Seeing our belovedness in sanitized ashes

On the first Sunday of Lent, we discussed the story of Jesus hearing God’s voice calling him beloved before going off by himself to make choices based on that belovedness.

Then, everyone was invited to come forward for ashes.

I know – in most churches, those got distributed the previous Wednesday. It’s not practical for our church, which meets in a YMCA that is busy on Wednesday nights just like many of our church members.

So, this year we reverted to the original practice of starting our Lent on a Sunday. We called it Ash Sunday.

The palm branches from our virtual, pandemic service a year earlier were burned into a gritty, ashy pile. Instead of blending in a few drops of oil for lubrication, we use hand sanitizer to make the ashes stick and avoid germs.

Folks in our church come from different denominational backgrounds. Some are familiar with Lent and ashes; others have never experienced the centuries-old practice.

On this day, everyone is invited to come forward and choose where Lent’s message will be traced. If they leave their arms down, the ashes will go on their forehead. Or they can present the back of a hand to be marked with a cross.

Made from the same ashes and love

I sink my right thumb into the wooden bowl holding the ashes and scrape out a small load. I make eye contact with the person in front of me and greet them by name as I reach my ash-blackened thumb for their forehead or hand.

“Remember you are God’s beloved,” I say, “made from the same ashes and love as everyone and everything else. Keep living your precious life in this love.”

Remember your belovedness. Relax into it. Embrace it. Let it transform how you look at yourself, at others, and at all creation. Live in this connective love.

The ashes remind us of two defining truths that need to be revisited not only during Lent but throughout our lives daily.

First, they remind us that life and love are unlimited – how could they be otherwise? — but this phase of unending life comes with a shelf life. It’s the most precious gift we receive. What are we doing with this part our precious life?

Second, the ashes remind us of our connection to everyone else and everything else that God has made. The beautiful, poetic creation story describes God scooping ashes and dust from the earth – our umbilical cord to the rest of creation — and breathing divine life into us.

Then God makes us one from the other, locating our precious lives within a sacred and universal mutuality. All is done out of love. Everything pulsates with this eternal breath of life.

Remember you are God’s beloved … and so is everyone else. You have sacred life within you … and so does everything else. Now, go live in that love. Try to live gratefully, graciously, generously, lovingly, sacrificially, joyfully. Go and nurture the breath of God in all.

Remember …

Some members of my church had other commitments on the first Sunday of Lent. When they expressed disappointment at missing out on the ashes, I was tempted to respond: Well, maybe next year.

Then I thought: Why not next week, too?

So, for the second Sunday of Lent, we shared ashy blessings again. Those who couldn’t be there the previous week were invited to come forward. Those who had already received ashes were invited to come up for seconds and another blessing – there is no limit!

They came forward to hear their name and receive Lent’s everlasting reminder:

You are God’s beloved, made from the same ashes and love as everyone else and everything else …

A communion of dust

(Photo by

Watching the horrific images from Ukraine – buildings and people and communities turned into dust – pulls us more deeply into the message of a day focused on ashes.

Some faith communities use ashes to open Lent, a season of trying to do better. In a skin-on-skin way, the tracing with ashes reenacts two foundational truths.

First, the ashes remind us life is the greatest gift, freely given to each of us. It’s meant to be savored and celebrated and shared gratefully, generously, and sacrificially.

Although life itself is unending, this phase has a shelf life. The ashes shaped into a cross pose an overriding question: What are we doing with our precious life?

Which brings us to the second reminder writ in ash: Our lives are meant to be lived in communion with God, each other, and all creation.

A beautiful and poetic creation story in Genesis presents the image of God forming us from the dust and ash of the earth, a vivid reminder that we are linked on our deepest levels to the rest of creation.

All is created from the same unifying stuff.

Although the long-ago authors of that story didn’t know much science, they got it right in the big picture. Science details how we are indeed made of the same stuff on our deepest physical level.

We are human. We are stardust. We care connected to everything in our shared dustiness.

Gratefully, generously, sacrificially

The creation story also forcefully reminds us we are connected to each other. There’s no room for strident individuality; we’re made in mutuality.

And the breath of God – the divine force of life – animates everything. All is woven together in endlessly sacred breaths – people, plants, animals, oceans.

On Ash Wednesday, ashes become our reminder and our communion.

We trace with ashes in solidarity with Ukrainians and all who are beset by violence and oppression. We pray for them and work with them to bring more peace into God’s world.

People of many nations, races, and backgrounds are tracing with ashes today, rubbing them into different skin tones as a reminder of our combined work of bringing more justice and less hate into our lives and our world.

The ashes connect us with those struggling to breathe in hospitals and hospices, and with newborns taking first breaths in maternity wards and homes around the world.

The ashes also remind of our connection with the green daffodil shoots poking from the cold ground and the rhythmic pounding of the piliated woodpecker prying a meal loose from tree bark.

Life. We are connected in life. How are we recognizing it? How are we using it?

Life from the ashes, love from the dust

Ashes ground our time of Lent, six weeks of taking a clear-eyed look at ourselves and our world and seeing how we need to repent. Simply, we acknowledge how we’re missing the mark and we try to do better. There’s plenty of room for improvement.

We try to reconnect where we’ve pulled away. We try to live more fully within the love from which and for which we are made. We try to move beyond the attitudes, insecurities, fears and self-centeredness that cause division and pull everything apart.

We’re invited to make small changes that will lead to bigger changes in our lives and our world. As more people change and work together, the world changes in profound ways.

On earth, as in heaven.

From the ashes, may we experience a rebirth of God’s peace, love, and justice in the world. May the dusty reminder of life’s preciousness inspire us to use it more gratefully, generously and sacrificially.

May new life grow from the ashes. May new love emerge from the dust yet again. 

Living in the dustbin


I hate dusting. The process seems so useless because dust immediately returns. Why is there so much dust? What’s in that stuff anyway?


I did some research and got disturbing answers, including enlarged photos of dust mites that can’t be unseen. I also got a surprise. Turns out that much of that dust in my house is … me.


Our bodies shed skin cells as new ones take their place. Each of us is like the Pig-Pen character in “Peanuts,” leaving dustiness wherever we go. We tend to think that someday we’ll turn into a pile of dust, but the process is already in motion.


There’s a lot of us in the dust.


Some people are celebrating Ash Wednesday today, a necessary reminder that this phase of life is short and precious and must be fully appreciated. Ashes symbolize how our bodies will return fully to their elemental state someday.


But the turn-to-dust process has already begun, and so has the rebirthing part. We’re already dust, and we’re already reborn. The process is hard-wired into everyone and everything.


It’s how it all works.


A poetic story in Scripture reminds that we’re formed from the dust of earth and thus bound intimately to all creation. Science takes it one step further, detailing how in our elemental form we’re made of the same stuff as everything in the universe.


Yes, we’re both earth dust and star dust. And everything follows a path of endless transformation, which is a very cool thing even if we sometimes wish it were otherwise.


Earth dust and star dust

Death is a necessary ingredient in the process. Without it, nothing new could appear. New life is created out of the space created when something else is let go.


All things are continuously made new, including us.


Faith itself is about daily transformation, shedding old ways and replacing them with new. As the saying goes, old wineskins must be discarded. If we cling to the old, we’ll watch it turn to dust in our hands.


As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it, “Almost always when I experience God, it comes in the form of some kind of death and resurrection. … It’s about spiritual physics. Something has to die for something new to live.”


When we recognize the spiritual physics at work — the intimacy between death and rebirth — we worry a little less about future burial and focus more on nurturing the life being reborn within us and around us.


All things new

Spirituality is about embracing the daily transformation. “Dying to self” involves gradually letting go of selfishness, fear, prejudice, judgment, insecurity, ego – anything that prevents us from loving more deeply and inclusively.


Our spiritual exfoliation creates room for compassion and empathy and joy and hope and healing. We become more invested in transforming ourselves and our world.


This process also works on our collective level. We see it unfolding in our society right now.


A culture that has for so long reserved power and privilege for a certain caste — white, wealthy, male, straight, Christian — is being shed, bit by bit, to create space for something new. Some church people are trying to provide life support, but it’s futile. To borrow an expression from Martin Luther King, Jr., such religion is dry as dust and ready for burial.


Leave the dead to bury the dead. God is working among the living. Put our focus there. Pay attention to the new life poking up from the ashes. Nurture it, celebrate it and grow it.


And feel free to skip the dusting chore if you wish. Consider it a sign of respect. After all, that dust gathered on our shelves and tabletops is you and me.


Well, OK, maybe dust once in a while. Those enlarged photos of dust mites are really disgusting.