Smudges, Dust, Earth –– and God’s Transformational Love

From last year’s Good Friday service, West Denmark


Lent began with a dark smudge of sticky ashes that took some scrubbing to remove. It’s too bad soap is so effective. I’d like to have had the smudge last on your foreheads for the full six weeks — not as an “outward and visible sign” of piety or penitence, but as an unspoken reminder to you, to each of us. Ashes come with the story of God –– “Remember, O Mortal, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It is, rather, a profound statement of our belonging at the most elemental level. We belong to this planet, to the soil, to the creatures, and to people (most of whom we will never meet) ––- but whom God holds in the same regard. “Dust and ashes” is the great equalizer. We are made of the same stuff and so we belong — all of us, every one of us. And between the dust of our creation and the ashes of our death we fi nd a life; we create love, we celebrate, we cry, and we discover ourselves to be instruments of God’s incarnational love that can change lives –– maybe beginning with our own. We belong to a communion of saints. We belong within the story of God.

But on a typical day, we might more acutely feel alienation from others, from God, from the benefi ts that faith (and the community of faith) is supposed to supply. We might feel isolated, lonely...have longings.

We have relationships that go bust, people we count on die, love hurts and so we might decide not to. We have to give up homes and land and jobs, give up on dreams at some point, when we can’t afford them, or can’t manage them, or plans change. We know ourselves too well (we say to ourselves) to believe that God’s love works through us, or that grace can fi t into the small, broken containers of our spirits. Or we’re just too busy. Who has time to think of deeper meaning in a world of constant change and danger; in a world of keeping up appearances, triumphalism, showmanship; in a trending, tweeting, hashtag world? And besides, the story of God began before us and continues on past us — our chapter seems fleeting, insignificant. We want to belong, it’s in our nature –– but so is exclusion and rejection and dismissal and skeptical self-preservation.

“Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows your name.”
–– Theme song from “Cheers”

I would suggest that the broken-but-whole-body-of-Christ is just such a place. A place we all belong.

Once upon a time I believed in the myth of normal –– that there was such a thing; that it referred to other people, and I was just a little bit off. Does that sound familiar? But over the years, I’ve strayed into medical and theological fields of study, worked as an Occupational Therapist and as a pastor, raised our children, taught other children, talked, listened, read, observed –– and finally have decided that normal is for statistical purposes only. It’s a bell curve graphing the wonderful abnormalities that make up human lives and experiences and responses. Normal is not to be –– and not to be desired. Because who are we? Not a homogenization of minds and spirits and bodies. We are an amalgamation –– a curious mixture, each unique, similar, but snowflake-like in that no two are just the same. And how could it be otherwise?

In some unknowable way, we bear the image of God, the Bible tells us that –– we wear some small part of God’s likeness; and for God to fit into these crimped, broken containers, it can only be a glimpse of God — a little spark or wisp or shadow of the likeness. And so those abnormalities might be crucial. They might very well be the bit of the reflection of God we have to share. Our odd bits joined together in communion bring us into the presence of the fullness of God, bring God into focus in our mutual experience. Not the “normal” parts, but the odd or extraordinary parts. We belong because, like complex chemical reactions, our broken bits form connections –– allow connections with others to form. It is the chinks in our armor, in our self-sufficiency, in our pride, in our self-image that allow true belonging. Jesus’ body, broken –– Jesus’ blood, spilled –– this is the way we believe the glory of God, the wholeness of God, the creative life, and compassionate love of God is fully revealed. Not in glowing perfection, but in the common life, earthly, vulnerable life Jesus lived, and in the mistaken –– but hopeful, messed-up lives we offer to God to use for the sake of all who belong –– for the sake of all life. God’s transformational love does the rest, as it always has done. In the end, is God’s grace not sufficient?