What Happens When Death is Blessed?

As another season of Lent is upon us, it is the time of year when we confront the scariest aspect of our lives: that they’ll end. Sometime in the [hopefully distant] future, we’ll die.  And so today we remember that promise.

But as we do so, we remember that God creates out of dust. Martin Luther has been quoted as saying that “God created the world out of nothing, so as long as we are nothing, he can make something out of us.” We can get into my question of whether God did create the world out of nothing later on, but I think a more appropriate interpretation for today may read something like this.

God created you out of dust. So as long as you are dust, God can make something out of you too.

In the spirit of God creating blessing out of dust — or when applied in broader strokes, life out of death — here is a poem of blessing that Megan showed me this morning. So with that, I’ll leave with this blessing.

Blessing the Dust
A Blessing for Ash Wednesday
By Jan Richardson

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners

or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

So what happens when death is blessed?

It turns to life.

Blessings on your Lenten journey.


A Lenten Journey on the Road Less Traveled

Thanks to Mike Freisen and Landon Whitsitt for reminding me of this excellent Thomas Merton quote. My hope is that it can speak some truth or give some encouragement as we settle in for the long haul of this season of Lent.

My LORD God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.


The Meaning of Lent

It’s that time of year again — Lent. The time of year when Christians all over the world stop eating chocolate or swearing or something of the like. For the life of me I haven’t been able to decipher giving something up for Lent and a New Years resolution except that one is for Jesus. And yet we all, myself included, think each year about which to give up for Lent. I guess 40 days is a lot less intimidating than 365.

In the midst of preparing for Lent, I received an e-mail that has the Japanese word for Lent as it’s posted above. The word for Lent in Japanese is jyunansetsu. It is made up of three kanji (pictures that symbolize words or parts of words). The first kanji means “to accept,” the second means “hardship,” and the third means “a period of time.”

Together, in Japanese, Lent means to accept hardship for a period of time.

Maybe this is the heart of our Lent resolutions. Hardship is… well, it’s hard. So perhaps we resort to New Years resolution-type Lent disciplines as a distraction away from the things that are really hard in life, not that it is easy to give up chocolate or soda. But to really stand face-to-face with the hardships of life is uncomfortable for everyone.

We came face to face with death yesterday in hearing the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This reminder can be the hardship we take on. Lent constantly brings us next to our mortality.

And then, after 40 days of living next door to death, we hear the incredible news that the tomb is empty and the death has been defeated by love. This is the most important part of the meaning of Lent. We accept hardship… but only for a period of time. At the end of which we celebrate the wonder of the resurrection.


A Problem of Ashes

I’ve never understood Lent.

When I was growing up, I wasn’t necessarily the first kid in the church every Sunday. I thought church was kind of lame because it was an hour of being quiet, sitting still and listening to somebody talk about some guy who lived in Heaven. (I used to have a pretty crazy picture of God in my head, but I’ll save that for a later post…)

Now, if I didn’t understand why we gathered together every Sunday, then I certainly didn’t understand why one Wednesday a year, we would go to an extra service to get ashes put on our forehead. It sounds weird. And, let’s face it, it is weird. And I think I’ve pin-pointed why it’s so weird to me:

Ash Wednesday is about trauma.

Serene Jones defines trauma as any threat, perceived or real, that brings you next to your annihilation. Isn’t that exactly what Ash Wednesday is? The words “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” bring us right next to the fact that we are impermanent. Ash Wednesday, then, sets into action the slow and agonizing descent into our own suffering. It introduces us into a life that is filled with the trauma of knowing we are not meant to stay here. It’s the trauma of knowing this is not our home.

Our Lenten depravations are not a way of purifying ourselves so that we can face the horror of the cross. Giving up soda, candy or Facebook isn’t going to help us identify with the depravity of the crucifixion. But they are there to remind us of who we are, broken people living in a broken world. Ash Wednesday traumatizes us because it snaps us back to the reality that we often deny with the way we live the rest of our year. We consume as if we’ll live forever, but Ash Wednesday stands fundamentally opposed to all earthly messages we are inundated with. The iPad 2 will not stop you from turning to dust (although the iPad 3 may). And the whiplash that we feel is because today sends us into a season of repentance.

We need Lent. We need absence before we can know fulfillment. We need trauma before we can know healing. We need the cross before we can know resurrection.


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