Ash Wednesday 2013

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

To be called ‘dirt’ is a pretty rough insult. It carries connotations of sleaze.  Being dust is dirty, and dirty is shameful, because ‘you should be clean,’ says the voice inside. The little boy who is in trouble because his clothes got dirty becomes the man who feels shame because he’s not perfect. Because he’s dusty and dirty from the journey.

There’s an aspect of repentance to Ash Wednesday that gets wrapped up in that aspect of the ‘dirt’ image. I’ve spent many years avoiding the shame of Ash Wednesday, of confession and repentance––”I’m not dirt! Those other people are, but I’m good. I’m clean.” And then I spent many years relishing it––”I’m dirt. I’m ugly, dirty, messed up.” It was all about shame.

But tonight, as I smeared dirt on the foreheads of my congregation, I experienced those words differently: you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Yes, there’s the scolding side of those words. The loving slap-in-the-face Get over yourself! moment that resets perspective. God putting Job in his place with the speech that begins (Job 38:4-5 in the Message translation),

Where were you when I created the earth? Tell me, since you know so much! Who decided on its size? Certainly you’ll know that! …

It’s the loving scolding of the One who sees me with true clarity and knows my need for an ego reset. It’s the moment in the old movie Airplane when the hysterical passenger is ‘aided’ by the fight attendant’s shoulder-shaking & slap across the face. “Get ahold of yourself!” I’m forced awake from my hysterical messiah complex. I am not the savior of the world. I’m not the savior of my church. I’m not the savior of my family. I’m not the savior of myself. It’s a message that can hurt, but it’s also a message that saves me from my own self-destructive frantic scurrying. It’s Good News.

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

There’s another side to these words that’s even better news. As I’m awoken from my own messiah complex, I’m reminded, as was Job, that there is a Messiah. I am dust, and to dust I shall return, but there’s life abundant all around me, and I had nothing to do with its genesis. God is a Creator who makes life like me out of dirt, and my eventual return to the dirt, the ground, the humus, makes me human. And that’s all I’m asked to be. God isn’t telling me I should be figuring everything out. God isn’t demanding that I get it all together. God isn’t calling me to fix my self, my family, or my church. All those demands are coming from me. God is reminding me to be human, to be the dust from which I was made and to which I will return. God is calling me dirt, and it’s a loving reminder that sounds more like It’s okay, I’ve got this. You just be you. Dust. Humus. Human.

I hear loving encouragement tonight: The gracious giver of life who turns dust into me will also turn the dust of my congregation into a vibrant community. The longsuffering God of Job and of Israel and of Peter and of the messed-up Church looks with smiling eyes into mine, grips my shoulders with gentle, firm hands, and reminds me that I am already all that God needs in this partnership. I don’t need to try to do both parts. Just show up and be me. That’s what the dirt smeared on my forehead reminds me.

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