Do you know what it means that you are dust?
I wanted to ask that of the two children who attended the Ash Wednesday service. Because those are the words to be said: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Looking at their precious faces, I couldn’t say it. They’ve just begun their life’s journey… not even a decade in… why speak of its end? “Remember that God made you,” I said instead, “and God will hold you forever.” A kinder, gentler signing of the forehead. A softer version of the hard truth: we are all mortal.
And that we are. Made of dust. Subject to decay. On borrowed time. Finite in our present form. Mortal. Several years ago Boston surgeon and Harvard professor Atul Gawande authored a marvelous book simply titled “Being Mortal.” Being confronted not only in his medical practice but also with his parents’ deaths, Gawande felt compelled to write about “medicine and what matters in the end” (the book’s subtitle). It’s not our favorite subject. But it’s one of the most important topics with which we must all grapple. I recall watching my parents standing in their kitchen as my father reported to me that all arrangements had been made. Mom interrupted. But dad insisted on completing the conversation.
I commend the book to you if you haven’t yet read it. Here’s a small snippet as we embark on our Lenten journey with foreheads slashed with ashes in the shape of a cross:
When there is no way of knowing exactly how long our skeins will run – and when we imagine ourselves to have much more time than we do – our every impulse is to fight, to die with chemo in our veins or a tube in our throats or fresh sutures in our flesh. The fact that we may be shortening or worsening the time we have left hardly seems to register. We imagine that we can wait until the doctors tell us there is nothing more they can do. But rarely is there nothing more that doctors can do. They can give toxic drugs of unknown efficacy, operate to try to remove part of the tumor, put in a feeding tube if a person can’t eat; there’s always something. We want these choices. But that doesn’t mean we are eager to make the choices ourselves. Instead, most often, we make no choice at all. We fall back on the default, and the default is: Do Something. Fix Something. Is there any way out of this?”
We are all dust. And believing in a risen Lord, we need not wonder about the haunting question: isn’t there anything else that can be done? God has taken care of that!