Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust
These are words to bless a body at funerals, are a reminder of our mortality. Last summer I attended the strength for the journey retreat, for people living with HIV/AIDS, for the first time since I was on staff as dean now 7 years ago. I went to see if the retreat still had the same impact on the lives as I witnessed happened those many years ago. I am to report that yes, the retreat is a rich and spiritual experience for those who attend. One young man, told our small group during a sharing about our lives, that he was glad to have AIDS, because it has changed his life, and brought a change of perspective of his life. He cherishes every moment here on earth, and has stopped his addictive behavior. For him, his brush with his mortality clarified his priorities, and he saw he had a choice, to continue destructive behavior or choose another path.
As we stand now, on the brink of another lent, we too have the opportunity to come face to face with our own mortality, to no longer deny the inevitable. In addition as we study Jesus’ life we remember often with tears in our eyes the path he chooses brings him to his own death. So lent can be a burden to us, to see how limited we are, how death is at the end for us all. We see what the disciples did not see, the path that lead Jesus to the cross, so we are somber and respectful.
But here is the rub, even though we come face to face to our mortality, we still have a choice to make. My friend living with AIDS, tells of his choice, he has chosen to use the time he has for the better, to make changes in his life so he can live more freely from the bonds of addiction.
So too do we have the choice, to face our inevitable death, and then choose a path that leads to the appreciation of what the world beholds right now. Or we can live in denial and ignore our opportunity to live fully with out bondage to sin, and death.
Often, the ashes that are blessed at a funeral are taken to a place where the one who has died loved. For some, it is the ocean, or the mountains, for still others it is a favorite spot on the golf course, or even by a tree in the backyard. Since I am at home both here and Massachusetts I often think I would want my children to distribute my ashes in both places, somewhere in the eastern Appalachian mountains I grew up by, hiking the trails, sliding down the slopes on toboggans, camping in the summers. And then here in California, somewhere like Wrightwood where I have attended so many camps, and had so many mountain top experiences. It is not so much that I need to have my ashes there, but it is in those places I felt so close to God, and it is a way for my family to remember to whom I return.
I would hope they would in those moments also remember that this life is temporary, from ashes and dust I was born, to ashes and dust my body returns. My spirit is another matter, who I am, my essence, my soul, is given to me at my creation, and then returns to the Creator at the end of this mortal life. If I fear this end, I truly do not trust in God who through Jesus made known for all believers the resurrected life.
So even in this time of lent, we take a break from the somber path, and do not include Sunday in the time of sacrifice. On this day we take a moment to remind ourselves that eternal life is the end result of our lives. Yes we go from dust to dust, but our souls lives on!
We need to keep in our vision the entire passage of John 3:16 “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life”. God gave us Jesus so we can live, that we can be free from the bonds of sin and death!
God gives us the world so we can experience the love of one another, of all creation, which conspires for us, so we can live with joy and courage and peace.
This Lent I call us to renew our souls by listening to the words of Isaiah, who calls us to not just go through the motions, but to listen for God in our worship, and in our prayer.
We need to heed the teaching of Jesus not to fast for show, but in order that we become aware of our dependence on God, and God alone for a fruitful life.
Psalm 51 contains my personal sentence prayer, that calls me to listen and act with the right attitude: “Create in Me, O God, a clean heart and put a new and right Spirit within me”.
When we take our ashes in a few moments, I am changing up how we can use these ashes in our lenten journey. Instead of distributing them in the traditional way, the sign of the cross on your forehead, I am instead going to give you a small bag of ashes. Keep these in a place you see every day, as a reminder of the limited time we have here on earth. But then on Easter, find a place you can spread them that is a sacred place for you. It might be a favorite park, or a favorite tree or even in your flower bed, but wherever it may be know that these are organic made from palms and wood, so there is not health safety issues, and they will go to help feed the soil. In that moment wherever you feel close to God, give thanks, and be glad that God loves the world, God loves us, and we have been given the gift of eternal life! Amen