March 10, 2011
"And To Dust We Shall Return"
The Rev. Dr. Scott Stoner
My father is eighty-eight years old and has been battling some serious health issues recently. This has, of course, been difficult for him, for our family and for all who love him. At the same time though, there has been a special quality to many of the conversations that I have been having lately with my Dad. He talks openly about his mortality and what it feels like to know that his life may be nearing its physical end. In the midst of the struggles, my father displays a new softness, vulnerability and peacefulness that has been inspiring to me and to all who know him well. We say, “I love you” to each other more than ever. His faith is as strong as I have ever seen it. Apparently, coming face to face with one’s mortality can be good for the soul.
This week Christians observed Ash Wednesday, a day when many Christians went to church to come face to face with their own mortality. At some point in the service for Ash Wednesday, each person came forward to have ashes placed on their forehead in the shape of a cross. The words that accompany being marked with ashes are, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
When I was pastoring a church full time, I was amazed at how many people came to Ash Wednesday services. We usually had three services, including one at 7:00 AM, and they were all well attended by people from ages two to ninety-two. Everyone loved getting ashes on their forehead. At each service long lines of people patiently waiting to be reminded that they were dust and that to dust they would return.
I could always feel the power of the Ash Wednesday service and the ritual of ashes, but was not sure I fully understood why so many people sought out a ritual that on the surface seems like it’s message could be a bit depressing. The experiences I am now having with my father now provide a deeper insight into the power and wisdom of being reminded that, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Being reminded of our mortality can bring a new clarity to our lives, in a way similar to when a person survives a near death experience and says, “Wow, that certainly has helped put everything into perspective for me.” Coming face to face with our mortality helps us to distinguish that which is eternal in life and that which is temporary. Our souls are eternal. Love, peace, truth and mercy are eternal. Our bodies are clearly temporary.
Whether you attended an Ash Wednesday service this week or not, I encourage you to take some time to reflect on your own morality and the mortality of all whom you love. While doing this may be a little unsettling at first, I hope that it will lead you to a clarity and humility of spirit that allows you to both give and receive love more deeply.
I am grateful for the lessons I am learning from my father these days, one of which is that I now understand the power and wisdom of Ash Wednesday a little more clearly.
Scott Stoner for Living Compass