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 long journey – Lent 1A

We don’t often see the humour in the creation stories around Adam and Eve (Genesis 2-3). Perhaps because so many centuries of debate and dogma and doctrine-making put such a heavy burden on the sacred text.

But, if we can just lighten our approach a bit, a fresh perspective emerges. There are some funny aspects in the story of the Garden of Eden where the crafty serpent tempts Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, they disobey God, resulting in their rather undignified exit from Paradise.

Here’s a joke someone sent me this very week on the subject: Did you know the oldest computer can be traced back to Adam and Eve?
Surprise, surprise.
It was an Apple.
But with extremely limited memory.
Just one byte.
Then everything crashed.

That joke isn’t biblical in case you were wondering. But these story-lines are rather comedic: We have a talking snake (a la Harry Potter). If anyone is a parent or works with children, you will know that the surest way to get a child to do something, is to tell them not to do it (e.g. “You can eat anything you want from the fridge, but you dare not touch a cookie from that jar on top of the table”). It’s almost as if Adam and Eve were set up to fail. And then God warns them they will ‘die’ if they even touch the tree. They do touch the tree, but they don’t die.

Well, not for another several hundred years.

The scripture records Adam having lived a very long life (Genesis 5:5 suggests 930 years). The threat of death was therefore not a literal one tied to that one, particular transgression. In other words, there must have been a divine purpose in Adam living so long after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

We can assume, therefore, that when Adam and Eve left the Garden, they began a life of maturing and labouring under the weight of their broken humanity. The development and growth of any human being, we know, is bought by the price of pain and suffering. The wisdom writer from Ecclesiastes (1:18) expresses this truth: “For in much wisdom is vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” Suffering, then, must be part of God’s good, created order. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes, “Life depends in some mysterious way on the struggle to be.” (1)

That God did not destroy them both immediately after their unfortunate decision, is an act of grace, of forgiveness. The writer of Genesis is emphasizing an important characteristic of God, here. Whether or not Adam lived, actually, 930 years is not the point; the point is it was a very, very long time. Perhaps the author is, at very least, emphatic in expressing the extent of God’s mercy: Adam and Eve have all the time in the world to practice making better decisions, and of experiencing more and more of God’s grace.

God is forgiving, even more so than we can be to ourselves. God is merciful, even more than we can be merciful to each other. God is gracious, even more than we can imagine being gracious to ourselves.

We begin today a journey of some forty days, which mirrors Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). In pursuit of various disciplines we observe the season of Lent, year after year, as we slowly and intentionally approach the most holy of Christian days — Easter, the resurrection of our Lord.

The only way to the Empty Tomb of resurrection is through the Cross of suffering. The symbolic destination of the Lenten journey is the Cross, on Good Friday. And so, right off the start, we know this can’t be an easy journey, when we have to face and bear our own cross. But this is what life is about, is it not?

Whenever hardship comes our way in whatever form it does — illness, loss, tragedy, disappointment, conflict and confrontation, failure, guilt, pain. We don’t have to seek it out; Suffering comes to us all. This is a reality we are called to accept.

When Adam and Eve failed God in the Garden, God gave them a chance to confess. As much as disobedience was the problem, so too was their impulse to try to ‘cover up’ their faults by blaming someone else; Adam blames Eve and then Eve blames the serpent (Genesis 3:12-13). 

Are we willing to embark on the sometimes harrowing yet intentional path of some kind self-discipline or challenge to change things for the better? Are we willing to take a long, hard look at our own lives? If so, Jesus’ vulnerability in the wilderness points to the authentic quality and honesty in all our relationships.

We are called to be honest about our brokenness. Being vulnerable is not a weakness, it is a strength. We do not need to pretend our weaknesses away. Our suffering can be a great teacher, an opportunity for growth and wholeness.

Suffering, in the words of Douglas John Hall, “is necessary to evoke the human potential for nobility, for love, for wisdom, and for depth of authenticity of being. A pain-free life would be a life-less life.” (2)

Lent is not a path to ultimate self-annihilation. Ultimately, Lent is not a downer. Because suffering can point to a new beginning. Followers of Jesus are not a people who suffer the pains of life without faith and hope.

This hope ought to give us endurance for the journey ahead. There will be temptations. There will be setbacks. There will be disappointments on the journey of becoming more authentic, more vulnerable, more open, more honest.

But God will not give up on us. Every moment we have is pregnant with the grace of God, even should we like Adam and Eve not always make the best decisions and then have to live with the consequences. But there is always hope. Always another chance. Always a new beginning coming up over the horizon of our lives.

We have every moment given to us — maybe not 930 years. But our faith can assure us that God will never, ever, give up on granting us mercy and forgiveness, no matter the many bad decisions we make over the course of our lives.

Our desert, Lenten journey, may seem long and arduous. But longer, still, is the span of time it takes for God to keep faith in us.

 

1 – cited in Terence E. Fretheim, “Is Genesis 3 a Fall Story?” in Word & World (Volume 14, Number 2, Luther Seminary, St Paul Minnesota, 1994), p.147
2 – Douglas John Hall, “God and Human Suffering: An exercise in the Theology of the Cross” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p.62-63

Laetere!

“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:24)

Lent is a journey through the desert. It is dry. And there’s little for comfort. Let alone luxury. It is a time of self-reflection, of letting go, of pacing ourselves through disciplines that humble us and peel back the layers of our habits and beliefs.

The famine provides a turning point in the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). His wasteful, dissolute, squandering of money — his lifestyle — is brought to an end by a famine, probably caused by drought.

Up to this point the Prodigal continued down the course of his delusion, believing he could be happy by pursuing this lifestyle, even when he runs out of money. His mistaken and self-indulgent strategy for fulfillment is derailed and heightened by the onset of famine.

After the famine grips the land and its people, he has to work among the pigs. He might have had to do this anyway. But because of the famine, nobody can even spare change to throw at his feet when he begs. This famine-ridden reality leads him to a place of brutal honesty. And he falls on his knees in confession.

This is not the only time a famine in the land affects the course of the history of the relationship between God and God’s people. The famine illustrates a pervasive motif in the bible: The famine acts as a significant motivator for people to move in their lives, physically and in their hearts as well (1).

Famine is the reason that Abraham and Sarah leave Ur for Canaan. Once they are there, famine is also the reason they leave again for Egypt (Genesis 12). Famine appears twenty times just in Genesis (eg, Genesis 26). The story of Joseph and Jacob revolve around the reality of the famine.

Famines represent those times in life when forces beyond our control dictate the course of our lives. Famines remind us that we are not the masters of our own destiny. Famines expose the truth of our own poverty. Famines make us honest for our own need. Famines cause us to reach out for help, and let go of our pretence of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

Famines will lead us to confession – honesty about what we need, what we lack, what limits us. Famines will move us to depend on something/someone beyond our capabilities and industry. Famines will bring us to our knees at the throne of God’s grace (Hebrews 4:16).

Maybe that’s why famines happened a lot in scripture.

The famine, otherwise not usually considered an important part of the parable of the Prodigal Son, serves to underscore the central message of Scripture: It’s not about us, it’s about God. We can act irresponsibly like the Prodigal, or we can follow all the rules of life and be good citizens and good people like the resentful elder son — this has no bearing on the freedom of God to dispense grace as God will.

It almost doesn’t feel fair, what happens. We can sympathize with the elder son, I suspect. Yet, whenever we feel the pangs of ‘It’s not fair’ — how much of that objection, when we are honest, is based on the presumption of our own righteousness, our own ability, our own deserving, our own industry to earn our rightful place?

There’s this delightful short book by Francois Lelord, which was translated into English and adapted for the big screen starring Simon Pegg, called “Hector and the Search for Happiness.” Simon Pegg’s character, Hector, goes on a journey around the world to observe what makes people happy. As he travels to distant places and meets different people, he writes down in his little notebook a short list of what makes people happy.

His very first observation — the first lesson he learns about what makes people happy — is: “Making comparisons can spoil your happiness” (2). Is that not what the elder son does — compare his righteousness to the wayward squandering of his younger brother? He is justifying himself, based on the less-than-stellar behaviour of another.

“Making comparisons can spoil your happiness.” This is Gospel truth, in fact. Remember the other parable Jesus tells of the workers in the vineyard? The ones who work the shortest amount of time earn the same wage as the ones who worked from early morning (Matthew 20:1-16). The ones who worked all day grumble that they made the same wage as those who only worked a short time, even though the early workers had already agreed on the rate they would receive.

Another characteristic of people who are not grateful for what they have, and who continually make comparisons: Resentful people do not feel like a party. People who are continually comparing themselves to others who have more, keep themselves from enjoying life and having fun from time to time. People who are judging others and pointing fingers, will not easily relax and accept the good in them and others.

The Father begs the resentful elder son to join the party he has thrown for the Prodigal. What the Father reminds the elder son are words from God to us and the church today: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” In other words, rather than incessantly compare our lot with others, focus on the gifts, the resources, the passions, the energy, the interests we have already been given to you. And we have been given much, indeed!

We have musical gifts in this congregation, and talented singers and instrumentalists. We have people passionate about social justice, and caring for the poor nearby. We are well-read, educated and earnest in our pursuit of truth. We are warm-hearted and dedicated to one another.

Moreover, we have an abundance of material resources. Yes, we do! A building assessment was done last year. And the replacement cost of this small building alone was valued at $1 million. With the property around the building, the value is much higher.

We have been given so much in this community alone. Imagine the potential human and material resource we have here for the purpose of God’s mission in the world today!

Accept with thanksgiving what we have been given. And, when it comes to what others have received, rejoice in God’s generosity and grace towards them. After all, God is free to do what God will.

And we are free, to do what we must do. Whether we make mistakes, or do good. Whether we are led astray for a time in our lives, or we keep the faith through thick and thin — God says, “You count! You are beloved! I am with you always. I will go the distance for you. I will wait for you — no matter what you have done, good or bad. You count!” So much so, it’s worth throwing a party — an extravagant party.

There is cause to celebrate. And be happy! For God is good, and God’s love endures forever.


(1) Lutherans Connect, Lenten devotional, Day 6 — found at lc2016lentdevotional.blogspot.ca
(2)Francois Lelord, “Hector and the Search for Happiness”, Penguin Books, Toronto, 2010, p.19