A God in the Dirt

One of the first places we meet the God revealed in Scripture is in a garden. The writer of Genesis records, in an anthropomorphism sure to awaken scorn from the philosopher or religious historian,

“Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen 3:8).

God, the Cosmos-Shaper, the High and Holy and All-Powerful Creator of Heaven and Earth, is also God, the Garden-Walker.

We are confronted at once in Scripture with the notion that He who is transcendent and other is also He who is near and familiar… and startlingly, involved. The Hebrew writers and prophets and poets understood this at the deepest possible level. Yes, the heavens, even the highest heavens, could not contain their God, and yet He was present and active among them as a Father with his children. “I will be your God and you will be my people” was the refrain that rang out at the heart of Israel’s worshipping life. This God was mixed up in all of life, present in all of life, which meant that all of life was implicated by his nearness. How we eat, how we drink, how we relate to the dirt under our feet and the walking clumps of God-breathed-dirt who live with us and next door to us… because this God dared to inhabit time and place with us, all of life was seen with eyes healed by his presence.

This God has dirt under his fingernails.

And, as if to seal the deal on this, the Gospel writers make the altogether unexpected and metaphysically outrageous claim that this God, who was already always present in the dirt, took our dusty frame and united it to himself, making our physical nature a permanent possession of his, dignifying it with glory unspeakable. “The Word” one of Jesus’ friends writes, “became flesh, and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory–glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

This God doesn’t just have dirt under his fingernails, he has united himself to the dirt.

As a pastor, it is my conviction that while most of us certainly believe this dogmatically, we have not come to a practical grasp of it, for the pervasive habit of our minds is to treat the warp and woof of our lives as a sort of Ichabod–glory-less, God-forsaken wastelands.  There are moments, to be sure, where we experience something of God–in the sacraments, while listening to stirring music, while in nature, etc–and most of us rest assured that we will meet God upon our death (that is, that at least death will be a place of communion) or when the crap hits the fan.. but the sad reality for most of us is that our lives are left untouched by the conviction that communion with God may be known in the dirt.

And our lives are the poorer for it.

Frederick Beuchner once wrote:

If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. (From Listening To Your Life)

What if Christ is calling us not out of our lives but into our lives as the places of presence, encounter, meaning?  Paul wrote in Philippians 1 that “To live is Christ.” I am afraid that we’ve so kitschified that verse that we fail to appreciate it’s power. Paul is contemplating the possibility of his own death, which for him will be an escape from his life, and yet in the middle of it he affirms that even while he certainly does desire to “depart and be with Christ, which is better by far”, what he knows of the God revealed in the Incarnate One is a God cannot resist making his dwelling NOT ONLY on the far side of death BUT ALSO AND PERHAPS MORE IMPORTANTLY on the NEAR side of death–this life!  So that for Paul to live, to really live in his life… this is Christ.

God has dirt under his fingernails.  Our dirt.  The substance of our lives in all of their strangeness and boredom and disconnectedness is the material out of which God is fashioning a habitation where his own unique glory may be revealed.

A few years back I decided to take a 24 hour solitude retreat. I jumped in my car in the early morning and drove up to a lovely little retreat center about an hour from my house. It was the first time in all of my years of following Jesus that I had done such a thing, and I was excited to begin. No phone ringing, no emails, no kids crying and screaming, no taking out the trash, no distractions. Just me and God.

The retreat started out well enough. I prayed for awhile. Then I journaled. Then I went for a walk to take in the beauty of the Creation. I even walked a prayer labyrinth (I am sure I did it wrong). After all of that I went back to my little room.

To my great surprise (and dismay), only a couple hours had passed.

Mind you, for years I had formed a self-understanding around the idea that I was really a monastic sort of fella who just so happened to have a mountain of responsibilities that kept me from pursuing this, the deepest of my callings. I had looked forward to this retreat for quite some time. For here, at last, my true nature would find its home.

And after a few hours, I was bored… and quite to my shock – homesick.

I decided to go back to my room and sit with that feeling for awhile, feeling somewhat guilty that I was not totally dialed into the experience. After sitting with it for some time, suddenly a feeling washed over me–a feeling that my homesickness was actually an indication of the way in which my monastic side was meant to be really lived out. I opened my journal and wrote:

It is my belief and desire that holiness should be attained in the tumble of the ordinary. That the real arena of my sanctification is with Mandi and Bella, Ethan, Gabe and Liam. That godliness is forged in blessing and cleaning up meals, and in changing diapers with joy and in hugging my friends and saying hello to neighbors.

 

I believe that deep union, an emptying of the soul into God is possible, not just in the cloister but also and perhaps especially in the home and marketplace. In the familiar sights, sounds, smells, and routines, a radical glory can be made manifest.

That is still and will always be my conviction. We do not need to go somewhere else to attain God. We do not need to radically change our situation. It is all there for us. God is all there for us–right where we are. It is this insight that allowed Paul, writing to a group of people wrestling with whether a change in their station in life would allow them to draw closer to God, to say,

Only let each person live the life the Lord has assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches (1 Cor 7:17).

I wish I could help every person, certainly every follower of Christ, see this. Too many of us are blind to the hidden glory of the lives that God has carved out for us. We fail to glimpse the ways in which Christ is calling us not at the boundaries or at the fringes of our lives out of our lives but at the very center of our lives, into a unique communion with him manifested as love and service to others… right smack in the middle of all the sin-stained, wonderful, regret-filled, hilarious mess. He is there. He is there. He is there… working out his salvation through it all.

Writing from prison for his involvement in a plot to overthrow Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:

“It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre…God is beyond in the midst of our life” (Letters and Papers from Prison, 282).

The Transcendent One, for Bonhoeffer, makes his transcendence manifest in the substance of human life, not the fringes. That is where his “Wholly Other”-ness is tasted and known, and where our lives are dignified beyond all reckoning.

God has dirt under his fingernails. Our dirt. May we learn to love him and live with him in the dirt.

Amen.

Reflections on the Eugene Peterson Vocation Event

Last night, 175 folks from all over Denver came together to listen to The Pastor, Eugene Peterson, open his heart and talk with us about faith and vocation.

The event, hosted by Denver United Church and sponsored by Cherry Creek Presbyterian, Littleton Christian, Bloom, and New Life Church, in collaboration with The Denver Institute for Faith and Work, was intended to spark critical dialogue around the questions of what role human work has to play in the plan of God, and how we understand what kinds of work God may be calling us to.  Back in March, a group of four of us went out to Flathead Lake, Montana, to interview Eugene at his hope about these important questions.  We edited our footage into four movements (which will be available here shortly) and shaped the event last night around those four movements:

  • The role of work in the plan of God
  • How we discover our vocation
  • Challenges to vocation
  • A charge from Eugene to us

The whole event, from my perspective, was a smashing success.  I thought the clips of Eugene were fabulous, the pastoral reflections poignant, and the structure of the night wonderfully conducive to absorbing the content.  Some highlights for me:

I was struck at how often Eugene kept taking the conversation back to Creation and Sabbath-keeping when we wanted to make it about work.  When I was conducting the interview, in all honesty, at first I was a bit stressed out.  “Why the heck does he keep talking about Sabbath and birds and mountains and stuff?!” I would think, “He knows we’re here to talk about work right??!”  But eventually I started to see that his insistence on Sabbath and Creation was quite intentional.  Sabbath and a deep appreciation for and attention to the Creation help us order our lives in such a way that productive, God-honoring, people-helping work is not our god, but the natural outflow of living in a way that is deeply congruent with the “grain of the universe.”  To worship rightly is to begin to work rightly.  I loved that.

I was struck at Eugene’s comment that “there is no human work that is not capable of being vocationalized.”  I remember being struck at that phrase when I first interviewed Eugene and it has lingered with me ever since, both because he made up an awesome word on the spot 🙂 (and I LOVE good words) but more importantly because of the possibility such a statement opens up for us, for it puts us in a position to receive the work in front of us as a gift from the hand of God through which we can both develop our faculties and also serve our neighbor.  And to do such work well, with great love, even if we feel like it doesn’t “fit” us perfectly or isn’t our ideal job, is to find our way into a deeper sort of fulfillment–the fulfillment of having tasted and touched a profound holiness.  Eugene’s story about his dad sticks out here–a butcher his entire life, Eugene’s dad worked so hard and so well that Eugene thought his dad loved being a butcher.  At the end of his dad’s life he discovered that he never really liked it.  And yet… he found the fulfillment of vocational holiness in it.  That insight is just SO important, because it helps us see that…

According to Eugene, no one is hopeless with this business.  Our “American Dream” culture creates in us two things which are highly destructive to ordinary vocational holiness:

  1. A sense of entitlement that, all things being equal, we should be able to find “the perfect job”
  2. A false belief that once we find that perfect job, it will be perfectly fulfilling for us

But, as Eugene aptly pointed out, most Christians down through history have found themselves in less-than-ideal situations.  He made reference primarily to American slavery, saying, in essence, “These people were in perfectly non-ideal situations.  And yet, they found their way into the hidden heart of holiness.  They worked and played.  They sang and told stories.  They raised their children.  God was in it…”

This, I think, is a PROFOUND hope, for if we’ll eat Eugene’s little scroll, as bitter as it might taste in our mouths, it will be substance in our stomachs and strength for our bones.  MOST of us are in a position where our work does not totally “fit” us, and try as we might in our lives, we may never attain perfect “fittedness” between our sense of who we are and our situation.  No matter.  Hear me–IT DOESN’T MATTER.  If we’ll receive the work with gratitude and give ourselves fully to it and to the totality of our lives, we’ll know a rare satisfaction–a satisfaction that, as the wise writer of Ecclesiastes says, comes from the hand of God:

24 A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?  (Eccl 2)

There was, of course, TONS more.  I hope you’ll check into Denver Institute’s website often in the coming days to enjoy the videos yourself (and watch out for some extra cuts we’re going to throw up on YouTube later this year).

I would be remiss, of course, if I didn’t mention some people and organizations who made all this possible:

First, a huge thanks to the Made To Flourish Pastors Network for the generous grant that made this event possible.  I’m grateful to be involved with their fine work and pray God’s richest blessings back to them for their grace and generosity.

Second, a huge thanks to the many volunteers who gave of their time and effort to make last night happen.  People like you make the world go ’round.  Thanks for what you do.

Lastly, I can’t even begin to express my gratitude for the leadership and initiative of Jeff Haanen, the founder and president of the Denver Institute, who worked tirelessly with a bunch of distracted and busy pastors to make this important event happen.  Jeff – you are loved and your work is a huge blessing to this city.  Keep it up.

Grace and peace, as always.