Ashes and Dust- Time, Love and New Life

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Confession time. This isn’t going to be a post with anything profound theologically. This isn’t going to be some great stewardship piece. No, this is purely a personal reflection of the jumbled thoughts that are in my head, the smorgasbord of feelings on my heart, and an attempt today to try and make some sense out of it all. 

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

image from david hansen
A fitting picture to capture today’s multiple purposes, as created by friend and pastor David Hansen.

After a few decades, I have gotten used to sharing my birthday with Valentine’s Day. Like a friendly stranger mentioned to my wife and I while enjoying a good brunch and early lunch today, “that’s got to be quite the blessing and the curse.” Many years of this combination has taught me that trying to go out for dinner on my birthday, isn’t always easy or wise.

This year is a bit different though. It’s also Ash Wednesday. Most people with February birthdays have probably shared their birthday with this solemn and holy day at the start of Lent before, but I have not. Ash Wednesday hasn’t fallen on Valentine’s Day since 1945, but it will happen again in the 2020’s. So, it’s kind of an odd occurrence in a way. Sharing a birthday with Ash Wednesday puts a new spin on the significance of facing our mortality, just as having any birthday might do, if we let it. It puts a new and perhaps deeper sense of time on this birthday observance.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Today I will hear these words in worship. Today I may even help say these words and distribute ashes too. These words are first shared often by a pastor. In my case today, they will happen to be words coming from the mouth of my wife and Valentine. These are words of reminder. They could be morbid words, if we let them be. But they are also words of promise. This isn’t the whole story. Though coming to terms with our own mortality, and facing and talking about death is a good thing. It’s a healthy thing. It’s something we certainly don’t do enough of.

That being said, I heard from a friend this week about their trepidation of having to say these words and mark ashes on the forehead of their own child. That’s a hard thing to imagine. To say these words to your own child, and this is becoming all too real for me. As at the end of this Lenten season which begins today, in all likelihood my wife and I will welcome into the world our first child.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This literal new life, has already captivated our imagination. It fills us with joy and hope. It also fills us with moments of terror and fear. But most of all, I think I am feeling a deep sense of gratitude.

I am grateful for the doctor who continues to tell Allison that she is a rock star. I am grateful for the family which we know loves us and surrounds us, even if at a distance. I am grateful for the friends and support network which is far too numerous to count or share. I am grateful for the group of area pastors and congregations who collected diapers for two new young ministry families in the midst of births and births to come. I am grateful for our congregation which is hosting a shower for us later this week, and continues to be a wonderful faith community to be a part of. I am grateful for colleagues who are some of the best friends and teammates I have ever had. And I am grateful for God who calls us into all of these relationships, and who continues to bring new life, hope, joy, and purpose out of the ashes and dust.

Maybe this is where I am at this year. In recognizing that there is so much work to be done in the world and in society- to feed the hungry, lift up the lowly, see our neighbors and strangers marginalized in some way or another by our human created differences… To recognize these needs, and to recognize in our own selves that we are finite. Yet God’s love is infinite. It’s out of God’s love, that we have come into being, and its in God’s love, that when we cease to be on this earth, though to dust we may return, we also know the rest of the story that comes at the end of this season.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The story of death, but also resurrection. It’s not an easy story, much like life. It’s one of ups and downs. It’s one of mountaintop moments of euphoria (perhaps like the birth of a child), and days in the lowest valleys (possibly like the days of parents trying to be loving parents to teenagers who might seem impossible- I say this, because on my birthday, I always feel especially grateful for my parents who must have felt like they had to put up with a lot from a very hard to get along with and argumentative first born son as a teenager especially).

On this Ash Wednesday, as we each are marked with ashes, signed with a seal of the cross like we receive in our baptisms, we remember our finitude. But we also remember God’s promises for us. It’s a chance to reorient. It’s a chance to remember. It’s a chance to begin again in this Lenten season to take stock of our lives, to give thanks, and to adjust perhaps as needed. And on this Valentine’s Day, it’s also a good day to remember the deep love that makes this possible, and the love which we are all called to share in word and deed. 

As for me, I hope you hear these two words most clearly, thank you! I am grateful for you- for our connection and collaboration, whatever it might be. I am grateful for your life, leadership, ministry, service, and vocation, whatever they might look like. And I am grateful for being in community with you through this blog, social media, and in person. Thank you! 

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UPDATE (3:30pm CT): As soon as I posted this today, I started to see breaking news out of Florida. As the news continues to come in, I pray: Gracious God, uphold and strengthen this community. Be with the hurt and grieving. Strengthen them, preserve them, and uphold them in your arms. Be with the first responders and give them your strength and presence. Be present God, and let your love be made known today to all who hurt, grieve, and mourn. Amen…

On this Ash Wednesday, I ask, “Lord have Mercy.” But more than prayer and asking for mercy, I plead… “not again. No more.” This is already the eighteenth school shooting this year, and we’re only in the middle of February. We must change. Talk and words are cheap, when they don’t lead to change and action. On this Ash Wednesday, we “turn” and “return to God.” Will we do this?

Will we do this, when it comes to our kids, and schools, mental health care, and gun access? In this post today I think about Baby Siburg to come, and I think about the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” How hard it will be to hear or say to a child these words. How hard to hear and say these words to those in this school and community today in Florida. We remember our mortality today, and the promises of God for us even so. We also remember that God calls us to change, and be bearers of God’s love, peace, justice, and mercy. There is much work to be done. Will we do it? I don’t know about you, but as a parent-to-be, I need to do it. I hope you will join me, in whatever way that looks like for you.

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Image CreditThis image was created and shared by friend, pastor, and social media and ministry leader David Hansen.

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