The Elemental Spirits, 1: Earth
And God said, 'Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.' And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the water that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. —Genesis 1:9–10
A while back I was listening to a band that was popular when I was in high school and beyond. Earth, Wind & Fire was born here in Chicago and is probably the greatest band name of them all, way better than The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Other great band names: discuss amongst yourselves. The Supremes, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Beach Boys.
Earth, Wind & Fire. I thought maybe that would make a provocative sermon series, help us to expand our images of God beyond useful but threadbare metaphors like Parent, Royal, Potentate, Creator, Provider, and the like.
The band name Earth, Wind & Fire is a curtsy to ancient Greek philosophy, which taught that the basic building blocks of everything in the universe were earth, wind, fire, and water. For the ancient Greeks beginning with Plato, the irreducible, indivisible constituent elements of everything we can see were these four common phenomena. Earth, wind, fire, and water were for the ancient Greeks the equivalent of the chemical elements in our periodic table: oxygen, hydrogen, gold, iron, etc. Do you remember your sixth-grade science class?
When we pick up a rock and ask “What is it made of? What are its building blocks?” we say it’s composed of iron, magnesium, silicon, and carbon. The ancient Greeks said its building blocks are earth, water, and air.
These four integral elements were so important philosophically and practically that from the beginning the Greeks personified them. They became spirits, or divinities, or demigods: the elemental spirits.
We still do this today. We personify them. “Lake Michigan was angry yesterday.” A family in New South Wales who lost a home to the fires is living on their property in a horse trailer to keep an eye on their dogs and horses and cattle. One woman said, “The fire is like a sentient being that is coming to get us.” A reporter said that the fires are “villains that stick around long enough to reveal their personalities. Firefighters swear at them for their cunning unpredictability.” The fires are malevolent, which means, literally, “to will evil.”
Earth is the third rock from the sun, and it is a rock, the densest of all the planets. It orbits a star. Right now, you and I are hurtling through empty space at 66,000 miles per hour.
It is the only goldilocks planet that we know of, close enough to its life-giving star so that cells can synthesize its radiant energy but far enough away so that most of the earth most of the time doesn’t feel like New South Wales.
Earth is the only planet not named for a Greek or Roman god. ‘Earth’ comes from the old Anglo-Saxon word ‘ground,’ a place to stand. The densest planet, all rock, and metal.
In that creation story I read a moment ago, did you notice that God’s essential task is to separate stuff and gather stuff up into the right place? When God starts working on God’s masterpiece, all that’s there is “a shapeless void,” Tohu wa bohu in Hebrew; I love that ancient pictorial phrase. It’s just all primordial muck, primeval goo. There is no light and dark, no sky or earth, no water or dry ground, just a giant swamp. It looked like the Everglades before mangroves and alligators, no place to stand.
So God gets busy gathering the light into one place that God calls ‘day’ and the dark into another place that God calls ‘night.’ And then God separates the waters above the earth from the waters below the earth. God puts a dome over the earth. God makes Earth into a colossal Ford Field, or Vikings Dome. And then God tidies up the swamp. God gathers the waters into enormous basins that God calls ‘oceans,’ and God gathers the rock and soil into another place that God calls terra firma. In this ancient creation story God is a celestial Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
We need a place to stand, literally and figuratively. We need soil to take root in and be anchored, held fast, literally and figuratively. We can’t be tumbling aimlessly through empty space like Sandra Bullock in Gravity or flailing around like a ship-wrecked sailor in angry seas. Do you have a place to stand? I don’t mean literally because I can see you out there, pinned to your pew by the magic of gravity, but figuratively: are you anchored?
Did you ever think of ‘ground’ as an image for God? That’s the way the twentieth-century German-American theologian Paul Tillich pictured God, not as a white-robed, white-bearded, white male patriarch of the skies, but the ground of being.
Dr. Tillich—University of Chicago, by the way—Dr. Tillich said that it was not proper to talk about God’s existence. In his typically blunt and provocative way, Dr. Tillich said, “God does not exist.” God does not exist, at least not like an elephant exists, or Mount Rainier, or Abraham Lincoln. God is not a being among other beings, not even the Supreme Being. God is the precondition of all that exists, the GROUND of being. God is where we come from, God is where we stand, God is where we take root and grow.
Are you grounded in God? Well you ARE grounded in God. All of us are grounded in God, even the most implacable atheist. God is our origin. But are you GROUNDED in God, the Ground of Being? In the Ten Commandments, in the life of the Nazarene, in the unfailing, unstinting grace of the Deity, in the love that the New Testament says God is, without remainder? Are you anchored there?
So who’s going to win the NCAA championship tomorrow night? I know who’s going to win. I can give you an ironclad, money-back guarantee. The Tigers are going to win. I got fascinated this week with LSU Coach Ed Orgeron. He’s from there, a homegrown coach. He’s Down the Bayou, south of New Orleans. Most Americans didn’t know there was a south of New Orleans, but Coach O is from there.
That voice, that anti-James-Earl-Jones, anti-Garrison-Keillor, graveled, grinding-gears texture. Nobody will ever hire Ed Orgeron to read audio books or do voice-over commercial. But also, the accent, that gumbo of French, Cajun, and Deep South, a former defensive end from LSU said, “Finally, LSU has a coach without an accent.”
The Washington Post had the most wonderful article about Coach O’s origins. The article said that in his voice you hear gators sloshing, mosquitos buzzing, muskrats swimming, Spanish moss hanging, shrimp trawlers winching.
He is, the article said, the embodiment of ‘Down the Bayou.’ ‘Down the Bayou’ is not a place; it’s not a direction. It’s a sense of origin, a sense of the ground you came from. It’s somebody’s character. It means deeply rooted, way out there, deep in Louisiana. It’s not a vector point. It’s a mindset. It’s a framework for identity. ‘Down the Bayou’ is who somebody is. I love to think about a guy who is grounded in the soil he comes from, and then becomes the ground other young men can find a home and get anchored in.
Are you grounded in God? Are you anchored in your family? Are you planted in your neighborhood or community or congregation, and do you then contribute there and become the grounding for others, especially the young? Do you flourish and flower in your friendships? Are you rooted in your primary relationship, with your spouse or your partner?
Well Dudley’s gone, and we married off both our children this year, so the house was feeling a little empty and silent, so we took care of that last Saturday by driving to Door County and picking up a puppy. He was eight weeks old when we met him, from a litter of ten puppies, seven boys and three girls. When we took him away from his brothers and sisters, I briefly questioned the whole process of pet ownership. Just for a moment, but it was a little sad. It seemed so unkind. He’d spent every night of his life sleeping in an entangled pile of golden fur. And then, poof, they’re all gone.
So the first night in his new home didn’t go so well. We put him in his spacious, pleasant kennel in the family room and went to bed on the second floor. For two straight hours—until I got up and slept on the couch with him for the rest of the night—for two straight hours, he let loose with harrowing screeches straight from the fifth circle of Dante’s Inferno. All different kinds of vocalizations, all different levels of pitch from shrill to piercing, all calculated to communicate his existential despair, his absolute comprehensive abandonment. He was alone in the universe. He was completely unmoored.
I told someone it was kind of interesting to witness 60,000 years of evolution at work: down the eons, only the screechiest puppies survived, because mama dogs and human observers could not stand to listen to it for one more second. So now the kennel sits flush up against my side of the bed, and that works better. A little.
His name is Dug. Kathy calls him Douglas and I call him Doogie. Remember the canine protagonist from the 2009 Pixar film Up, about an older man named Carl who’s just lost his beloved wife? Carl is completely disconsolate and wants to be alone and pushes all other creatures out his life, but Russell the Boy Scout and Dug the golden retriever—“Squirrel!”—befriend him.
Ken Harris reminded me why Dug is so important in the movie and so theologically fitting. Dug can talk, and he says to the bereft Carl, “My name is Dug. I have just met you, and I love you.” Doesn’t matter who you are, or what you will do, I will love you—unconditional love. Dog is God in the mirror—sort of. And that is the Ground of our Being, all of us, every one. Unconditional love.
Reported by Damien Cave and Livia Albeck-Ripka, “Australians Already Hit Face New Round of Fires,” The New York Times, January 11, 2020.
Chuck Culpepper, “You Can Learn about Ed Orgeron just from the Sound of His Voice,” The Washington Post, December 26, 2019. Slightly adapted.