A couple of years ago I was talking with a women who is and has been for many years my therapist, counselor, mentor, and teacher all rolled into one. I told her that I worked really hard to always get it right, to have the answer, to always know what to do, to speak the right words, to be strong and in control, to do the right thing, to make the best choices, to accomplish everything I set out do to and to accomplish them with perfection. On and on I went describing the expectations I had for myself. Then I told her, “It’s not working. I can’t hold it all together. Things aren’t turning out like I planned and intended.”
When she stopped laughing she said, “Well, welcome to the human race. Who do you think you are?” She could just as well have said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Somewhere along the way I had forgotten that. I had forgotten my dustiness. I had forgotten my mortality. I had forgotten that I am human, a creation of God. Note that I did not say that I am “only human” as if my humanity was some kind of deficiency, excuse, or justification. That’s not what it means to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Likewise those words are not a threat of death or a judgment that we are bad or of no value. To hear those words and remember our dustiness, our mortality, is the first step in healing the many ways our lives become distorted and disrupted. It is the beginning of reordering our lives and establishing them in Christ rather than in what we have done or left undone.
Your list of expectations for yourself and intentions for your life may be different from mine but I’ll bet you have a list. I’ll bet there have been times when that list no longer served you but you served the list. I’ll bet there have been times when it wasn’t working for you and you could no longer hold it all together. I’ll bet there have been times when you too have forgotten your dustiness.
Whether it’s fear, arrogance, pride, delusion, ignorance, denial, wounds and pain, the illusions of success and accomplishments, or a thousand other things, something happens and we forget. We forget that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
When we forget our dustiness, our mortality, our human nature, we begin practicing our piety, our life, before others; hoping to be seen, recognized, and praised. We trade the secret and eternal rewards of the Father for the public and passing opinions of others. The treasures of being seen, recognized, and praised by others look pretty today but tomorrow are rusty, moth-eaten, and easily stolen by a change in opinion. (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21) That means the day after tomorrow we must seek new treasures. When we do, the cycle begins again. Each time the cycle repeats itself we move deeper into forgetfulness, convinced that it all depends on us.
Having forgotten our own mortality, we have no need for the immortality of God, the immortality offered us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I can’t help but wonder if that forgetting might not be the birthplace of sin, the distortion of who we are and the disruption of our relationships with God, each other, and ourselves.
Ash Wednesday interrupts the cycle of forgetfulness. It declares that enough is enough. There is another way. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
I hear those words with a sense of relief. I take comfort in being marked with the ashes of mortality. Those ashes and words return me to myself so that I might return to God. My heart is broken open, my defenses crumble, and my list of expectations, intentions, and plans no longer control or determine my life. I am freed to live a different way, emboldened to reflect honestly on my life, and empowered to change and go in a different direction. I am returned to a new beginning when “the Lord God formed [me] from the dust of the ground, and breathed into [my] nostrils the breath of life; and [I] became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
It’s Ash Wednesday. Welcome to the human race.