Sacred Dust, Divine Breath

Ash Wednesday 2017

Today we observe Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent – a 40 day period of wilderness wandering. Catholics and Christians around the world gather today to do exactly what we are doing here in this auditorium – return to God with our whole hearts, by marking our foreheads with ashes.

Lent may be my favorite time in the Church year. That may sound bizarre – to enjoy a time of rending hearts and reflecting on sin – so, let me explain. So many holidays are replete with novelty and consumerism: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Black Friday, overpriced gifts and greeting cards. But not Lent. There are no ugly Lent sweaters for sale on Amazon or heart shaped candies etched with words like, “repent,” or “fast!” Lent has retained a set-apart-ness that lends to its hallowed, sacred nature.  

 So, today marks the start of a 40-day journey of wandering – following Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. We can think of this concept of wandering in many ways. We have all heard the phrases, “aimless wanderer,” or “wanderlust.” I have been reflecting on wandering lately, especially so after a Skype chat with a friend of mine who is working as a journalist in Turkey. She has devoted most of her post-college career to working in refugee camps and chronicling the violence occurring in Syria.

 Sarah’s most recent article speaks to the hellacious journey of Syrian refugees to find safety after fleeing the latest onslaught of air strikes. The border to Turkey has been closed – allowing no one through except the gravely injured. Sarah interviewed a 21-year-old man who stayed in Syria for as long as he could. After the recent Russian air strikes, he was forced to flee for his life – unable to take anything with him. He has been sleeping in a mosque just outside of Turkey, praying to be granted entrance.

 You see, those who have stayed in Syria for this long are people from lower-income families – without the resources to emigrate. Yet, they are being forced by nonstop violence. They flee with nothing. Nothing. It is hard to even imagine what that must be like. Whenever I leave the house for just a few hours, I have my wallet, phone, sweater, gum. Imagine leaving your home country with absolutely nothing and with no idea of when or if you will return. It’s unimaginable.

These refugees are, as we speak, wandering through the desert in the harsh cold of winter – looking for temporary shelter in Turkey, Greece, or Hungary. They are completely dependent on the people and governments of these countries to grant them refuge. They are also dependent on God to be with them in their unbelievable suffering, to guide them to a safe place, to provide for basic necessities. They are wandering through the desert place, depending upon and pleading for God to act through the kindness of others. As one Syrian woman said when at a loss for words during an interview, “just pray for us.”

While we gathered here are spared from the pain that these nearly 100,000 Syrian refugees are going through, we can glean a few very important things from the testimonies of these wounded wanderers. We are people who wander with broken hearts. We live in a culture that often masks pain, that is death-denying, and full of false promises. How often have you turned on the radio and heard lyrics that praise youth as the epitome of happiness (I think Justin Bieber is the most frequent offender)? About half the make-up products available are “age-defying.”

All the while, we seek to remake ourselves according to the standards made up by others, the image of societal “beauty” or what college admission committees want you to be… with all of these things we give away small pieces of our hearts until they become hard. So, when we hear the words, “you are dust and to dust you shall return” it may feel underwhelming…like, “really, dirt?” But here’s the thing: in the creation story in Genesis 2 it says that the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

So, yes…the fact that you are dust and to dust you shall return has everything to do with being fully alive.

Because it is from dust and the very breath of God that you were created out of divine love. A divine love that mends the pieces of your heart back together whenever you return to it. When and how we return is complicated. For refugees, divine love might seem absent, a distant dream waiting in an imagined place of refuge. As people who stand in solidarity we seek to unearth the contours of love in the tragedies of the Middle East. There are no easy answers…  but I do think this points us toward an inescapable reality: we are utterly dependent on God. We are dependent in a way that might feel uncomfortable. All of those magazine ads and beauty products that tell us youth will last forever aim to make us believe we can control just about everything in our lives. Yet, we know this is not true. We need only look into the eyes of the Syrian child walking in the desert to know this is not true. We rely on and turn to God to mend our brokenness. And to do this, to gather the given away pieces of our hearts so that in returning to God, God can make them whole, well, there’s a term for that …it’s repentance.

I used to think that repentance meant to feel so bad about being bad that you promise to not be bad anymore. Now, I think of repentance as freely offering up the hard pieces of our hearts to God… in doing so they are, in a sense, repurposed to help us make better decisions and act differently in the future. During Lent especially, we devote ourselves to this soulful recycling.  

During Lent, we have a thousand opportunities to return to God with all our hearts. To return to the God who created you from dust and breath. The same dust upon which refugees tread in the Middle East. The same breath passing through the lips of the young man praying in a mosque near the border of Turkey. This sacred dust and divine breath unites us together as human family.

What is so special about Ash Wednesday and Lent is that by being marked with the cross and reminded of our own mortality, we are free. We are free to act as wanderers with purpose – to journey for justice so that no one thirsts nor hungers. We may not know what the destination looks like exactly or when it will be reached but we do know what we will find there – resurrection. We are free to hear the song of our own resurrection which tells of Christ who offers life and forgiveness.

When you come forward to receive ashes in just a few minutes, you are not only admitting your past faults, but you are promising a better future…to yourself and to God.

This isn’t easy stuff. If it were easy, we would do it all year round. This is why we need a whole 40 days when we can focus on being the real us… to find our generosity, our authenticity, and our sense of justice.

That’s what the season of Lent is about. To practice being generous. Giving without counting the cost. To practice real prayer. To fast from fakeness. To give up your sense of complete control and wander through the wilderness – with the God of Justice as your guide, your mind fixed on the hope of resurrection.

Fast, pray, give. This is our shared work.

This Lent we all have work to do.

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