I have mentioned in previous blogs the influence of Robert Bly’s book “Iron John” on my journey when I was in my mid 40’s. In the Iron John story, the boy, whom we know to be a king’s son, leaves the security of his parents and rides off on Iron John’s shoulders. On his journey the boy comes to realize that he doesn’t have any skills to support himself. He ends up working for a cook in the basement of another castle, carrying wood and water, and taking out the ashes. This was a dirty, humble, menial job.
Bly pointed out that there comes a time in a man’s life, usually at mid-life, when a man has to carry out the ashes. This is the time of life when we face failure, disappointment, humiliation, tragedy, illness or some other experience that is humbling and disorientating. I know for me, it was the collapse of a significant ministry in Des Moines, Iowa. I felt defeated. The ministry in establishing a charismatic Lutheran Church all came tumbling down. I gave up what I called, “The big Deal” because it had been more about me then the Lord. I went to Northern Minnesota. In Richard Rohr’s words, “I had built my tower and now God was asking me to jump of the tower.” It was hard to be in “free fall.”.
Recently, I read of Tiger Woods return to the golf tour at the Hero World Challenge. ESPN writer Jason Sobel writes, “What he is ready for is the underdog role. The guy who has endured so many surgeries he shouldn’t be able to walk….It’s as if his rigid exterior has melted, revealing a softening core. He has stared career mortality in the face on multiple occasions.” I’m not sure, but it looks like Tiger has carried out some ashes. Has he turned to the Lord in the process. We don’t know. But he has been humbled. That’s doing your ash work.
I seriously started carry out my ashes in Des Moines over 30 years ago in my 40’s. As Rohr is fond of saying, “A man has to eat his sin.” I mark it as one of the two or three signature periods of my life. The emotional pain was significant, while my spiritual orientation became like a “dark night of the soul.” It last for about three years, before I could climb out of the “slim pit.” It brought a comforting peace, a inner spaciousness and a willingness to just be myself without having to prove my spirituality.
For any younger men reading this blog who is doing “ashes work,” take courage. The darkness and disorientation is a necessary stripping away of your false religious self. What hurts is the religious part. No one was more invested in his false spiritual persona then I was, as a gun-ho evangelical, charismatic Lutheran pastor in a city church, that was thought of as a “lighthouse” ministry in the ELCA. It all can crashing down. I had to face the humiliating fact that my spirituality was hallow, empty and without substance.
The Psalmist talks about it as being in a “slimy pit.” “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me, and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand’ (Ps 40:1-2). My advice. Don’t lose your focus on the Lord, no matter how much it hurts. Allow yourself to be humbled, by others and your circumstance, and cry out to God for mercy. He will rescue you from the pit.