Today, as a part of beginning this Lenten season, I took a picture. Each day in Lent, I will be taking a picture that coincides with a word from Scripture during the Lenten season and then contemplate where that picture takes you in connection with the story of Scripture and our lives. Everyday taking a picture and posting it to #lent2015. Appropriately enough, today’s prompt was “dust” and as you might imagine most of the pictures I saw posted to Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram were of the ashes we’re wearing tonight. I decided to take a picture that was not the expected. I could just take a picture of the dust of the ashes, but I was looking for something more connected to me than that. Something that spoke of our daily existence and what it comes down to. I ended up instead, taking a picture of dryer lint.
And you know, if you stop and think about it, dryer lint tells a story- it not only tells what you were wearing and using, but where we have been. It tells of our living, reacting and responding. Look closely enough and it tells our struggles and failures, frustrations and heartaches. And it tells our joys and hopes and dreams pursued.
And especially with children, that dust came complete with the occasional partial Kleenex, candy wrapper, loose change or ticket stub interspersed. Each representing the sadnesses, celebrations, losses and triumphs of a life.
Perhaps that little label “Clean after each cycle” reminds us that dustiness is our reality but God longs for us to start anew. Dustiness is what we all share.
Young and old, at the end of the day, what is left, is our dust, and frankly, scientifically, we also carry the dust of others. And if you’ve ever gone to the laundromat, and had the dryer someone else forgot to clean, you know the moment- having to clean up someone else’s dust. It’s hard enough dealing with our own. In any event, at the end of the day, the week, a life, what we see is what we leave- dust.
Today we are reminded of our dust.
And as we look around the world, we see it on a larger scale- the giant swirls of trash in the ocean, those piles now sometimes given names, which breaks my heart; the belching of factories taking life up and downstream and people can’t breathe from all the dust; and the unquenchable thirst for violence reducing people and places to dust in ways the prophet Joel couldn’t even fathom. As we ponder how on earth we can possibly overcome these forces that seem to inevitably point to destruction, what we see is our limitation, and our frailty.
Today we are reminded we are but dust. The ashes more vividly remind us of our dust, our ashness.
Years ago, as we took our children to church for Ash Wednesday , it was the day most feared. And it all started when Catherine was very young. We carried her forward for ashes as a preschooler, at an age just old enough to be aware. Our pastor at the time had a booming voice and a particularly large thumb. There was our girl, confronted by this seemingly enormous black thumb approaching her, too close, and the voice thundered “Remember you are dust. And to dust you shall return!”
And perhaps in the truest response to such a pronouncement, she responded perhaps as we all might, or might want to. In a high pitched lament, she cried out, “Noooooooo!” And burst into tears. While at first we laugh, if we stop and think about it, perhaps she expressed what if we allowed ourselves to think it, was our response.
If we allow ourselves to think it, we can see our mortality. Today we are reminded we will be dust. Today we are reminded of our dust.
And that is for me the thing about Ash Wednesday- that cross we bear breaks into our world and tells us what we try not to hear, or contemplate. It breaks in and speaks intimately, too close.
Yet, as soon as we say return to the Lord, we are already feeling that “too close.” And amidst the ashes of our lives are, as Walter Brueggeman writes, “burdened with the tasks of the day, (and) we are already halfway home, halfway back to committees and memos, halfway back to calls and appointments, halfway on to next Sunday, halfway back, halfway frazzled, half expectant, half turned toward you, half rather not.”
Please don’t make us confront our ashness. The consequences of our living, the limitations of our control and our frailty. How totally opposite that cross is to our world which attempts to minimize and sanitize, or to dominate and isolate any experience of what real life and death involve. We would rather insulate ourselves.
We’d rather not hear the prophet pleading-consider your ashes, and consider how far you’ve strayed. We’d just as soon not look at how many layers insulate us from reality. That black thumb my daughter feared, you see, truly represented our reality. And while we have over the years made receiving ashes a once a year act-saying “we got ashes.” There is the truth- we’ve always got ashes.
Brueggeman writes in his poem “Marked by Ashes”
“All our Wednesdays are marked by ashes- we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth; of failed hope and broken promises, of forgotten children and frightened women, we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust; we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.”
And what is the response to this? Today at Bible study we talked about someone’s experience in worship on Ash Wednesday of a garment being torn- rending a garment is no small act. And act of mourning, or of contrition. The ripping open of what seems to be woven and fused together. And comparing that to our hearts. As God, our God calls to us to rend, to break open our hearts and return. Break through those layers of ash and insulation so we not only see the reality of our ashes, we see the reality of our Lord,
It’s not too late- come back to me. Fast from your ashness-from the ashes we bear each day. The ones we bring to this place each week. To come and experience changed hearts.
Come back to the God who is YOUR God. Who is not just saying, but begging, pleading, longing. God’s heart is torn by our absence. God longs to restore us and take our ashes. And make us new.
Richard Lischer writes, “it is only in Jesus that (our ashes) are gathered together in the shape of a cross. Time and time again we bring them to him, and then return to our mortal lives with something far better.”
The God who formed us out of chaos and ashes, gives us new form in Christ. Out of these ashes.
As Marcia Shultz writes, there is promise in the ashes
“No! I thought.
No black cross
Not on my forehead
No revealing mark
Take up your cross
God’s best work
Marked as acceptable
Acceptable to God
Not by my will
But Christ alone
Bearing the Cross
Wearing the Cross
The sign of the promise
By Christ alone.
This is the journey we enter and we pray to our God who promises that dustiness may be our reality but not our destiny.