When I was about four or five, my older sister Erin was a cheerleader for her elementary school. Like any little sister, I wanted nothing more than to be like her, so I made her teach me all of the cheers complete with hip thrusts and jumps involving legs pointing to opposing ends of the room.
One of my favorite cheers went like this:
“Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,
You’ve got to be (swing hips) a Blacknight (stomp),
To jam with us (jump).”
Totally fun, totally cute. It’s only now that I read that and go, really? Ashes to ashes and dust to dust? Is this a funeral? Do they realize they’re making a football cheer out of a Bible verse (“…for dust you are and to dust you will return”)? Do they know “dust” doesn’t even rhyme with “us?”
I’m recalling all of this because last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, and mine was certainly dustier than most. After hearing that a close relative may have cancer, I entered into a fragile state, the kind where the slightest offense threatened to call forth a hundred tears.
It was in this state that I realized we needed food for dinner, and I headed out to the grocery store. Is there a worse place to be than Safeway at 6PM when you’re about as stable as Winona Ryder in “Girl, Interrupted?”
Usually I am in and out of the grocery store in 15 minutes. This was not the case last Wednesday. I wandered the aisles for no less than 90 minutes in a stupor, in a fog. I couldn’t think of one single meal, much less the ingredients required to make one. I stopped in the middle of the produce section, staring at rows of vegetables, wondering what I could make with them. Thirty minutes later all I had was a frozen pizza and a bunch of bananas.
I think that’s what I should refer to last Wednesday as: Frozen Pizza and Banana Day. Illogical, and almost entirely unhealthy.
Somehow I made it home with a full cart of food, though if you asked me now I probably couldn’t tell you one item I bought. That evening is like a blank chalkboard.
Thankfully, my church was holding a service for Ash Wednesday. I’ve always been a little on-the-fence about services like Ash Wednesday, because they strike me as ritualistic with no obvious Biblical references. Never-the-less, I decided a little meditation and getting outside of myself couldn’t hurt my mental state.
I entered the sanctuary five minutes late, and everyone was finishing a song. I joined in, knowing the words by heart, and then took my seat.
The pastor read a short verse, and then my favorite pastor stood before us. She has cerebral palsy, and she trembles as she holds the lecture in front of her. There is something so brave about speaking to hundreds of people about something as personal as faith, and to do so with such an unmasked condition is remarkable. She stuns me every time.
She didn’t just stun me this time, she shamed me. She shared about her journey with her husband who is dying of cancer; his death is imminent. She said she has been reduced to the very dust from whence she came, because nothing in her life is guaranteed except Christ’s love for her and her husband. She didn’t use religious jargon, she didn’t read Bible verses, and she didn’t beam an unshakable smile to the masses. She spoke as someone who is walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and she’s not out yet.
I couldn’t even begin to identify with her. Here I was with a similar ailment in my family and I reacted ten different ways — anger, sadness, hopelessness, bitterness… but humility? No. The thought of human frailty never crossed my mind. I was indignant and in denial about the loss of someone I love. Here stood my pastor, about to lose the person closest to her, and she had come to a place of knowing that this was always our destiny. We’re not immortal.
Her message wasn’t about powering through our obstacles with a mixture of ambition, blind hope and strength. It was about remembering that we came from dust, and to dust we shall return. It is the opposite of the message we are told every day: You are important! You are exceptional! Your potential is limitless!
No, it’s not, not really.
In comparison to the Lord (and His immortality) I am a wisp of dust.
“All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” (Isaiah 40: 6-8)
Later that evening I went to my girls group, the ladies who gather together every other week to process life, laugh, cry, talk about faith, and just be there for each other.
I told them my pathetic Frozen Pizza and Banana story. They told me the pastor probably had her own share of frozen pizza moments in the two years of her husband’s illness. They told me this mindfulness of how small we are in comparison to God does not happen in one Ash Wednesday service.
So back in my seat at church, after listening to her offer a closing prayer, I approached the gentleman at the back of the sanctuary who was dipping his thumb into a bowl of ash and oil and marking each person with a cross on their forehead. Each time he touched their foreheads he whispered, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
We exited the church silently, hundreds of people with tiny ash smudges on their faces, like muddy grass blades drying in the sun.