Dirt, Miracles & Redemption
Dirt is at once, both common and enigmatic. We walk on it everyday of our lives. The food we eat is grown from its womb. The shrubbery and grass that beautify our homes are inseparably linked to it. Yet, for all of its commonality, dirt remains a mystery. No one really knows all that much about it.
Science tells us it is stardust from exploding supernovas gathered together in mass. The bible tells us we are made from the stuff. He is the potter. We are the clay. But, for most of us, dirt is just dirt. We wash it from our hands and shake it from our boots before entering a house. Whether it is the residue of exploding stars or if it is actually found in the substance of our skin doesn’t concern us that much.
Anatomically, dirt, or rather, soil is a composite of different minerals collected together in a common space at a particular time. Rather than a thing unto itself, it is a network of relationships. But this network of basic elements contains a mysterious, almost supernatural quality that is easily overlooked, especially in a society that rarely has any direct contact with the land.
The mystery and miracle of dirt is that we can drop a tiny seed in the middle of this congregation of matted leaves, banana peels and dog poop, and with proper care something edible will emerge. No other planet in our solar system does that. Only ours has been organized into such a meticulous order that it sustains life. One plants, one waters, but God makes it grow. There’s nothing ordinary about it. Every oak and blossom is a miracle we can’t explain.
Let’s pretend for a moment, that our bodies actually are made from dirt. What then does that say about these clay frames of ours? Can seeds be dropped into the garden of our skin and bring forth produce? Does our geographical location and the network of our relationships determine what will come forth from the “soil” of our lives? On a strictly heart level, the analogies are dead on.
Jesus compares our hearts to different soil types. One, he says, is an impenetrable ground much like a paved highway. Seeds tossed upon it never make it below the surface before birds gobble them up. Another is like stony ground without much earth. Seeds may sprout, but with no depth, they wither from a lack of root. Likewise, all that comes from the thorny ground is strangled to death. Until, finally comes good ground, porous and receptive, full of depth and humility, able to sustain a root system, nurture seeds and bring forth life.
Heart seeds, Jesus tells us, are words. And how true this is. We don’t have to know whether our bodies share the same minerals as the earth’s crust to know that words, like seeds, take root in our hearts and as this ground below, bring forth the thorns or blossoms spoken into us.
There is a word, humus, which in the Latin simply means soil or ground. It is the organic matter in the top layer of the earth made by the decomposing of leaves and other plant and animal materials. Humus shares an etymological lineage with the words human, humble and indirectly, humorous.
Author William Bryant Logan writes beautifully about these connections in his book, “Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth.”
“Humus, human. The dictionaries say there is a connection between the words, but they don’t elaborate. What does the root hum- mean?
It must have to do with humble, or with humilis, humiliate. Those words come from roots meaning “of the ground, lowly.”
… “It also has to do with being humorous, that is, in the original meaning, “wet.” ”
The churning compost of these interrelated words reveals a numinous relationship between humanity and the dirt beneath our feet. In the Genesis narrative, God the Great Gardener reaches into the soil and shapes the first human with his hands. Rather than speaking him into being like his previous creative works, his process with humanity is much more intimate. He “forms” Adam like a potter working with clay.
The inherent joy within the Creator’s throw comes to light in our words, humus, humble and humorous. To be humble means to be close to the ground, prostrate, of the soil. It means to be porous, open and receptive. The word humorous, as Logan informs us, originally meant “wet”. How it traveled from there to mean funny is a mystery of its own, but that laughter and wetness of soil share this connection makes perfect sense to our analogy. God’s creative “mood” is one of absolute joy and it is the wetness of the clay, which allows us to be shaped to his desires.
“O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?” says the LORD. “Look, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel! – Jeremiah 18:6
It is interesting to note that when Adam (whose name is derived from Adamah, meaning of the soil) hardened his heart towards God’s command concerning the tree of knowledge of good and evil, there was a direct consequence upon his relationship with the land. “Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.” - Genesis 3:17. Hard soil doesn’t produce. Neither do hardened hearts. We all need a bit of humility and humor to condition the soil of our lives.
One final word, concerning this dirt we’re all made of. A large part of it is compiled from dead things of the past; leaves from previous seasons that fall and decompose, the flesh of dead animals and rotting debris. That gives me great hope. That tells me that those fallen, unfulfilled dreams, those painful situations and broken relationships that didn’t turn out the way we expected, actually become the nutrients that fertilize the gardens of our future. It means nothing is wasted. All things truly do eventually blend together for good.
And when we drop our tiny seeds of hope in the midst of those decomposed memories, the soil of our future literally thrives from the nutrients within the “shit” of our past. Our histories contribute to who we become, not in being bound by them, rather in composting their remains into fertilizer.
Redemption was built into our nature from the beginning. Like the blind man whose sight Jesus restored by spitting on the mud and applying it to his eyes, may we see God’s wonder and redemption hidden in everything, even the dirt beneath our feet.