The other day I ran into a stranger at the college campus where I work, which is now like coming across a unicorn or more appropriately, Bigfoot. Most academics take their social distancing as seriously as they take themselves. He was on a morning walk and I was walking to the chapel to pray. The noonday stranger apparently thought that the pandemic was at least seventy-five percent exaggerated as he stepped closer to me and stuck out his hand--the very place where a virus might be taking a nap! I tried to mind my manners and talk with him about the weather. "At least it's sunny," I said, as I took a few, short steps backward. It's equally possible that he came to the well in the heat of midday starved for connection.
Much of the world is learning something that Christians have known all along: relationships make us human beings. When I say you are created in the image of God, I stand with Bonhoeffer and say that you are human because of your engagement with the other and not through some biological characteristic. It's part of the meaning of a doctrine like the Trinity, a three-in-one God in perfect communion with each other. The Trinity is hard to explain and three-leaf clovers don't make it any easier. Here's what I do understand: God is a perfect reciprocity of love and we're called into the same vocation. We're human because we attend to others. We're capable of loving and being loved.
The irony, of course, is that this pandemic calls us to sacrifice a part of our humanity to ensure our own survival and the health of our neighbors. Look, we're living in strange times. I prefer to describe this period of life as a Netflix movie made on a whim with a cheap budget: COVID-19. Starring Nicolas Cage, of course. It's an imitation of a full, robust life where most people are on edge or depressed. Our friends and relatives are trapped in screens and Zoom meetings. Or, we go to the grocery check out line to pay for beer, the essentials, and the grocery clerk immediately sanitizes her hands and sprays the debit chip reader with a stream of Lysol. It's a bullet to our humanity.
The travesty of pandemic is that the external world is transformed into a threat, fostering a climate of fear and distrust. Everything that breathes has the potential to spread disease. How's that for the image of God and the goodness of the world? It's hard enough to love the material world when it's not held captive by a flu on steroids. And now we have to love ourselves and the world while desperately needing a hair cut. When we're most alienated from each other, the physical world, and our very own bodies, it's only a small step to feel disconnected from the God who gave us a material world and called it 'good.'
How good is it, really?
At the apex of holy week, we cry out with Jesus, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Here's a God who dies on a cross, but we learn that the horror of the crucifixion is not the physical pain. It's forsakenness. The pain more profound than physical—it’s not just his hands and his legs. It’s the torment of an empty heart. Jesus doesn't have a hand to hold. The deepest form of suffering is the simultaneous alienation from the body, the community, and God. Jesus had the triple threat. So will many of us.
My isolation is compounded by the lack of meaningful work to contribute to my community besides the development of two small children through microwaved chicken nuggets and watered down apple juice with occasional lessons on reading and good manners. The youngest is still trying to nail down the color 'blue.' The work is abusive and thankless. We frantically ask each other, 'what can I do to help?' And the best thing we can do right now is to stay home. To make matters worse, the world is still revolving, I think, despite my lack of contribution to the spinning. The vanity of life! Is this all there is?
Where's the humanity, again?
I started playing in the dirt, getting a summer garden ready. Nothing is safe, well, except the dirt. Not to mention that dirt is cheaper than CBD oil and possibly more effective for stress relief. I've learned that I'm not making a novel discovery as I take my evening walks around the neighborhood. There are kids rolling around in the dirt like dogs who have found the grossest spot in the lawn. I've also noticed that a spring quarantine is a middle-aged dad's dream come true—there's unlimited time for landscaping right as everything starts to bloom. It's seventy-five degrees and perfect and neighbors line their porches.
Look, it worked for Adam and Eve in Genesis. The land, more specifically the garden, was the first place we learn to become human beings. God the Gardener charges the first humans to till and love Eden. In other words, God calls humanity to plant, nurture, and celebrate the goodness of the material world. We become adamah by taking evening walks with God in the garden, paying attention to the sparrows and lilies, which have always been on the forefront of God's mind. Together, we put our hands in the dirt to co-create, nurture, and celebrate life.
A friend recently shared a poem by Scott Cairns who describes the creation of humanity in a playful, midrashic way:
"Then, YHWH lay back, running His hands over the damp grasses, and in deep concentration reached into the soil, lifting the great handful of trembling clay to His lips, which parted to avail another breath.
With this clay He began to coat His shins, cover His thighs, His chest. He continued layering, and, when he had been wholly interred, He parted the clay at His side, and retreated from it, leaving the image of Himself to wander in what remained of that early morning mist."
This primordial story helps us climb back into the goodness of our skin. We are a clay cast of God, sculpted from the dirt that God animated with God's own breath. Of course, the unbelievable part of Christianity is that God later re-covered Godself in the mud to live among us. In the incarnation God has come and touched our lives to show us the true image of humanity. And if we give ourselves to the dirt, whether on the ground or in a more complex form called 'human,' we're reflecting the image of God.
Most of us are estranged from the people we hold most dear, but a great way to look up to God is by looking at the ground beneath our feet. When the material is a threat to be feared, the world can still feel good again--at least for an afternoon. Grow a plant. Build a sand castle. Go for a run. Pick the tulips and smell them. You'll feel a little more connected to your body and the patch of land you call 'home.'
There's this story in the Gospel of John, where Jesus picks up mud and lathers it on a blind man so that he can see again. May God lather our eyes with dirt, too, and give us eyes to see the blessing of being human even amidst disease and fear.
This spring I've been amazed by the number of earthworms in the soil as I've tended to the garden. I'm continually surprised at the complex matrix of life under my feet, that which is seen and unseen. The worms thrash around, disturbed by a large metal spade they never saw coming. I was always taught as a kid to save as many earthworms as possible. "They're good for the soil," mom said. Unfortunately, I struck one or two with the shovel; it wasn't intentional. Regardless, there I am, a terrorist to whatever makes its home in the dirt.
The world is not a safe place, not even the dirt, and yet it also produces ripe tomatoes and cucumbers. It's cognitive dissonance. There is a pandemic and there's the twilight hour when the sunlight is perfect and the kids are riding bikes around the neighborhood. I go for a run and the sweat drips to cool my body and that feels good, even in a body that has the propensity to carry disease. There are ways to climb back into the cast that God left behind, to feel the goodness of the material world again.
In a couple months, there will be some kind of plant in the dirt that I disturbed--a defiant sign of hope and goodness. Disease will threaten to kill it, but I will watch over it with vigilance. I'll be human, again, fashioned in the image of a gardener God who watches over us even as disease threatens to take our lives. One day, even further down the road, this plant will bear some kind of fruit. The fruit will make its way to our dinner table where we will celebrate the goodness of life with friends. We will touch and laugh and bear God's image for one another. Invisible grace made visible. A sacrament and the material made holy.
Easter begins in a garden, where the dead becomes compost for new growth and a body walks out of a tomb. It starts in dirt and ends in dirt. It will begin again from the ground because the earth, and all that is in it, is good. In the meantime, you can find me in the dirt—in all of it's fragility and wonder, just like you and me