Bare Hands in the Dirt

Kyle Elefson

This past weekend, Miska and I spent all day Saturday and a good bit of Sunday knee-deep in Crabgrass, Nutsedge, Chickweed and Creeping Charlie, ripping fistfuls from one of our front garden beds. This was our third venture into the jungle since Spring, with the weeds returning each time, as if they had something to prove. When we returned from vacation, it looked like we needed a tractor and bailer. It was demoralizing.

Early in the season, I bought a nifty pair of working gloves: HydraHydes, quick drying leather that slips like velvet over my rugged, yardman hands (Forgive me, I’m feeling self-conscious. Recently, after making a quip about being a working man, Miska patted my knuckles and chuckled. “Honey,” she said, “you have a writer’s hands.”). Anyways, I went to work with my fancy working-man gloves, piling load after load into the wheelbarrow.

After an hour, I pulled the sweaty gloves from my steaming body and began yanking weeds with bare hands. My fingers dug into damp clay. My hands turned a shade of burnt orange. Cool dirt brushed my skin. Mud jammed under my fingernails, as if I’d scraped bars of chocolate. I was in the dirt, no longer separated by buckskin. The sun sizzled, and I guzzled quarts of water. Yet, it was refreshing, healing, to be in the dirt with no artificial barrier, skin to soil.

It’s tempting to avoid digging into our life, maintaining protection from the real stuff, from the mess, from the mundane. Life isn’t primarily found in grand gestures or wild epiphanies or those rare, remarkable ecstasies (though I’m thankful for each and hope for more). Real life happens as we punch the clock for another day, as we text a friend to say we miss them, as we shut off the work and stream Key & Peele clips with our kids, as we admit to our spouse that we’re lonely. We truly live our life with bare hands in the dirt.

The Whole World a Eucharist

One of the many enchanted graces in Glacier NP

Hiking in Montana last week, the lushness enveloped me, the velvety green moss, the towering Hemlocks. The rush of frigid water cut through tight canyons while austere granite peaks sliced into the sky, dusted in white as if some heavenly baker sprinkled confectioner’s sugar across the ragged edge. Without planning to do so, I would find myself still, watching and listening, hushed, as though I were answering the monk’s bell calling me to divine hours. Over and again, I found myself uttering the most basic prayer: Thank youThank youThank you.

Eucharist (or Holy Communion) means thanksgiving. It is, from beginning to end, a prayer of thanks. Thanks for Father, Son and Spirit. Thanks for the life we’ve been given. Thanks for love that holds the world. Thanks for the healing promised for any of us who will have it. Thanks for the hope that we are not alone. Thanks for the beauty of those who are gathered at this table of mercy alongside us. Each Sunday, we find ourselves (whether we feel like it or not) receiving these small graces culled from our everyday world and uttering the most basic prayer: Thank youThank youThank you.

But the Eucharist, with its table of hewn oak or pine, with its bread of golden wheat and fresh oil, with the wine squeezed from plump red grapes, tells us that the good things of this earth are the very elements that lead us to God — these are the very parts of this good world that will find, with us, their healing in God. The Eucharist on Sundays reminds us that the whole world is a eucharist, a holy thanksgiving. There are places of such enchantment, such rawness and mystery and joy, that to simply walk their hallowed paths is to participate in a prayer of gratitude. On such holy ground, we inhale the incense of pine and western red cedar, we drink from the cup of wild rivers singing a powerful song, we eat the bread of so many beauties, so many. We really can’t help ourselves: Thank youThank you.

I know a woman most dear to me who, for a season of her life, could only pray while standing on solid ground, among the trees or touching those fresh green shoots pushing their way through the brown dirt. Some might think she was straying too far. I say she had learned to receive the gift. She had learned to say thank you.

Bless Your Water

Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov
Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov

On the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th or January 19th, depending on the calendar used), the Orthodox perform an ancient rite with roots in Israel and the early church: the Great Blessing of the Water. In many parts of the Orthodox world, the blessing happens on a frozen lake, requiring saws to carve their way through thick ice. Commemorating Jesus’ baptism, stalwart souls sometimes plunge into the biting water (did I mention January?). The priest dips a cross three times, then sprinkles water in all four directions, as if to baptize the entire world. This water evokes primordial creation (“the Spirit of God moving over the face of the waters”) and the belief that in Jesus the world God once named good returns again to harmony with God. In God’s world, even the water is holy.

Each Sunday, Christians around the globe eat bread and drink wine, remembering Christ — and not Christ as ethereal deity but a God who got blisters and cried tears, a God who grew incensed at injustice and who cooked fish on the beach for his friends. A God who insisted on restoring humanity to our true humanity. And we raise the bread and the wine, these most ordinary elements, to God. We remember how God fills the entire world (every blade of wheat, every luscious grape, every finch and every rugged range) with grace.

Given all this, how is it possible that we have arrived at the place where many believe that love for God’s world sits at odds with Christian faith? Why do so many believe that the work of their hands and the longings of their heart share little import in the Kingdom of God? How did our humanness, the humanness so essential that Jesus would not abandon it, become only a liability rather than also a source of great promise?

However you bake your bread, however you bless the waters of your world, know you are doing holy work. Good God, we need you.

This Beloved World

snow hut

When I was young, a Christian who was supposed to understand such things insisted that putting much attention to this scorched and bedraggled world was like polishing the deck of the Titanic. The sentiment didn’t sit right with me, but I couldn’t say exactly why. In the same way, I could not explain why every time I sighted the jagged grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, I felt consumed with reverent joy. I could not explain why each time I walked into the Grand Canyon it was as though a thundering beauty swallowed me whole.

Why did I crave to know the stories of the street where I lived, the histories of the families who were our neighbors and kin? Why did I take such pleasure in Lolita’s tamales and Miss Alma’s banana pudding (the cold version, with Nilla wafers and whipped cream, of course)? Why did Appalachian melodies sink into my body, a kind of holy haunting? Why did those marvelous books with words like flint strike wonder in my soul? If this whole shebang was only a temporary shell lurching toward a final apocalyptic fireball, why did all of it feel like grace?

But then I remembered the first Scripture I was ever taught, the truth my mother and father gave to me before I could walk or speak: For God so loved the world. I heard these words again. I heard these enchanted words anew. God loves this world, and I was simply caught up in the affair.

We have a simple task, and a happy one. Some say that we should concentrate upon this world as though God did not exist. We say rather that we should concentrate upon this world lovingly because it is full of God… {Alexander Schmemann}

Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden being. {Philip Sherrard}

The Rings We Wear

I’ve lost my wedding band. Three times. The first mishap occurred during a volleyball game, my ring flying off my hand during a vigorous block. Friends dropped on all fours and scoured the ground, retrieving the ring from the grass within minutes.

A few years later, we were traveling I-40 and stopped in Jackson, Tennessee to clean up puke from two boys who were cycling through their second round of the virus from Hades. In a moment of exasperation, I flung my arm in the air. The ring sailed off my hand, hitting the asphalt with a metallic ding, bouncing and then rolling down the black top. Catching an incline, the ring gathered steam, and before I could catch up, it dropped over the edge of a drainage grate, down with the muck and out of reach. An hour or two later, several kind men from Jackson’s traffic department arrived, wrenched the grate from the concrete and fished out my tarnished band.

In 2007, my good luck ran out. I spent much of the day tending to our yard, and it wasn’t until showering that I recognized my ring missing. Our friend Michael arrived with his metal detector, revved to have a real live emergency requiring his machinery. Salvaging a man’s token of eternal love provides purpose more noble than unearthing bottle caps or buffalo nickels at the beach. Unfortunately, after a few disappointing hours, the ring was pronounced truly gone.

I planned to save for a replacement, but the following year Miska had an alternate idea. For her thirty-fifth birthday, Miska wanted a second tattoo. Only, for this occasion, she wanted me to join her, and she suggested an inked wedding band. Surely you’d know I’m not the tat type, but what man could say no to such a request? I’m a romantic, and if I’m ever to have permanent markings etched on my body, it would be for the purpose of permanently declaring my love for Miska my fidelity to the vow of marriage.

People often remark on my ring. Clerks at checkout lines point it out, and friends are curious if it hurt and how I found the design. A couple of years ago, at a hotel in Denver, the concierge ogled over the tattoo. He grew animated, peppering me with questions. When I told him it was my wedding band, his face contorted. He took a step back, with a look of disgust, like I’d just greeted him with a Heil, mein Führer! 

“Why would you ever do a thing like that?” A rebuke, not a question. “What will you do when you don’t want to be married to her anymore?”

It took me a moment to make sure I heard him correctly. Regaining my footing, I said, “You may be missing the point.” I took my room key and headed for the elevator.

There’s a reason why I searched like mad for that missing ring those three times, and it had to do with much more than dollars. There’s a reason why my hand felt bare, and my heart a little too, those stretch of months with no ring to call my own. Few would be foolish enough to say it doesn’t matter, it’s just a symbol. Wearing that ring is itself a way of being faithful, a way of renewing your vow every time you slip it on. When a man removes his ring before he steps into a bar, this act, with no further hanky panky required, carries the treachery of betrayal.

True symbols allow us to participate in whatever reality they symbolize. We are physical people in a physical world, and God has gifted us with physical encounters, mysterious symbols that welcome us to participate in tangible grace. Much of the church knows them as sacraments. When I am buried in water, grace covers me head to toe. When I drink wine and eat bread, Jesus feeds me and sustains me.

I couldn’t tell you precisely why or how this is so. But then neither could I tell you exactly why my inked ring renews my marriage covenant or why I wanted to tag that clerk on the jaw for playing loose with my promise.

Beautiful Mundane

I woke this morning, as I do many mornings, to my alarm cranking out “Desperado.” It seems appropriate (for numerous reasons) to be asked at the moment of waking whether I intend to come to my senses. It was too early for my taste; it’s almost always too early for my taste. It’s a second Monday, so I dressed and joined a few friends downtown at The Haven where we dished out a hot breakfast of coffee, cream of wheat, cinnamon apples and fried eggs.

Most mornings, I’m dishing breakfast at home to two boys and a wife. Boiled eggs, oatmeal, grapefruit – we don’t vary much. We eat at 7:30. We read a bit of Scripture around the table. After a few frantic rounds of hunting misplaced socks and signing homework and dashing up and down the stairs for sundry forgotten items, we pack the boys off to school. After, I’ll usually take a run, with a few prayers offered along the way. Then, like most every adult on the planet, it’s to the grind. There may be writing or meetings, study or planning. There’s always a list to be tended to, that list scribbled somewhere on this cluttered desk of mine. Fridays offer sweet Sabbath, followed by Saturdays with family chores and grocery shopping and sometimes an attempt at a family adventure. Sunday brings Bodo’s bagels at our kitchen table followed by worship around Jesus’ Table, with an evening nightcap of egg sandwiches, tea and Downton Abbey. Mondays, we begin again.

This rhythm provides a mundane beauty. It’s beauty – a firm beauty that bears up under the years. But it’s also mundane. It’s rhythmic. It’s love that proves itself by the unwavering decision to love well and love steady, over and over. It’s a love that lets a boy know that what he needs will always be here, sure and regular as the sun rising. Perhaps he won’t notice it for years, but the day will come – I promise you the day will come – when that gracious rhythm will give him a lifeline. It’s a love that a wife offers her husband and a husband his wife, a love that says I’m right here, right by your side. We’ll steal a kiss every chance we get; but between those toying moments, my love will be present, my love will show up. And keep showing up.

These mundane rhythms, as much as the brilliant flashes, form the person we are. These mundane rhythms are our quotidian liturgy.

This is true in every family, even the family nurtured in faith. We’re eager to latch on to some new-fangled way of being Christian. Disappointed with our slow progress or restless with the boredom that inevitably sets in whenever you are participating in things that are beautifully mundane, we think there must be some quick way, some non-mundane way. There isn’t.

Because I’m a pastor, I’m often asked our strategy for helping people obey and follow Jesus. There’s lots of things we will do along the way, as we pay attention to our family and to the particular needs of the particular people in our midst. However, if you want to know our plan, it’s about as quotidian as it gets: Gather with your community and worship your God on Sunday. Pray prayers and sing prayers. Receive and give the peace and mercy of Jesus Christ. Hear and believe the Scriptures. Confess your Sins. Receive the Eucharist, drinking deep draughts of grace. Receive a blessing. And then go out into your mundane, beautiful world and love your God and love your neighbors.

If we do those things, over and over, we will find ourselves following Jesus. We will find ourselves receiving and giving love.

image: wildhotrad

A Stump

Be rooted like a tree / Planted by the stream  
                                                 {Brendan Jamieson}

Clyde Kilby, an English professor I wish I had known, crafted a catalog of 11 Resolutions (and I love that it was 11, not 10). This was his personal creed, his this I believe and this is how I will live. His sixth resolution is my favorite:

I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are, but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic” existence.

I’ve borrowed this practice; and on most days after I run, I’ll stroll a few minutes extra. I breathe deeply and try to pay attention to my world. I’ll look around for some physical object, something on which to gaze. It may be the billows of white clouds or moss covering a portion of rock. A leaf tossed by the wind. A fence. A blade of grass. I take in the sight. I ponder the sheer fact that it exists. I notice that I had nothing to do with making it exist; and after I walk away I have no impact on whether or not it continues to exist.

Sometimes it’s good to remember that, valuable as I may be, I do not hold the world together.

Today, the object was a stump. Not a tree. Not a sapling full of possibility. Just a stump. A gnarled, cracked stump. A piece of creation that’s already had it’s day. It isn’t good for much. Other than a dog hiking a leg it’s direction every now and then, I bet no one pays this stump any attention. Yet there it sits. It sat there yesterday. It will be sitting there tomorrow. The rain will thrash. The sun will bake. The winds will flurry. But the stump merely sits, nestled in its little spot, its roots dug deep into the soil that will not let it loose.

Amid a world of noise, a world insisting we have something good to say, something smart to say …  amid a culture where we are jostling for position, spreading our branches so to speak, it’s balm to my weary soul to watch a stout old stump and know that sitting there, out of the way – sturdy and solid but unbothered and at rest –  can be enough.


Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God who came to save us from our sins?
I believe

Do you believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to bring you life and to bring you home into his kingdom?
I believe

Do you renounce Satan and his kingdom and all his evil works?
I do

And will you turn from your sins and obey Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit?
I will

Will you now lay your life down and be buried in God’s love?
I will

Last Sunday, Wyatt received baptism. One of the perks of being your boy’s pastor is that you get to participate front and center in these sacred moments. I was knee deep in the baptismal waters, my arm around his shoulders (and that’s where I hope to always be, wading into his water, standing next to him).  With joy, I laid priestly hands on my son and said holy words, In the name of the Father and the Son and the Spirit, be buried in Jesus’ death…

Baptism is many things, but three things at least – and all three are about belonging. In our baptism, we declare that we belong to Jesus and to Jesus’ kingdom. In baptism, the church declares that we belong to the community, this family of faithful storytellers. And, most importantly, in baptism the Spirit declares that we belong to the Triune God. Baptism is really more about what God is doing than about what we are doing. God has marked us, come after us, loved us to death. And life.

Because this whole thing is a communal affair, the entire community renews our baptismal vows before the new vows are taken. In a way then, with each new baptism, it is as though we are being baptized anew. The last question of the vows, the words that are spoken just before we put a body under the waters, echoes for me today.

Will you now lay your life down and be buried in God’s love?

Will I?

The verbs in this question are passive. Will I lay down? Will I be buried? Will I surrender the illusion that I can pull my life together? Baptism is something I receive, not something I do. I don’t baptize myself; another baptizes me. I don’t finagle my way into the church; the community simply gives me a wide welcome. I didn’t snag a ticket into God’s kingdom with my spit-n-shine resume. God isn’t lucky to have me. God came and got me because God is kind and because this is what God does – God comes and rescues.

So this is the question my baptism asks me: Will I lay down and drown in love? Will I drown?

Will I hold my ground and guard my self-interests in my marriage – or will I drown?

Will I wallow in selfish guilt about what my poor fathering choices say about me, or will I surrender every shred of image and reputation and just love my boys, now, today? Will I protect myself – or will I drown?

Will I keep distance from those I’m sure to disappoint or those who I think will leave me lonely – or will I drown?

I choose to drown.

I surrender the image of the put together husband, father, writer, pastor, friend.
I choose to drown.

I am probably not as smart or brilliant or witty or insightful or artful as you are.
I choose to drown.

I will probably never write a bestseller.
I choose to drown.

I want to drown. Because I want to live.

What kind of drowning are you surrendering to?

Tadpoles and Sacraments {why the church.3}

The church is a sacrament of the world’s possibility. {Luke Timothy Johnson}

The church is not ideal. {Eugene Peterson}

Queenlight shines through things, through everything. {David James Duncan, The River Why}

Last Saturday, the Collier men hit a bike trail that, for most of its winding path, runs alongside the Rivanna River. The loop tracks a couple miles with meandering curves and a couple narrow passes, cutting back and forth between dense forest cover and green open spaces. One of the boys’ favorite spots is where the trail dips under Free Bridge, creating a short, eerie stretch Seth has dubbed, “The Tunnel of Doom.”

I enjoy these experiences. I appreciate the quiet and the wind in my face. I enjoy Seth and Wyatt, very much. Still, for me, it’s fundamentally a bike ride. I mount my brown Specialized Hardrock, and I ride, there and back.

Wyatt and Seth understand these Saturday jaunts differently. Usually, we’ve only been on the trail a few minutes before our leader (Wyatt, most often) pulls over and, quicker than I can catch up, has his bike down, his helmet off, backpack undone. Time to snack. After a few rounds of Cheez-its and Fruit Roll-ups (indeed, dad supplies nutritious fare), we are back on the trail. But not for long. We need to stop under the overpass because the boys want to touch the water and jump in the mud and throw dirt. Later, they detour to pick up rocks for their collection. Rocks. And by rocks, I mean gravel.

The ultimate detour, however, is when we stop at Tadpole Pond. Pond is a bit generous. It’s an 8 inch deep, 4 foot wide hollow in the bankside granite. More of a large dimple really. But this spot is magic because a couple weeks ago we discovered hundreds of tadpoles swimming there; and we spent a good chunk of time catching those fast, slick little boogers. Tadpole Pond is now the main attraction. So we stopped; and the boys renewed the chase. A couple they caught (all catch-and-release, of course) had sprouted micro-legs. A few were teeny-tiny frogs. Most were still just tad-poling around. For at least 45 minutes, the boys rollicked with their slimy friends. They even named a few (Charlie, Bob, Tim and Charlie.2).
Instead of chomping for them to hurry up, I made a choice (this once) to let the quest to get on with the ride recede for a bit. I laid back on a cool rock under the refreshing shade. I listened to my boys laugh. I watched the tree branches sway. I was present, and at least for the moment, I understood that getting there and getting back really wasn’t the point. The ride and the river and those poor little tadpoles offered a generous invitation to experience the joys of being a father and the pleasure of having sons. My boys’ detours are not a hurdle to my completing our ride. Our rides are an opportunity for me to be on detour with my boys.

What I’ve tried to say is that the church isn’t only about “the ride,” about getting God’s stuff done. The church is God’s invitation to experience, receive and participate in the messy, detourish ways that God is forming a new kind of community in his world. And this new community is not theoretical or abstract. It is physical, embodied. What does God want to do here, now, with us? Scripture tells us that God desires to form a people, a community, who enjoy and embody his very presence in the world (and we must remember, God is Trinity: perfect, divine community). God does not have a metaphysical philosophy for us to spread or an individualistic moral agenda for us to carry out. God wants us. God wants us as his people in his world.

And terms like these – us and people – are inherently, inevitably, always plural, communal, trinitarian. When we look for what God is up to, we find God alive, active and present among his creation. God amid God’s community. To say we can enjoy God’s hope for us without being bothered by God’s community is like saying I can experience the joys of being Wyatt and Seth’s dad without being bothered by tadpoles.

And this touches on what we mean when we say the church is a sacrament. A sacrament provides a place where heaven and earth meet, a physical moment of grace. A sacrament, by it’s mere presence, mysteriously offers an encounter with the Trinity. A sacrament doesn’t have to do anything, anything other than carve out a physical space where hope and life and God come to us. In the Lord’s Table, we taste mercy. In baptism, we are drowned by God’s love. In marriage and friendship and on crisp mornings above the timberline, God arrives amid words and kisses and sunrises. Physical. Present. Mystery. Sacrament.

So, in the church, amid laughter and repentance and relationship, amid works of mercy and justice, (all messy but all necessary) God touches us. God loves us. God is present. What the Eucharist offers each of us with bread and wine, the church offers to the world with presence and tears. And joy, lots of joy.

A note to my pastor-friends: If we sell the church on utilitarian terms (“God and church will make your life work” or “Our main purpose is to get busy doing God’s work”), we shouldn’t protest when people leave the church for utilitarian reasons (“it isn’t working for me” or “I’m burned out”). We’ve spotted the consumerism rampant in the way people use the church, but have we owned up to the consumerism riddled throughout the ways we motivate and lead?

A note to my leave-church-behind friends: God’s community doesn’t always “work.” I’m sorry if someone told you it did. And working isn’t exactly the point. There’s something there, for sure. But there’s something else first. God is first, what God is doing in you – and in you with others. Sometimes, you really need a few detours. You need an afternoon of tadpoles.


I have more to say, but I’m curious where this is taking you. Any push back or questions or brimming hopefulness? I’d love to interact and see where we might head next. Peace.

[further why the church? posts:part one,  twofourfive]