Holy Dirt

– contributed by the Rev. Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson, Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio

Texts: Psalm 19; Matthew 6:25-34

The heavens are telling the glory of God… — Psalm 19:1a

Look to the birds of the air… consider the lilies… — Matthew 6:26, 28

Wendell Berry is one of my favorite poets. In his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” he writes:

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come to the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Do you have such a place where you can go in stress-filled times? Or if you can’t go there physically then perhaps you go there in memory—a special place to “rest in the grace of the world” and, at least temporarily, to be free. I once asked the elders at a session meeting to share about such places in their lives. Mine is a place I haven’t been to in more than 20 years. It’s in the Jemez Mountains of Northern New Mexico, a high mountain meadow above 10,000 feet on the shoulder of Tschicoma Mountain, a sacred peak of the Pueblo people. The place is called Ciénega del Oso—“ciénega” for the marshy area at the base of the steep meadow and “del Oso” because, I imagine, it’s a place bears have been spotted. For me, it’s a sacred place of beauty and tranquility, a place of wholeness.

It is not uncommon for people to find God in such wild places, for they put us in touch with the earth. They remind us that we are earthlings—creatures of dirt and to dirt we will return. In such reminding we are given back our lives as God’s creations, beings molded by the hand of God. In telling his friends not to worry, Jesus points to the birds and to the lilies, not out of some sentimental view of “nature,” but because these creatures unselfconsciously take part in the life of God that is flowing forth through all creation. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” writes the poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins. John Buchanan, past senior pastor at Broad Street Presbyterian and now senior pastor at Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago tells of lying on his back looking up through the spreading branches of a tree and being stunned by the sight of leaves and branches and sky. He recalls some lines from the title poem of Wendell Berry’s A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems:

Great trees, outspreading and upright,
apostles of the living light.
Patient as stars, they hold in air
tier after tier a timbered choir,
stout beams upholding weightless grace
of song, a blessing on this place.

Some 3000 years ago, a gifted poet wrote, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” Creation, in all its deep, scientific mystery, in all its fearful wonder and majesty, in all its awesome power and beauty, reveals to us something of the nature of its creator. In creation we encounter and are encountered by God.

The poet or poets of the Psalms knew this. In Psalm 104, which we read last week in worship, God is the creator who stretches out the heavens… sets the earth on its foundations… makes springs gush forth for drinking and grass to grow for pasture… brings forth from the earth trees and mountains, the birds of the air, and wild animals… and provides food for people and wine to gladden the human heart. Throughout Genesis 1, God’s creation is proclaimed as good, and it is holy, for it contains within itself the essence of God’s loving, creative will. In Psalm 24 the poet sings, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all those who live in it.” It is not ours. We are not even ours. All things (and we) belong to God. We are guests, caretakers, gardeners of the holy soil. What power we have over the world—and we do like that scriptural word “dominion”—is to be the power of the One who has true dominion, power to be used creatively to invite and evoke, to nurture and sustain, to restore and replenish. As Wendell Berry has said, “We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy.”1

Berry uses the term “holy earth” when he writes at length about his concern about what is happening to the earth and the air and the water, especially at the hands of agribusinesses and industry. I want to translate that as “holy dirt”—getting it from the story in Exodus where Moses is told at the burning bush to remove his shoes for he is standing on holy ground. The Hebrew word here for ground is adamah, the very same word that is used in Genesis 2 when God takes the “dust of the ground” (the adamah) and forms the first human being (the adam, which is not actually a name Adam but a title, like the “dirt-being” or “earthling”). God breathes the breath of life into the adam made from the adamah. Literally, we are dirt that breathes—holy ground, holy dirt, holy us. From dirt we come, and to dirt we return. It’s all connected. And it’s all holy. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

“Holy dirt” also connects me back to Northern New Mexico. Use Google’s image search on “holy dirt” and you’ll find pictures of the adobe church shown on our bulletin cover—the Church of Our Lord of Esquipulas, commonly called the Santuario de Chimayo. It’s about 60 miles due east of La Cienega del Oso. You’ll also find pictures of a hole in the packed dirt floor of the church sanctuary containing holy dirt that is claimed to cause miraculous healings. Legend has it that the hole never empties of dirt. The faithful come and take it away in vials and film canisters, but every morning the hole replenishes itself. Far be it from me to claim the legend to be untrue, for in God’s eyes all dirt is holy dirt.

We modern human beings have lost much of our sense of connection with the earth. We have insulated ourselves from the effects of nature by technology, modern conveniences, global economics. Jesus knew he was living in a holy world, and when he wanted his followers to stop being so anxious about their lives (a bit of advice certainly relevant to any of us who spend time worrying so much about our lives) he pointed to the world of creation—the birds of the air, the lilies of the field. For us most lilies are greenhouse grown, and we buy frozen parts of chickens that have never seen the sky. Environmental activist and prophet Bill McKibben quips that when he goes to the supermarket and sees the vehicles in the parking lot, he can only conclude that the shoppers have driven through jungles, forded flooded streams, and climbed, steep rocky ridges to get there.2 Now those same drivers of huge SUVs find themselves worried sick by $4 per gallon gasoline.

Our connection with the earth is all too apparent in the adverse effects our actions have had and are having on the environment. I don’t need to go into all the statistics. We hear them every day. For decades, environmentalists have struggled to be taken seriously, and they are still muzzled at times by politics or derailed by economics. But we Americans, while making up only 4% of the world’s population consume one-quarter of its energy and produce one-quarter of its greenhouse gases. And as Bill McKibben says, “There is no more AWAY.” Remember when we thought we could throw things away. Well, “AWAY” is gone. Everything we discard as waste shows up somewhere, goes to someone else. Mercury goes up smoke stacks in coal-fired power plants and ends up in fish in the Scioto River. People flush a few leftover pills down the toilet, and we find antibiotics and tens of other drugs in drinking water. Breast milk is contaminated. Several times a year, just breathing the air is hazardous to your health.

It’s past time for people of faith to pay attention. Care of the earth is a moral issue, perhaps the most vital moral issue of our time. For too long much of so-called orthodox Christian theology has set us apart from the world. Since Augustine in the 4th-Century, we have been taught that people are born in original sin and that creation itself is fallen, the arena of human sin. Therefore neither people nor nature can be holy. Hence, we must be delivered from this world with all its temptations, delivered out of our bodies for that matter, into the realm of the spirit. We cannot be comfortable in the world, in nature, in our own humanness.

There is much of value in Augustine’s thought concerning the nature of human sin. But there are also long-standing traditions in the church that affirm the inherent goodness of creation and people, human goodness coming (at least potentially) from the image of God present in every newborn child. In recent times, Matthew Fox has written of “original blessing.” But the tradition goes back through Celtic Christianity that existed alongside the Church of Rome.

Celtic Christianity emphasizes the sacredness of nature and the intimate presence of God in all of daily life. Celtic crosses like the one we have on our communion table employ an interlacing tracery that symbolizes, not the fallen-ness of nature and humanity, but rather the interweaving of heaven and earth. Pelagius, a 4th-Century Celtic theologian who disputed with Augustine, proclaimed, “The face of God is in the face of every newborn infant.” This strand of thought continues through Bernard of Clairvaux and Julian of Norwich to St. Francis of Assisi, who wrote love poems to creation and the God of creation. We have one in our hymnal, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” which sings as well of the rushing wind and the clouds, the flowing water and the bright fire, the fertile earth and the growing flowers and fruits—let all of them God’s glory show! Alleluia!

In the late 1800s, Scottish scholar Alexander Carmichael collected Celtic songs and prayers from the remote islands off the west coast of Scotland. His Carmina Gadelica is filled with prayers celebrating the holy in all aspects of human life—from kindling a fire to milking a cow; from herding animals to sowing a field and weaving on a loom; prayers for hunting, reaping, waking, sleeping; for rising up, loving, birthing, and dying. Holy ground, holy dirt, holy us. The songs and prayers of the Iona Community today preserve and nurture this Celtic spirit.

As Christians, we need to reconnect with the earth. Jesus looked around, and everywhere he looked he saw the realm of God. When he wanted to convince his friends that God could be trusted with their very lives, he pointed to the world, saying, “Do not worry about your life… Look to the birds of the air… consider the lilies of the field…” In this way he assures them of God’s loving kindness. They can trust God with their living and with their dying.

Holy creation is their home. It is our home, everyone’s home. The holy dirt is our ground of being. We ourselves are holy dirt breathing the divine breath of life, and God’s realm is here among us, within us. So we need to do all we can—in faith, in life, in politics, in business—to love the earth, to honor it, to manage and protect it, so we may hand it on as home for our children and our children’s children’s children. We cannot escape our connections with the earth. As Wendell Berry warns, “To live we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully and reverently it is a sacrament. [But] when we do it ignorantly, greedily, and destructively, it is desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness and [condemn] others to [poverty] and want.”3 I’ll close with a Celtic prayer adapted from the worship of Iona Community. Please pray with me:

O God, you are above me, you are beneath.
You are in the air, you are in the earth.
You are beside me, you are within.
O God of heaven, you have made your home on earth
in the broken body of creation…
I am on your path, O God, you are on my way.
In the twistings of the road and in the currents of the river,
be with me by day, be with me by night.
Kindle within me a love for you in all things. Amen.4

_____________________________

1 In “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” Earth and Word, ed. by David Rhoads (Continuum, 2007, p. 52).

2 “The Comforting Whirllwind: God and the Environmental Crisis,” sermon delivered in Carlisle, MA, 3/18/2001.

3 Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land (North Point Press, 1983, p. 272ff.).

4 Adapted from Celtic Prayers from Iona, by J. Philip Newell (Paulist Press, 1997, pp. 28 & 44).

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