DUST AND ASHES

Psalm 90, Psalm 51, 2 Cor. 5:20-6:10

Jennifer Hosler

Create in me a clean heart: we’ve been singing this song for several weeks now. I love it because it’s a beautiful, simple, Spirit-filled prayer—more than an ordinary praise song. The words of this song are actually taken from an ancient prayer of King David, from the words of Psalm 51, which we just read. The foreword of the psalm explains how it was written after David’s affair with Bathsheba and after he had her husband Uriah killed to cover it up. In David’s psalm, we see a yearning for renewal, for forgiveness, redemption, and hope. We hear a plea for God’s presence to endure despite David’s own sin, despite human lust and corruption. This psalm, along with the other one that we read this morning during our responsive prayer (psalm 90) serve as good representations of what the season of Lent is all about: Lent is about dust and ashes.

Dust

This past Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Many Christian churches hold special services to mark Ash Wednesday. While we do not, Lent is still a regular part of our church calendar and it signifies the progression towards Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  For almost two thousand years, Christians have traditionally done some type of “preparation” for Easter, and for centuries, Ash Wednesday has marked the start of this preparation time. During most Ash Wednesday services, people come forward and a priest or a pastor rubs ashes on their foreheads. The pastor typically takes the ashes, makes a sign of the cross, and says these words: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words come from Genesis 3:19 and serve as an intentional reminder of human frailty and mortality.

There’s a song by a band called Modest Mouse that echoes the words of Genesis 3:19. It’s both funny and startling at the same time. At the end of the song, the lead singer repeats the following phrase several times: “Someday you will die and somehow something’s gonna steal your carbon.” Someday you will die and somehow something’s gonna steal your carbon. In other words, we living breathing human beings will someday all end up being reduced to dirt. After we die, other living organisms—plants, grass, animals—will use the basic elements that make up our bodies and produce more life.

Psalm 90 also speaks of human mortality. In the psalm, which is attributed to Moses, the community of faith recognizes God’s eternity in contrast to the fleeting nature of their own lives. To paraphrase verses 1 and 2, it reads, “O God, you are eternal and have been our dwelling place for all generations. The oldest things we know are the mountains, are this earth on which we dwell—and you existed long before any of those. From everlasting to everlasting, you are God” (vv. 1-2). Verses 3 to 6 continue: “You turn us back to dust, and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’ For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.” Like dust in the wind, like grass or plants with a short life cycle, our lives are a brief moment in light of God’s eternity. Life is brief—and it’s also fragile.

While living in Nigeria, I became especially aware of this, of how easily life can slip away. A car accident, an illness without medical care, a snake bite, an armed bandit, or an attack by Boko Haram. Life seemed so fragile. Even before the attacks and displacement that we see today, most of our Nigerian friends recognized that each day could be their last. This sentiment was visible in everyday language that people used. It’s common, as it is here, to say goodnight to someone by saying, “See you in the morning.” In Hausa, you say, “Sai da safe.” Yet the typical response is not “Good night” or “Sleep well” or “See you then.” Quite frequently, our friends responded with, “Allah ya kai mu,” meaning, “May God carry us.” In essence, waking up wasn’t taken for granted. It was culturally normal to recognize, if God sees us through until then, yes, we will see you in the morning.  To our EYN sisters and brothers, life is seen as a gift from God. They are very aware that this gift may or may not extend to tomorrow.

For some reason, we North Americans often proceed throughout our daily lives without regard for the fact that our lives could end any moment. Many of us, especially us who are young-ish, wake each morning and go to sleep each night without considering that we might not wake up tomorrow. Most of us are not mindful of the fact that it is only by God’s grace that we are still breathing, our hearts are still beating, and we’ve been given another day to live.

Why do we talk about dust on Ash Wednesday? The purpose of Ash Wednesday, the purpose of Lent, is to remind us that from dust we have been formed and someday—maybe tomorrow and maybe in 70 years—to dust we will return. The One who has formed and created us calls us to turn to Him before we turn back to dust.

Ashes

For some people recognizing their own mortality brings a sense of angst, a burden of anxiety and uncertainty. On my eighth birthday, I experienced some of this myself. I recall quite clearly the realization that I was, indeed, getting older. On the morning I turned eight, my older sister Stephanie found me in tears in the living room. She asked, “Jenny, why are you crying? It’s your birthday!” I sobbed, “I don’t want to turn eight! I don’t want to turn eight because I don’t want to die!” Most people hit this point when they turn 30 or 50 but for some reason, it came to me at age 8. My sister tried to console me, saying we didn’t need to say I turned eight. Instead, we could say that I was seven plus one. Somehow, this seemed a bit satisfying to me.

Here in North America, it is most common to think about life’s frailty only when life is lost, or when a person’s life is ebbing away through illness. When the end is apparent, people are prompted to put things in order: they spend time with their loved ones, they try to mend long-broken relationships, and they often try to seek God. Psalm 90 illustrates this. After stating that humans only live for 70 or 80 years, Moses then asks God to help the people prioritize: “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (v. 12). Teach us to count our days so that we may gain a wise heart. Lent starts with a focus on dust, on mortality, in order to remind us what is important and to prompt us to make ourselves right with God.

The ashes at the heart of Ash Wednesday symbolize mortality and they also symbolize repentance. Last month, I preached on Jonah. In that book, the King of Ninevah hears Jonah’s message of judgment and repents, covering himself with ashes. Throughout the Bible, when people repent from sin, they cover themselves with ashes. Ash Wednesday involves ashes because Lent is about repenting. Lent is about preparing our hearts and our lives for to re-encounter what Christ has done at Easter. It’s a time for self-reflection, for us to pray the prayer of King David from Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation and renew a right spirit within me.”

Lent is about repenting and finding renewal in God’s presence. It is about remembering that we are dust and reorienting our lives to what matters—and what matters is that we are made and loved by God.

Spiritual Disciplines for Lent

When people think of Lent, they often think of fasting. I’ve preached about fasting during Lent before and talked about how fasting from food or television or Facebook or anything else can be quite helpful as a means for removing distractions to spiritual growth. Fasting can indeed be helpful. But the question is not, “to fast or not to fast?”  The question is, whether fasting or not fasting, “how am I cultivating my soul for the Spirit’s growth?”  How am I cultivating my soul for the Spirit’s growth?

If we want to prepare our hearts for Easter, like we prepare our gardens for spring, then we need to use special tools.  Instead of hoes and shovels and rakes, we can use spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, meditation on Scripture, solitude, and silence to make our soul’s soil more fertile.  These ancient practices slow us down and help us to focus on Jesus as we follow Him.

The act of following Jesus and growing in our faith is called discipleship. It can be sometimes thrilling or sometimes discouraging. Sometimes we find the Bible insightful and immediately applicable, sometimes we find it confusing. Sometimes we find that our prayers flow easily and sometimes we can’t find a single word to pray. At times we might be quick to repent and ask forgiveness while other times we might be stunned to realize how hard-hearted and obstinate we can be.

Because of these natural ups and downs, times like Lent—parts of the year set aside for an emphasis on spiritual growth—can provide a helpful push to get or keep us following in Jesus’ footsteps. If you’re a baseball fan, you probably know that Spring Training starts this week. Lent is like a Christian’s spring training – and we don’t have to go to Florida or Arizona (though we would probably like to, especially today). During Lent, we can take simple steps that open up our lives to the Spirit’s work.

So what are some of these simple steps? You probably wouldn’t be surprised if I said words like Bible and prayer. And in some ways, I am saying read your Bible and pray. For many of us though, we don’t know where to start when it comes to reading more of our Bibles. We don’t exactly know what to pray, even if we want to spend more time in prayer. With these realities in mind, I thought of a few practical steps that we can take this Lent, to open up our lives to the Spirit’s work.

One step lies in the Psalms. The book of Psalms, in my opinion, is a treasure. Poems, songs, prayers, laments: there are 150 Psalms that run the gamut of human emotions. While they may have been written thousands of years ago, they are incredibly relevant for us today.  During times when I’ve felt spiritually aimless or struggled with reading scripture and praying, the Psalms have provided the words I needed to express my soul’s anguish or to cry out to God for help. During good times, the Psalms have also stood by, ready with words of praise and thankfulness, with words describing all creation singing to its Creator. The Psalms provide an approachable way to help us dig into Scripture and to give us words to pray. The Psalms can give words to our struggles. They can point us to the source of life, the source of our strength. This Lent, can you read a Psalm each day, spending 10 minutes meditating on or praying through the words?

Another approach lies in the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ most famous sermon and one of the bigger chunks of his teaching in Scripture. Within the Church of the Brethren, it is seen as part of the core teaching that defines us as Jesus followers. Another practical step we can take is to meditate on a section of the Sermon on the Mount each day. These are tangible, short chunks of scripture that are easy to work with. It also has a prayer for us to practice praying, the Lord’s Prayer that was taught to the disciples.

Can you make a resolution this Lent to doing something intentional—something you do not normally do—to cultivate your soul between now and Easter? Can you spend time meditating on the Psalms or the Sermon on the Mount each day? As we journey towards the Cross, what are we going to do to cultivate our souls for the Spirit’s growth? I’ve put together a small handout with these two suggestions and the ushers will have them available to distribute. Sisters and brothers, this Lent, as we head towards Good Friday and Easter, let us remember that we are dust and spend time reorienting our lives to our Creator, the One who has given us this life and granted that we might live to see another day. AMEN.

 

Cultivating Our Souls During Lent: (Handout distributed during the service)

Consider taking at least 10-15 minutes a day, reading a chapter or a section and spending the rest of the time in silent meditation or prayer. Use one of the psalms as your own prayer or use the Lord’s Prayer as a starting point.

Psalms to Meditate on during Lent

  • Psalms about God’s Creation: Psalms 8, 19, and 139
  • Psalms yearning for God’s presence: Psalms 27, 42, 43, 63
  • Wisdom Psalms (choosing God’s Path): Psalms 1, 15, 133
  • Praise Psalms: Psalms 150, 95, 98
  • Psalms asking for God’s help: Psalms 69, 40, 80
  • Psalms trusting in the LORD: Psalms 61, 91, 121, 146
  • Psalms about God’s Character: Psalms 103, 145, 117
  • Psalms about Forgiveness: Psalms 32, 51
  • Psalms of Thanksgiving: Psalms 100, 107, 118, 34

The Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5, 6, and 7

  • Read through the Sermon on the Mount according to the section headings in your Bible or read in chapters.
  • About praying (including the Lord’s Prayer): Matt. 6:5-15
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