Reflections by Jerry Webber

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ash Wednesday Dust and Constellations

A short rabbinic saying claims that every human being lives out of two pockets. In one pocket there is a message that says, "You are dust and ashes." In the other pocket, the message says, "For you the universe was made."

I love the pairing of the two pockets, the willingness to put together two things that seem to be at odds . . . then the chutzpah to invite us to live into the tension of both pockets at the same time.

One pocket acknowledges that I am created in God and for God. It recognizes that I live in continual connection with God, whether I am aware of that connection or not. I am not stamped, "Condemned!" as a human failure, but rather am created by God in blessing for blessing.

Even more, within every human person there is the image of God. It may feel to some as if that image is hidden within, but every person has something of the likeness of God within them.

And this interior connection with God cannot be severed or broken. It is resilient, and it gives to your life purpose and destiny shaped by your Creator.

Further, out of this deep interior God-connection, every human being has gifts to share with the world, things that are unique. And these gifts are meant to be spent on the world. In fact, if we don't spend our unique gifts on the world, the world will never see them. Either we share them, or we hoard them (and eventually lose them).

I refer to this as the CONSTELLATION POCKET. You are so valuable, the rabbis said, "For you the universe was made!" God created constellations for you!

We also have another pocket with another message. I was formed from the dust of the earth. My beginnings were dust and at my ending I will return to the dust.

I have limits and weaknesses. I am broken and flawed. I have what people today call, "issues." I am not complete, and in my lifetime will never be complete or whole. There will always be something unhealed within me, some life-project to which I must attend.

My dust is my humanity. I am a human being, not God. And life comes, not in denying that humanity, but in living fully into it.

This is the DUST POCKET, the pocket of humanness, brokenness and limitation. It is not bad. It is not a pocket to be ashamed of. It is the pocket of our humanity.

To live only out of the constellation pocket is to become ego-centric and inflated, to view the world only as it revolves around me and concerns me.

To live only out of the dust pocket is to live in shame and perversity. You can never be good enough, never accomplish enough, never be perfect enough. You live as a sinner, as someone fatally flawed who needs to be fixed. This is the starting place for a lot of what passes for religion -- and it's been the starting place within institutional religion for centuries. Honestly, the message that many of us have received from the Church for centuries has been that we are bad, flawed, doomed and unlovable. [As a youth, I cut my teeth in the Church on the old hymn, "At the Cross," which reminded me that I am a "worm" and a "criminal.") This is the end-result of a dust-only pocket.

But we are not invited to an either-or choice, as if we could choose only dust or only constellations; rather, we are invited to live the tension of both-and. That is, we acknowledge that we have a foot in both worlds, in both our God-connected giftedness and our human limitations. We are not one or the other, but both. The invitation is to live fully in both realms. The glory of God, after all, is the human person fully alive (St. Irenaeus, 2nd century).

So I said some of these things today at an Ash Wednesday service in Houston, Texas. I used the rabbinic saying, then talked about DUST POCKETS and CONSTELLATION POCKETS. I invited persons to live the tension of both pockets through the season of Lent. But none of that would have been particularly memorable without what happened next.

The traditional Ash Wednesday service ends with those present having a cross marked on their foreheads in ash. In my tradition, we come forward to receive Holy Communion, then receive the ashes on our heads with these words: "From dust you have come and to dust you will return." For centuries, I suppose, these words have been offered as the ashes have been imposed on foreheads. The words along with the ashes are reminders of our humanity, our frailty, and the shortness of our days. Here at the outset of Lent, they are a further symbol of the earnestness of this 40-day journey with Jesus. That's our tradition, hundreds of years old.

In planning for today, I wondered about doing something nontraditional along with the traditional. So after my talk, I encouraged people to come for Communion and the ashes, and reminded them that the person imposing the ashes would mark their foreheads and say to them, "You are dust and ashes."

Then I changed the script. "Today, though, after you have been marked with ashes and someone has reminded you that you are dust and ashes, look at them and say back, 'And for me the constellations were made!'" It's not exactly a part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, but it's another pocket that needs to be spoken. Even with my invitation, I really didn't know if anyone would actually say the words.

I stood in front of the altar rail beside two friends who were offering the Bread and the Cup. One by one I offered ashes to those who came through the line. To each one, I said, "You are dust and ashes," as I marked their foreheads with a cross.

And with only a couple of exceptions, these brave souls looked at me and said, "And for ME the constellations were made!"

Some spoke the words boldly, and some offered them timidly.

Some said them as if they still were not convinced that constellations had been made for them, but they took the risk to speak the words, anyway.

Others seemed surprised to hear themselves say out loud something they had never considered before.

Several broke into tears as they said the words.

It was the most poignant, humbling 7 minutes I've experienced in a long, long time.

I reflected on the experience in the hours after. To be honest, I felt something like a villain, like the person chosen to play the role of Judas Iscariot in the once-a-decade presentation of the Passion Play. I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the "role" I played in this symbolic "drama" . . . it's almost as if I were speaking for the Church, for centuries of the Church reminding people of their dust and ashes, reminding people of their limitation and frailty, marking people as sinful and flawed . . . all without speaking of the other pocket.

"You are dust and ashes," the Church has said to us for so many years, and it has seldom opened to us the other pocket.

"You are dust and ashes," we have heard, and it has been all we've known to believe.

So today I stood in for the Church. I said the Church's words and I played the role that may be all too commonplace for the Church: "You are dust and ashes."

Thankfully, there were some courageous souls who decided, for at least one moment in time, to live out of their other pocket as well. "And for me the constellations were made!"

You could almost hear chains dropping.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for inviting us to live in the both/and of dust&ashes and likesness&image of God. I wish the Ash Wednesday service I attended had acknowledged two pockets.

Anonymous said...

"you could almost hear chains dropping..." Jerry, people were coming out of their caves!
Thank you for that healing, brave, true reflection!

Anonymous said...

The last Ash Wednesday service I had attended was 30 years ago. I was raised Catholic and had my fill of all-things- Catholic. So, being a Chapelwood member for nearly 15 years, I have heard about the noon Ash Wednesday service for quite some time but never had the inclination to attend. That is until this year…. You see I work a pretty good distance away from Chapelwood and a noon church service is, well, just not convenient. But the fact that I was aware that it crossed my radar screen was reason to pay attention.
For the past 6 years I have been blessed to have a faithful spiritual director walk alongside me and have therefore become more conscious of my spiritual journey. Over the course of these years I have noticed my slow movement back toward Catholic things: weekly communion served at the Contemplative service, retreats led by Catholic priests, silent retreats at convent, pilgrimage to a monastery and now Ash Wednesday service.
Let me back up a bit, in anticipation of the Lenten season I considered what I would abstain from or what spiritual discipline I would carry during the 40 days of Lent (I am familiar with these things because of that Catholic upbringing.) Up until the Ash Wednesday service, I did not know what I was going to do.
I am deeply grateful to have heard the meditation “Living out of Two Pockets” which you have again shared here on your blog. For way too long I have gotten caught up in the place that was described in the Henri Nouwen quote on the worship guide: “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….Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord.” I have lived out of my “dust” pocket almost exclusively for 50 years. Dare I say it has been my addiction?
This Lent, I will journey with living out of my “constellation” pocket.
I need some spiritual balance. I surely don’t know what this looks like two days into Lent but I sense it’s the place I am supposed to be.

p.s. the poetry selection for today from A Lenten Mosaic, “The Journey” by Mary Oliver was a beautiful affirmation.