patty kirk

patty kirk lying down, getting up, sitting at home, walking down the road doing deuteronomy 6:7

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

we are but dust

Today is Ash Wednesday. Yesterday, my university’s online devotional had the headline, “Remember That You Are Dust.” I automatically translated the phrase into the wording of the last Ash Wednesday service I attended after an ash-smeared childhood of Ash Wednesdays: We are but dust.

I searched for the phrase online and finally found it, in the King James Version. It was Abraham, wheedling God not to destroy the city of Sodom because there might be a few righteous ones in it: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?” (Genesis 18:27-28 TNIV).

Who am I to speak? I am nothing but the dust out of which you made me. Nothing but the ashes I will someday become but for your intervention. Nevertheless, I will speak.

Later in the day, my daughter Charlotte called me up from her college in faraway Boston, and we got to reminiscing about that Ash Wednesday service. It was the only one she’d ever attended, during her last semester of her last year of high school, the last year she’d lived at home.

“Maybe I’ll go to an Ash Wednesday service again tonight,” she said on the phone. She sounded wistful.

We had gone that time to the Episcopal church, she and I. It was not our usual church but one Charlotte was finding increasingly attractive. I have always been skeptical of churches founded by people who had murdered their wives—who, in fact, founded churches in order to get rid of problem wives more easily—but I was supportive of Charlotte’s choice. I was supportive of anything that might boost her interest in the faith in which I had attempted to raise her. Indeed, what church she attended didn’t matter to me at all. I just wanted her to love the God who had made her and to recognize and appreciate the One God Sent as her way back into God’s presence.

The Episcopal church was better than any other, Charlotte told me on the way there, because they believed that taking care of the less fortunate was more important than fighting over gay rights. It seemed as worthy a cause as any I could come up with. And as astute an assessment of any church’s central aims. And so we got dressed up—another part of the appeal of church for Charlotte, I suspected—and we went, she and I.

I think Ash Wednesday must be the Episcopalians’ favorite holy day. The service, in any case, murmured and chanted on. And on. I felt nothing. Thought nothing. This happens to me a lot during church services these days, despite my love for God and deep desire to share it in worship.

It doesn’t matter what you feel, I scolded myself. It just matters that you’re there. Obedient. Present. Available to God, however inadequately.

Several times during the service, we echoed Abraham in a repeated choral response: “We are but dust.”

“We are but dust,” I whispered to Charlotte at one point. Instantly, unintentionally, the words became “butt dust”—We are butt dust!—and we ducked into each other’s necks to muffle our laughter.

“We are butt dust!” Charlotte repeated on the phone today, two years later, laughing. And it occurs to me that this, too—the humor, the boldness of it—is what faith is about: sharing the words of scripture as we would a box of malt balls. Feeling them implode in our mouths, then melt into our tastebuds. Enjoying them together.