“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. These are the words uttered as we receive ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Let’s be honest — we really don’t like being called dust! Being referred to as dust is like being told you are nothing, useless, of no value. It brings up every feeling of inferiority that we have experienced in our lives. How can this be a good way to start this holy season of Lent?
The dust reference is not designed to make us feel worse about ourselves. That’s not what Jesus is all about. The dust reference invites us to remember the impermanence of life. It invites us to stop and remember that all the things we concentrate on day in and day out — all the things we worry about, strive for, take pride in — they are all going to pass away. None of it is permanent. Saying “remember you are dust” is another way of saying “remember that your job, your house, your belongings, your 401K, your physical health, even your relationships, they are all going to end someday. Only one thing will last forever, and that is your soul — your connection to God.”
This past month I attended a day long meditation retreat. During the course of the retreat, we recited the 5 Reflections of Buddha together. They are:
“I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
Everyone I love and all that I hold dear are of the nature of change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My deeds are my closest companions. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.”
To be honest, I’m still grappling with the last one! But the first four spoke powerfully to me. Life is impermanent. All of it. Lent is a time to stop and ponder that reality and see how that awareness changes how we live and how we see God. Ashes are the symbol of that impermanence. And that is why we start with that symbol today.
So — how do we begin to ponder this reality? And how do we find God in the midst of it?
i invite you to establish for yourself this Lent a kind of “Rule of Life” — things you will do each day to help you go deeper and see what is beyond the physical aspect of life. The image at the top of this post invites us a kind of Rule of Life. It says “Prayer. Fasting. Works of Love.”
Prayer — Why not make a commitment to 10 minutes a day and 1 hour a week? Spend ten minutes a day in silence, listening to the small voice within that is God. Turning off the noise and settling in to the silence is a great way to start recognize the eternal in the midst of our busy lives. And why not commit to worshipping each Sunday with your faith community? The fact is we cannot even attempt to live this Way of Jesus on our own. It is not something meant to be done in isolation. We need each other. We need the reminder of what Jesus calls us to be in this world, and we need the support from knowing that others are trying to live this Way with us. Both of those things are present in Sunday worship. Commit to being part of it each week this Lent.
Fasting — I remember a conversation I had with one of my kids about giving up something for Lent. They were going to eat healthy for Lent. And I said, “That’s a great practice. And how does that help you become more aware of God?” Blank stare. Everyone at St Thomas hears me say this every year: Lent is not a self improvement program. The purpose of giving something up is not to show how much will power we have. The point of fasting from something is to make room for God. The absence of whatever we are fasting from helps remind us of the presence of God. So when we have a craving for that chocolate we gave up, it reminds us of a deeper craving for our souls to be at rest in God. And the lack of chocolate opens an opportunity to pray at that moment of craving. That’s the point of fasting. It’s not bout endurance or discipline or any of those things that make us proud. It’s about awareness — awareness of what lies beyond the craving. Awareness of what our souls are really longing for.
And maybe what you need to fast from this Lent is anger. Or jealousy. Or self loathing. Or guilt — or any of those things within us that really block us from experiencing the love that is all around us. Worth a thought.
Works of Love — This year at St Thomas, I gave each of our kids a poster with a path that has forty squares on it leading to Easter. Each square is blank and at the bottom of the poster is “How did you show God’s love today?” I invited the kids to write in the square each day what they did to show God’s love. it’s not a bad idea for us adults as well! Decide each day to look for opportunities for show God’s love to others — strangers and loved ones alike. Keep a journal of what you did each day. See how God spoke to you through those encounters.
The theme for Lent this year is forgiveness. I will be writing more throughout the season about this. But for today, remember that you are loved, and cherished and honored by a God that loves you beyond your wildest imagination. And remember, as well, that you are dust.