September 14, 2014
Rev. Debra Jene Collum
Paul Gruchow in his book Grass Roots tells of his habit as a child of writing his name in his Big Chief tablets for school. Which for those of you who don’t know were pads of paper not something electronic.
Paul would write this:
Paul DeWayne Gruchow, Ed Will’s Farm, Section 8, Rosewood Township, Chippewa County, Minnesota, USA, North America, Western Hemisphere, Earth, Milky Way, Universe.
Arranging the words, he says, like lines of a poem.
for me these words held a terrible fascination. I felt about them as I did one Sunday morning when the preacher pronounced the words, ‘as far as the east is from the west,’ a phrase so magnificent and expansive, so unfathomable, that it caused me to shudder.
Paul, even as a young boy, knew his place on his land.
To him it wasn’t just property that his family farmed, or rented, or even lived on. It was much, much bigger than that. It was a holy place. A place that, even though small and humble, in a small and humble township in the middle of the state of Minnesota was his place. He and his family’s place. A holy place.
This is how land is seen in the scriptures, too. All of it. As holy.
Psalm 24 states very clearly The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.
Land is never simply real estate.
And as the Israelites were entering the Promised Land they were given this reminder:
Your land must not be sold on a permanent basis, because you do not own it; it belongs to God, and you are like foreigners who are allowed to make use of it. Lev. 25.
Even now in the 21st century, in a global economy, I think it does us good to remember: The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.
For when we see earth as holy, the very soil that we till, the very land that we plant, the very lawn that we mow, as belonging first and foremost to God. Then I think we will connect in some deep way to the holiness of God.
In Genesis we are told that the human being is formed from the topsoil. In Hebrew it is adam who is created from the adamah, which is wonderfully preserved in English as human/humus.
We are birthed from the land. Native cultures understand this, new scientific discoveries affirm this; but often the Christian community ignores this beautiful truth. The Land is our Mother. Dirt is our Mother.
How often we act as if we were made out of something more mysterious and rare? In all of our talk of DNA, evolution, cell structure and heredity, we forget the very basic fact and greatest mystery of all: we are birthed from something precious and life giving. Top soil, the humus, the incredibly valuable part of the land that gives all things birth and in the end absorbs all of us back into the cycle of life.
The Land is our Mother. And as our Holy Mother, land is also our Sustainer.
We understand that more than most Americans. Even with my little garden plot I recognize the sustaining gift that comes from the earth. As I process my few jars of tomatoes, freeze my few bags of corn I remember the root cellars of my grandmothers. Hundreds, literally hundreds of jars of food put by to feed the family until next harvest.
And we all know that you can’t just keep taking from the soil and land on which we plant our gardens or our crops. Land has to be cared for in order for it to be sustainable. Here is something fascinating: Scripture even teaches this to the Israelites as they begin to farm and cultivate the Promised Land. In Lev 25-26, the new farmers are taught to rotate their crops, fallow their land, to respect the rhythms of the seasons. If they do this, if they care for their land with deep respect God promises: “If you live according to my laws and obey my commands, 4 I will send you rain at the right time, so that the land will produce crops and the trees will bear fruit. 5 Your crops will be so plentiful that you will still be harvesting grain when it is time to pick grapes, and you will still be picking grapes when it is time to plant grain. You will have all that you want to eat, and you can live in safety in your land.
Instead of seeing the land as something to be conquered we are taught by God, to live within the rhythms of the land, to care for the land, and then the land will be our holy sustainer.
One of the signs I love to see as I drive throughout the country side is the one that announces: this is a century farm.
A farm that has been in the same family for a century!!
I would imagine that a farm that could sustain a family for a century would be a well cared for farm. A well loved farm.
I, who spent too many years in the twin cities, know about farms that have been bought and sold for development. The first Methodist Church I served was in the Northwest Suburbs of Brooklyn Park and Osseo. The church was located in a small oasis of houses that was surrounded by potato, corn and bean fields.
In the ten years I served that church slowly but surely every one of those fields were sold, little by little, and turned into industrial corridors, shopping centers or a freeway. It was like watching a slow death by strangulation.
This is probably why a book I read recently has stuck with me. In Turn Here, Sweet Corn, Anita Diffley writes about the saga of her husband’s loss of land. Which was sold by the family to developers in Eagan.
She writes about watching the bulldozers as they slowly but powerfully destroy what was once a thriving organic farm.
Devil’s Hill, the wildest spot on the farm, has a fierce energy that sets it apart from all other land formations in the area— a mingling of uncontainable passion and independence, as if it is self-made, a land formation with self-determination.
I see Devil’s Hill as invincible. When everything has been tamed and domesticated, when the bulldozing is complete, the houses built, and the lawns planted, this hill will still emit its fierce individuality. It will serve as a reminder of the time before the settlers, when the people living here had minimal impact on the landscape. It stands powerful, a barrier between the suburb and this fertile valley. We can visit, and we can play, but the hill makes the rules.
All day we hear bulldozers working north of our house. In the evening, after they shut down, Martin and I walk back to check out what they did. We cut across the ripped-up Ball Field and through what was Christina’s. The bulldozers are parked on top of the chives. It takes us a while to see what is right in front of us. We only sense that the light is wrong. It is too bright. The trees on Devil’s Hill are gone. We stand in the pungent scent of crushed chives looking down the now-open slope. In the short span of a summer day, the east face of Devil’s Hill has been completely stripped. The trees and brush have been shoved into a pile. The rugged slope has been scoured into a slide of rock, silt, and sand; plant life is nonexistent. It looks like an oozing wound hanging above Louise’s Field and the valley below. Atina Diffley (2012-04-16). Turn Here Sweet Corn (Kindle Locations 2531-2538). University Press of Minnesota. Kindle Edition.
When you drive to Minneapolis from Rochester on Hwy 63 you will cross Diffley Road. When you do, remember the end of 5 generations of farming.
In Exodus 20 after Moses had read out the Ten Commandments there is a little known 11th commandment “When you make an altar make it out of the earth, and sacrifice on it your offerings of well-being…if you make an altar from stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel on it you profane it.” No work of human hands can improve on creation. Nature is enough as an appropriate setting for the worship of God.
Interesting isn’t that?
Is it no wonder then that we can often feel closest to God when we are standing with our feet firmly planted on God’s green earth? Is it any wonder then that people say they feel closer to God in a forest than in a church?
Not to say that we shouldn’t come to church, but to say that if our church disconnects us with the Land then there is something not right about the church.
What we do in church should move us to honor the Land that Sustains us as our Mother and that moves us to Honor the Creator who created us out of the topsoil of this very Land, our Home