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?”

Encouraged and Inspired: Signs of Resurrection Living

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time and ironically the reasons for my reflections are also the obstacles and excuses for not getting my thoughts and feelings written down. I am at that awkward age when most topics of conversation veer automatically to aches and pains. My list is not unique: arthritis, back pain, glaucoma, neuropathy—nothing noteworthy. Just this week I found a medicated pain patch that helped my nagging back, and I was feeling optimistic about tackling some yard work and playing some golf; and then in one innocent move I twisted my knee and the simplest of tasks became a new challenge.

So, as the final installment in this Eastertide series on the enemies of living resurrected lives I give you “discouragement.” God knows there are far more major issues to be concerned about in the world than a few minor aches and pains. Yes, I know they (whoever “they” are) say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” St. Paul expresses that positive spin on suffering in Romans 5: “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. “ (Vs. 3-4).

Maybe in Disney movies, but not always in real life. Sometimes suffering just beats us down. The 24/7 news cycle bombards us with such bad news around the clock that I hear many people saying they can’t bear to watch the news, especially before retiring for the night. I won’t add to the bad news by reciting the litany of CNN headlines, but you know them, from Nebraska to Nepal the very foundations of the earth and of our faith seem to be on shaky ground.

It’s almost impossible to turn off the news in the information age. Even when I want to watch a recorded sporting event I almost always get an alert or see a post on Facebook telling me the outcome before I want to know it. And even if we could unplug ourselves, the only way to escape tales of suffering would be to disengage from all personal relationships. Friends dealing with unexpected cancer diagnoses, families dealing with substance and physical abuse, mental health issues, and at the same time caring for a loved one wasting away with stage-4 cancer.

One definition of sin that I learned in seminary was “to be turned in on oneself,” and though it didn’t make the church’s top 7 list it is one of the deadliest sins. It is sneaky deadly because focusing on my own problems depletes me of energy needed to care about the personal needs of others and the larger systemic problems of the world. Most people would agree, at least in theory, that compassion is one of the unique and greatest of human virtues. The word “compassion” comes from the Greek words meaning “to suffer with,” and it is almost impossible to be concerned about the problems of others when I am wallowing in a pity party about my own pain.

There has been much wisdom written about human suffering. The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that “Life is suffering.” (The second by the way is that our suffering is caused by attachment to the temporary things of this world, but that’s a topic for another day.) Translated into the language of the human potential movement, those two truths are summed up in the catch phrase that “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Simply put, pain is part of the human condition – physical, emotional, spiritual – they all go with the territory. None of us can control things that happen to us in life. Bad things do happen to good people. What we have a choice about is how we respond to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” of life, as Shakespeare describes them in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.

Here’s how St. Paul describes his own struggle with being turned in on his own problems. “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:7-10).

We don’t know what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was, and we don’t need to know. We all have personal problems, challenges, aggravations, misfortunes that we have no solution for. When it comes to physical ailments we are tempted to think that modern medicine should be able to fix any problem our bodies throw at us with just the right pill or procedure. The undeniable truth that becomes clearer as our mortal bodies age, however, is that we are all “dust and to dust we shall return.” (Genesis 3:19).

And that brings us full circle in the Lent to Pentecost cycle. Those words from Genesis are traditionally used as ashes are imposed on Christians on Ash Wednesday –not to be morbid, but to give us a wakeup call. When Paul says “Take this thorn from me,” or Jesus says in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Take this cup from me,” God’s reply is, “Sorry, this is the hand you’ve been dealt, deal with it.” Prayers are always answered, but sometimes the answer is not the one we are hoping for.

The best cure for being turned in on oneself is to be more aware of the needs and lives of our fellow human beings. And that won’t happen if we cut ourselves off completely from the bad news in the world. We need a healthy balance of reality and inspiration from others who truly live resurrection lives. Those people can encourage us so we can be encouragers for others, witnesses to the power of faith that overcomes every thorn, every tragedy and every temptation to give in to the suffering that the world throws at us.

To that end I offer two stories of inspiration that humble and encourage me to trust and believe in the Gospel of resurrection:
The first was a simple post on Facebook from the Blue Street Journal. “Against all odds, both of these women survived gunshot wounds to the brain. One of them at the hands of the Taliban and one of them at the hands of a mentally ill mass-shooter. Malala Yousafzai and Gabrielle Giffords inspire and give me hope.”

The second is a great story from Robert Fulghum about a critical life lesson we don’t learn in kindergarten. During his early twenties Fulghum used to work for a countryside resort. He had to do the night shift as a receptionist and mind the stables during the day. The owner was not the most likable or the kindest person on the planet and Robert was getting weary of eating the same lunch every day. In addition, the cost of the lunch would get deducted from his paycheck. It got on his nerves.

One night, he could hold it no longer, especially when he found out that the same lunch was going to be served for another couple of days. One of his colleagues, working as a night auditor, was Sigmund Wollman, a German Jewish guy. A survivor of Auschwitz, Sigmund had spent three years at the concentration camp. He was happy and contented in the same hotel where Robert was mad and upset. Finding no one else around to share his frustration, Robert spoke to Sigmund and expressed his anger against the hotel owner, he was mad because of eating the same food day-in-day-out and for having to pay for it. Worked up, he was really cross.

Sigmund, however, listened patiently before saying: “Lissen, Fulchum, Lissen me, lissen me. You know what’s wrong with you? It’s not the food and it’s not the boss and it’s not this job.”

“So what’s wrong with me?”

“Fulchum, you think you know everything but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire — then you’ve got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy.”

Robert Fulghum had a realization and he further wrote in his story, “I think of this as the Wollman Test of Reality. Life is lumpy. And a lump in the porridge, a lump in the throat and a lump in the breast are not the same lump. One should learn the difference.”