This summer, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and Christian educator Debbie Houghton invite readers to get a copy of Diana Butler Bass’s new Grounded: Finding God in the World and read along with us. For five weeks, David and Debbie will offer five reflections on Bass’s book with questions to consider. Here’s a link back to Part 1. This week, Debbie offers Part 2, looking at the sections of Diana’s book on Dirt, Water and Sky …
By DEBBIE HOUGHTON
I grew up on farms in Iowa. My stepdad had a unique relationship with farming; he was a pressman for a magazine called Successful Farming (founded in 1902 and now at Agriculture.com). He would pore over the articles about farming and dream of the day he owned his own farm. After 25 years as a pressman, he started buying up land in southwest Iowa, up to 600 acres. He loved that land and was a faithful steward—he initiated no-till and terracing long before they were recommended land conservation practices.
Although he would never describe it this way, his connection to the land was spiritual.
As Diana Butler Bass points out in her chapter, called Dirt, we do not recognize the connection between God and dirt. God tells Adam and Eve, from dirt we are made and to dirt we will return. The Israelites were promised land by God as part of the covenant they made with the Holy One. So we should not be surprised when Diana tells us that dirt (and water and sky) are part of God’s body, the universe, “a complex and diverse interdependent organism, animated by God’s breath, the spirit of creation.”
She tells us to recognize that plain, ordinary dirt is a sacred resource—and one that we may lose if we are not attentive to its care. Some churches, like mine, are recognizing that soil is a sacrament by using church property to plant congregational gardens to grow fresh produce for local food banks, or to teach people how be to better stewards of the earth, or just for the therapy of growing green things. As Diana writes, “Faith has increasingly taken me toward the soil, not away from it.” We can find God in the Garden.
Healthy soil alone does not make a farm successful–water is also a necessity. We were always shushed as children during the weather reports, for they were the harbingers of the all-important rain forecasts. I moved to Michigan when I was a young adult and I have always been awed by the amount of fresh water that surrounds my adopted state and abounds in its rivers and lakes.
Water is a spiritual source of life for me. All the water metaphors in the Bible speak to me–living water, healing water, water and the Spirit. And I do take it for granted.
Again, Diana compels us to think about how we treat water–she points out the great trash pile discovered in the ocean when searchers were hunting for the missing Malaysian airplane. She also tells us how access to clean water is now a source of political tension–if you have followed the water crises in Flint, MI, this is completely clear to you.
She speaks of the riparian zones, the places where the water meets the riverbank; they are muddy, unstable areas between the land and the river. But what a metaphor for life! You can sink in the muck, step back onto firm land, or step into the river and “go with the flow” in the river of God–moving with the rest of the river community to the sea, stopping to give water to those who need it, i.e. practice social justice with water conservation and water access.
Finally, the sky is also a part of my genetic make up. When I moved to Michigan, I made friends with a woman from the mountains of Kentucky. She and I were talking about our childhood homes, and she said to me, “I can’t live without mountains around me; they protect me.”
That is when I realized I can’t live without sky around me. I grew up in the Iowan landscape, open to the sky with broad, rolling hills and fields. I need to see the sky to feel at home. The sky is also the place, as Diana says, where God was traditionally located–up in the heavens. And as she says, unlike the ground and water, sky is beyond our comprehension.
She asks us to “consider” the sky and the atmosphere. The sky is not only the great dome, but it provides the horizon, where earth and sky meet. It is the atmosphere, which provides the air we breathe, the ruach, the spirit of God.
However, just as we believe that dirt and water are too ordinary to worry about, we also take the air we breathe for granted. Overloads of carbon dioxide in the air are killing our climate, which in turn will slowly kill us. We need to listen to these “winds of worry” that Diana outlines for us. But, as she says, “there is evident the whisper of God. Change is in the air.” We can hear the breath of God if we listen.
What do I take away from these first three chapters of Grounded? Throughout this section, Diana sets up and describes her “horizontal” faith, as a way to think about where God is, as opposed to a “vertical” faith, which is one that places God in heaven and us on earth, with a gap between the two.
I can’t believe that God is so far removed from our lives; I am encouraged that God-with-us could be on the horizon–in Iowa, in Michigan, and in Kenya, where I have traveled four times with my church family to work in a school we helped to found. Every time my Kenyan brothers and sisters remind me the elements of dirt, water, and sky are to be revered as gifts of God, for, as people of God and the earth, we all share the same horizon.
I took a photo in Kenya, of the sunrise, and it reminds me of this quote from Grounded:
“… I consider God beyond the horizon, just beyond the place where the sky meets the ground. Just beyond what we can see, there is more.”
I can believe in this God at the horizon, meeting me where I live.
Consider These Questions
With special thanks to Amy Kennedy …
What does the phrase “getting your hands dirty” mean to you? Could it be considered holy?
How can water (or being near water) heal us?
What experience have you had with water that makes you think it could be part of God’s body?
Think about where you were raised–were any of the three elements, dirt, water or sky an integral part of your life?
What do you think about your own faith journey? Has it been vertical or horizontal? Why?
Debbie Houghton is a former English teacher, now reborn as a director of adult education for the First United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor. She is always looking for new ideas about faith and spirituality to share with her church family!