Dust and Ashes

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) Those familiar words used on Ash Wednesday will have more meaning for me this year with the taste of death very fresh in my mind. My 96 year-old father died yesterday after a long and full life. I was not there when he died but was able to say good bye to him before the funeral home came to take his body away. His death, unlike the last few difficult months, was peaceful, and I am grateful that a hospice nurse and my sister were with him at the end.

We knew the end was near for Dad when I quoted “Thanatopsis” in my sermon on Sunday (posted here as “Itchy Ears and the 99-yard Dash,” 2-11-18), but it wasn’t until a friend pointed it out that I realized how personally relevant that was when I asked for prayers for a peaceful passage for him. And indeed when I got to the nursing home where he died he did indeed lying there in his bed look like one who had “wrapped the drapery of his couch about him and lay down to pleasant dreams.”

There will be time in coming days and weeks to celebrate the many gifts of his life, but for now on this Ash Wednesday eve I simply want to give thanks for the gift he gave me in the most powerful way possible, a reminder that I am mortal and need to do a better job of living each and every day as the precious and holy gift it is.

It is gradually sinking in that I’m now the patriarch of my family. That’s a sobering thought and not a mantle I’ve ever coveted; but like many roles in life one accepts the inevitable and learns on the job what that means.
Life-long learning is a journey of discovery, and my dad’s passing is just one more lesson in life’s amazing curriculum. Thanks Dad. I pray that before I too return to dust that with God’s help I will live each day in a way that will honor your memory.


To Dust We Shall Return, An Ash Wednesday Meditation

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That traditional reminder of our mortality that many Christians hear when ashes are imposed at the beginning of the Lenten season of repentance and reflection has always given me pause, which I guess is the whole idea. This year, my first Ash Wednesday as a septuagenarian makes those words more real than usual.

Mortality is one of those things we do not often speak of in polite company. Our youth-oriented culture is built on a shaky foundation of denial that Ash Wednesday threatens to expose. Maybe that’s why most churches are not overcrowded on that somber day. But mortality is a natural and essential part of our human condition. It can be argued it is one of the most important parts of what it means to be human. We don’t believe any other creatures are aware of their inevitable death, although I’m not sure that’s true.

Knowing our days are numbered is really a gift that makes it possible for us to value and prioritize the time we have in this life, and having the confidence that death is only a transition to another form of being frees us to embrace that gift.

So this Ash Wednesday this 70 something is going to enter a season of Lent reflecting on what God is calling me to do with the days remaining to me. I have no idea what that number is, but I know full well that it is a much smaller number than it was 10 or 20 years ago. On that score I find the wisdom of Psalm 90 sobering and uplifting at the same time:

“For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!” (Selected verses from NRSV)

There’s plenty there to ponder for the entire 40 days of Lent, and that’s only part of the Psalm. The psalmist’s words call us to give up our regrets over what is past and fears of what is to come, to affirm and accept our dusty existence so we can “count our days” and make each one count.

The psalmist reminds us that we are alive only because of the grace of God, and that when attendance is called each morning we need to be present in every sense of that word because we have big work to do. God’s work is entrusted to us, God’s servants. That’s a huge job description, but if not me, then who? If not today, when?
We can even dare to consider accepting God’s mission as ours because with our marching orders comes the promise of God’s glorious power and that power alone can “prosper the work of hands.” Anything we do that is not according to God’s plan is doomed to failure.

I confess I begin too many days throwing a pity party for myself for the things I am no longer able to do. Ash Wednesday is a great day to repent, to turn around and welcome whatever task God has for me now in this stage of my life. Bucket lists are popular ways we talk about the things we want to be sure we do before we die. They are a good first step toward acknowledging that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” But my challenge to myself and to you as we strive to keep a Holy Lent in 2017 is to ask not what’s on my bucket list, but take time in prayer and meditation each day to ask, “What’s on God’s bucket list for me?”

Transfiguration, Matthew 17:1-8

The transfiguration story is one of my favorite Gospel scriptures, but that was not always the case. For a long time this story of Jesus talking to two dead guys seemed a little weird to me. What are we sophisticated, rational, scientific 21st century people supposed to do with this ghost story?

The breakthrough for me and this text came when I was able to suspend my literal questions of what and how and look at this story instead through theological lenses. That ah hah moment happened for me when, after preaching for several years, it finally dawned on me that this transfiguration story in one of the Gospels shows up every year in the same place in the church lectionary. And it is always on the Sunday before Lent begins at a major turning point in the Christian year. We have just come through the joy and light of Christmas and Epiphany and now stand on the brink of the somber dark purples and blacks of Lent. The transfiguration story, this mountain top experience, stands right in the middle of all that, between Bethlehem and Calvary

Matthew 17 begins with the phrase “six days later.” What does that mean? When we hear things like that inquiring minds immediately ask, “What happened six days earlier?” If you read Matthew 16 you find that what happened six days earlier was a “come to Jesus” meeting where Jesus asks the disciples some important questions about what people were thinking and saying about who Jesus is. The final and most important question Jesus put to the disciples (and therefore to us) was, “Who do you say that I am?” Good old Peter of course is eager to answer. “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God,” he proudly blurts out. And he’s right of course. Like us, he knows the right answer on this test, but as the ensuing verses of chapter 16 show, he and the other disciples really don’t know it means. He knows who Jesus is, but he doesn’t REALLY know.

So in the transfiguration story and the verses just before it Jesus addresses that problem. He is preparing his disciples for what is to come in Jerusalem and beyond, just as Lent is a time of spiritual growth and preparation for us as well. In chapter 16 Jesus has tried to tell them about his coming death and resurrection, and they don’t get it. Peter answers the question correctly about who Jesus is, but he doesn’t really understand or accept the cost of discipleship.

So six days later Jesus tries again. He and his three key disciples have a mountain top experience. Like all mountain top experiences, this one is short-lived. There’s no video, no crowds or witnesses – just three scared fishermen and Jesus in a powerful encounter with God.

At first Peter, James and John love it up there. The view is fantastic, it’s peaceful and quiet – they have a moving experience, probably feeling closer to God than ever before in their lives. So quite naturally they want that glorious moment to last as long as possible. They want to stay on the mountain and live the good life away from all the problems and clamoring crowds in the valley below.

John Ortberg in his book and DVD series, “It All Goes back in the Box,” describes the most dangerous object in our homes. It’s not the power tools or the kitchen knives. He says the most dangerous item in our houses is the EZ chair. We even call them La-Z Boys! They seduce us into object lessons of inertia, don’t they? You remember, “An object at rest tends to stay at rest?” That’s not to say we don’t need moments of rest and relaxation. Many of us are so busy “doing” all the time that we don’t make time to simply “be.” We need time in the EZ chair; we just can’t make that our permanent residence.

When the disciples lobby for homesteading on the mountain, Jesus sees a teaching moment. He knows his purpose is not fame and fortune or a comfortable retirement. His is not a theology of glory, but a theology of the cross. God never promised Jesus or us a rose garden – just the garden of Gethsemane. We know that. We’ve seen this movie before, and we know what’s coming next. But every year, isn’t there just a part of us that still would like to think Jesus was wrong. Maybe this year scholars will discover an EZ chair version of this story? One that gets us to Easter without Good Friday.

We know that won’t work, and Lent is time for us to ponder our relationship to that reality. How much are we like the disciples arguing over who gets the EZ chairs next to Jesus in heaven? Can’t we just homestead on the mountain, build little booths for Elijah and Moses and Jesus, and avoid the pain of the valley below. But the full abundant life is not real in isolation. We need regular retreats but not escapes. More than ever before we need regular times to turn off all our electronic gadgets and background noise and be with God. We need times of solitude to renew a right spirit within us, to get a proper perspective so we can see where God is calling us to go next. We just can’t stay there on the mountain top.

We and the disciples aren’t the only ones that want the EZ chair life. The scriptures are full of tales of those who try to run away from God’s call: Jonah called to go preach to the heathens in Nineveh instead boards a ship (hopefully not one of Carnival’s) heading to Tarshish, 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Elijah runs for his life from Queen Jezebel to Mt. Horeb (aka Sinai). These two great stories show us that even if we go to the depths of the sea or to the highest mountain, God will find us and ask what he asked Elijah, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” That’s a great question to ask ourselves every day during this season of Lent: “what are we doing here?” Is it what God is calling us to do or what we want to do?

If you remember the Elijah story from I Kings 19, Elijah doesn’t get to stay on the mountain either – he is called back down into the valley to share God’s word with those desperately needing to hear it and save them from worshiping false gods. But Elijah doesn’t go down alone – God appoints Elisha to partner with him and carry on after Elijah’s death. Jesus can’t go down the mountain alone either. He needs us to carry on God’s work in his stead. Do you hear that call – “This is my son – listen to him,” says the voice of God? Listen, and then follow him, back down into the valley where those who suffer need comfort, where corruption needs to be confronted and corrected–back into the world where Jesus teaches us that the poor will be with us always.

It is not a journey for sissies. Jesus knows it leads to that other mountain he can see in the distance; not one of glory with two saints – but one with crosses and two crooks. None of us like to suffer – it’s scary. No matter how strong our faith, death fills us with some level of anxiety and dread. As comedian Woody Allen so aptly put it, “I don’t mind dying, I just don’t’ want to be there when it happens.”

In the presence of God’s power we all tremble, and the disciples do too. Matthew tells us when they heard the voice of God they fell on their faces – ouch, and not a good position to do much from either. And then listen what happens – Jesus came and touched them and their fear is gone. They are transfigured, changed, and “when they looked up they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”

Jesus alone is all we need to see us through the dark valleys. If we let him he provides us with the courage to overcome our fears – to come out of hiding, off our mountains of pride and comfort and live in the real world. Jesus speaks to us calmly about real life – joy, suffering, death and resurrection, and because he’s been there and done that – we know we can too.

Lent and especially Ash Wednesday calls us to affirm all of life – the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat – to embrace not only the joy of Easter but the passion of the journey that takes us there. That journey begins again tonight, and in the transfiguration story we get a glimpse of the glory of God that is revealed in its fullness on Easter morning.

I would encourage you to seek mountain top moments this Lent –times when you feel especially close to God. Those moments won’t happen unless we put ourselves in position to witness God’s glory. We don’t have mountain top life-changing experiences unless we take time to climb the mountain. The good news is we don’t need to physically climb a mountain or even a hill. We get close to God through prayer, study, service, fasting or whatever spiritual disciplines work for you.

When we do and take time to listen, God teaches us not to seek only the mountains of glory, but to accept our Calvaries too, our failure, our sin, our mortality – not fearfully and anxiously, but obediently and trusting in the will and redemptive power of God

God’s promise is that on both mountains – the mountain of glory and mountain of the cross–and in the valleys in between – Jesus journeys with us, not just for 40 days plus 6 Sundays. Jesus is with us for the long haul and walks with us “even to the end of the age.”

(Preached Ash Wednesday 2013 at Jerome UMC, Plain City, Ohio)