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

Rooted in the earth, rising to the sun

Recently I have been reading about people’s experiences on the Camino de Santiago — the eight hundred kilometre walking pilgrimage through northern Spain. This walk has become more and more popular among Christians of all stripes over the past couple of decades. It seems Christians around the globe are finding the pilgrimage a good place to work through personal issues, find focus in life again and seek re-connection with God, the world and themselves.

This past week I met with one such pilgrim from Ottawa who goes at least once a year to walk some part of the Camino; in fact he is leaving today for Barcelona. I sought his experienced advice for some practical considerations for the trek. His first rule of thumb: Pack only ten percent of your body weight. For me, that would mean no more that 20 pounds in my back pack — of all that I would need for the thirty to forty day hike. Twenty pounds is not a lot!

His second rule of thumb: What you wear on your back, put only one in your pack. That’s all. For example, if you are wearing a t-shirt, pack only one other t-shirt in your back-pack. If you are wearing a pair of shorts, pack only one other pair of shorts. And so on.

He laughed when he told me that about four days in — some one hundred kilometres into the journey — you find bins and bins full of personal items people left behind. These pilgrims had realized, thankfully sooner than later, that they were simply carrying too much — stuff they didn’t really need (extra shirts, pants, sweaters, books, jackets, bed mats, blankets, etc.). A final rule of thumb from my friend: If you do take something extra, then you need to have a good reason for it besides, “I might need it.”

This discipline reflects the quality of being able to let go. It can be described as a total self-surrendering, a giving up. The term “Kenosis” has been used among Christians throughout the ages to connote this sense of releasing that which we normally feel we need to hold onto tightly.

Fourteenth century German theologian Meister Eckhart said, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.” (1) In our consumer culture, religion and spirituality have very often become a matter of addition: earning points with God, attaining enlightenment, producing moral behaviour. In the ‘prosperity gospel’ so popular in North America, we often hear the message that Jesus approves of you when your material and financial wealth increases; the more you have, the more in favour you are in God’s eyes.

Yet authentic, Christian faith is not about getting, attaining, achieving, performing or succeeding. The solution is not just “work harder” or “get more” of something. Our culture and economy, indeed, is based on more and more. Whereas true faith suggests: less is more. Martin Luther’s theology of Justification by Grace through Faith suggests the very same: We cannot by our own efforts achieve anything worthy of God.

So, stop trying. In fact, start doing the opposite: Let go of your pretence to manage your life according to the creed: Bigger and More is Better. Let go of a paralyzing negative body image. Let go of the inner talk that is putting yourself down, that tells you you are no good. Let go of attitudes of hatred against people who are different from you. Let go of those material aspirations that tease you into a false sense of security. Let go of being paralyzed by fear.

Instead, focus on what is essential. Appreciate that you already have enough, all that you need. When Jesus gives instruction in the Gospel text for today (Luke 14:25-33) he is travelling out on a public road, on his pilgrimage to the Cross. Remember, ever since Luke 9:51, he is already on the way to Jerusalem, his final destination. When Jesus is walking towards his death and resurrection in Jerusalem, he offers what sounds rather harsh to our ears. What is called-for here is a ‘single-mindedness’ that is needed when you travel with Jesus.

Discipleship is about being single-minded about the purpose, the goal and the mission of Jesus in the world. It is about prioritizing what is important to life in the public realm where culture, consumerism and a whole host of other distractions can keep us from this focus.

This single-mindedness demands that we think ahead, and anticipate the cost of our journey. Setting out on the road to follow Jesus requires at least a little forethought and reflection. This journey is not a light matter. Sit down and think about it a bit. Reflect.

There is not only the blessing of the assets promised, but there are the liabilities, too. Discipleship is not just one more hobby or extra-curricular activity to add to a well-rounded, prosperous life. It is not merely “a matter of pure passion and abandon” (2).

Followers of Jesus should count the cost, but also realize this is not just about counting the cost of a church building renovation or a church fund-raising project. The cost of discipleship, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer first coined the term, is about prioritizing our whole lives, not just our “church” or “Sunday morning” lives.

If someone told me a year ago that I would spend four days cut off from civilization, in the bush without cell-phone service, hauling all my food and everything I need to survive in a canoe that I would have to navigate through rapids and rocky, snake-infested portage routes — I would say they were dreaming … or talking about someone else.

Well, that’s precisely what I did last week, along the French River Provincial Park between North Bay and Sudbury. Fortunately I was not alone; I journeyed with a more experienced wilderness survivalist. 

We ended up taking more than we needed. We could have packed less food, and less clothing. The exercise, nevertheless, was confident-building for me in realizing I really don’t need that much stuff.

Jesus says, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

To live life well, and faithfully, is to recognize one’s place in the world, and not to over-reach, over-extend, to be someone you are not — all on the basis of wanting more and more, bigger and better. To live faithfully, we are called to examine our dependencies, count the cost of it all, focus on what is important, and then make room in our lives for what is important by letting go.

A sojourn into the wilderness may indeed by the antidote to visions of self-aggrandizement embedded in the prosperity gospel message. Try doing without, for some time, what you may have taken for granted for too long. Try doing without what you always have believed you needed in order to live. Try Letting go. Releasing. Forgiving. 

This is not about doing away with personal boundaries. Letting go is not about condoning injustice or cruelty. Kenosis/letting go is not about being blind optimists, repressing or denying or not caring, or ‘giving up’ in frustration.

Forgiveness is a good example of letting go of the misery caused by holding on to the pain of resentment or holding a grudge. This kind of letting go brings a positivity that is based in honest struggle and prayer born out of compassion and love for self, the other, and God. The end result is a freedom and peace that cannot ever be realized through a program of simply working harder or getting more.

The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote about the contrast between the law of gravity and the rising of the trees. He writes about the gift of letting go into a place of trust: Trusting that the gift in you is enough. So that you can rise up, rooted like trees: 

How surely gravity’s law,

strong as an ocean current,

takes hold of even the smallest thing

and pulls it toward the heart of the world.


Each thing —

each stone, blossom, child —

is held in place.

Only we, in our arrogance,

push out beyond what we each belong to

for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered

to earth’s intelligence

we could rise up rooted, like trees


Instead we entangle ourselves

in knots of our own making

and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again

to learn from the things,

because they are in God’s heart;

they have never left God.

This is what the things can teach us:

to fall,

patiently to trust our heaviness.

Even a bird has to do that

before he can fly. (3)

In the poetry of scripture, the Psalmist describes beautifully the blessing we are, created in the image of God — so “wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). God would know intimately each part of our lives only if we were valuable to God and to the rest of creation. Otherwise, why would God care?

In other words, we are and have everything we need to enjoy and live to our fullest potential. We are beautiful. We don’t have to strive and strive to become someone we are not. We don’t have to ‘add’ anything to our lives to be well. In fact, when we have the courage to risk letting go, and “fall”, as Rilke poetically expresses, trusting in our “heaviness”, we will find a freedom and peace that will be the joy of all creation, and the glory of God.

We will live our lives at the same time rooted in the earth, and rising to the sun.

(1) Translated by J. Clark & J. Skinner, “Meister Eckhart: Selected Treatises & Sermons Translated from Latin and German with an Introduction and Notes”, Faber & Faber: 1958, p.194

(2) David Schnasa Jacobsen, Commentary on Luke 14:25-33 in “WorkingPreacher.org”, 2016

(3) Rainer Maria Rilke, “Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God” translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Riverhead Books: 1996, p.116-117; cited with permission in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation for August 28, 2016

Hold the hot sauce

I heard about a recent episode of “Brain Games” on the National Geographic Channel, where a social experiment was conducted to measure compassion. The experiment was to be conducted three times with the same group of people. And participants were to be paid separately upon the successful completion of each stage of the experiment.

For the first round, the subjects were asked to sign in at a reception desk, then enter through a closed door into a small room and sit at a counter. In front of the counter was a window that they were told was a two-way mirror; anyone looking through from the other side couldn’t see them, but they could see who was on the other side.

On the counter in front of the subjects was a tray containing a small bowl of chilli, and three bottles of hot sauce, labelled from left to right: “Mild,” “Medium”, and “DEATH!!”

The three were instructed to season their bowl of chilli with their choice of hot sauce. The seasoned chilli would then be given to another subject sitting opposite them on the other side of the glass, who would then have to eat all three bowls of chilli. Because here’s the catch:

The person receiving the bowl of seasoned chilli would have to finish the bowls if he or she were to be paid for that stage of the experiment. If they couldn’t eat all the bowls, everyone would leave empty-handed for that stage.

As you can imagine, for the first time, the group came in and dropped a few drops of the mild sauce into the bowl, and proceeded to watch the other guy eat the chilli. Easy! These people were nice! Or probably just motivated by getting paid, right?

But for the second round, the experiment changed a bit: Between the time the test subjects registered and got to the counter with the choice of hot sauce, they were hassled. A big, strong man walked through the room, head buried in his phone, and practically walked through each one of them. Not only that, he then blamed them! “Watch it, buddy!” “Two lanes!!!” he said rudely.

The disturbed, disrupted, subjects entered the room and followed the instructions to heat the chilli. But not before looking through the glass and seeing ‘mr.big and rude’ sitting there! He was going to have to eat their seasoned chilli, or suffer the consequences – no paycheque!

No one chose “mild.” At least one grinned wickedly as he poured “DEATH” on the chilli. They were getting their revenge. None of them were showing any compassion whatsoever. They didn’t care about getting paid. No one did.

In the third and final round of the experiment, ‘mr.big and rude’ did his thing again. This time he upped the ante with personally offensive comments aimed individually at the subjects waiting in the reception room.

But between the offensive words and the hot sauce, the instructor welcomed kindly each subject with a smile and a compliment. Each was offered a glass of water. And the instructor asked if they were comfortable and ready to begin.

When ready, the man they might have wanted to burn entered the room before them. What sauce do you think they chose? Most chose the ‘medium’ hot sauce. It seems the main difference this time was accounted for by the instructor’s insertion of compassion into the experiment. This compassion tempered, if just a little, their desire for revenge.

A smile, a glass of water, and a compliment. Small and seemingly insignificant acts make a difference, either way. Like a contagion, our behaviour affects the lives of others with whom we come into contact. Even a random act of kindness can breed more compassion in the world.

I suspect when we read a text from the bible like Saint Paul’s in his letter to the Philippians, our first thoughts are heaven-bound. He writes, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (chapter 1, v.21). ‘Dying is gain’, in other words, means ‘heaven’.

We would be like the hungry Israelites wandering through the desert but motivated solely by the goal of the “Promised Land”. The Christian life, therefore, would have very little to do with the challenges of the world in which we live. Leave that for the politicians and social workers, right? “Ours is a heavenly kingdom!”

You’ve heard the argument, I am sure: When it comes to caring for suffering people, working for justice for all, tending to our fragile environment — these things are not a priority because we’re in the business of ‘saving souls’ for ‘heaven’ nothing more nothing less. The assurance of our salvation in Christ can lead us very easily into a mistaken disengagement with the world. This echoes the gnostic heresy from the early centuries, whereby ‘spiritual’ folk held a contempt and disregard for anything ‘in the flesh’.

“I am just going to hide in my corner, here, ignoring the plight of others. As long as I can eek out a comfortable existence for myself and people I want to love, then who cares about everyone else. I don’t want to bother because I am scared. And I am going to heaven, anyway. What’s the point of it all?”

Well, the point is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is very much about living in the world, faithfully. While the Israelites lived in the hope of arriving at the Promised Land, God did not ignore their plight, and sent them food and water (Exodus 16:2-15).

The second half of the first chapter to the Philippian church is all about how to live with one another in this world, not the next. There’s no mention at all of heaven in the first chapter after Paul decides to “remain in the flesh … for you” (v.24). Rather, Paul emphasizes: “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (v.27) and calls the church to live in harmony with one another, in order to bear faithful witness to the world.

Especially when I meet with people in the second half of their life, the subject of our conversation often revolves around the purpose of their lives. They may have come through a difficult time, survived a risky operation, experienced a miracle of healing, or simply lived a very long life — and they wonder why God still keeps them around despite their ill health or age or whatever limitations they face.

And then I think of Paul’s message that, even though he suffers, he doesn’t give up because this world and the people in it matter. I think of Moses and the Israelites in the desert, wandering, hungry, complaining — and they don’t give up, because this world and the people in it matter. I think of Jesus who while suffering death on the cross still prayed that God would forgive the world (Luke 23:34). He doesn’t give up, right to his tortured end, because this life on earth matters.

When, like in the ‘Brain Game’ experiment, a focus and unity of active love towards others — however small the action — can make a difference in world, then our life has a great purpose.

What’s the point of it all? The purpose of our lives is to show love to others, and our behaviour affects the world in ways we can’t always measure or see right away. But affect it, it does! Even in the midst of our suffering. Even though it isn’t easy.

When the 30-year-old rock group U2 partnered with Apple they did something never before done: A couple of weeks ago U2 released their new album free of charge, if you have an iTunes account. Whether or not you wanted this new album, it was automatically downloaded into your playlist.

At first, as you can imagine, the reaction was mildly positive. Fans say the album is ok to good. And, hey, it was free! But the backlash has escalated after the first week of its release. Why? The last time U2 released a new album a few years ago, five million people bought it. Now, there are some 500 million (half a billion) users of Apple’s iTunes. That means, assuming that approximately 5 million worldwide would have purchased this new album, that leaves some 450 million people who would very likely not really want it.

This action for most may very well be an imposition. It is an intrusion into someone’s personal collection of music, like an unwanted guest. And who likes that?

The Gospel of Jesus Christ can be disruptive to our lives. The Gospel of Jesus Christ may call us out of our comfort zones. Our baptism in Christ calls us out of our selfish kingdoms justified by a ‘heaven-centred’ theology that may minimize the importance of life on earth, in the flesh. The Gospel of Jesus Christ may intrude into our hearts, yes. God’s call may at first feel like an unwanted guest, and create an inconvenience for us.

But God places immeasurable value in this created world, including you. On that first Christmas when God entered this fleshly existence as a human being, God demonstrated just how much God loves what He creates. A perfect world? No. A sinful world, yes. But to a world where we are freed to love all, with small acts of kindness and generosity and grace, every day? —

This lovely intrusion makes life on earth a worthwhile adventure.

Thanks to Rev Margo Whittaker for the ‘Brain Games’ illustration