviously could not have been the reason. Orv’s heart never failed him or anybody else – ask the reporters on the Times. It was as steady as the stars – ask anybody in the company of his friends. It was as faithful as the tides – ask his beloved wife and family. In the spiritual sense, his heart was not a failure but his greatest success. He had room in it for every joy and everybody else’s joy. This was the thing that set him apart – this warmness and openness and purity of heart. Let us then honor Orvil Dryfoos with grateful remembrance and celebration more than tears.”
Let us then honor our loved ones with grateful remembrance and celebration more than tears. Poet Wendell Berry gives us our marching orders toward Easter: “So friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord, love the world, work for nothing, love someone who does not deserve it. Ask the questions that have no answers. Plant a tree. Laugh. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts. Practice resurrection.”
The Rev. Dr. Robert Raines