Turning Toward the Dirt

We celebrated Ash Wednesday yesterday. It was a day of reflection and fasting for me. We celebrated at Wellspring with a daytime outdoor service, and then we gathered with other Methodists in Georgetown both online and in person.

There are two primary themes that emerged for me as I reflected on the day. Repentance and dirt.

Lent is a time for repentance.

The Greek word for repentance is μετάνοια (metanoia), and it literally means “turn around.” This is based on the notion that we have natural human failings based often on fear and shame. Many wisdom traditions (including the Enneagram) understand that we all have vices. As an Enneagram 7, my vice is gluttony, and it is based on my fear of not having enough.

What then does it mean for me to turn around? It is about facing that fear of not having enough and the shame that overwhelms me when I react with gluttonous behaviors. It means turning back to my true self … the self that trusts God to provide for my needs. It means overcoming the anxiety that can erupt within me as I face the truth about myself.

To repent … to turn back … is to draw the circle wider as I see myself as part of a web of belonging. It is to work for the provision for those who truly do not have enough. It is to own and use my own vices and fears and hurts and guilt to lead me to a greater connection that is truly compassionate.

It is to move outward by going back to the most basic part of human existence …

The Dirt

The hardest part of Ash Wednesday was when I was imposing ashes on the heads of people in one particular part of our sanctuary. I ended up with several young teens coming to receive the sign of the cross in ashes on their heads. The hard part was that I was compelled by our liturgy to say the words associated with this sacred rite: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return!

These were children whose entire lives were in front of them, and here I was reminding them that they were going to die. We come from the dirt, and we are going back to the dirt. It’s true, but it is not a truth that we want to hear.

But there’s more.

And we often spend time moving away from the dirt. There are those who think that repentance means turning away from the “dirty” parts of our lives … moving to a higher, more spiritual plane than the plane that we consider ordinary … vulgar or common … of the dirt.

This type of spirituality, however, is not the spirituality of Jesus … it is the spirituality of Plato and Aristotle. Platonic thought sees the dirt (an all material things) as our enemy … the place of death … but the ultimate reality is something that is in no way connected to anything we experience on this earth. It doesn’t take long to see how much Plato influenced Christian thought and moved us away from the spirituality of Jesus.

The spirituality of Jesus (and of his Jewish faith), you see, is of the dirt. The second creation story found in the second chapter of Genesis is the most telling for us in this season of Lent. It is there that God plants a garden and then, as if bringing consciousness to all of creation, stoops into the humus to create the first human. The linguistic connection makes it clear that we belong to the dirt … to the earth … to creation.

So Lent is best understood, not as turning away from the dirt, but as turning TOWARD the dirt. It is to hear Jesus say in John 12, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it will remain just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

As I have said recently, this isn’t about death. This is about us turning back toward the earth. It is what leads us to practice a new form of ecology and a new economy where we see the earth, not as an expendable resource, but as the essence of our being. It is to see ourselves as one with the trees and plants of that first creation story that bear fruit for all of creation … plants and animals (including the animals known as human) … to grow and thrive.

Turning toward the dirt is about seeing ourselves as seeds that are not here just for our own well-being, but for the well-being of everyone. Brené Brown, in her latest book Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, shares the story of Paola Sánchez Valdez. Paola is part of her research team and was asked to share her story in the book.

Paola is Ecuadorian by birth, and she grew up as an undocumented resident of the US who was finally granted status as a permanent resident under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. She finally came out of the darkness to be able to pursue her dreams. She shares how she finally connected with other undocumented students while in college and discovered that her sense of being without a home was a shared experience that created a new sense of belonging in a different kind of community.

She cited a saying from many Latin American countries that goes “ni de aquí, ni de allá” … not from here, not from there. But she said that she discovered a new sense of belonging to herself and with others who shared her same story. She and her new friend then launched an effort to advocate for those experiencing what she calls “structural inequities” by creating avenues for vital change for immigrants and those who struggle to be seen without being harmed.

She then cited a saying that speaks right into the heart of what I think Lent is about. She said her favorite quote is: “Quisieron enterrarnos, pero no sabían qu éramos semillas” … “they wanted to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” That, you see, is the essence of John 12.

So may this season of Lent be a time of turning toward the dirt. May it be a time of reflecting on our relationship with the earth and all who dwell therein. May it be a time of being at one with all creation and others as we seek justice and hope for a world that seems to have lost its way.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return!” Be seeds, my friends, and God will fruitfully bless you!

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