Holy as Mud

by the Rev. Barbara Wells
Canvass Sunday—March 2, 2003
Paint Branch UU Church

Just about a year ago Jaco and I were driving through one of the most unusual landscapes we’d ever seen. The tiny road showed us distant views of mountains, but on each side of us were fields. At first they looked almost desert-like. The vegetation was the color of wet sand. But as we drove we began to realize where we were. For here and there, deep channels in the yellowish vegetation showed the rich brown of the earth. Cut into perfect rows, it looked like chocolate. When we finally came upon humans, we knew for certain what this landscape was. It was a peat bog, and the men who were working in the fields weren’t planting crops, they were cutting turf.

In case you hadn’t figured it out, Jaco and I were driving in Ireland. To be more specific, we were on the Western coast of Ireland, near Connemara National Park, which has some of the world’s biggest and most productive peat bogs. The men we saw working were doing something people in Ireland have done for generations. They were cutting into the earth to create little peat logs that are used to heat homes throughout the country. While that drive was our first encounter with the bogs of Ireland, we were to see them frequently throughout our travels there, and the smell of peat burning—surprisingly pleasant—was a common scent in most of the towns and villages we passed.

I had heard of the practice of making fuel from peat but I didn’t really understand what it meant until I saw the peat bogs being cut in Ireland. In essence, these people have learned to turn mud into fuel. Special mud, for sure, but mud nonetheless. Unlike the mud pies of my childhood, these peat logs provide the only source of heat for many, even today. Burning mud—it just seems very strange to me but there it is.

I have always been a fan of mud, although until I went to Ireland I had never seen it burned in a fireplace before. As a child, growing up in Northern Virginia, I always loved it when spring came around and we could go out into the fields and woods that surrounded our home and get down and dirty with the earth. My mother started calling me "instant dirt" because I was so prone to find the most likely patch of mud to play in. There is something very pleasing about mud. Essentially just wet dirt, mud can be shaped into pies, it can ooze through your fingers and toes, it can splash all over you in the rain. Ask most any child and they will tell you that mud is fun.

Mud is also a critical link in the chain of life. Mud, or perhaps more accurately, soil, is a layer of finely chopped up rocks, humus (organic material from dead animals and plants) air and water. Soil covers most of the landmass on our planet. It is an essential building block in the creation of life. Without soil, plants can’t grow. It’s a necessary first step in the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.

While soil—or what I perhaps more colorfully prefer to think of as mud—may be essential in the chain of life, it isn’t very pretty. And because it’s so ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget just how important it is. In fact, mud is pretty darn common.

Marge Piercy, in her poem "To Be of Use" compares the everyday work of human beings, the work that forms the backbone of daily life, to mud. She writes that, "The work of the world is as common as mud." It’s not pretty, it’s not exciting, it’s common. But her poem doesn’t stop there. She reminds her readers that "Greek Amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used." We also know that they were made out of clay, which is one kind of dried mud. They are so beautiful that they sit in museums but they were made out of common mud to be used for common work: feeding the family, watering the garden, storing the goods we use each day.

The work of the world is as common as mud. Today I would like to suggest that mud is not only common, it is holy, too. And the work of the world that mud represents is also holy, and essential to the life we all share.

I think I know something about the common, holy work that Marge Piercy talks about. I have been a minister now for nearly 18 years. During that time I have learned a lot about myself and about congregational life. And one important thing I have learned is that congregations are a lot like gardens. They are lovely, yes but they are also messy and muddy.

When I first became a minister, I was full of excitement and energy. Like a gardener who spends the winter looking at pictures of beautiful flowerbeds, I had wonderful images of the blossoming of the congregation in my head. We would be deeply spiritual; we would provide the most exciting programs for adults, children and youth; we would speak truth to power; we would serve our community in ways no other congregation had before or since. And, of course, I dreamed it would be a place where people would live out of their best selves and never get angry, frustrated or bored. In essence, I had a vision of perfection in my starry eyes.

Such visions are not bad things. Like the pictures of perfect gardens in magazines, they provide us with ideal images of what could be. The problem is that, like the gorgeous garden, great congregations have to begin with mud.

What do I mean by this? No gardener can expect perfect roses to bloom without preparing the soil and getting her hands dirty in the spring. It’s easy to look at a garden in full flower in June and forget the muddy months of March and April that came before. Likewise a church cannot bloom without someone (or many someones) taking the time to prepare the ground. The wonderful blossoms of deep spiritual growth happen because someone was willing to make sure the church ground was fertile enough for such growth to happen.

The muddy tasks I am talking about are the daily acts of creating a church and ministry. Church life doesn’t just happen. People like yourselves have to get up early on Sunday to practice with the choir, make coffee, fold orders of service and so on. Someone also has to create the newsletter and make sure it gets mailed. Someone has to keep the books and pay the bills. Someone has to plan the Sunday school program and recruit the teachers. Someone has to copy the handouts and take care of the babies. Someone has to call the committee meetings and chair the board meetings and take minutes and remember what decisions were made.

At times it seems like the work of building and sustaining a congregation is endless, repetitious and just not much fun. So why is it necessary that we do it? I think it’s because the kind of wonderful spiritual growth we want our congregations to provide for our members and for the community around us can’t happen unless it has a strong institution undergirding it. That joyful encounter between an adult and a child during a Sunday school class cannot come about unless someone spent an hour on the phone recruiting just that teacher for just that class. That deep connection felt during a pastoral call is less likely to occur unless the minister has a church directory with the person’s name and phone number in it. The powerful witness some of you make on behalf of our faith at an anti-war rally could never be if someone didn’t make the commitment to be there. And the church office would feel awfully empty and the programs that happen here would never be if someone didn’t run the canvass and make sure there was enough money to pay for a professional staff.

And those powerful moments of epiphany that come during a worship service or during Enrichment Hour can’t happen unless someone has planned and prepared for them including making sure the door is unlocked.

This muddy work of creating institutions isn’t always sexy, it isn’t always fun, it isn’t always exciting. But it is essential. And it is holy. I am more and more convinced that developing strong institutions, which are the bearers of our liberal values, is spiritual work. In every community in every time since the beginning of human history, the work of preparing the garden for growth has been essential in the blossoming of meaningful change. Great change doesn’t happen unless there are people willing to do the hard and at times unrewarding work of maintaining the health of institutions that matter.

It matters that our congregations exist and grow strong. It matters in New York City, it matters in Chicago, in San Francisco, in Washington, DC and in other great cities. And it matters in Hanska, Minnesota, Woodinville, WA, Auburn, Maine, Southern Maryland and other small communities. It matters because the blossoms that grow from our muddy gardens are beautiful and meaningful and important and holy. We have something really wonderful to offer the world: an inclusive faith that challenges us to live up to the radical principles that all people have worth and dignity and that all life is interdependent.

This gospel, our good news, can make a huge difference in people’s lives. I know this because I have been a witness to the transformation that occurs when people enter into one of our communities and discover something here that allows them to blossom. For example, I will never forget Mack, who came to church broken in spirit from a difficult marriage and meaningless work. For weeks on end, he came and left, never connecting, only listening. One Sunday morning he tentatively asked if he might come to choir that week. Encouraged, he joined the small choir. In that circle of musical friends, he blossomed. Turns he was a very talented musician and eventually he went on to become a leader in the choir.

He worked on his life and changed it so he became happier than he had ever been before. During the time all this was happening, Mack also spent long hours at the computer, making choir schedules and lists, creating musical arrangements, and asking the church treasurer regularly for more money for music. He served on a music committee, helped out in his son’s Sunday school class, and even served on the committee to call a new minister. The fact that much of his time at the church was spent doing routine and less than exciting work does not belittle the truth of his experience. His spiritual life blossomed in the muddy soil of everyday life. It mattered that the church was there for him so he gave himself willingly to support its health and growth.

Many of us long for moments of insight, for profound conversations about the meaning of life, for that feeling of soaring grace that makes us know for certain we are not alone. All of these things can happen in congregational life. But congregational life can’t happen unless the people who create the congregation are willing to dig into the mud and prepare the ground. And surprisingly, it is sometimes when we are digging in the mud that the profound connections and transformations occur. I have seen people come alive with faith at committee meetings, in front of the copy machine, while folding the newsletter and even making coffee. One of the wonders of UU church life is that the boundaries between the sacred and the secular need not exist. Spiritual encounters can take place anywhere, even in the middle of a mud puddle.

And I think the metaphor of Holy mud doesn’t just end in the garden. The soil beneath our feet can be transformed into so many wonderful things. Peat becomes fire, clay becomes ceramic, sod becomes a house. Just so, the every day work of the world can be transformed for us into moments of joy. I have so many wonderful memories of church life that evolve around the daily work we do together. Whether it’s preparing meals at a homeless shelter or baking cookies with the six year olds; whether it’s a church clean up day or the youth group’s sojourn to help out at the All Souls food drive; whether it’s the monthly board meeting of the church or the local interfaith group—the simple work we do can provide the opportunity for growth and connection and even love to take place.

In the unison reading we spoke together early in the service, the Unitarians in Scarborough, England, express that in order for a congregation to be the kind of church we want it to be, we have to do the important and essential work of being the church. We have to be friendly and caring and generous and open to new people and new ideas and new growth. We have to do the hard and challenging work of maintaining an institution that will outlast us. We have to dig our hands into the common mud of life and from that mud bring forth a garden. When we are all these things then the church reflects what is best in us—and it becomes a community where real and wonderful things happen.

Strong congregations are filled with spiritual people who are willing to get their hands dirty. I believe that Paint Branch is a strong and vibrant congregation, for we are gardeners of the spirit, and the blossoms that grow from our gardens are beautiful, indeed, to behold.

As we reflect on the many gifts we have been given and will give to sustain this church we love, may we remember that the hard work of creating a living congregation is like the soil beneath our feet—essential to the life we share. May we have fun while we dig into the challenging opportunities we are given to sustain an institution that matters. May we never forget that out of the holy mud, out of the soil, the clay and the dirt, comes the blossoms that delight the eye, food that feeds the hungry, fuel that warms the heart and trees that shade us when the time comes to rest.

May each step we take remind us of the holiness of everyday life and may we, in this shared ministry here at Paint Branch, be blessed by its gifts.


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