BEING DUST: Ash Wednesday

by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

At 12,000 feet, my worry began to dissolve into the grandeur of the mountains as Rocky Mountain National Park stretched out before me. The previous several months had been so arduous that I practically crashed into a week of vacation. It took days to unwind and begin to relax, to release some of the dis-ease so present in my heart over all that I could not fix. As I gazed at the mountains, I felt something shift deep within me. It felt restorative. A phrase emerged that began to soften all the sharp edges of my anxiety and despair, “Awe is the most reliable cure for overwhelm.”

I repeated this phrase with every step as I drank in beauty, vast and incomprehensible. It was my utter smallness that began to form release from the tight grasp to control. Something about the immensity of the landscape, and the humility born of my vulnerability within it, put into perspective all that had been restricting full presence.

Holiness lives where awe and humility meet.

This is the message of Ash Wednesday. We remind each other on this sacred day, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) It may sound like doom and gloom or reason for public shame, but the point is far from self-deprecation.

“You are dust” triggers memory for ancient hearers of the creation story where God breathed life into the very dust of the earth, from which we came. (Genesis 2:7) Being dust is not a bad thing. It is the reality of our profound identity as member of a complex, interconnected family of creation. We are reminded that our very bones and muscles, flesh and breath come out of and are sustained by the earth, which is sacred. We are made of what is ancient. Every particle we consume has a lineage of life beyond our imagining. Consuming it, it becomes part of us. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, has passed through countless life forms throughout history. To consider the cosmic origins of the dust we are is even more breathtaking.

How could we ever have thought we were in this alone? On Ash Wednesday, we smudge the material stuff of earth upon our flesh and reaffirm our place within it.

It would be inauthentic to this text to simply dwell in the blessing of dust when these words to our ancestors sounded more like a curse, “… and to dust you shall return.” Just as we revel in the profound relatedness inherent in our dust-being, we are reminded of the profound consequence of living in denial of that relatedness. This consequence is not punishment. It is not meant to shame or place blame. When our lives are so radically and inextricably connected, everything has impact on the whole. The humble way of Lent invites us to restoration and reconciliation that begins with an acknowledgement of the ways we have walked upon the dust forgetting we are part of it.

If we could remember that our lives are holy connected beyond what we can know, perhaps the fear and anxiety of this time would dissipate into awe, as did my despair into the mountains. Humility may be the way to the redemption of the world.

On Ash Wednesday, we face the reality and inevitability of mortality with reverence. We remember just how fragile and fleeting life is. We ponder the source from which we came and seek to realign our lives more closely toward it. We allow ourselves to be captured by what is immense, to find surprising solace in what we cannot control or explain, to be saved by our smallness.

We confess what is broken because we yearn to be whole. This is less about a God who needs our confession, and more about humanity that needs to rekindle an awareness of what is truly sacred. God’s breath into the dust of our lives means that we are made of dust divine– ashes to ashes, dust to dust. From where we come we will return.

When our lives feel too frantic, when the world feels divided, when the pressures of the moment mount impassable within…
When our priorities are misplaced, our relationships strained, and the future unseen tempts hopelessness in our hearts…
May we pause to remember that we are dust, holy and connected.

May this Lenten path lead to the meeting places of humility and awe, where we are restored and made whole again.

BREATHING LIFE IN THE DIRT: Reflections for Ash Wednesday

By Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

Preparing for our Ash Wednesday service in Kirtland, I create a simple worship center using elements that evoke desert imagery. Rocks clank into a tall vase while sticks, moss, and sand fill other vessels. Last, I place a small glass bowl of ashes on the table.1920270_1558605997729894_2345018205482038198_n

I pause for a moment and realize this obvious connection that I almost overlooked. The ashes too are an element of earth. Everything I laid on the table has come from the earth, including my own hands that arrange and rearrange the settings, including the table itself. I am reminded of a quote by Annie Dillard, “All day long I feel created.  I can see the blown dust on the skin on the back of my hand, the tiny trapezoids of chipped clay, moistened and breathed alive.”

In one of the creation stories (Genesis 2), God breathes life into the dirt to give it form. What does it mean to consider our identity as holy dirt creatures moving around this earth, created mysteriously in the image of the Creator?

There is a weighted awareness in Ash Wednesday. The poetic and haunting phrase sings through my heart- ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It reveals what we so often resist. We are mortal, fragile creatures. We are made of matter and will one day be unmade. We are part of creation unfolding… one small part in an intricately connected universe. What we are made of we also depend on, literally, for each blessed breath. Incarnation takes seriously these physical realities and dares to name them sacred.

Lately, I’ve felt an ancient longing for awakened human senses. The asceticism of Lent is less about punishment than awakening! It is a desire to really feel and to trust that God is in whatever is most real whether pain or fear or delight or wonder. I spend so much of my life in sterile conditions- work to car to home, cell phone screen to computer screen to television screen.

The relational strain I feel this Lenten season is with my own humanness as a member of the community of creation. I can blame it on unceasing snow, but the truer reasons are busyness and numbness. Sometimes I feel too heart-tired to feel, which may be when I need to feel the most. The quickest path to humility can be out the front door into a world I did not make and cannot control in all its mystery, complexity, and stunning intricacy. “You ARE this,” the God-voice beckons within.

This is a day of humility, and willingness to gaze wide-eyed into the mystery. It is a day for confessing the ways that we have thought we were gods instead of fellow creatures still, always in process of being created with all other life. It is a day for repenting the ways we try to live separate from what is the source of our life- physically and spiritually. (I am having a harder time distinguishing a difference.)

Lent is this elemental vulnerability that practices seeing God in every condition; even death, even life. We hold out our hands and pray, “Breathe life in this dirt, O God. Become alive in the substance of me.” We mark ourselves with ashes to remember who we are. We await the breath of life that continues to create us.

(Starting on Sunday, February 22, we will be posting the daily practices found in the 2015 Lent Guide created by Community of Christ. You can follow along on this blog or with the PDF.)

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Click here for the PDF of the 2015 Guide for Lent