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.

Christ Brings Peace

by David R. Brock

A sister in Christ came to my office last week . . . longing for peace. Her mate of many years died a year ago. By the first anniversary of his death she anticipated some healing, a returning flicker of hope. But she felt empty. The only interruption in a long silence was an unbidden whisper of her own unanswered questions: “Why, God? What meaning or purpose now? Can I trust you? Are you there, God?”

Yesterday I was reading psalms of praise and found myself asking similar questions. I couldn’t help it: “Do you really make justice and praise spring up before all the nations, God? Are you really the One who keeps faith forever? Justice for the oppressed? Food for the hungry? The captives set free? Sight for the blind? Protection for strangers, fatherless, and widows? Thwarting the wicked and establishing peace? Really?”

“Look at your creation! Talons and piercing claw, fang and crushing jaw; life robbed by stealth on silent wings; deceiving beauty that lures to the snare; agonizing death rattle of the innocent slain . . . And we haven’t yet arrived at the ‘little lower than the angels’ creature called human! Such capacity for peacemaking and creativity; such a legacy of violence and destruction, your humans, Creator, among whom ‘hate is strong and mocks the song / of peace on earth . . . .’”

I drank coffee and read the psalter in the pre-dawn darkness yesterday. Then, with a fresh cup to warm my hands and throat, sat lakeside to watch first light paint a turquoise sky and tinge gray mist to crimson as it lifted from the water. An unplanned prayer of praise, “Wow!” escaped into the morning. I couldn’t help it!

“This morning I have had the God-experience for which I have yearned so long,” says W. Paul Jones in A Table in the Desert. “I know what it means to name the Name . . . . Is God present? Everywhere, enormous in breadth, expansive in depth, and beyond us all in imagination and memory. God is the emerging consciousness which darts in and out, through and for, behind and in front, to be encountered . . . . [251-252]

In the afternoon I watched Monarchs fluttering by under that same cloudless sky. Migrating, it seemed, on a fall-of-the-year pilgrimage toward home. I felt like I was home. I couldn’t help it! And I remembered the home about which G. K. Chesterton writes in “The House of Christmas”:

To an open house in the evening
Home shall [people] come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all [people] are at home.

Jones says that a common heresy among Christians is to think of Christmas as a once-and-for-all event. We try to limit God to entering human history for thirty-three years then returning to the realm “above.” We then struggle with how a miracle that happened two thousand years ago can transform our lives and world now. Christmas is not primarily about a remembrance of things past. We are not condemned to look backward, trying to give new life or add frills to an old story. The Christian God is the One who was and is and promises forever and always to be Emmanuel, God with us. The incarnation is what God does throughout time and space—in all dimensions of the cosmos and all moments of history. [Facets of Faith, pp. 26-27]

Today, carrying all my unanswered questions, along with those of a sister who cannot feel or hope in her season of grief, I stop at 1:00 p.m. to pray the prayer of peace with Community of Christ around the world. “Christ, bring peace,” I plead.

And today, at the prayer for peace, the Daystar shines into my darkness. I look up, see, know, and know I do not know. “Christ brings peace,” I proclaim:

It is you, Jesus, born of Mary, who grants us
to say “forgive me, please,” to our families.
You teach us to pronounce “healing”
in hospital rooms, to plead “reconcile”
in our places of work, to proclaim “justice”
when we call on government representatives.
And you, Christ, in the dark of our own
weary nights, whisper in us, “Shalom.”

God, Eternal Word made flesh,
speak the language of peace
stanza by stanza into all your creation
this Christmas, and always, we pray,
in Jesus’ name.

Spiritual Practice: Pause today to pray for peace as we anticipate the One who is already here and always coming.

Community of Christ Daily Prayer for Peace: http://www.cofchrist.org/daily-prayer-for-peace

SILENT BEFORE THE MYSTERY

Lenten Practice: Silence
Daily Act: Practice Silence.
Weekly Prayer Phrase: Repeat this phrase slowly as you breathe deeply. You may choose to memorize this phrase and repeat it throughout your day.

“HOLY MYSTERY, I AM SPEECHLESS IN YOUR PRESENCE.”

From the Community of Christ Guide for Lent: 

Practicing silence reminds us that relationship with God is a mutual, reciprocal act. In silence, we take the time to listen intently and be present with God without words. Often, our most profound spiritual experiences cannot be fully described. We know that in times of distress (Romans 8) the Spirit prays for us hearing the groans of our hearts that are too deep for words.

Intentional time in silence allows us to be fully present with God without the confines of language. As we enter Holy Week, the full implication of life as a disciple brings with it a weighted hush. There are moments when words are inadequate and our most faithful response is to stand humbly before the mystery.

Practicing silence may be difficult at first. The mind may run wild, and centering in God’s presence could take some spiritual effort! Allow yourself grace in this practice and the ability to slowly ease into longer periods of silent reflection.

Perhaps you begin in silence for 5–10 minutes and then write in a journal or pray about your experience. Breathe deeply. Focusing on each breath in and out can help quiet the mind and center you in God’s Spirit.

Become aware of your surroundings; notice how the air feels on your skin; trust that you are in the presence of the holy—fully surrounding and embracing you. Don’t expect that God will speak to you in a certain way. Just open yourself to what is.

Allow your inner conversations to stop for a while, being fully present with the one who is fully present with you.

After being silent for a while, offer a prayer of gratitude for God’s constant presence whether you are fully aware of it or not. Pray that you may continue to draw closer to God and discover what God is saying and doing within you.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 

Romans 8:26, NRSV