Dust and Beauty: A Lenten Meditation

“…you are dust
and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19b, NRSV)

Imposed Ashes
Sarah Korf, “penance” (Creative Commons)

I heard this sobering verse twice this week within the space of eighteen hours, in two different churches and as part of two different types of worship services. First, at our church’s Ash Wednesday service, from our senior pastor as he imposed ashes on my forehead and the back of my son Isaiah’s hand. Then Thursday morning, at a nearby Baptist church, in the opening prayer for the memorial service for Nancy Lundquist, former first lady of Bethel University.

Especially in Lent, it’s well that we’re reminded of our origins and ending — at least in this world. It restores our understanding of our relationship to God: “…we are the clay, and you are our potter,” the prophet Isaiah puts it (64:8), a bit less starkly.

But in both services I was struck by what’s left unsaid in Gen 3:19. Finite, flawed, and precious lives are lived in the break between the first and second phrases:

First: we are dust, but we become something before we return to that state. My son’s favorite worship song puts it this way:

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things
Out of dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things
Out of us

“It makes my heart happy,” said Isaiah, when I asked him once why he likes that song so much.

And it makes my heart happy to rethink my vocations — as a teacher and father, especially — as playing a part in making beautiful things out of dust. Miracle upon miracle: God creates us, so that we can create.

Nancy Lundquist (1919-2014)Undoubtedly, one of God’s beautiful things was Nancy Lundquist. I’m embarrassed that I’ve spent so much time researching the work and thought of her late husband, yet never took the initiative to get to know Nancy, who was Carl’s partner in everything. (Worse yet: her house was about half a mile from ours.) But as a historian I’m accustomed to encountering people I’ve never met through study of the artifacts they leave behind, so it was a privilege to get to know her better through what she left behind — her family and their memories of her, her writings, and even a lovely recording of her singing at a Michigan church in 1978. And my considered conclusion as a historian on the basis of this evidence is that Nancy was indeed wondrously, beautifully made by her Creator.

But here’s the second key thing left unsaid in Genesis 3:19 — to return to dust is not a beautiful thing. It happens over the course of a lifetime, accelerating in later years. “The days of our life are seventy years, / or perhaps eighty, if we are strong” (Ps 90:10) we heard twice in the memorial service, from a psalm that also reminds us “You turn us back to dust” (v 3). Nancy spent all of her nineties and eighties and most of her seventies wrenched from her husband, who died from cancer in 1991, while also suffering the physical decay that increasingly limited her faculties. (As I jotted down notes to this effect, I was keenly aware that I was sitting next to a retired colleague who has lost sight in one eye, with another further down the pew continuing his fight against Parkinson’s.) At the end, a massive stroke made it impossible for Nancy to speak clearly — “Jesus” being one crystal-clear exception, her eldest grandson noted in his meditation.

And that makes Nancy’s last years, like the decades that preceded them, a testimony to a truth that I heard at the Ash Wednesday service. In the liturgy of the imposition of ashes, the lines about dust are traditionally followed by an exhortation to repent and believe the Gospel. But when Pastor Mark traced the ashen cross on my son’s hand, he smiled at Isaiah and offered an age-appropriate paraphrase:

Jesus loves you, and you can trust him.

Those promises are still new to Isaiah, four years into his life; they seem to have guided Nancy all of her ninety-four years. (The song we heard her sing was “Trusting is Believing.”) But both — the one having come from dust not long ago, the other returned again to dust — clearly took delight in that knowledge. On Wednesday night Isaiah’s smile was so big that it was hard to maintain the somber, penitential reverence that we associate with the beginning of Lent; on Thursday morning, Nancy’s love for her Savior was so evident that it was hard to stay too sad at a memorial service that testified to the joy of a life lived in, with, and for Jesus Christ. Even in death — even in the dying that is slowly taking us all — God makes beauty out of dust.

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