Word Up Wednesday: Between the Dust; Beyond the Dust / by Donna Olivia Owusu-Ansah

Image taken from The African American Lectionary Website

Image taken from The African American Lectionary Website

Today is Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the day in the Christian liturgical calendar that marks the beginning of Lent, the forty day observation of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness recorded in the the Gospels of Mark and Luke. For many, Catholics and Protestants alike, the day and their bodies will be marked with the imposition of ashes as some iteration of the words, “From dust you have come. To dust you have return” are said. An acknowledgment of the finite and frail nature of humanity. It seemed fitting on this Ash Wednesday to share the funeral sermon I wrote and delivered for a beloved patient last month. Names and details have been omitted to protect the privacy of the deceased and her family. Names have also been omitted because the message, “Between the Dust; Beyond the Dust” could really be applicable to any of us who are disciples of Christ. Also, I invite you to read all the way to the end to see how my 2019 Lenten practice ties in with this theme.

You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
— Psalm 90:3 NRSV

Between the Dust; Beyond the Dust

We are acquainted with phrases/idioms/jargon/vernacular about dust:

There are dust mites, dust covers, pixie dust, and if you live in my house, dust bunnies.

Slow runners in a race are said to be eating dust or left in the dust.

If you are not welcomed in a place as you deserve an appropriate response is to shake the dust from your feet.

When you are waiting for chaos to calm you are waiting for the dust to settle.

And you know, you can’t eat everybody’s cooking because some folk’s food is as dry as dust.

Dust language also shows up in our art, which I’m sure she knew something about given her extensively creative background:

Julie Dash had the film, “Daughters of the Dust”

Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography was titled “Dust Tracks on a Road”

And if you are of a particular age, then you remember the Billboard chart topping hit by Queen, “Another One Bites the Dust”

Dust language

When we pause/gather/come together in times of death, we become all too acquainted with the very dusty/earthy/frail nature of life.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

Paraphrased from the record in Genesis, “From dust you have come, to dust you shall return…”

And as found in the 90th Psalm which was my meditation for this evening, “You turn us back to dust.”

We are dusty people.

Now, don’t write me off yet. I know that in most circles, including the playground I frequented in elementary school, to call someone dusty is to hurl a great insult. It might get you a black eye. But think with me about what it means to be dust.

Earthen existence.

Finite and frail.

Dust.

Contoured clay.

Fertile ground for creativity and fruitfulness.

You turn us back to dust…

Image from Pexels

Image from Pexels

In the Biblical sense, to be dust as expressed in the 90th Psalm is to be humble/broken/cast down/crushed. But not in a way that is hopeless as a pile of rubble. This dustiness positions you and I to be molded/shaped/formed by the hand of God so that God can do marvelous work through us. Clay in the hands of the Potter. To be dust is to recognize that God’s faithfulness can transform our frailty into fruitfulness. To be dust is to recognize that God’s beauty can transform our brokenness into boldness. To be dust is to recognize that God’s love can lift our lowliness into limitless possibilities. To be dust is to make peace with these ailing bodies moving through a tumultuous world knowing that it is God who carries us through. I believe that the recognition that we are dust, gave our forebears strength and resilience as they worked with their hands in the soil during slavery. It is why even today many of us find strength and joy and meaning in gardening or tending to our house plants. And can I say this? To be dust in this moment is to feel the pain that comes from losing her and to cry your tears knowing that weeping may endure for a night, but JOY comes in the morning.

As I think about her life—I see how God made dust fruitful, bold, and packed with possibilities. And that’s the thing about dust. By its nature, dust leaves particles/residue/fragments of itself leaving a mark as to evidence its presence. She has left a legacy in her family. She has left a legacy in the Plainfield community. She has left an indelible mark on the her school. She has left a lasting legacy in the lives of all she touched.

We came from dust. We will return to dust. We are dust…

As I prepared for this evening, I came across a song by 1970’s rock group Kansas titled Dust in the Wind:

All we are is dust in the wind

All we are is dust in the wind

Dust in the wind

And yet I want to suggest that we are more than dust and certainly more than dust in the wind. That is, between the dust there is life/spirit/ruarch/breath of God within us that gives the dust life. We are not dust in the wind, rather we are dust filled with wind. Filled with the wind of God. And although I did not meet her in this life, it is clear through the witness of her sisters and niece at her bedside and all of your testimonies that she did not let dust define her, but she lived into the wind of God. She was able to be the caring, generous, loving, creative, remarkable, dryly humorous woman that she was because of the Spirit of God within her. My sisters and brothers as we live between the dust, may we be guided by the Spirit of God to show kindness and generosity to one another. As we live between the dust, may we be guided by the Spirit of God to do justice and love mercy. As we live between the dust, may we be guided by the Spirit of God to love our neighbors as ourselves. As we live between the dust, may we be guided by the Spirit of God to be bold, fruitful, and stir up the gifts within us so that our families, our communities, our nation, and our world would be better because of our dust.

You turn us back to dust…

And can I say this? And herein lies the good, good news. We live beyond the dust…

She is not the dust in this beautiful urn.

My sisters and brothers, dust is not the end of the story! We live beyond the dust.

As was read in our hearing earlier, because she put her trust in Him, Jesus promised her a dwelling place in our Father’s house, a building not made with human hands.

And on that day, when she took rest from earthly labor to her heavenly reward, her testimony became—in the words of Maya Angelou—But still, like dust, I’ll rise. But still, like dust, I’ll rise. But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Image from Pexels

Image from Pexels

Or, as she so sweetly sang, “One of these morning you’re gonna rise up singing/and you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky/But ‘till that morning, there ain’t nothing can harm you/With Jesus standing by…”

As we remember her, may her witness cause us to live well between the dust, and when life is troubled, may her faith in God remind us that we live beyond the dust. Thanks be to God!

I gave up giving up stuff for Lent a long time ago—it felt too restrictive, too guilt laden, too shame inducing. I believe in and practice the spiritual discipline of fasting, but during Lent I’ve tried to focus on other practices generate bring life in the midst of death. As I seek to live between dust and beyond dust, my Lenten practice this year is about decluttering and ridding my home of dust and the stuff that collects dust. And I believe that ridding our space of stuff will also clear space in my heart and mind for the indwelling presence of God. 

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Dear readers, how have you experienced your dusty-ness, both in finite and fruitful ways? And what are your plans for the 2019 Lenten season to draw you nearer to God?