Dust and Ashes

A slightly younger and certainly less gray pic from Ash Wednesday 2019

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Genesis 3:19, ESV

In what was already a busy week, Ash Wednesday came on like a banshee and was nearly gone without much of a thought. It wasn’t until I was going through my inbox late in the day that it hit me.  How crazy is that? Especially in light of all that’s going on in the world? On a day when we are to be reminded we are made from dust and to dust we will return, being caught up in the busyness of life was ironic, to say the least.  Instead of ashes to ashes, it’s been more like “busy to busier, and to even busier you shall return.”

Or something like that.  

During our years in Oklahoma we were fortunate enough to be a part of a community which marked the seasons of the church calendar. I always looked forward to Lent, the period of time from Ash Wednesday to the Saturday before Easter.  I’m just weird that way, I guess. When we were able, my wife and I tried to meet at midday to attend an Ash Wednesday service at our church. It kicks off (if you can say such a thing) the 6 weeks leading up to Easter with a traditionally somber time of prayer and scripture reading followed by the administration of ashes (in the form of a cross) on the foreheads of parishioners.

Now that we’re back in NC, the church we’ve been attending doesn’t follow the liturgical calendar, so no ashes this year.  I lamented this to a good friend who volunteered to oblige me if I really wanted ashes on my head, but it just wouldn’t be the same. As I thought about it a bit, I realized “it’s ok.”  This is a new season for our family.  One of the things I learned in OK was it’s not so much about what’s going on around me, what the style of worship is or how it fits my mold. It’s more of what am I carrying with me to where I am.

The ashes didn’t do anything magical (although they do offer an opportunity for some awesome conversation throughout the day), but were rather a reminder, a way for us to pause and reflect, to consider where we’ve been, who we’ve been, and where we’re going now. Every time I looked in a mirror, I saw that cross, and I remembered. Sans ash, I spent some scattered moments today thinking through some things I learned in Oklahoma and have carried with me here. That’s what memory is for, right? To carry things with us? Trouble is, I often carry things I need to lay down.

As I thought about, or remembered, who I was when I left NC, and who I am now upon our return, a few things stood out:

  • I remembered how I came face to face with my own brokenness  
  • I remembered how I realized how broken other people are, too.  
  • I remembered how I learned the difference hiding via religion, vs trust, honesty and healing.  
  • I remembered there are things we need to let turn back to dust and ash in order for new things to begin.  

If I can share something with you today that’s worth anything at all, let is be this: life is too short to let the past haunt you and keep you shrouded in mourning and ashes. Learning to let go, to let the past out of your hands and float away, is not easy…but it’s necessary.   It’s the only way to move on, to heal.

Ash Wednesday is one of those days which reminds me of this. It’s not the only day, but it’s a good marker here at the onset of Spring. As the world outside starts to come alive again after the long, cold march of winter, I am reminded of my humanity (a point driven home vividly today when I took my 86 year-old father to a doctor’s appointment), and I’m reminded that everything returns to dust eventually.  And sometimes that’s not a bad thing.

Sometimes we have to let it.  

This year, as my family starts anew (again) in NC, I’m doing my best to continue letting the past which held me so long fall away to ash, and to let new life grow from those ashes.  I hope you can do the same.

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