Today is the last week in our early fall series we called An Embodied Faith. The goal of these eight weeks of teaching and worship was to explore how a Jesus-centered faith can speak to us as whole people. After all, whatever you want to call all the parts of the human experience – body, mind, soul, spirit, whatever – we’re all in the end just one thing. You can’t split us into parts and still have us. And the really cool thing about a Jesus-centered faith is that it tells us God gets that at every level. God, after all, has joined the human experience incarnate, God in a body, which is what our tradition says Jesus was.
Clearly there are toxic forms of Christianity that only care about the afterlife and some part of us you’d call soul or spirit. And there are unhealthy forms of religion and ethics that shame our bodies or ignore our minds, or dismiss our deepest aspirations. But embodied faith connects the God who made us all with the whole of our experience.
And I thought: we can’t talk about embodied faith without talking about how to make meaning out of what are bodies actually are. Glorious as they are, they’re also awful. They get sick and fall apart. Our bodies remind us in big and small ways that we’re dying. We’re all made of dust.
You hear this phrase sometimes at funerals – ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s poetry that references a feature of the Jewish and Christian origin story. These faiths assert a special dignity and beauty of the human experience that is fairly unique in the pantheon of world philosophy and religion. But they also assert what is common really to all faith and science – an understanding that we are made of dust.
The Bible has this bit of existential poetry in a book called Ecclesiastes; that’s one of the places this is stated. It goes like this:
Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 (NRSV)
19 For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Every year, our church makes a big deal of this six week season before Easter. We call it 40 Days of Faith. Traditionally, it’s been called Lent and begins with this holiday called Ash Wednesday, when pastors or priests smudge ashes on your forehead and remind you of your mortality. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We’re all going to die.
The first year I did that, I thought – this is somehow very intimate and very creepy and very sobering all at once. But I’ve also found that being reminded of this dust to dust nature of our bodies takes us to some good places, grounds us, uplifts.
So today, I’m going to share some meditations on the good that can come when we remember that our dying bodies are made of dust. In particular, I think we can grow connection and compassion, take away some really helpful thoughts about criticism along these lines, and move into profound hope as well.
So that’s the outline of this talk, if it helps you to follow along – connection, compassion, criticism, and hope. You ready?
The other week, I found myself facing down a conference table’s worth of lawyers in our attorney general’s office, trying to represent a national network of faith-based organizers on immigration concerns.
When I realized I’d be playing an important role in these negotiations, I felt my shoulders tense a little. My mouth started to go dry. Like I used to feel when I was younger before track races, I felt my stomach start to turn over as I got ready to speak with powerful people about a topic they understand better than I do.
But then a friend – a fellow person of faith – told me: It’s alright, Steve. All power comes from God. There’s no one higher or lower than each other. We’re all the same.
That helped. After all, it’s true – we’re just human. We’re all going to die one day. We are all of the dust.
Remembering this doesn’t just help me overcome fear, but make connection, both to other living things and to the earth. We face something of an epidemic of fear and loneliness and alienation in our age. And yet to know that my neighbor and cashier and sons are all dust, that the public figures I most adore and those I most resent all share my same material origins and destiny, is to remind me that we are all connected. I can look into the eye of any human being and say – there is my sister, there is my brother.
And sometimes when I’m nervous or just a little unmoored, not feeling my place in things, I literally reach down and touch the ground and remember that no matter where I am, I am at home. I am from the earth, of the earth.
This is kind of a new insight for me, but it’s an old one in the spirituality and thinking of First Americans. That we’re all related – humans to humans, and even humans to all living things and to the earth itself.
This is part of what Ecclesiastes is getting at in its own dour way, when it tells us that humans, animals, all life returns to the same ground from which we came.
We need to practice and teach this deep bondedness of all human beings to one another if we’re going to have an end to the kind of hate crimes and mass violence we saw in yesterday’s synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. And we explore the implications of this deep connection of all living things to one another and to the earth itself if we want our species and our planet to flourish over the next century and beyond.
Sometimes I’m ready for the big stage with this – human rights, ecology, public action. And sometimes I just need to touch the ground and have that help me remember – here I am, at home anywhere I go on the earth, grounded.
In the scriptures, though, to be made out of dust isn’t just to be connected through our shared mortality, though, it’s also to be connected to the fondness God feels for us, and that we can share with one another.
In the Bible’s songbook, we get this:
Psalm 103:13-18 (NRSV)
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.
15 As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
17 But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children,
18 to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.
This is beautiful to me – that when God thinks about us, he remembers what we’re made from. And when he sees all this carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and whatever else we are – this elaborately made, living, breathing pile of dirt – God doesn’t pity us or resent us or anything. Our earthy mortality and limits stir God’s compassion.
Unlike ourselves, the God of the Universe is relaxed about our weakness, and understanding of our flaws, because God knows we are dust.
A friend of mine sent me an article on obesity recently, particularly the great shaming that those of us who are overweight so constantly endure – from our culture, from ourselves, and even from our physicians. One of the takeaways was to wonder what it would be like for our sanity and health if we just were to accept that we each have to do the best with the body that we have. To be kinder to ourselves, and to experience greater kindness and acceptance from others, would have a greater impact on our health and well-being than any well-meaning advice or criticism.
Whereas shame kills, compassion and kindness stir life.
When I am most disappointed in myself or someone else, this has become my new mantra. We are only dust. When I remember this, I’m nudged a little toward acceptance and compassion, and better things happen next.
Reservoir had a retreat Friday afternoon and yesterday. 260 of us spent the front half of this weekend bundled up in a seaside hotel as yesterday’s Nor’easter barreled through the Cape. Our theme was drawn from a beautiful little book by the late priest Henri Nouwen.
Henri Nouwen lived a remarkable life. He was a prominent academic – writing books, giving lectures around the world, holding prized positions at both Yale and Harvard. But then a chance encounter led him to a small community of people with profound physical and mental disabilities and their caregivers. Nouwen moved into this community as their pastor, and lived there – giving and receiving compassion in community – for the last decade of his life.
And this book he wrote there is called Can You Drink the Cup? The cup in this book stands for three things. It’s an image of suffering, as it is sometimes in the scriptures. Life’s long, we all suffer – can we handle the sufferings of life?
It’s also an image of what the prophet Jeremiah and what Jesus call the new covenant. The new promise to all people to know God internally. So Nouwen asks if we can walk with Jesus into a life governed by faith, hope, and love. Can we live an existence, even in our sorrows, that is still filled with love, joy, and peace?
But the last thing Nouwen is talking about is a cup as a metaphor for our whole life. There’s a lot in these cups of ours. At the start of this past week, I stood on a stage in front of 1400 people to help lead our city’s people of faith in pushing for love, justice, and the health of our city. I stood before dozens of you who were there with me. I stood alongside prominent clergy in our city, before important political leaders and public officials. It was kind of a heady evening.
And then at the end of the week, driving my family en route to our retreat, I was rear-ended in traffic by a tone-deaf driver who smashed our car, messed up our week, and barely apologized. Grace, me, the kids, we’re all more or less OK, I think, a little shaken, not badly hurt.
But there’s a week in the life – the high highs, the low lows, the little smiles and pains and joys and indignities in between. Our lives hold so many sorrows and joys and delights and sufferings. There’s so much mundane and rich, empty and full, sometimes right on top of each other.
And it can be hard to hold these cups of our lives. To stay present to it all, without numbing out in distraction and busy-ness and whatever else we’re addicted to.
But our lives aren’t hard for God to look at. We’re not too sad, or too failing, too fat or poor or lonely or anything else. God knows that we are dust, and God has unending, all-knowing, all-encompassing compassion for us all.
On this point of compassion, I want say a word about criticism as well. Because over the past decade, being in a couple of leadership roles in two different institutions, I have learned that we can be a harsh and critical people, we humans.
When you’re leading an organization, you sometimes become the center of its criticism – both the internal frustrations people feel with you and with the organization, and the external complaints as well. It was way worse as a principal – someone rolled up to me every day – in my office, on my email, out and about the school hallways – with a choice word about what I or the school was doing wrong.
As a pastor, I get a lot less exposure to criticism, but when it comes, sometimes it’s more colorful. Semi-anonymous letters, full of Bible verses, from angry-sounding people I’ve never met.
So, I think I’ve learned a thing or two about how to give and receive criticism, if we really believe we are people made of dust, called to lives of compassion.
So I want to pause mid-sermon here, and mention just two or three thoughts about better ways to give and receive criticism.
We need to give criticism sometimes. We need to know which restaurants deserve our patronage, we have to hold people accountable to their jobs and their promises. We need people to know how they’ve let us down, so they can stop and so they can grow.
Good criticism, though, is appropriate, it’s true, and it seeks to build someone up, not tear down. Good criticism highlights actions that can change, it encourages rather than shames. It is compassion, it is still fundamentally for the other.
Criticism – when we give it to others or ourselves, and when we receive it, wherever it comes from, can’t tear down our core sacred, beloved selves.
Hear this scripture from the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah 45:9-10 (NLT)
9 “What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator.
Does a clay pot argue with its maker?
Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying,
‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’
Does the pot exclaim,
‘How clumsy can you be?’
10 How terrible it would be if a newborn baby said to its father,
‘Why was I born?’
or if it said to its mother,
‘Why did you make me this way?’”
I love these lines.
A clay pot yelling at the potter, a newborn baby crying out to its parents – why did you make me? What have you done?
But when we take criticism too much to heart, or when we criticize ourselves, again and again rejecting our worth, we are practicing this crazy contempt of our maker, who made us good.
And so when we criticize somebody else, I think we’ve got to be careful as well to not do the same to them. If you can’t criticize with gentleness and compassion, don’t bother. If your criticism is laced with contempt, consider that your target is also made beautifully in the image of God, before you say or write a thing.
And when you’re criticized by someone else, sift out the true from the false, the useful from the not, and move on. This is hard to do, of course. As a pastor, I probably get 10 or 20 times as much thanks and appreciation and praise as I doi criticism.
And yet, the critical words still stick out. Even stuff from a stranger that sounds patently false and crazy can still cling to me. I remember it.
This is where the advice I got from a mentor years ago has been so useful to me. This guy was a very prominent and successful educator, and he spent time with me every couple of weeks when I was a first-year principal. And he told me that whenever I receive angry criticism, as I would a lot, I should remember that it wasn’t first about me, but that it was an opportunity to learn about the collective anxiety of the institution.
Criticism may speak truths about me I need to hear. In that case, I can take it like medicine – learn from it and move on. But often it said way more about the person doing the criticism. And I found my mentor was right. When I can see criticism as an opportunity to learn about the world of the critic, it doesn’t sting in the same way. It’s easier to hold even an unfair, angry critic with compassion.
So when teachers criticized me, it was an opportunity to relearn the stresses and frustrations endemic to the life of a teacher. When parents criticized me, it was an opportunity to gain insight into the particular anxieties of that community’s parents. And even when an angry, religious person criticizes me as a pastor, it’s an opportunity to learn about the religious dysfunction and anxieties of our age.
It’s important not to wall yourself off from criticism, especially if you’re a leader. Sometimes critics speak the truth you need to hear about yourself and your institution. So again, take a moment and ask if criticism holds some medicine you need to take. But then, take it and move on. And when the criticism says more about the critic’s anxiety than you, learn what there is to learn, but then break it off.
Literally – delete the email or throw out the letter. Treat the words like a curse, and pray a simple prayer of protection, even if it sounds a little old school or a little more other-worldly than you might normal be comfortable with. Like, I break off that curse in Jesus’ name. I don’t receive it or welcome it into my soul. And God, protect me. Give me strength to live humbly in your truth and in your compassion.
Before I end, I want to say one more thing about being made of dust. There’s connection, there’s compassion, there are better ways to give and receive criticism, but also, maybe counter-intuitively, there is hope.
One last scripture, from a letter by Paul of Tarsus in the mid-first century:
I Corinthians 15:42-49 (NRSV)
42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.
This passage challenges our imaginations of the future. It asserts what we know – that all people, from the very beginning, have been mortal, from the dust. We live in these dying bodies of ours. But then Paul says there is more to come, that we have not seen. Our bodies are destined for greatness.
Like Jesus, a resurrected body is in our future, beyond the grave.
I find this challenging, and a space of regular doubt given we haven’t seen it yet, and because we know so much loss and death. We know what corpses and ashes look like. We know the biology and the physics of death.
And yet Paul insists that as history has seen with a risen Jesus, so the future will see with us. God knows the biology and the physics of new life and resurrected bodies.
In my work as a pastor with dead and dying, I have seen suffering and frailty and despair. But as much as I have seen these things, I have seen the miraculous and ethereal dignity and beauty of the human spirit. I have heard stories of unexpected amends made as people face death. I have listened to the bone-deep faith and assurance of the dying that this is not the end of them. I have seen transcendent peace on the faces of the suffering and emaciated. We sing a song here now and then where we say to our Maker, “You make beautiful things out of dust. You make beautiful things out of us.”
The dust from which we’re made has coalesced into bodies that somehow find room for beauty, aspiration, hope, joy, and love, even in the bleakest times and places. As we hear in Jurassic Park: Life finds a way.
From dust we come, to dust we will return. But what dust we are now. And as to what we are becoming – who’s to say it won’t be even more stunning than what we have yet seen and known?
Let me close, as I always do, with two invitations to faith and practice. The first is to:
A Tip for Whole Life Flourishing:
Consider a vow to be a person of whole-life compassion. In particular, only give criticism that includes compassion. And when you receive uncompassionate criticism, swallow anything good and true like medicine and spit out the rest.
I use this sacred, promising language of a vow, because I think this is a place of holy and important intention. As the sociologist Brene Brown teaches, empathy – to sit with someone else in their pain, to not judge or pity or ignore, but to say I feel with you, I’ve been there – is a skill. We can all learn and choose to do it. But a life of compassion, a regular practice of being with others in kindness, presence, connection, and hope – this is a spiritual practice. It takes faith that there is compassion for ourselves and for all of humanity in the universe. For me, that faith is grounded in the living God, known in the person of Jesus. And so a vow of compassion is a whole-life practice and promise. It doesn’t mean we’ll always have compassion for ourselves and others, but it says we always intend to. So I’ll give you a chance to make that vow if you like, in a minute.
And lastly, our spiritual practice of the week. One that I’ve found useful.
Spiritual Practice of the Week:
Touch the ground once a day. Consider this is where you came from and where you are going. Remember that your father/mother God loves the work of art you are and the one you will become.