Love got down and dirty

I am not a pet person. In the sense that we don’t own a pet and we don’t have any animals currently living in our home.

However, we do enjoy visiting with the pets of others. And, if we did have a dog at home, I would probably consider a terrier. The word, terrier, is derived from the Latin word terra, meaning, earth.

And, I’ve heard, a terrier will eat dirt. And dig holes in the dirt. It is a solid dog with short legs. It is scruffy and tough. A terrier is, indeed, an ‘earth dog’, living very close to the ground.

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent. This long season of the church year, some forty days’ pilgrimage, leads us somewhere. It is not an aimless wandering. Though it may sometimes feel like it.

The forty days is largely symbolic, let’s be honest. Though the Lenten season is an ancient Christian tradition going back in its variations to at least the fourth century after Christ, our observance of it today is slight, for the most part.

How can we re-discover its meaning?

At the beginning of any journey – I prefer to see the progress of life and faith as a journey – I want to see in my mind’s eye at least, the destination – the finish line so to speak.

Before I set out on the Camino pilgrimage in Spain last Spring – some 800 kilometres long – I needed to know my destination, which was the city of Santiago. Not only did knowing the destination help me navigate the trail, it motivated me on the way.

What is the finish line of the Lenten journey? Easter, of course.

I said the observance of the faith journey is marked by symbol or ritual. These rituals in the church take the form of sacraments, such as baptism and Holy Communion. At Easter – the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection – we not only receive the promise of our ongoing transformation and new life in Christ, we have arrived at the destination of the Lenten journey of our healing, our forgiveness, our change.

Because of Easter, we can do Lent. The disciplines of Lent would be groundless without the Easter promise guiding our way. The joy of Easter is the destination – the very point – of the long Lenten discipline.

That is why baptisms and confirmations happen during Easter. This so-called first sacrament of the church, baptism, involves using water to make the sign of the cross on baptized forehead.  In some churches, the congregation gathers literally by the river to participate in a baptismal celebration.

Diana Butler Bass grew up as an evangelical Christian. She remembers that more often than not, “The water would be murky, seemingly impure rather than sanctified … The pastor would dunk the newcomer anyway, a drenching testimony of sin washed away and new birth in Christ.” But she wondered “how one could be washed of sin when the water itself was not safe to drink.”[1]

It seems, we cannot avoid getting dirty on the road to Easter and new life. In truth, is there not something good about dirt?

Some years ago, Diana Butler Bass spent the forty days of Lent focusing her discipline on priming her vegetable and flower garden in Spring. Obviously, she lived farther south than where we are. During Lent, she readied the garden, worked the soil, coaxed dirt to life. And, she concluded,

“Dirt was not dirty – it was beautiful. God made it. I was tending it. Caring for soil is hard work. The last thing I wanted to imagine was it being washed away. I was fighting for the dirt. I wanted more dirt, better dirt, richer dirt. I was adding stuff to it to make it mealier. I wanted dirtier dirt.”[2]

Yet, I would agree with Butler Bass, the symbols of the church have become sterile over the centuries. We have become germ-a-phobic, averse to dirt. And this, to our spiritual peril.

“In many dictionaries, the definition of ‘soil’ as a noun is typically scientific” – a particular kind of earth, a portion of the earth’s surface, the ground, etc.”

But the second definition, as a verb, turns sinister: ‘to soil: to make unclean, dirty or filthy; to smirch, smudge, or stain; to sully or tarnish, as with disgrace; defile morally. Its synonyms are ‘blacken, taint, debase, pollute.’ The term ‘dirt’ is perhaps even worse than ‘soil’. ‘Dirt’ comes from Middle English … meaning ‘mud, dung, or excrement’; or related ‘smutty or morally unclean.”

It’s easy to understand the theological leap from dirt and soil to sin and evil.[3] This is why we need Ash Wednesday in our faith journey. We need to feel the dirt on our foreheads in the sign of the cross as much as we make the sign of the cross with baptismal water, impure as it sometimes is.

This may seem like “a tempest in a linguistic teapot”[4] except for the fact that the bible points in another direction:

“Biblical creation stories abound with praise for the soil: God creates the ground and calls it good. Then the land brings forth life, and God calls it good. Humankind is made from the dust; God breathes life into the soil and Adam is born, this ‘soil creature’, and God sees that as very good.[5]

Humans beings are, literally, made from the humus, the ground. We are, simply, animated dirt.

In the famous Gospel story of the sower and the seed – where some seed falls on rocky ground, other seed on fertile, deep soil, other seed on the path, and other seed on shallow soil – Jesus explains that the seed is God’s love and the soil is us. The moral of the story?

“We are not soil-y enough! Spiritually, we would be better off more soiled rather than less. Being soiled is actually the point. You could say: ‘God loves dirt more than plants, soil more than what it yields. God is a dirt farmer, not a vegetable gardener.’ Soil is not sin. Soil is sacred, holy, and good. When we care for it, we are doing God’s work. Soil is life. And it is time for us — Ash Wednesday is a good time, symbolically at least — to reclaim the dirt.”[6] Why?

God became humus. God’s love got down and dirty. In the person of Jesus, God’s love was shown – in a human being. God is, according to Paul Tillich, not apart from us “but who is the very core and ground of all that is.”[7]

God is part of us, because of Christ Jesus and the incarnation. I read that every day more than sixty tons of cosmic dust fall to the earth. These are microscopic elements we can’t see, travelling in space from the farthest reaches of the universe. This cosmic dust enters our atmosphere where it mixes with existing soil on earth and enters the food chain.

Imagine, this cosmic dust is a source of ongoing creation. We eat and breathe it. Quite literally, human beings are made and being made of ‘stardust’. As the biblical story reflects: the divine and the soil, the Creator and created, are part of the same, theological ecosystem.

The Easter baptismal celebration is the end goal. We see it now, from the perspective of the starting line: Ash Wednesday. Tonight, we also make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, not with water – pure or murky. But with ash. We start by embracing the soil in and of our own lives.

Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust. The traditional words spoken at the start of Lent, and significantly, when our bodies return to the ground. A reminder, viscerally by the imposition of ash on our foreheads, that we are not only mortal, but that we belong to the earth. A reminder of our own need for repentance and new life.

At very least, we have to say it starts with dirt. We are dirt. Really. We therefore have to care for the dirt that is us, and in the earth, on this journey.

“We are not tourists here,” writes philosopher Mary Midgly, “We are at home in the world, because we were made for it,”[8] a world God so loved.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World; A Spiritual Revolution” (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), p.53.

[2] Ibid., p.53-54.

[3] Ibid., p.54.

[4] Ibid., p.54.

[5] Ibid., p.57.

[6] Ibid., p.58.

[7] Cited in ibid., p.31

[8] Cited in ibid., p.64

The hide-and-seek God

There is enough in the world today and in our own lives to seriously doubt the presence of a God, let alone a God who cares about what happens on earth.

“Where is God?” is a question that is emerging in our understanding of God in the modern era. It is a question, Diana Butler Bass asserts, that is growing in sad frequency in recent years:

“’Where is God?’” she writes, “arose from the rubble of the World Trade Center; from the inundated villages of tsunami-ravaged Thailand and Indonesia; from New Orleans, as the levees breaking swept all that was familiar out to sea; from African hamlets where the dead mount from Ebola; from the hidden, abused, and lost victims of human trafficking and slavery; from killing fields in any number of nations where war seems endless; and from native peoples watching their homelands sink into the earth or ocean due to melting tundra or rising seas.

“‘Where is God?’ has echoed from every corner of the planet in recent years… ‘Where is God’ is one of the most consequential questions of our times.”[1]

“The Jewish tradition tells a story of a rabbi whose young son once came running to him, crying inconsolably. Between huge sobs, he managed to say, ‘Father, I’ve been playing hide-and-seek with the other children. It came my turn to hide, but after I found a good place, I sat there in the woods for hours waiting for the others to find me. No one ever yelled into the woods to tell me to come out. They just left me there alone.’

“His father put his arms around the child and held him close, rocking him back and forth. ‘Ah, my son,’ he said, ‘that’s how it is with God, too. God is always hiding, hoping that people will come to look for him. But no one wants to play. He’s always left alone, wanting to be found, hoping someone will come. But crying because no one seeks him out.’”[2]

The very first words of God recorded in the Bible to human beings are: “Where are you?”[3] Adam and Eve seem to be looking for God in the wrong places in the Garden of Eden. I hear a tone of exasperated grief in God’s call to Adam and Eve: “Where are you?”

Why does God appear to disappear from our vision, when the going gets tough? Theologians have described God through the centuries as a God who hides.[4] Why is God a hidden God? Not to mention, a God who cries because no one is out looking for this God?

Such a vulnerable vision of God disturbs us to the core. We would rather have a powerful, mighty, superman vision of God. We want a God who will win on the battlefield, stand victorious over all enemies of the faith, triumph over all our adversaries, and solve all our problems in life. Indeed, when we meet with suffering, disappointment and despair in life – as we most surely do and will – our prayer to God resonates with Isaiah’s:

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”[5]

And so, when the Israelites return from exile in Babylon in 586 B.C.E. to a ravaged and desolate Jerusalem, they are at a loss. Ruins and devastation lie where once a mighty temple stood.

Isaiah reflects the mood of the people in his lament to God, a prayer that echoes on our lips today: Why, O God, are you now not visibly nor powerfully present as you once were long ago? Why, O God, do you refuse to act powerfully and dramatically to rescue us from our distress? How can we reconcile the ancient, miraculous stories of your powerful presence with our current experience of your absence?

God hides, so to speak, in order to deconstruct a distorted set of beliefs about who God is. When God enters our humanity as a vulnerable, dependent baby born to teenage parents in a backwater town served by the likes of the low-class shepherds, God declares who God is. The hiddenness of God is not a cloak of humility temporarily covering an awesome powerful glory – a kind of Clark Kent/Superman act.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed more than his wit last month on Parliament Hill when he unbuttoned his shirt in front of reporters exposing his Halloween costume underneath. He suggested a powerful image reflective of our belief and image of God.

So God hides to reveal the true, divine character. God is determined to relate to the world not as a superhero through domination and force. Instead, God is determined, even in our experience of God’s hiddenness, to demonstrate God’s way of non-coercive love and suffering service.

Listen to this rendition of hide-and-seek told reflectively by Belden Lane:

“When my daughter was very young, one of her favorite tricks in playing hide-and-seek was to pretend that she had run away to hide, and then to come sneaking back beside me while I was still counting – my eyes shut tight. She breathed as silently as she could, standing inches away, hoping I couldn’t hear. Then she’d take the greatest delight in reaching out to touch home base as soon as I opened my eyes and began to search for someone who’d never even left.

“She was cheating, of course, and though I don’t know why, I always let her get away with it. Was it because I longed so much for those few moments when we stood close together, pretending not to hear or be heard, caught up in a game that for an instant dissolved the distance between parent and child, that set us free to touch and seek and find each other? It was a simple, almost negligible act of grace, my not letting on that I knew she was there. Yet I suspect that in that one act my child may have mirrored God for me better than in any other way I’ve known.

Still to this day, it seems, God is for me a seven-year-old daughter, slipping back across the grass, holding her breath in check, wanting once again to surprise me with a presence closer than I ever expected. “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself,” the prophet Isaiah declared.[6] A playfulness as well as a dark mystery lies richly intertwined in that grand and complex truth.[7]

“Where is God?” Maybe God is right beside us. And if we can’t see, feel, or hear God’s presence, may this Advent Season of preparation and waiting and watching be dedicated to keep looking for God in our lives, who may very well be standing inches away.

“Keep calm, and keep looking” should be on a t-shirt worn by Christians in Advent. Because hidden amidst the décor, bustle and busyness of this season, you will find Jesus. This season of preparation is best served by slowing down, breathing and paying attention. Do you see? Do you perceive God?

Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes of waiting one night for a late flight to depart from a remote landing field in the Sahara desert. Feeling vaguely uneasy as he walked out into the desert air, he heard dragonflies striking their wings against an oil lamp nearby.

Back home in France, the flight of moths around a candle flame at night would have been perfectly common. No big deal. But in the desert the sudden presence of insects meant something entirely different. Swept hundreds of miles from their inland oases, the presence of dragonflies were clear signs of impending danger: A savage sandstorm was on its way, sweeping every living things before it.

Saint-Exupery was grateful for the warning that had come. But he was moved even more by the powerful experience of having been attentive: “What filled me with a barbaric joy was that I had understood a murmured monosyllabic of this secret language, had sniffed the air and known what was coming … it was that I had been able to read the anger of the desert in the beating of a dragonfly.”[8]

“Keep awake!” are Jesus’ words to his disciples, and the call sign for Advent. Keep calm and pay attention. Keep looking for the God who may not be hidden in our expectations of grandeur and spectacle. But in the beating of a bird’s wings.

God’s refusal to replicate a mighty Red Sea –dividing deliverance when Isaiah laments centuries later does not mean God has abandoned Israel, nor us. God’s mode of action looks more like that of an artist or parent than that of the superhero. Both the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah use the image of God as the potter and we the clay.[9]

God, hidden in human form, comes not to inaugurate an apocalyptic cleansing of spectacular proportions. But God comes to reveal the power of the powerless in Jesus of the manger and Jesus on the cross. In so doing, Christ reveals the will of God, who is eternally and patiently molding and shaping the clay of creation into the New Jerusalem.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, “Finding God in the World: A Spiritual Revolution” (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2017), p.7-8

[2] Belden C. Lane – “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.180 – cites Jerome R. Mintz in “Legends of Hassidim (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p.344

[3] Genesis 3:9

[4] Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer both describe God as ‘hidden’. See Scott Bader-Saye in “Feasting on the Word”, ibid., p.2-6; and, “Luther’s Works” edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964) Volume 4: Lectures on Genesis, chaps 21-25, p.115-122

[5] Isaiah 64:1-2

[6] Isaiah 45:15, KJV

[7] Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.181

[8] Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Wind, Sand and Stars” (Toronto: Penguin Books, 2000), p.52-53; cited in Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.190

[9] Isaiah 64:8; Jeremiah 18

Mirage gates

When we stayed at our friends’ house in Lago Patria — a suburb of Naples — we felt safe in the gated community in which they lived. Nearly a dozen homes lined the little neighbourly and upscale street where mostly stationed officers and NATO personnel lived during their posting to the base there. We called it, ‘the parco’ — the Italian for ‘park’. An oasis it truly was.


Lining the perimeter of the parco was a tall wall. A large sliding metal door would guard entrance to this haven, and then release us again to the urban jungle that is Naples, where stray dogs roamed and garbage lined the roadways. You get the picture.


In Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall”, he wrestles with our desire to have clearly defined boundaries of what is my place and what is yours; and, why we divide ourselves so. He concludes his poem with a challenge: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out” (1). Good advice.

Indeed, fences and walls serve to keep us from seeing ‘what’s out there’ — and perhaps we want it that way. We don’t want to see what might disturb our comfort. We don’t want to see who might be out there, lurking on the perimeter of our safely constructed lives. We don’t want to see because we are afraid of what truly seeing them might do to change, disrupt and unravel us.

The Gospel text today (Luke 16:19-31) can unravel us, for sure! A poor man named Lazarus makes his temporary home at the gate of a rich man’s house, eating crumbs off the rich man’s table.

The story suggests that the rich man never even sees Lazarus is there, begging, at his gate. Even in the afterlife, as the rich man burns in hell, he doesn’t talk directly to Lazarus, referring to him only in the third person (v.23-24). Even serving his due in hell, the rich man still hasn’t learned his lesson!

Indeed, as Jesus says later in Luke, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (18:25). How can the rich and the poor bridge the gap? How can we break down the barriers that separate us? How can we ‘see’ better — by this I mean: develop the eye of the heart and mind?

My brother tells the story of what happened at the beginning of the CLAY gathering this past August (Canadian Lutheran-Anglican Youth gathering). All nine-hundred participants did a certain exercise in the large group gathering that unnerved him:

They were asked to find someone they did not know; and then, to go over to that person, sit next to them; and then turn to look directly into their eyes…. and keep looking into their eyes for as long as possible, without turning away.  It’s hard enough to do this sort of thing with someone you know well… let alone a complete stranger!!


So, my brother David found a young person he didn’t know. And the two of them – complete strangers – began to look into each other’s eyes. It was unnerving! He felt vulnerable. Exposed.

While this was happening, the leader at the front said something like: “The person before you has a story, and has experienced happiness, as well as sadness, perhaps even deep hurt and pain. Who knows? Life may’ve been very hard on the person in front of you.”

As these words were being said, David noticed the slightest hint of tears welling up in his partner’s eyes. And he wondered…. He wondered …. What’s my partner’s story?

It’s said that the eyes are the ‘window into the soul.’In a sense, they were peering into ‘each other’s souls’.

A natural connection is formed. Two people, connecting on a human level, affirming the fact that we’re all united in our common humanity and life’s experiences – of sadness and laughter and humour – which we all go through at some point in our lives … no matter our differences in age, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation or religion.

I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Philo of Alexandria: “Be kind to everyone you meet — you don’t know the battle they are fighting.”

Author and theologian Diana Butler Bass tells the touching story of what happened in an airport when she was flying from Albany, New York, to Washington D.C.

As you know, typically airports can be cold, heartless places, where everyone seems absorbed in their own rushing around, wrapped up in their private worries, nerves or plans, ignoring others around them.

This time, as passengers milled around in the gate area before boarding the plane, there sat alone at the far end of the row of seats, a middle-aged man.

He looked distraught, perhaps ill. Maybe, he needed help.

His whole demeanor was one of sorrow, and he was bent over, slumped in his chair as if falling toward the ground.

Diana walked over to him, and sat down beside him. She gently began asking him questions and listening to him.

With deep, heavy sobs, he told her how he buried his wife that morning, and now he was going home. To nothing.

For the next half hour, he told Diana about his wife, her illness and untimely death.

The man and his wife had no children.

She had been his best friend since high school.

Their parents had all passed away.

He had taken her to be buried where they had grown up in New York State, a place they both loved.

Most of their childhood friends had moved away.

There had been no funeral, just him and a priest at a graveside to say a few prayers and good-bye.

Now, he was going home, back to work. Other than a few friends, he was alone.

Diana listened, and then went to get him some water.

On the way back, she found a flight attendant, and told her about the man and his wife, how he had buried her that day. The flight attendant thanked her for sharing, and said ‘they’d take care of him.’

There were only about fifteen people on the flight that day on that small plane.

Somehow word got around, and soon everyone knew about their fellow passenger in mourning.

By the time everyone was boarding the plane, people were going out of their way to be kind to the man.

A crewmember escorted him aboard.

With courtesy and attention, they seated him at the back of the plane to be alone with this thoughts and whatever tears might come.

When they landed, some silent agreement formed between the passengers to let him exit first.

Instead of the usual rush and urgent calls on cell phones, everyone stood silently, forming two lines of respect, as he walked down the aisle toward the cabin door…

Some nodded respectfully as he passed.

One woman reached out and touched his shoulder.

When he reached the front of the plane, he turned back, and looked at everyone, to acknowledge the sympathy offered.

The pilot came out of the cockpit, and took the man’s hand, and together they descended the steps to the tarmac.

All the passengers followed in silence.

A private car, dispatched by the airline, waited there beside the plane, to deliver him home. (2)


The irony is that no amount of gates, fences, walls or clearly defined dividing lines however constructed will keep us separated from each other. When there is love. When we can ‘see.’

Boundaries are important. But they don’t guarantee the self-serving security we seek. Shortly after they were posted to Naples a couple of years ago, our friends’ house was broken into despite the impressive protection their gated community seemed to provide. 

These kinds of gates are really only illusions — like the proverbial mirage in the desert. Gates and fences that separate the rich from the poor, the privileged from the underprivileged, the employed from the the unemployed, the bum on the street and the senior executive in the top floor corner office are at best a mediocre interpretation of reality. Because they are constructed out of fear.

Jesus is about breaking down those barriers. And we are called to bridge the apparent chasm separating us from each other. Better now in this world while we can still do so, then whine about it like the rich man does in hell after it is too late.

We are called to look into each other’s eyes, and see the connection we share with all humanity, in the love of God. We are called to work together, like the community of care that formed on that short plane trip. We do not do this work individually, by ourselves. Not separately, but we work together at this task of reaching out and mending what has been broken. 

We do this in the mission of God who broke down the greatest divide between God and human: when Jesus was born a human child. When God became human the ultimate gap was bridged. And now, we live in that flow of God’s love, continually binding us together, and all people.

(1) Robert Frost cited in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word” Year C, Volume 4; Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 118-120

(2) Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World: A Spiritual Revolution”, HarperOne, 2015, p.256