Thursday, 7 March 2019

"You are dust, and to dust you shall return."

 It is one of the most ancient phrases of Scripture, coming right out of the early chapters of Genesis. This is what we are reminded of by our traditions on this day each year as it forms the central theme of what we're about. We're being reminded of our mortality and our need for penitence.

But there's another theme at work deep within this sentence that we might do well to ponder as we as Christians enter the period of self-examination and renewal called Lent. Part of our journey as people of God in this season is about re-energising our spirituality and to truly stop for a moment and allow God to do some transformational work in us. We need to truly stop which are perhaps two of the hardest words to hear in our fast-paced always-in-motion culture today.

On Ash Wednesday, it seems appropriate to pause and take a hard, honest look at what drives us. Many of us are being run to exhaustion and near breakdown by fear. If it's not fear that we might lose our jobs if we don't perform well enough, it's the fear that we'll lose our profits or our investors, or that our stock portfolios will begin to drop in value. Many of us have a passionate fears about where our next meal is coming from, or how we will be able to pay our bills next week or next month. And if these fears weren't the subject of some of the deepest soul-searching in the latest political adventures of our country, what was?

We have listened to claims and counter-claims from our politicians over the last months which will continue for a while yet. The assumption that has been made, rightly or wrongly by all sides of the debate, is that the answer is to keep "moving forward," or in financial terms, "moving upwards." So we work harder, driving our bodies to the edge, shortening our tempers, destroying our environment by upsetting its finely tuned balance and stripping the earth of more precious resources. But no one seems to be asking the question, and certainly no one seems to be answering, "Where are we headed? Upwards: towards what? Forwards: to where?" Growth towards what? Growth at what cost to us God’s creation?

Even the market itself seems confused about what its goals and what they really mean. Where this all is supposed to be headed. We are guilty, in so many ways and at so many levels, of the corporate sin of "chasing the wind." And, like most corporate sins, it's a societal ill that each of us has a very hard time finding a way out of. Our businesses fail if we don't pay attention to the bottom line. Our tables and plates are empty if we don't compete and work hard.

Fortunately for us as Christians, the reminder that we hear today, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," was not written by a market strategist. In fact, it is one of the earliest scriptural statements directly attributed to the voice of God. Like so many things on Ash Wednesday, it seems a grim reminder about our own darkness, our own mortality. That indeed may be true. But there is also a great hope here, and perhaps even the beginning of an answer to our wrestling with our own corporate greed and even our fears.

We in the West have somehow forgotten that we are people of the earth. Remembering that we are dust is a call to return to an ancient wisdom that we are as much physical people as spiritual people. Spirituality and physicality are at root connected. Jesus was not born into a sterile environment, cleaned and sanitised for his arrival. He was born into all the smells and grime of a barn, reaffirming the sanctity of even the dust and dirt that make us up and the rest of the natural world.

Running around with our faces disfigured, or parading our discipline in public will gain us nothing spiritually. Rather, it is the care for our bodies, the washing of our faces, and the quiet, gentle acts of mercy and kindness to the needs of others that will nurture us as whole physical and spiritual beings. We need to be reclaiming and reaffirming our physical selves and the physical selves of others. Seeking balance with our neighbours, the earth, and our well-being is really where we need to be headed.

While the market forces driving our lives will not go away anytime soon, at least we have a way to mediate competition's effects on our lives. So, fast this Lent from some of the frenetic desperation that rules our lives. Make time to find the sleep that is necessary, to spend time with people and the God whom we love. Make time to give energy towards helping those who are in need.

Next time the tap is running or the computer is on, ask where the resources come from, and wonder who worked to bring them to us. And remember to take off the shoes and feel the grass between your toes. I ask that this year our reconnection with whom and what we really are will be our truest and best Lenten discipline.

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