You can tell a pilgrim …

Before I took my first steps on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage a couple of years ago, I first had to choose my shell—the symbol for St James the Apostle. Along the roadways and paths of the 800-kilometre trek across the Iberian Peninsula in northern Spain you can tell a pilgrim by the shell they have attached to their backpacks.

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Wearing the shell attracted attention, often very positive. The group with whom I was walking came through a small suburb of the city of Guernica one Sunday morning. When we walked into the town square, we soon realized we were at the finish line of a marathon fundraiser for a local, special needs school.

There, some of the locals had set up large barbecues where they were grilling all sorts of meats for the marathon runners to enjoy after their race. We entered the square moments before the first runners crossed the finish line. But those preparing the barbecue called us over and without even asking our names or who we were offered us some of the delectable meats.

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When we expressed our gratitude, they asked us to say a prayer for them at the destination of our pilgrimage: the shrine in the city of Santiago, Spain—still some 700 kilometres away. I promised them I would.

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As you know, I didn’t make it to Santiago, falling ill to pneumonia and coming home early after only a couple of weeks on the trail. I remember struggling with my ‘failure’ to achieve my spiritual and physical goals. For one thing, I wasn’t able to offer a prayer in Santiago for those good people from Guernica who asked me to.

Was it worth it? Did my truncated pilgrimage do any good? Or, was the love and generosity those locals showed us and our receiving their gifts graciously, enough?

On Ash Wednesday, we begin a journey. And at the beginning of this journey, we are given a mark—not a shell, but the sign of the cross on our foreheads. It is a public act, a public ‘coming out’ if you will. By this mark the world will know we are Christians.

I hope you will wear your mark home tonight, wherever you go and whatever you still have to do—keep it visible. And see what happens. You might be invited into some meaningful, enriching conversations along the way. Some might even ask you to pray for them.

Go into the closet where no one can see you, instructs Jesus.[1]And pray to your Father in heaven who hears you, and will reward you for your faithful act. But even when we think our faith fails us? Or only for its visible success? Or only if we achieve our goals?

Arnold Lobel, author of his children’s book called The Frog and Toad Treasury describes the relationship of two friends and how they pass time together, explore the world together and support one another.

In one chapter, the action takes place in October. The leaves are falling. Frog decides to go to Toad’s house, secretly, and rake his leaves for him. “I will rake all the leaves that have fallen on his lawn. Toad will be surprised,” Frog says.

Now, his friend Toad has the same idea. Both manage to arrive at the home of the other unseen, ascertain that no one is home, rake the leaves, and return to their own houses unnoticed. On their respective ways home, however, a wind comes.

The wind blows and blows. The piles of leaves do too, so that the leaves are scattered everywhere. At the end of the day, neither Frog nor Toad realizes what the other has done, because both return home to leaves strewn across their yards. Both pledge to rake their own leaves the next day. Nevertheless, that night Frog and Toad are both happy when they each turned out the light and went to bed.[2]

What is more important: Our good intentions and motivation? Or, the outcome of our actions. Being authentic matters more than the results of our actions. The Gospel is not about the consequences, good or bad, of our good or bad intentions. The Gospel is not about achieving results and being rewarded for our good work, even with righteous motivation. In the end, the Gospel does not leave us stuck (and perplexed!) in self-centred piety, it points to what God is all about.

Normally when we hear the words of Jesus: “the kingdom of heaven is like …”[3]when someone does so and so, we think of the job we must do to enter that kingdom. And so, we imagine and want to be like that religious person, attending to ritual and prayer and acts of charity and justice our whole life long; the more we can do, the better.

Not that we don’t do anything or don’t keep trying. But we cannot ignore from these words of Jesus what Godis all about. I consider those scriptures about the kingdom of heaven as describing the character of God: A God who treasures each of us. And will stop at nothing to find us. And give up God’s very life on the cross—give up everything—in order to be with us and love us.

God is the one who sells all in order buy the field with the treasure buried in it. God is the merchant who sells everything in order to obtain the pearl of great value. Where God’s treasure is (God’s life, God’s mercy, God’s presence—in us), there God’s heart is also.

This is a fundamental message of Christianity. A message of One who comes into our life even in the messiness and despair of being human. Born a vulnerable baby to poor, teenage parents in a backwater town of Bethlehem. Living the life of a simple man from Nazareth, hanging out with fishers, tax collectors and prostitutes. Dying, even, the very humiliating death of a criminal, for all to see.

The message of Christianity is about a God who ‘sells it all’ in order to be with us, live in us and work in us, for the good.

God does all of this in order to know us, really know us. To love us. To grieve with us. To enjoy with us. To walk with us this often difficult journey that we undertake again this day.

And despite the difficult journey for which Lent is a metaphor, may the world in each step we take on the pilgrimage know we are Christians by our love.

And that’s enough.

 

[1]Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

[2]Cited in Lori Brandt Hale, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Vol 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.23-24.

[3]from his later parables (or stories) describing the reign of God, specifically Matthew 13:44-45.

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