Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Decomposing Stars: To Dust We Shall Return

Today is Ash Wednesday, the Christian high holy day that reminds us of our essential nature. We are dust--cosmic dust, if you want to dress up the idea, but dust nonetheless. And all too soon, we return to the dust of the cosmos. We don't really have much time, but most of us manage to suppress that knowledge. How would we live our lives differently, if we, like Jesus, always kept central in our mind, that we only have a few years to do our essential work? In cosmic time or geological time, we're here for a blip.

We are here on this earth for a very short time. Rather than get morose about this subject, we can use this as a prompt to ask ourselves what's important in our lives. Are we living daily lives that are in sync with those values? How can we make adjustments to ensure that we are not wasting our brief time here?

The time for this kind of reflection seems common across religious traditions.  On Yom Kippur, rabbi Rachel Barenblat wrote this reflection which reminds us of what this high holy day should be about: "On Yom Kippur we try as hard as we can to make teshuvah, to correct our course and shift our alignment so that our actions, our emotions, our thoughts, and our spirits are aligned with holiness. We try to repair our relationships with ourselves, with each other, with God. We try to relinquish the emotional and spiritual calluses which protect us in ordinary life, and to go deep into awareness of our mortality and deep into connection with something beyond ourselves."

In the past year, I went to a Hindu houseblessing where I spoke to the priest.  He smears ashes on his forehead every day. It reminds him that we're only here for a short time. It reminds him to keep events in perspective. So few things are worth getting upset over.

Yesterday, at the gym of all places, I spoke to a friend about our changing attitudes towards Ash Wednesday, a high holy day which we both hated when we were children.  Now, we see how relevant it is.  I mentioned the Hindu priest, and she said that she thought daily application of ash was a bit extreme.  I thought that having this kind of reminder more than just once a year could be a good thing.

I say that we were at the gym, and you may have pictured a place of beautiful bodies.  But our gym is part of a hospital where the bulk of the work that they do is cardiac rehab.  We work out and are surrounded by examples of all the ways our flesh can fail us.  All the ways our flesh will fail us.

We are ash, after all, and to ash we will return.

Here's a quote from Henri Nouwen to start your day. It's from A Cry for Mercy: "Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failings and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says 'I am too sinful to deserve God's mercy.' It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride. Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: 'Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God's mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?' The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God's mercy."

Here is a prayer for Ash Wednesday: "Oh God, keep us mindful of all the behaviors that move us away from you. Help us to remember that we are here for such a short time, that all to soon we shall return to our dusty destinies. Keep us focused on the Kingdom work that you need us to do."

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