It's the first Sunday in Lent, four days after Ash Wednesday. The discussions around churches turn to thoughts of mortality, the fragility of life, and the certainty of death. And, if you were in a church on Ash Wednesday, it's a good bet you received a smudge of ashes on your forehead or hand, with the words of Genesis 3:19 - "for dust you are, and to dust you will return."
I've been thinking about this a great deal since this morning's worship service. Our pastor, Laura Fregin, was also thinking of dust - what kind of dust we are, what we hope to do with our "dust-y-ness." I agreed with much of what Pastor Laura shared - she and I are often on exactly the same wavelength. But the more I listened, the more a part of me rebelled at another message I've gotten over the years about "being dust." And here's why:
I accept the concept that that I am formed from dust, and to dust I will certainly return.Now, to be fair, Pastor Laura didn't imply that message at all. My quarrel isn't with her at all! But it is with priests and ministers who have implied this very idea for year after year, and Lenten service after Lenten service. I just cannot buy it. Not now - and never again.
What irks me is the idea that I've heard, over the years that I am just dust. Or that the important part of me (at least during Lent) is dust.
The God of my understanding has made me into something that is way more than "just dust."
But that statement almost begs the question: what am I made of?
The raw material of what I am is star-stuff; the same atoms and molecules that make up the sun, the moon and the stars. Ninety-eight point seven percent of us are hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, calcium, nitrogen, and potassium. Then stir in a seasoning of sulfur, chlorine, sodium, magnesium, iron, cobalt, copper, zinc and other trace elements for color and flavor. (I shared my original hearing of this idea in an earlier post - but you can also check it out, here if you missed it the first time....)
A whole mess of that hydrogen and oxygen end up as water - a 180 pound person is about 65 percent water, about 117 pounds or about 14 gallons. If one were to just dump in the rest of the recipe into a 20-gallon bucket, one could end up with an slightly stinky slurry that wouldn't resemble star-stuff very much.
But look what happens when God starts cooking the mixture....
Depending on whose estimates one uses, about 600-800 grams of all that stew ends up as DNA - not even two pounds of our hypothetical person. Guided by an unseen hand and a DNA blueprint, that primordial stew ends up as Michael Phelps and Chef Paul Prudhomme and Mr. Rogers and Walt Disney, Albert Einstein and Michelangelo and Mother Teresa and The Beatles and dozens of billions of others, including us.
It's what is added to the dust that makes us what we are. The very process of our conception, gestation, and birth marks us as spiritual beings having a human experience; we are the work of God encased in dust, dirt and water.
This concept has become even more important to me because of of the recent experience of two of my dear friends, and an urn sitting in their apartment containing the ashes of their mother, who died way too early, just two months ago.To them, it might seem that the only physical evidence remaining of their mother's life is that urn, filled with fine grey-white powder. Their grief is still fresh, and the idea that this "dust" is all that remains can be painful to them, at times.
But that dust is not the essence of their mother...no more than ashes in an unmarked urn somewhere in Ohio is all that remains of my own mother. Their lives were vastly, incomprehensibly more than just their mortal remains.
My own experience is that my mother's life becomes real and tangible whenever I taste our family's turkey stuffing, or a perfectly cooked lobster, or the hot-breads she loved to snack on at the Northwood Inn. She is present with us whenever her children share her stories, or share the love and care that she shared. Her voice whispers with every gentle rain, and roars right along with every belly-laugh. My mom is also present every time my partner overcomes his innate shyness and engages in conversation with a stranger. He knows my mother is present, because Chris knows from the stories told about her that my mom was rarely a stranger for long. To this day, when he makes the effort to be outgoing, he refers to it as "busting out a 'Helen'."
I was reminded of this recently, when I saw a post on Facebook saying that a physicist should speak at funerals. The post reminded me that the laws of physics - specifically, the laws of conservation of energy and the first law of thermodynamics - tell us that the energy that was my mother could not be destroyed, nor could it die. All of her energy, every wave of every particle that was my Mom remains in God's creation - not gone, but just a bit less orderly.
In the same way, I believe with all my heart, that my own life is a God-given tapestry, woven from threads taken from my parents, my sisters, my partner, and friends scattered across this country and around the world. My prayer is that long before my life ends, the very best of my own threads will end up woven into the lives of still others, and others, and others. Long after my body is reduced to ashes, blown by the wind across the face of the world, I pray that the gifts given to me by God's kids will continue to be shared, and even the tiniest part the best of of God's gifts to me will go on.
Why do I believe that? Because I believe that faith manages, and love endures - no matter what.
As for the "dust" part? To me, it just doesn't matter. That's why there will be no casket, no grave, and no stone marker - because I won't be "there." The dust is simply the end of the human experience - not of the spiritual being. Simply scatter the dust to the wind, and trust that nature will carry what's left of my physical being to the places where I'm needed most.
Perhaps my favorite thoughts on the "dust" of my mortal remains were penned by Lee Hayes, and sung by Pete Seeger, in a song called "In Dead Earnest." (You can sing this to many tunes, including the folk tune "Barbra Allen"....)
If I should die before I wake, all my bone and sinew takeThe last line is the best - 'Twill be my happiest destiny to live and die eternally."
Just put me in the compost pile, to decompose me for a while
Worms, water, sun will have their way, returning me to common clay
All that I am will feed the trees, and little fishies in the sea
When radishes and corn you munch, you may be having me for lunch
And then excrete me with a grin, chortling "There goes Steve again!"