Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ash Wednesday

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.

Today is about death. Your death. My death. There’s no sugar-coating or watering it down. We are dust and to dust we WILL return.

And you came to hear this message. Many of you were here last year as well, so it’s not as if this was a case of bait-and-switch. You knew what you were getting into when you laced up your boots, put on your coats, and negotiated the dirty streets to get here.

You arrived expecting to hear that “you are dust and to dust you will return.” And if you didn't hear that message, you might just turn around and walk out.

And it’s not as if you didn’t have other options. Especially when we’ve had the first beautiful day in months and an evening walking might have been mighty tempting

But something drew you to this place to hear this specific message, a message that you probably wouldn’t hear anywhere else: “remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Maybe you’ve come because you have questions about life, death, and what comes after. Maybe you’ve been told a story of what a fulfilling life is supposed to be but that story doesn’t sit well in your ears. You want to know how life and death connect. You want to know that your life means something.

Maybe you’re asking: what DOES make a fulfilling, purposeful life? Does my life matter in some grand scheme?

Often we answer those questions by saying that we need to build something that will outlast us: establish a business, build a school in Peru, create a thriving church, write a book.

Or we say that it’s not our accomplishments that make life fulfilling, but the love we’ve given and received along the way; the deep human connections that tell us that we are not alone, that we are truly known, and we know others with the same closeness.

But our accomplishments are fleeting: Churches close. Schools crumble. Businesses get sold. Books sit unread. Our labor doesn’t live on much longer after we’re gone.

And, every relationship ends, whether by distance, by conflict, or by death. We will, one day, part ways with those whom we cherish the most, we’ll say goodbye to the one we love most deeply. With great love comes great loss.

So maybe you ask, what’s then, the point? If everything dies, our dreams, our accomplishments, our relationships, then why bother with any of it?

If life means nothing, then all we can do is live for the moment because any moment could be our last. If we try to create immortality through our accomplishments then we’ll find ourselves empty handed when our lights are finally turned off. If we’ll say good-bye to everyone some day, then why get close to people at all?

What, then, do we do?

Do we then fulfill every selfish desire or follow every guttural instinct for pleasure, since everything we are and know can be snatched away from us in a failed heartbeat? How do we live with the knowledge that our entire existence will dissolve into nothing?

We are dust, and to dust we will return.

I guess the question is, how do we respond to our dustiness? Do we hunker down afraid to leave the house? Do we deny our mortality and live lives of quiet mediocrity, wasting countless hours watching silly sit-coms and poisoning our bodies with junk food, as if each day will be followed by another in endless succession?

Or do we see life as a gift that is not ours’ to keep? Our lives are not our own since they could be taken from us at any moment.

We can respond in gratitude for what we’ve been given. We can respond by living a life that matters, if only for a season; a life that connects deeply with those around us; a life that is not just about consuming, but also about giving. A life not for ourselves, but a life offered to others to be shared.

Knowing - really knowing - that we are dust and to dust we will return can make us more generous, more kind, more gracious. Maybe that’s the gift of death, if death can be said to be a gift. Knowing that we are fragile and finite beings brings us together in common cause to create something new and beautiful each day.

Our dustiness can remind us that we have children, not just because we have a primal urge to procreate, but so we can learn to love all children.

We chase after our dreams, not just to leave something of ourselves behind after we’re gone, but so we can use our gifts to build on what God is doing.

We create strong relationships, not to use others for selfish gain or lustful desire, but because we’re created to connect. We long to share ourselves.

The rarity and preciousness of a finite life are magnified by a God who sees us through the eyes of eternity. A God who has defeated the power of death. A God who knows that our end is God’s beginning.

Remembering that we are dust and to dust we will return is to remind ourselves of the finitude of life AND the miracle of resurrection. We cannot separate the two.

Our relationships end. Our bodies give out. Our accomplishments are momentary.  Everything on earth dies.

But God does not. God is at work making everything new, breathing life into everything that falls and fails. Second chances rise out of failure. Forgiveness is born from conflict. Healing emerges from pain.

Our end is God’s new beginning. Our finale is God’s overture. Our final buzzer is God’s opening whistle.

This we know by faith. By trust. By hope. There’s nothing else we can do. We have no other option. We are only dust.



Post a Comment

<< Home