Wednesday, February 18, 2015

“Remember You Are Dust”

Growing up as a Baptist, I didn’t hear much about Ash Wednesday or Lent. In my years in the States before going to Japan, including the nine years I was a Baptist pastor, I don’t recall hearing or making any mention of them as a part of worship or Christian practice.
For several years, however, I have observed Lent to a certain extent and have attended a few Ash Wednesday services, which concluded with a cross being made on my forehead with ashes.
For some reason, until last year I had never paid much attention to the words that were spoken then. Perhaps different words were used in the previous services I had attended, but last year the minister said, Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I was moved to think about my own mortality by those simple words, maybe more than ever before. Of course, I had never been 75 years old before. Those of us who are 75 or older surely need to think about our mortality, for most of us have only a few years left on this earth.
But even for you who are much younger, the end of your time on this earth is coming, too.
Dr. Wayne Oates, my pastoral counseling professor whom I wrote about last October, was talking in class one day about visiting people who were terminally ill. He mentioned that it is common to say about such people, “Well, it is just a matter of time now.”
Dr. Oates then looked intently at us students and said something like this: “But never forget: that is true for all of us. Some have more time left than others, but it is just a matter of time for everyone.”
People do all sorts of things to keep from thinking about the fact that someday they are going to die—and certainly it is morbid to think about one’s mortality too much. But, regrettably, many people don’t want to think about it at all. 
Last week I read the following words in a Facebook posting by Carol, a woman about my same age who now lives in my hometown:

Someone added beneath those words, “Slow down. Enjoy the day. Live in the moment. It all goes so fast.” And Carol made this brief comment: “So true.” I agree—and would also add, “But don’t forget to prepare for the end.”
One of my favorite people is Dr. Tony Campolo, professor emeritus in sociology at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. As many of you know, he is also an ordained Baptist minister, a popular speaker and a prolific author—and next Wednesday, Feb. 25, is his 80th birthday.
One year on Good Friday, Dr. Campolo heard a fellow minister preach a sermon regularly repeating the phrase, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’.” Campolo later wrote a book published (in 1984) under that title.
So today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, that 40-day period of reflection and preparation for the celebration of Easter, which will be on April 5 this year. This evening I have the privilege of leading the Ash Wednesday service at the Rosedale Congregational Church in Kansas City, Kansas, where I am serving as interim pastor this month.
When making a cross with ashes on the foreheads of those who come for that purpose, I am going to add to the traditional words. I plan to say to each one “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return—to wait for your glorious resurrection.”
It’s Ash Wednesday, but Easter’s coming!  


  1. Hi Leroy, thanks for these rich comments. They work for me! Clarence Bauman, my Ethics prof, used to say, "We do ethics from the perspective of the afterlife". That's often an illuminating vantage point! I experience life as richer when I am conscious of its brevity.

    A question I would love to hear comment on, by you or readers: As you age, do you experience the level of difficulty in believing/trusting in an afterlife growing easier, more difficult, or about the same as when you were younger?

    1. Thanks, Ron, for reading and responding to my blog article. I like the comments in your first paragraph.

      Regarding your question, I think I would have to say that thinking about or being concerned about the afterlife has become less common and less important for me in recent years. I don't know if that has as much to do with aging as it has with a theological shift, in me and in the Christian communities of which I have been a part.

      Except for the staunch evangelicals, it seems that most contemporary Christians have moved toward a much more this-worldly emphasis. And my own thinking has moved in that same direction--and is supported by that general ethos today.

      I have just finished reading "Adversary in the House" (1947), Irving Stone's historical novel about Eugene (Gene) Debs. At one point Gene responded to the charge of being an infidel: “I am not an unbeliever; I simply don’t subscribe to any creed. I wouldn’t, if I could, disturb the religion of any human creature. But as for another world, I haven’t time to think about it. I’m too intensely interested in this one” (p. 229).

      That seems to be the way many Christians think now, and I am sympathetic toward that position. Still, I believe that faith in God's gift of eternal life is of great importance and should not be under-emphasized.

    2. Or as I once heard it put, "Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good."
      There needs to be a balance, because eternity is not just here and now, nor is it just the future beyond here.

  2. Thanks for your posting, Leroy. It raised a couple thoughts from me:

    1) In the Benedictine tradition, members of the community are encouraged to "keep death ever before your eyes," and each night the Benedictine abbot prays "May the Almighty God grant you a restful night and a peaceful death". What have we lost as a culture in our terrified avoidance of death? We continue to push this natural process to the very edges of social acceptance; what once occurred in the home--death, funeral, and burial--is now a more hidden process carried out by professionals.

    2) I am also reminded of the "death cult" of Capuchin monks who dressed up the bones of their dead into beautifully macabre displays in their crypts; one such display features a fully clothed monk skeleton holding a sign called the memento mori, which reads, "What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you soon will be." You can see a photo of the display here.

    3) This Ash Wednesday is a particularly bitter one for many Christians around the world as we struggle with the recent senseless execution of Coptic believers at the hands of the militant Islamic group ISIS. Though death should be "ever before our eyes," it should never be trivialized, and we should treat it with the gravity it deserves. Echoing the final line of your posting, I would like to share the prayer offered by United Methodist pastor friend : "May they rest in peace and rise in glory".

    1. Joshua, thanks for taking the time to post such meaningful comments about my new blog article. I appreciate what you shared in all three paragraphs.

  3. Local Thinking Friend David Nelson shares these comments:

    "Thanks for the reflection about Ash Wednesday. You are so right that we need to live fully today and not just wait for something in the future. I would even add that we don't have to wait for the 'glorious resurrection' but we can start living it today."

    1. Thanks, David, for your comments.

      I don't know what it means to say we can experience the "glorious resurrection" now. I would rather say that we can experience, and live, "eternal life" now and that such life does not end with our physical death but continues because of the glorious resurrection.

  4. I regret not being from a liturgical tradition. Thank you for this reminder, and the depth of it meaning.

    ... and for Joshua's input of paragraph 3. It reminds me of Hebrews 11:35-39, not only of the practicality of being ready, but also the need of the holy catholic Church to be there for one another even if we have some differences. (I am thankful for the demonstration of faith the Christians of the Middle East and north Africa have given to us in their suffering and martyrdom.)

  5. Here is a comment from Thinking Friend (and my son) Keith Seat:

    "While I am glad that Easter is coming, I do feel that it pulls the punch of Ash Wed. to mention the resurrection rather than just leaving us returning to dust."

  6. Although I have been in churches that follow the "church year" for a number of years now, I have never been completely satisfied with its circular, rather than linear, historical emphasis.

    Although I see some value in both Advent and Lent, I also see a problem of trying to prepare for the birth of Jesus, or the resurrection of Jesus, as if they have not already happened. And since they have happened, I am not sure why we need to prepare for Christmas or prepare for Easter instead of just celebrating Christmas and especially Easter every Sunday (or every day).

    Of course, there is some allowance for that in that the Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter are "in Lent" but not a part of the 40-day Lenten period.

    So, I guess I want to live in both worlds: to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent and at the same time to celebrate the resurrection and its significance as something already accomplished.

  7. Hi Leroy,

    I especially like your comment about our short time on this earth. This is why my Ministry has shifted from just Sharing the Gospel(The Good News)to trying to get as many people into Heaven as I can. I realize I cannot get them there, but I can plant the seed and ask the Holy Spirit to work on their Heart.
    As we age, we notice so many of our friends and relatives leaving this life; so it Gives us a more sense of urgency to try and have them join us in Heaven. I have a `Special` tract on "Your Ticket To Heaven" that I try to Give seven(7)out to strangers and people each day.
    Our Lord willing, i will be able to meet most of the people I have come in contact with while in this life.
    Bless you Leroy for your Excellent Blog,

  8. I've gotten in on this dialogue a little late. I'm not sure what to respond to or what to say. I'm pretty skeptical now that we have anything like a conscious existence after death. I'm certainly convinced that no one is going to burn in some kind of hell forever. What a horrid and ridiculous thought! I think, above all, because of the brevity of life, no matter what the afterlife means, we should double up our commitment to work for social and political policies that will help prevent premature deaths. Our vision should be that we all die in our own bed at a ripe old age after having lived a long and full life. Is that too much to ask?

    1. Anton, it seems to me that the vision you wrote about is much more that of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) than that of the New Testament. While there is a lot to be said for your (and the OT) vision, I don't see any evidence that that was the vision of Jesus or his first followers.

    2. I think you're right about that, Leroy, if we view the Old and New Testaments as substantially different documents. However, the latest documents of the Old Testament are increasingly similar to the New (notably Ecclesiastes and Daniel). There developed in the intertestamental period also a strong view of an afterlife, which the Jesus movement apparently inherited. Also among Jesus and his followers there is a certain "despair" about the world that's quite understandable, given their social and historical circumstances, a despair not too dissimilar from other prevailing philosophies of the time, notably Gnosticism, Stoicism and Neo-Platonism. In spite of that despair, Jesus and his earliest followers manifest great regard for life and relationships, not unlike the compassion found in Buddhism as well, which also is rooted in a view of somewhat similar despair about our earthly lives. I guess I'm in a different place than that, which is why I could probably be Jewish if you were to push me very hard about it.

    3. P.S.: The "dust" imagery is distinctively of Hebrew scriptural origin, as Craig mentions.

  9. Thinking Friend Patrick Crews, now in California, writes,

    "Mortality as an end to the story doesn't frighten me as much as the mental decay many of us must take on the way. This is what I'm seeing daily with the elderly man I'm taking care of. As the school yard wisdom goes: 'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Oil your brains before they rust!'"

  10. The title to this blog takes us back to the Garden of Eden, specifically to Genesis 3:19. God is wrapping up the handing out punishments for eating the forbidden fruit. This is a story that has been studied and interpreted for millennia. Coming next, in chapter 4, are Cain and Abel. We stand poised between the childlike dreamworld in Eden, and the harsh realities found east of Eden. We confront mortality and morality all at once. This is mythology in the very highest sense of the word.

    I had a Baptist PK (preacher's kid) once tell me that he grew up hearing people fuss about 'literalism' and 'liberalism' without realizing for years that they were ranting about two different words. Sort of like 'mortality' and 'morality.' When we obsess with the iotas of life, perhaps it is good to sometimes hear the wisdom of children who cannot tell the difference. In my own case, I remember being startled as a young child when I first realized 'three' and 'free' were different words.

    So, yes, "dust to dust" applies to us all, but I would be suspicious of any human who claimed to know exactly what that meant. In humility, we sit, and listen, once again, to the story.

  11. A local Thinking Friend, who is a year older than I, wrote a fairly long email that contained the following comments too good not to share:

    " . . . having lived this long, and having never thought I would, I do think of the subject [death] rather frequently, and probably like most of us, I'm baffled by it; I can't figure it out.

    "But, I have come up with some ideas. For example, if I ever get to meet this fellow we call God, I hope I have the courage to suggest that he, or she might have done better with a plan whereby, when we get this old, if we make it, we would get to live a couple hundred more years.

    "Here's why. We live all these years; we go through all the years, some good ones, some bad ones, 'trials and tribulations,' and, think about all we learn in that time. And then, I'll be d***ned if we don't die!

    "Isn't that a terrible waste? Seems like there should be a better system.

    "I don't mean to be trite or vulgar, but I really kinda like the ideas contained in this saying:

    "LIfe's journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting, 'Holy S**t, what a Ride!'"

  12. Joe Barbour, a local Thinking Friend who is a retired pastor/missionary, writes,

    "Thanks for your blog on Ash Wednesday.

    "As I thought about this I am reminded that for this dust pile there is going to be marvelous change one day and it was for this one and in fact the whole world
    Christ died that we might live far greater than we can ever imagine.

    "Paul said it to the Corinthians, 'In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye we shall all be changed.' I am looking forward to that!"

  13. The people who visit this blog remind me of the old Negro spiritual, there is a whole lotta folks talkin about heaven who ain't gettin there. Enter in by the strait gate : for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction and MANY there be who go in thereat: Because strait is the gate NARROW is the way that leads to life and FEW there be who find it. Matthew 7:13.14 Verses 21 - 23 indicate that many who thought that they were saved were not and Jesus says these ominous words, DEPART from Me you workers of iniquity for I have, double negative in the Greek, NEVER no NEVER knew you.... I am afraid that this is the type of people who blog here. The mention of a false teacher like Tony Campolo proves that! Christian socialism is not the gospel but belongs properly to those whose ideas are more in line with theological liberalism and humanism! May God open the eyes of those deceived and lost that they may truly become born anew and so be saved! Repent for while it is still the day of salvation!