It's been on my mind a lot lately--our last Ash Wednesday service. Not the one we just celebrated where my husband and I wrapped up our three sons like Ralphie's brother in "A Christmas Story," trudging out through our snow and ice-laden neighborhood to make it to church. I'm thinking of the last Ash Wednesday service I celebrated as campus minister three years ago. I hadn't realized at the time how powerful a moment it was. But now the holiness of that time hits me so hard it takes my breath away. It has a sacred quality that lifts it out of memory, making it real and alive for me now. Even now. When that moment past is so far away, so far out of my today experience, so far out of my grasp.
Ash Wednesday fell during our Spring Break. None of the students could afford to go on a trip that year so we stayed in town, finding ways to be missional in our own community. And on Wednesday we gathered on the front porch of our campus ministry house for our service.
We began outside because we first had to make ashes. Most congregations make theirs from the previous year's palm branches. But ours were made from little scraps of post-it notes folded tightly into tiny packages, love notes offered to God during our worship throughout the year. College students don't often have much money to put in the plate, but they have all kinds of things on their hearts. Each week I would encourage them to write down whatever they needed to bring to God that week: "Thank You", "I'm sorry", "Please help me!" Each week I would gather the pastel scraps along with the loose dollars and change. The money would go to support the ministry. The scraps of paper would be kept for ashes.
So we stood on the front porch with lighter, post-its, and an old cake pan, surrendering those needs to the flames, entrusting them to God. Once all was said and done, those were the ashes we spread on one another's foreheads, reminding each other that we are made from dust, and to dust we would return.
Wow. How powerful is that? To have the ashes of someone else's need smeared upon your forehead? To recognize our own dustiness, our limited humanity, by the need we cannot escape? To bear one another's burdens by wearing them upon our own skin as prayer to God? To touch at the same time our own deep need and God's deep mercy by standing in the gap for each other? All I can say is--wow.
But our worship did not stop there.
We left the porch, piled into my van, and went to the heart of town to serve. First serving lunch at the Salvation Army. Next painting an old building to prepare it for new ministry.
We became the living sacrifices Paul talks about in Romans, carrying our crosses--literally the ones smeared upon our foreheads--into the places that need God's redemption the most.
In wearing the sign of our redemption we became signs of God's redemption in the world around us.
I remember at the time feeling less than, not enough, because we hadn't made it out of the city for a "Spring Break Mission Trip." The irony is that now I stand before that memory, so tempted to feel like I am less than, not enough, because the needs and demands of my own life keep me from serving lunch at the Salvation Army or painting old buildings to prepare them for ministry.
But Grace asks me for a different response, a deeper one. God isn't asking me to feel guilty for circumstances beyond my control; God is asking me to receive the gift that memory brings.
I am after all, only dust. But this dust that I am, that all of us are, is sacred. It is held as infinitely precious in God's eyes. Oh so fallible, fragile even. But of inestimable value to the Divine. It is why God sent Jesus to us, to show us our value, to save us from our fallible, fragile selves.
And how we choose to live within the circumstances we have, shows exactly what our attitude toward dust is.
Do we live as servants? Or ego-maniacs? Do we labor diligently to save our own pride? Or do we give ourselves to guard the dignity and well-being of others?
I think about my station in life, mostly at home with three sons. Each one is growing so fast. And I realize how vast is my influence on the men they will become. This mission field is so dear to my heart. I am so thankful for the opportunity to nurture a spiritual harvest in the place I love most.
And then I think about my work at the preschool, where I lead chapel. And where I serve as one who can step in wherever and whenever there is need. One day when I was helping out in the office it became clear that a little one needed some extra attention. For this little guy there are legitimate reasons why some days he just needs his own person. I spent much of that day holding him close, softly singing in his little ears, praying as a shepherd who carries the smallest, most vulnerable lamb. I'm writing with wet eyes. I get it now. This kind of moment is just as sacred and alive and holy as those others long past.
What are we to do with our dusty selves?
Sometimes we have the means to rearrange our circumstances, to altar the outlines of the life we are living. And sometimes we can't. We feel, for all intents and purposes, stuck. But we can always choose how we will live within the life we have. We can always choose how we will regard the dust that we are, and the dust that everyone else is. We can choose to live as if the ground we walk upon is already Holy, just waiting for us to live as dust that recognizes the Hand of the Divine already at work where we are.
We can choose to offer up who we are to the Divine Breath that works within us and through us to redeem the whole world.
Right in the very circumstances that we can't seem to change.