Out of the Dust
“Remember you are dust.” we say to ourselves on the threshold of Lent, as if we could overlook the frailty and fragility of life during a pandemic. The phases and tiers of reopening, the positivity rates and ICU bed availability, so many numbers that rise and fall and spiral as the months wear on into a year. So many reminders that we are mortal beings threaten to overwhelm us. I wondered out loud if we needed to remind ourselves again this Ash Wednesday.
Looking for a word of inspiration, I turned again to Anne Lamott, the author whose “Help, Thanks, Wow,” prayers accompanied us through the Lord’s Prayer sermon series which just ended. Lamott doesn’t deal in the everything-is-ok,” “‘I’m fine,”—even when we are not—kind of thin hope. Instead her stories remind us of the kind of gritty, stubborn hope we need in times like these. Lamott is a recovering alcoholic, a best selling author, the kind of friend who walks with those closest to her right through the darkest places. She’s an irreverently reverent church lady who knows a thing or two about being human—and the times when life’s challenges can knock us breathless into the dust.
Lammot calls this “Step Zero.” Step Zero is when alcoholics finally hit bottom. It can be the acute pain of betrayal. It is waking up to our complicitness in the systemic injustices of the world. It is the decision to stop banging ourselves against the wall of impossible expectations of perfection. Step Zero is the realization that there is so much out of our control: job loss, the unwanted diagnoses, the choices of those we love. Step Zero can even be the moment we simply get tired of being in the “hole of self-righteousness.”
Ash Wednesday is Step Zero of the liturgical calendar. Today the Church names the truth of our humanity and mortality, even as that truth catches in our throats. Another gritty, stubborn, hope seeking writer, is Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz- Weber. Ash Wednesday is her favorite day in the church year. She describes life as a long strand, with the ritual of baptism at one end, and our funeral at the other. On Ash Wednesday we squinch the ends together and remember that they are connected by “the promises of God. Promises which outlast our piety, outlast our efforts in self-improvement, outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”
The question then becomes, how do we live in the—hopefully very long—space in between while remaining grounded in the reality that hard things can and will happen, and grounded in the truth that God’s love and grace are with us through it all?
In today’s scripture reading Jesus shows us a spiritual step zero: the recognition that spiritual practices like prayer, fasting, and giving to those in need should be about God, not us. Translated for today Jesus might have said, “Don’t serve at the soup kitchen for the selfie on social media. When you give to those in need, do it because you know God’s compassion.”
“Don’t wear the cool t-shirt with the scripture verse to give others the impression you are a pious prayer. When you pray, speak earnestly to God.”
“Don’t complain about the inconvenience of your single use plastic fast when you are packing your lunch. When you fast, do it for the love of God’s creation.”
Jesus is saying our motivation matters. During Lent we are invited into a season of spiritual practices meant to worship and glorify God. In so doing God’s grace transforms us. We receive not material rewards, but spiritual ones, the treasures of heaven: love, joy, peace, faith, and hope. Not a life free of challenge but a life lived for God.
I’ll be honest with you, facing the truth of Ash Wednesday takes courage. Since March I have been listening to Harvard Psychologist Susan David’s Ted Talks and Podcasts on emotional resilience and values connected actions. I believe that emotional resilience is deeply connected to spiritual peace and well being. Values connected to actions might just be another way to say living your faith in real life or walking the walk. In her Ted talk David says, “Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.” David researches and shares the tools needed to create emotional agility, especially in the times of crisis—or Step Zero. Courage she says, isn’t the absence of fear, “courage is fear walking.”
Lent is the 40 day practice of courageous fear walking. Ash Wednesday is step zero, the beginning of forty days of intentional faith practice. Lent is both enough time to begin new habits, and the reminder to live intentionally into the lifetime reality that we belong to God.
Maya Angelou once wrote about the time her teacher asked her to read the line, “God loves me,” over and over to her very worldly, doubting, twenty-something self. She said, “I began to cry at the grandness of it all. I knew that if God loved me then I could do wonderful things. I could try great things, learn anything, achieve anything.... That knowledge humbles me, melts my bones, closes my ears, and makes my teeth rock loosely in their gums. Also it liberates me. I am a big bird winging over high mountains, down into serene valleys. I am ripples of waves on silver seas. I’m a spring leaf trembling in anticipation.” Could there be a more beautiful description of courageous fear walking?
Friends, it is God who creates stars and sapphires, microbes and manatees, hummingbirds and humans, out of the dust. Christ is the source of our dusty, gritty, real hope that has the power to bring healing from heartache, reconciliation from rage, generosity from greed, peace from partisanship, and triumph from the tomb. Let us begin our Lenten journeys courageously with assurance that God brings life and hope out of the dust.
 Lammott. Anne, Small Victories, page 111.
 Bolz-Weber, Nadia, “Ash Wednesday Sermon on Truth, Dust, Babies and Funerals,” https://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2014/03/ash-wednesday-sermon-on-truth-dust-babies-and-funerals/
 David, Susan, “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage,” TED Talk https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_david_the_gift_and_power_of_emotional_courage/transcript
 Angelou, Maya, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, page 65.