© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC, All Rights Reserved
A man is said to have once asked a wise Rabbi why humanity seems so incapable of seeing the face of God. “Why can’t humanity reach high enough to see the Divine?” he asked. The Rabbi replied that it is not in looking to the high places that we find God, it is in stooping over, kneeling and looking down that we find Holiness.
Interestingly, Henry David Thoreau in his famous work Walden, commented that as he looked down on an ant climbing through a patch of dirt, it seemed so small and insignificant. And yet, he soon realized, it was he and all humanity that is truly small. “Let us,” he wrote, “spend one day as deliberately as Nature…Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called life. If the bell rings, why should we run? Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom with rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, ‘This is!’”
For the Rabbi in our story and for Thoreau, absolute Truth or God is found in low and humble places. It is in the dirt and muck of life. I daresay if Jesus were to walk the earth today, he likely would not seek God in the great Cathedrals of Europe or the multi-million dollar edifices some religions construct. He would not even be found in our small storefront space here in Over-the-Rhine. If he were not outdoors as we are or on some mountainside, he’d be in a homeless shelter, a run-down clinic in Africa tending to AIDS patients or some broken shack of a church in Haiti where people cling to faith as the only solace they can find. And with him would be Abraham, Mohammad, Buddha, Krishna, Confucious and other prophets as well.
Genuine spirituality, I believe, does not call attention to itself or even pretend in grandiose fashion to honor the Divine. Indeed, I believe God is in the manure of our universe – the earthy, dirty, elemental but very real stuff of life.
As we continue our series this month looking to finding Holiness in the essential elements of life – air, earth and water, today we will look down, to where our feet trod. And this is a perfect place to be for such a message. What greater church building could we claim then the grass, the trees, the weeds and the dirt of all creation? If the air we breathe and sense all around us is, as we discussed last week, the pathway to our souls and the very essence of what defines us as individuals, then I propose that the earth – the soil and substance of our universe – is both a metaphor and the reality of what we are as living creatures. To put it bluntly, we are physically the manure, the dirt and the substance of all existence. We are it and it is us. If that is so, what does that say about how we see ourselves as creatures of this planet and what does that say about how we should act and behave in life?
If we look down at the dirt all around us and chemically analyzed it, we would find that soil is largely comprised of two parts – stabilized organic matter and active organic matter. One part is mature soil, as some would call it, which has been broken down to its basic elemental components and which can be absorbed and used by only the most primitive of organisms like fungi or bacteria. The other is active organic material which is still in the process of being digested, eaten or broken down by higher forms of life. The soil at our feet – and the stuff throughout the universe – is chemically mostly carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, silicon, iron and a few other compounds.
If we now turn to look at our hands, and chemically analyze our own bodies, we would find much the same but in slightly different percentages. Our body mass is 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, followed in smaller amounts by nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and other compounds. The stuff of us is pretty much the same as the stuff of the dirt at our feet. Indeed, we may well be walking upon the stuff of some far distant ancestors just as our great, great, great grandchildren may well one day walk upon us or use us to fill a pot to grow a flower.
Walt Whitman, a favorite poet of mine and one whom I often reference, wrote in his famous anthology, Leaves of Grass, “A child said ‘What is the grass?’ fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than she….It seems to me, though, the beautiful uncut hair of graves. Tenderly will I use you curling grass, It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men, It may be if I had known them I would have loved them, It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps…The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it…All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
In his beautiful free verse form of poetry, Whitman evoked not only the essential American ethic of human equality, he wrote of a spirituality of life and existence. To celebrate nature is to celebrate oneself. He spoke of the earth as a voluptuous, blossomed, vitreous and limpid lover that simply waits for our embrace and union with it. As he wrote in explicitly sensual terms for a man of his time, Whitman called his readers to see all of creation as engaged in a dance of lovemaking – seeking, yearning, and lusting for communion and oneness.
And Thoreau, as a Romantic writer himself, wrote in much the same manner. “The indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature — of sun and wind and rain, of summer and winter — such health, such cheer, they afford forever! and such sympathy have they ever with our race, that all Nature would be affected, Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?”
This vision of nature, earth and humanity speaks of a wonderful theology to which we can all find common ground. Whoever or whatever made this universe, we know it is all made from the same source of materials. And if this is the case, that I am nothing but an animated conglomeration of ancient dirt, I believe such a notion must speak to me of how I should see myself and my place in the totality of existence. I am insignificant. I am but a sprout of grass, a twig, a mote of dust drifting across a vast and void realm of space. Far be it for me to claim some lofty titles such as Pastor, American, son, partner, father, person of insight. If I am the stuff of earthy dirt, I am everything and I am nothing.
Several commentators have observed that the common language root of the word ‘humus’ – or dirt – shares that root with the word ‘humility.’ And this idea calls us back to how I began today’s message – to the notion that we must look down and not up to find the Divine One. We are to adopt an attitude of humus, of dirt, of humility in order to see, feel and be at one with that which is Holy and spiritual.
It is no accident that in his parable of the soils, Jesus made a similar point. He said, “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear…the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it.”
I believe the words which Jesus called us to hear and practice are that our hearts must be full of good soil – of rich, dark, organic, earthy stuff. In that sense, we are to act and live humbly in tune with the ethic of the Divine One – to love, serve and think beyond ourselves. Such humility does not call us to debase ourselves or live with a false sense of modesty. It calls us to understand the essential us, warts and all, and our relative role in the grand scheme of existence – which is no more important than the ants that walk across the ground. Such was the message of Jesus, Whitman and Thoreau. Humble thyself in the face of God – the earth, the soil, the stuff of life – for indeed you are it!
There is an Alcoholics Anonymous phrase that says, “The challenge is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less often.” Even more to the point, there is a story of a famous violinist who was asked how she could play so brilliantly. This violinist replied that the task was not difficult at all. “I have beautiful music to play, a splendid instrument and a splendid bow. All I have to do is bring them together and get out of the way!”
Is that not the challenge for all of us? To simply get out of the way of life and simply exist as we are – no more than a conglomeration of dirt? In this message today, it is not I that speaks to you – oh great and wonderful me! It is the ideas and thoughts I have collected and spoken to you. Do not look to me! Look to the words and concepts for anything of use or value. Might we all live in the same manner?
Genuine humility calls us to see ourselves as we truly are – and that is, as I have said, simply dirt. Humility is to think of ourselves as part of a whole where our actions, thoughts and opinions are no more important than those of others. To cultivate this good humus or soil in us, we must lose the sense of self – we must let go of the ego. That was the ethic of Jesus and of Buddha. The rich are not greater than the poor. The white person no more beautiful than the black, brown or yellow. The strong no better than the weak. The gay man and woman no different than the heterosexual. The self-important manner by which we often think and act is actually quite comical – to strut across the stage of life, puffing out our chests and making this demand or that arrogant opinion when, in fact, we are like the foolish tyrant who will end up on the ash heap of life, the same as everyone else. You, me, all of us – we are simply manure – as great and as humble as that is.
This spirituality of nature and of earth is not intended to demean humanity. It is simply to remind us that we are like Walt Whitman observed – leaves of grass sprouting here, withering and dying there, eaten for a time and flowering for another. For me, I must reject the false theology that claims humanity is the apex of creation, intended as God’s great and final masterpiece. How can I claim such status when I exist as I am for only a time and then I will exist as something else – a puff of air blowing across the continent, a furrow of soil ready to nourish a field of wheat, or a stream of water cascading down some rocky cliff? For me, that is the resurrection I know and observe and find by reason – not the one created by some ancient writer to address pre-scientific superstition. To exist as air, earth or water was my past and that is my splendid destiny.
Dear friends, as we sit here in the midst of the great outdoors, this oasis in a dessert of man-made emptiness, let us not feel we are somehow removed and apart from the creation we see and hear. When we feel the great power of nature, I believe we sense similar powers inside of ourselves – the eternal forces of creation, birth, life, death and renewal. We sing the song of ourselves, we celebrate the stuff of life, the air and water and material of the universe. That which is all around us is Holy just as we are Holy – sacramental elements so beautiful and so wondrous. We have existed for millions of years and we will drift into an eternal future – changed in form but no less vital. We are the humble soil of far away galaxies called into human existence just for a time – to live, to laugh, to cry, to love…and most importantly, to serve.
I wish you all much peace and even more joy.