Updated on December 7, 2018
Encountering God in the Dust
“DID YOU NOT KNOW WHAT THE HOLY ONE CAN DO WITH DUST?”
These words have been sitting on the ground of my soul for the past week. I can’t shake them or the power they hold to resonate so deeply within me.
It’s been 5 years since I’ve attended an Ash Wednesday service. Lent was frequently observed in our household growing up; but as an adult, there have been some years that I’ve chosen to observe Lent and others that I haven’t. Some years, because of my religious background, the pressure to conform to a custom simply for the sake of ritual (or to me, what feels like “measuring up”) has felt too cumbersome. Other years it has felt inviting, like an anchor that grounds me or gives me direction in life. Some years I have given something up, while other years I have added something to my life for that season.
This year was the first time that my wife and I attended an Ash Wednesday service together. At first I thought I was going more for her than for me. I had experienced this tradition before, she had not. But entering the silent sanctuary of our church, I realized I was wrong. I needed to be in this space. Sitting in quiet reflection in a room lit only with candles, those small flames felt like beacons of hope. There was a peace present that my heart had been craving. I tried hard to slow my breathing and ground myself in the silence and calm provided. We were led through a time of reflection, a time of reverent worship, and an explanation of the significance of this tradition before then receiving the ashes.
In years past, I’ve heard phrases like, “From dust you came, and to dust you will return” spoken as a solemn reminder of our humanity. But this year, I heard something different. This year, I heard a poem by Jan Richardson that was more than a depressing reminder of how mortal we are. Instead, it was a breath of life that reminded us what God can do with us mere mortals.
The phrase Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust? struck me and my eyes welled with tears. It was like God breathing life into me, just like he did all those years ago when he created Adam, the very first man. Going forward to receive the ashes, a fellow congregant cupped my head in her hands, locked eyes with me, and said, “Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?”
I couldn’t contain my tears. So much of my life has felt marked by sorrow and shame and loss. So many hopes tainted by the dust of life, by common humanity, by mortality, by choices of selfish ambition, or even good intentions gone wrong. And yet…and yet, we forget what God, the Holy One, can do with dust. We underestimate his power to redeem and make beauty from the ashes. We forget that God is good and that he loves to meet us when we are at our lowest, and rescue and redeem and reclaim all that has been lost.
One of my favorite stories from the Bible is the woman caught in adultery. The Pharisees, catching her in the act, took her and threw her down in the dirt in front of a crowd for public ridicule. Yet Jesus, instead of condemning her the way the Pharisees expected, got down next to her in the dirt and wrote something in the dust that remains a mystery to us, yet clearly brought life and healing to this embarrassed woman.
Sometimes sitting in the dust of our humanity is the best place to be. It is humbling. It is authentic. It is honest and God meets us there.
If I could see you face to face today, I would cup your face in my hands and gently ask you, “Did you not know what the Holy One could do with dust?”