Mudpack: March 26, 2017

Yusuke Asai is an unusual painter.  The internationally renowned Japanese painter uses dirt as a medium for his highly detailed murals, with beautifully vivid and dreamlike content.[1]  That’s right, Yusuke Asai paints with mud.  He chooses dirt as his medium because, he says, “I can find dirt anywhere in the world and do not need special materials. Dirt is by nature very different than materials sold in art stores! Seeds grow in it and it is home to many insects and microorganisms. It is a ‘living medium.’”

My children, too, have discovered mud, as a living medium.  The relatively recent late melting snow, the puddling earth, and a vast expanse of yard is a fertile mix for small children, my little boys included.  On the same day as the mud discovery, my son approaches the kitchen door asking for a cup of water.  “I’m thirsty,” he says, with a gleam in his eye.  “Can I take the cup outside?” he questions, wondering if I will say yes to this.  “May I—“ I stress, “and yes—.”  Later, I peer out the window to see him and his brother mixing dirt with the water in a castoff birdbath at the edge of the yard.  They ask for a boat to float in the mud and I am tempted to give a lesson on mud’s sinking properties but do not.  They are covered in mud and having the time of their lives.  Yusuke Asai and his paintings give me hope for their future.

And so does Jesus.  In this story of Jesus healing the man-born-blind, Jesus uses mud as his preferred medium.  As a child, this story quickly became one of my favorites because in it, Jesus not only gets to play with mud, but he spits.  And that seems like a very unsavory and unsavior-like thing to do.  How much more human and earthy can one get?  And this spittle, mixed with the dirt of living, heals.  For all of our understandable concern for germs and our obsession with hand sanitizer, we worship a savior, a healer, who spits and is not afraid to get his hands caked with mud.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Jacob, and Jesus is mediated by way of mud.  Adam is the original “mudboy.”  Abba creates the world from dirt and calls it good.   Yusuke Asai creates beauty from mud with his God-given talent and the world says, “Ahhh.”

The Holy Divine is the not the great Mr. Clean-on-high, though we often portray God that way.  Even in this passage from John, holiness, cleanliness, and sin are all of a piece.  The man born blind is covered with an impromptu mudpack just after a conversation about sin, though his sin is not the cause of his distress; instead, the community is.  It is the community that isolates him and from whom he must resort to begging; it is the community that fails to address his need.  Jesus sends the man to wash in a pool which is called “Sent.”  To highlight the sending, the writer we call John has Jesus sent by God send the man born blind to the waters called “sent.”  Interesting.  And Jesus dirties the man himself, thereby getting his own hands dirty, and then sends the man off for a scrub.

In her book, Grounded: Finding God in the World, Diana Butler Bass writes of how our linkage between sin, dirtiness, and lack of holiness has been ultimately very damaging to forming a healthy ecology and a positive relationship with the earth. “Of course, most religions are not speaking of actual dirt as the problem of human moral failing; rather, clean and unclean are states of being nearer or farther from God.  But if ‘unclean’ and ‘being soiled’ become the dominant metaphors for sin, it is just a small step to the demonization of real dirt.  And removing, controlling, or subduing the earth is necessary to both spiritual salvation and human survival. If being dirty means we are an unclean people on an unclean land, dirt stands in the way of holiness and dinner.  Theologically, it can be difficult to experience soil as anything but a problem.”[2]

In our story, the disciples are overly concerned regarding how the man came to be born blind. Having born a differently abled child who was also blind, I cringe at this association between sin and difference, blindness and parental fitness.  The disciples ask about sin in the same manner that we demand to know both public and private fault-lines.  “Who did this?” we ask, as if this alone will resolve the issue, as if this question, of itself, would prevent future issues.  But a person is not an issue and a disability is not a moral failing.  Jesus answers that neither son nor parent is to blame; he was born that God might reveal his works, or rather, the beauty of God’s creation might be revealed in this particular person at this particular time.  How unlike this stance is when people are perceived only by what they lack and not by their positive attributes.  The man lacks sight yet he, alone, among the gathered community, sees fully.  After the mud and the bath, the man was deemed unrecognizable to the town, to the leaders, the disciples, and dare we suggest, to the man’s family because they knew him only by his perceived lack and not by his person or attributes.

We do the same thing, identifying people and children as issues or problems to be solved, noting their lack and not their gifts.  And we, like the disciples before us, too readily and neatly pin blame on the parents or the step-parents, and judge the moral failings of those we have easily written off.  And so, the immigrant child is punished for her parents’ decisions to risk their lives for a better life.  The poor pay more for their lack of education, resources, or ability to navigate, much less afford, healthcare.  The homeless are deemed unable to achieve shelter, as if shelter were an achievement, and not subject to the whim of circumstance, public policy, and affordability.  We are, as human beings, too ready to ascribe some moral lack of judgment to our neighbor that we would readily—and easily– forgive in ourselves.  And yet, Jesus declared that such judgments are really quite beside the point; when the time and the need are present before us, we would do better to do acts of healing while we are able, “while it is day,” for it will be dark soon enough and we have only limited time.

So it interesting that Jesus uses the most humble of means to kick-start the restoration of both the man born blind and his community…mud.  His spit and the earth’s grit combine to make a living medium of healing.

And that should give us pause.  Mud contains benefit—as both women and men over pay substantial amounts to have the messy stuff applied to their face and bodies in spa treatments the world over.   When I put a mudpack on my face and then wash it off, I am not so overly concerned about getting my face clean but about giving my skin the benefit of the minerals and the healing properties of the mud. So how might the dirt of your life—not the literal dirt—but the metaphorical silt and grit–  mixed with the taste of Jesus– become the seedbed for new growth?  E.L. Konigsburg writes, “The way I see it, the difference between farmers and suburbanites is the difference in the way we feel about dirt. To them, the earth is something to be respected and preserved, but dirt gets no respect. A farmer likes dirt. Suburbanites like to get rid of it. Dirt is the working layer of earth, and dealing with dirt is as much a part of farm life as dealing with manure. Neither is user-friendly but both are necessary.” [3]

Can the mud in your life be shaped into building blocks, in the same way that adobe shelters are made using mud bricks and straw?

Can you find those valuable elements or the holy dirt hiding in your crisis that might help you to draw more deeply on resources that you already have in you, at your core?

Yusuke Asai went to Sujata village in Northeast India and participated in a Wall Art festival there.  Sujata Village is a small village located in Bihar, an economically impoverished Indian state.  Asai painted the walls of the school in the Niranjana School along with other Japanese and local artists in order to raise awareness of how the children and villagers of Bihar live.  Yusuke Asai not only created beauty within sight of young schoolchildren who could not travel to an urban area, such as New Delhi, to see works of art, but he also brought the world to the village of Sujata through his talent and the local dirt, ash, and straw of the farmers there.[4]  He, as well as the other artists, did not leave the school children to potential isolation or alienation, but highlighted the beauty within their circumstances, while transforming the awareness of more privileged elites around the world.  By painting on the interior walls of the school building, Asai communicated to the children that they were worthy to see this art, and he transformed our inability to “see” beyond our own circumstances, privilege, or power.

I imagine that is what Jesus did with his spit and mud.

Your mud and my mud are not beyond God’s reach or God’s paintbrush.

Finally, for those unconvinced by a muddy theology or a muddy God, consider this quote by the writer, Tom Robbins: “Although the surface of our planet is two-thirds water, we call it the Earth. We say we are earthlings, not waterlings. Our blood is closer to seawater than our bones to soil, but that’s no matter. The sea is the cradle we all rocked out of, but it’s to dust that we go. From the time that water invented us, we began to seek out dirt. The further we separate ourselves from the dirt, the further we separate ourselves from ourselves. Alienation is a disease of the unsoiled.” [5]

Sisters and brothers, what will you do with your mud?  Your dirt just may contain the ingredients for another’s healing—and your own.






[2][2] Diana Butler Bass, Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution. (New York: HarperCollins, 2017) 57.

[3] E.L. KonigsburgThe View from Saturday.



[5] Another Roadside Attraction

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