IVP - Strangely Dim - Making an Ash of Myself

February 20, 2010

Making an Ash of Myself

When I was a little girl I spent quite a bit of time in our school library. One day--a Wednesday, in fact--one of the ladies who volunteered there showed up with a mysterious smudge on her forehead. Ha, I thought. She had gotten some black stuff on her face and had gone the whole day without anyone telling her. How embarrassing! Later I found out that the black stuff was there on purpose, and that I was a silly girl for laughing at her. But I still didn't get the meaning of the mark.

Growing up Baptist, I didn't really have Lent on my radar screen. It wasn't until fifteen years later, after switching to a Presbyterian church, that I attended an Ash Wednesday service for the first time. Unsuspecting, I went forward to receive the ashes. I stepped up to the elder, who looked me in the eye and gently whispered, "Becky, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

WHAM. I felt like someone had hit me over the head with a two-by-four of my own mortality. My eyes filled with tears. My knees got weak. I was crushed. And yet I also felt a beautiful freedom--freedom to let go of all of my grandiose ambitions to make myself into something in this world. Here was the truth: I am dust.

Last week NPR did a story about the twentieth anniversary of the "pale blue dot" photo taken from the Voyager spaceship in 1990. The photo doesn't look like much: a black field with some streaks of light across it and one tiny, two-pixel-wide dot. That dot, which could easily be confused for a bit of dirt on the lens, is Earth from nearly four billion miles away.

The article continues by quoting Carl Sagan, who eloquently tried to express how he felt about this photo in his book Pale Blue Dot:

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

This past Wednesday night I was again reminded of my status as dust. And my mind was cast back to that photo. Not only am I dust, but I'm a speck of dust living on a speck of dust floating through a vast universe.

All this smallness can lead us to despair unless we remember the true meaning of Lent. Compared to God I am nothing. And yet I am not nothing. Because of his steadfast love and compassion, not only am I something of value, but someone. A life. A person. A daughter. During Lent we see clearly who we are: infinitely valuable specks of dust. Our smallness is completely outweighed by the unspeakable greatness of God and his love for us.

As I presented myself in dusty repentance and took the symbol of soot on my forehead, I savored these words of the psalmist, and worshiped:

As for humans, their days are like grass;
   they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
   and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting
               on those who fear him,
   and his righteousness to children's children,
to those who keep his covenant
   and remember to do his commandments.
The LORD has established his throne in the heavens,
   and his kingdom rules over all.

Bless the LORD, O you his angels,
   you mighty ones who do his word,
   obeying the voice of his word!
Bless the LORD, all his hosts,
   his ministers, who do his will!
Bless the LORD, all his works,
   in all places of his dominion.
Bless the LORD, O my soul!
--Psalm 103:15-22

Posted by Rebecca Larson at February 20, 2010 4:58 PM Bookmark and Share

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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