The Tragic Misunderstanding of Ash Wednesday

In a few hours from now, the elders of our church will rub ashes on the foreheads of some of our congregation.  In doing so we will remind ourselves and each other that we are merely dust.  As the “Preacher” in Ecclesiastes will say repeatedly, everything is smoke.  Ashes and smoke.  That is all life is.  Our loves, our pleasures, our work, our accomplishments – all of it smoke.  So what about us?   We are but dust and ash.

Can we be real for a second?

This can be an incredibly depressing thought.

I know that.

I also know that it can also lead to what I call shame piling.  Why do you care so much?  Why do you work so hard?  Why do you think about things like retirement?  It is after all, just a bunch of smoke.  You don’t matter.  You are insignificant.  In a hundred years no one will know who you are anyway!

It isn’t unfathomable that people may hear this tonight as ashes are rubbed across their forehead, and they are told, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

But let us consider another side of this story.  What if “you are dust and ashes” is exactly the opposite?

What if this hard truth is not meant to shame us for being concerned about our earthly life.  What if instead of creating fear, shame, and hopelessness, it anchors us into something beautiful?

What if the knowledge that our lives can be short sets us free to actually live and enjoy them?

The preacher in Ecclesiastes does after all remind us that “there is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This … is from the hand of God.”

What if “you are dust” also means “you matter?”  

Years ago my life was changed by a sermon given by a young man named John Piper.  In this talk he talked about the tragedy of a couple in early retirement who spent their days gathering seashells on the beaches of Florida.

I still believe the heart of Piper’s message.  But I also sometimes think about Bob and Penny, the couple from the Reader’s Digest story he quoted in his talk.  Did they attend church?  Did they raise children?  Did they volunteer in a local homeless shelter?  Did they leave a legacy of love?  Love for one another?  Love for a family? Where are their shells today?

Sure, Piper is right, there are people in our world who do not want their lives to matter.  They want to grasp ahold of the dust that the Preacher constantly tells us cannot be grasped.

But as with all things, there is a pendulum swing.  A few years later, probably motivated by Piper’s talk, a man named David Platt wrote a book called Radical.  A whole generation of young people began to believe that in order for their lives to matter they needed to be radical.  They needed to do something marvelous and world changing.  They needed to be the sort of people whose names would be remembered.

Few of us today know the names Ruby Eliason or Laura Edwards from Piper’s talk.  Few of us know who Bob and Penny are or were (are they still gathering shells?).  Bob and Penny’s sea shells have quite possibly begun their slow and steady march toward dust.  Just as you and I one day will.  Just as all that we have held dear will certainly fade one day.

But each of us matters.  Each of us has people in our paths that God is calling us to love.  Today, here, now.

Each of us is given today, not for the purpose of being radical and changing the world, but to enjoy the work have been given.  To enjoy the people we have been given.  To enjoy the world God has made for us.  For some of us that could mean picking up seashells and enjoying time with the husband or wife that God has called us to spend our days with.

That may mean volunteering somewhere in our local communities for an hour a week.  That might even mean bingeing a whole series on Netflix every now and then.

Above all it is a call to be free and live right now.  Today.

Scientists teach us that matter can never disappear.  We may be planted in the earth, we may turn to smoke and ash.  But the elements that make up our physical being will eventually recombine with other elements and form new molecules and compounds.  We know that while we may be dust, all things are made of dust.

A well lived life will not last forever.  It may not be long remembered.  But the legacy it leaves will always matter.

You are dust, and you matter.