It’s wintertime. For me, that means dry skin. Loads of Lubriderm on my hands and arms throughout the season. But my fingers always get the worst of it. Cracks. Tiny cuts. I often go to bed with a band-aid or two on my thumbs, just because it makes it feel better.
The most common place for these cuts is on my thumbs, between the knuckle and nail, on the side facing my fingers. But this week, I’ve got a cut in a different place. It’s right at the very tip of my thumb, just in front of the nail. I hope you don’t find this photo too gross or graphic:
It’s just a small cut. More of a crack, a fissure. No blood has ever come out of it. But it provided me with an interesting sensation two days ago. If you look closely at the nail, you might notice that there’s dirt beneath it. It’s not dirt, actually. (I’ve never “worked an honest day” in my life, as they say.) It’s ash. Palm ash, to be precise. My thumb was covered in palm ash on Wednesday. As a Lutheran pastor, I led worship on Ash Wednesday, and part of the liturgy involved me marking worshipers’ foreheads with an ashen cross. As I did so, I said to them, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Each time I marked someone, I put my thumb back in the receptacle of ashes, to prepare for the next. As my thumb swam in the slightly moist mixture of ash and baptismal oil, and collected more and more body oil from each forehead, I began to feel it in my thumb. The ashy oily slurry filled the crack at the end of my thumb, and irritated it. To say it “hurt” might be an overstatement, but I could definitely notice it. It was like an itch, an irritation, an intimate invasion. I felt as though something were entering me.
It reminded me of the feeling I often get when I lead healing services. At those services, I lay my hands on the head of those who come forward, and pray for the healing presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. And every time I lead one of those, I feel exhausted at the end; I feel as though some kind of “energy” has passed through me, and in the end it’s draining. On Ash Wednesday, it was kind of like that, but not quite. Instead of feeling as though something had left me, I felt like something had entered me.
I suppose from a purely materialist standpoint, flecks of ash and oil had indeed entered my bloodstream through the crack in my thumb. But it felt like something more. It felt like the words remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return were entering me. Is this the way Ezekiel felt when he was told to eat the scroll of God, and it tasted like honey? (Ezekiel 3:1-3)
And indeed, this has been a week of remembering that I am indeed dust. This has been one of the most difficult and tiring weeks of my ministry. A sixteen-year-old boy in my congregation died from injuries sustained in a car crash. It is devastating. I have never been so deeply affected by a death in the congregation before.
… he was too young … I confirmed him … I know his parents well … he was so full of life, so full of potential … his younger sister was the acolyte in church just hours before the accident … I keep thinking of my own kids, and how fragile their lives are … I helped lead a prayer vigil for him, with over six hundred people in attendance … it was at sixteen that I first attempted suicide … so many people in the congregation are so shocked and pained … what do I possibly say to them, and to the family … how can I pastor to them … why do these things happen …
And yet…and yet, I have found so much clarity in my ministry this week. I have let most of my other pastoral responsibilities fall by the wayside. If it had to do with this family, I did it. If it had to do with Ash Wednesday, I did it. If not, then it’ll just have to wait until next week. Or perhaps it just won’t happen. My role as pastor this week has sharpened — I am caring for a family going through unimaginable grief; I am guiding a congregation through its own grief and confusion; and I am providing worship. And that is all. There are many more aspects to being a parish pastor, but not this week. Not right now. The path is clear.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I know. I know right now that I am dust. I feel the dust irritating, like a tickle in the throat. Like a mote in the eye. Like an oyster constantly annoyed, I feel that dust rubbing and gnawing, scraping and scouring that tender spot on my thumb. And it tells me: I am alive. It tells me: death is the human condition. Pain is the human condition. The maw of oblivion is the human condition. It is the human condition, but not the human identity. Touching the ash with my wounded digit tells me there is pain and hurt and death, but the very sensation of that pain and hurt and death tells me that there is life.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Descartes taught us that a thinking being is by definition a being. Remembering that you are dust means that dust is not all you are. You are also alive. Ash Wednesday reminds me that I am a living being, living in the face of death.
And when do I notice this? When do I know that I am living, and that I am living in the face of death? The moment my wounded self touches the signs of God (the crack in my thumb touches the ashes), and the moment my wounded self touches another (the thumb touches another’s forehead). It is precisely then. When I reach out.
Maybe that’s what finally got me to blog again. Remember, friend, you who read this. Remember that you are dust. And remember that you remember.
One thought on “Remember”
I guess this is the first time I am learning of a repetitive stress injury for a man of the cloth providing Ash Wednesday administrations, but you may want to consider a good moisturizer (for winter) in general, such as what I shipped to you on fb.