Ash Wednesday is so contemporary

“We are both dust and stardust.” Bishop David Bard cites coronavirus and stresses in The United Methodist Church as examples of why we mortals need an observance like Ash Wednesday …

We have arrived once again at the season of Lent, the 40 days, not including Sundays (each Sunday is meant to be a “little Easter”) leading up to Easter Sunday. In the Christian tradition, the season begins with Ash Wednesday worship. That worship includes the imposition of ashes on forehead or hand, typically with the words, “you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.”

Admittedly, this is not the most joyful phrase used for Christian worship, and many Protestant churches neglected Ash Wednesday for a long period of time. The 1966 Book of Worship for The Methodist Church did not include a liturgy for Ash Wednesday worship.

What are we trying to communicate through the use of ashes at the beginning of Lent? Ashes are intended to symbolize human mortality, human limitedness, and human temporality. We are dust, and to dust, we shall return. At some point, these bodies, which are us, will give out, and we will be no more. While we live our bodily existence, we have limits. Our senses can only be attuned to so many stimuli. Our brains can only process so much of what we sense. We cannot be in two places at the same time. Various characteristics of our bodies limit what we can do; for instance, you will never see me slam dunk a basketball. We exist in a particular place and time in human history, and our context has some limits. A few hundred years ago, people might have been searching for leeches to help respond to the coronavirus, and it would have made sense.

We, humans, are mortal, limited, time-bound. We are dust, and to dust, we shall return. When I was a pastor, I sometimes modified the traditional words in imposing ashes, saying, “you are dust and stardust.” I did this to remind us that while we are mortal, limited, and time-bound, we are also those into whom God has placed God’s image and God’s Spirit. “But we have this treasure in clay jars.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

We are both dust and stardust, mortal, and persons in whom the Spirit of God dwells. However, it is often when we forget one or the other, that we humans create significant problems, and for many, it seems we are more prone to forget our limits. When we claim greater knowledge than should be claimed, we become less curious; we close off wonder. Curiosity and wonder are integral components of humility, and humility, I think, is the heart of the biblical idea of “fear of the Lord.”

Allow me to move these theological reflections on the nature of the human person into thinking about a couple of issues facing us this Lent.

The news in recent days has been filled with stories about the coronavirus and the associated disease COVID-19. In our bodily existence, we are susceptible to viruses and illnesses. There are fear and anxiety about this new virus. The financial markets worldwide have been adversely affected. We see both overreaction and underreaction, often rooted in misinformation. We would do well to step back and ask about what we know and what we don’t know.

Let’s admit that there are some essential things we don’t know. We don’t know all that might be known about the spread of this virus, but we are learning more. We don’t yet have a vaccine. We don’t know all the places where this virus has spread. We need to be open to good information and be cautious about unsubstantiated information.

Here are some things we do know. There are sources of good information, the best being the CDC – Centers for Disease Control. I would encourage local churches to complete the CDC Faith-based & Community Organizations Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Checklist. While this check-list was developed in 2016 to combat the spread of influenza, it will function well to plan for COVID-19. This virus seems to spread much like cold and flu viruses. We know how to help stop the spread of those. Wash your hands frequently (churches should check their soap and hand sanitizer dispensers). Keep your unsanitized hands away from your mouth, nose, and eyes. Limit casual touching (churches are encouraged to change their passing the peace practices). Stay home if you are sick. Right now, worship spaces are as safe as any other, though again, I encourage good sanitary practices. Our Conference staff will continue to monitor this on-going situation for further alerts.

Given what we know, there is no reason for panic, but there is reason to pay attention. Again, monitor the sources you are listening to. Some are selling supplements that they promise will help you avoid the virus. There seems little evidence for this. Masks are not indicated unless you are ill, then they might help prevent the spread of the virus. I also think leeches are contraindicated.

We are dust, and to dust, we shall return. We are mortal, limited, temporal. We see evidence of this in our susceptibility to viruses and our vulnerability to bad information. We are also witnessing this as the future of our denomination unfolds. The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation and Restructuring that was made public in early January as a way into the future for The United Methodist Church is a stark recognition of our limits. It is an admission of our inability to find a way into the future together. The proposal itself has limitations. Some issues are left for the near future. It is a proposal that came together through difficult negotiation. The Michigan Conference is holding a special session on March 7 at Albion College, and the release of the Protocol and the attendant legislation is our reason for doing so. Yet there is misinformation about this session that I would like to clarify.

Here are some important things you need to know about our special session. We are not voting on the Protocol itself. Our vote on March 7 will be a “yes” or “no” vote on whether to send the legislation entitled “Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation and Restructuring” to General Conference. A motion to send this legislation to General Conference is being offered by our Michigan delegation to General and Jurisdictional Conference, and it is the only motion we will consider at our session.

By our rules, there are no amendments allowed to legislation to be sent to the General Conference. While we will have time for questions and comments on the Protocol legislation itself, finally, our vote is only on whether to send the legislation to General Conference or not. As such, we are also not voting to split the church. We are not voting to determine a direction for the Michigan Conference. We are only voting on whether or not we will help the General Conference by sending this legislation for their consideration. This is important, and it is limited. Of course, one of the things we don’t know is what the delegates to General Conference might do with this legislation once they have it for consideration in May.

I look forward to being with those of you who will be at Albion for our special session. I appreciate the efforts you are making to attend, and I appreciate all those who have worked so hard to help make this session happen. We are the only United States annual conference considering such action, and that matters.

We are dust, and to dust, we shall return. We are mortal, limited, temporal. We are also stardust, those in whom the image of God can be seen and those in whom God’s Spirit is pleased to dwell. We are at our best as human persons and persons of faith when we hold all this together in creative tension. Therefore, I encourage us to maintain wonder and curiosity while acknowledging there is always more to know. Most importantly, treat one another with the measure of kindness and awe due to creatures who are Spirit-imbued dust.

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