Remember that you are dust
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I woke up this morning with those words running through my head on a continuous loop. I turned them over again and again in my mind. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. It’s just one sentence, but it holds so much truth – about the fragile stuff of which we’re made, about how our stories in this life always end. Most of the time we do whatever we can to avoid thinking about it, but at least once a year we gather together and say it out loud. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Lately I’ve heard several interviews with Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School and author of a new book called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.[i] Kate was diagnosed at age 35 with incurable stage-4 colon cancer. She’s had some intense treatments that have kept her alive – chemotherapy and some experimental immunotherapy – but the “incurable” part remains true. She’s at the point where she has some scans every few months that reveal whether she’s been given another two or three months to live.
Kate is married and has a young son. She can’t bear the thought of her child growing up without her.
One interviewer asked Kate if her prayers have changed since her diagnosis.
Here’s what Kate said:
I think maybe [they have] because I think I don’t have the luxury of being too sophisticated anymore. I mean, you just get infected with this urgency that comes with facing your death. And so I pray for very basic things. Please, God, make me kind and open to the pain of the world. Please, God, heal me. Make me less of a dink and help me be a good mom and a wife. I mean, just really basic stuff as opposed to maybe the more layered prayers that I was raised with or learned in theological school, which always have long…phrases like ever-loving and ever-living God…
I think Kate has a lot to teach us, starting with the simplicity of these prayers. Please, God, make me kind and open to the pain of the world. Please, God, heal me.
Big ideas in simple sentences. There’s something powerful about that. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Please, God, heal me.
I heard someone say recently that all Christians need to know at least one verse for how to confess their sins.[ii] We sometimes think that our confession has to be elaborate, and certainly on days like Ash Wednesday, we tend to use more words rather than fewer to name our sinfulness. We did it just a few minutes ago. But from day to day and week to week, maybe less is more.
Here’s where a reading like Psalm 51 can be helpful. It’s known as a penitential psalm, a psalm that expresses sorrow for one’s sin and cries out for the mercy that only God can give.
Take, for example, verse 1 of the psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” That’s a sentence we can write on our bathroom mirrors, put on a post-it note in our planners, add to the Notes app in our phones. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.
Or what about verse 10: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” A simple plea for a big thing – the chance to begin again from a new place.
Whatever words we use, we do not confess because we’re some sort of super-Christians who are going after the Olympic gold medal for repentance. We confess because we trust in God’s steadfast love. We confess because we know that God’s mercy will not fail us, even when we have failed ourselves and those around us.
Lent invites us to a season of simplicity in which we try to strip away all but the essentials. Sometimes even our faith life can have extra layers that get in our way.
So in the days ahead let us hold fast to simple declarations offered in simple ways:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Please, God, heal me.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.
We speak, and we listen. Listen as God calls to us again and again, saying, “Return to me with your whole heart.” Listen as God, who is gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love, reaches out with the gifts of forgiveness and new life. Listen for the chance to start again. Amen.