Walking through a bookstore, the end cap of religion books drew my eye. The movie, Heaven Is For Real, had just been released. The film, based on the book by the same name, is about a boy’s near-death experience. As part of its promotion, the store featured a dozen books about miracles, near-death experiences, and going to Heaven. Most of them claimed to offer evidence – either scientific or spiritual – for the afterlife, the paradise “up” or “out there” where the dead dwell with God.
I stared at the books. We are confused about “Heaven,” talking about it as both a place and a state. Heaven, as a state in the afterlife – well, who really knows about that? What happens after we die has always seemed to me a great mystery, something that is only hinted at and that must be approached with profound humility.
But “Heaven” as a place is not much of a mystery. Traditionally it is the divine real estate at the top level of the old three-tiered universe, but that structure is giving way to a different sacred arrangement. We are here, on this planet, walking around on the same ground, depending on the soil for life. And God is with us. Earth is not an illusion, a tragic dream, or a spiritual metaphor. Earth is definitely for real. Finding God in the dirt allows us to experience faith in new ways. What farmers have known for centuries, many are just now beginning to understand, whether through gardening or experiencing the holiness in dirt.
Early one morning, I walked around my garden barefoot. Reaching down, I scooped up a handful of soil and examined it closely, appreciating the loam. The ground was damp with morning dew under my toes. The tomato plants stood tall, the zucchini spread out everywhere and contended with the cucumbers for taking up the most space. There were bees and hummingbirds and tiny gold finches flying among the fruit and flowers. I pressed the soil against my cheek and recalled some words from poet Mary Oliver:
The god of dirt
came up to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things, I lay
on the grass listening
to his dog voice,
frog voice; now,
he said, and now,
and never once mentioned forever.
(One or Two Things)
I glanced again at the clod in my hand. Had I ever believed that God was in a far-off place called Heaven? For that matter, was I ever spiritually satisfied worshipping God inside a building with four walls and no connection to the world outside? Over the decades, faith has taken me increasingly toward the soil, not away from it. To this garden, to the Earth. And God is here. God the Earth-Maker, God the Gardener. God the Ground of Being.
“We are not tourists here,” writes philosopher Mary Midgly. “We are at home in this world, because we were made for it.” (Body of God)