Today, in Christian communities around the world, we mark the beginning of the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the day in the liturgical calendar in which Christians traditionally reflect on their mortality. The name comes from the practice of taking the ashes of the previous year’s Palm Sunday palms and imposing them in the shape of a cross on worshippers’ foreheads, reciting the traditional words,
From dust you came, and to dust you will return.
The practice has a strange relationship with much of American Christianity because it is, by definition, morbid. The imposition has a simple and heavy poignancy that contrasts the temptation towards spectacle and thin, feel-good theology that entices our modern church.
Ash Wednesday is a vital minor note to complete the complex chorus of the Christian life. Its reminder of our limits as human beings can offer a powerful and liberating humility. A humility that all of us who engage in innovation, ministry, and community development need. As we reflect on this practice and receive ashes ourselves, may it remind us of these essential truths.
1. We won’t fix everything (we’re lucky if we fix anything)
It is tempting to see the world around you as yours to fix. We are so drawn in by narratives of progress that tell us that it is our sole responsibility to heal all the hurt we see in the world. We want to be the hero. We want to be the change. We are people of hope, goodwill, hard work, grit, and capacity. We want the right things, we have the right partners, we follow the right steps, we do it all for the right reasons.
We will not be able to solve every problem we attempt. We came from dust; to dust we will return. We are inherently limited by our biological limits, our time limit here on earth, our finite emotional and capacity, the competing responsibilities of family, career, relationships. Those things are good; those limitations are not flaws to be overcome via a more efficient system. They are invitations into remembering our finiteness in the face of an infinite God.
If we try hard, have good support, and get lucky, just maybe we’ll get to right some wrong around us. God delights in our success, and we should delight in them as well. One thing, if we get it. That has to be enough.
2. We are under no obligation to succeed
As we make attempt after attempt at ideas that we can’t get to land quite right, it is easy to feel like we are somehow failing ourselves, our community, even our God. When we feel the call of God to help lead our community through starting innovative ministries that we believe can create real impact, we can give ourselves undue pressure. Its easy to conclude that if we can’t get the ministry to the level that we have established as “success,” we have somehow not fulfilled God’s call.
Ash Wednesday’s orientation towards the Genesis story of our creation (“from dust you came”) reminds us that we were not created to accomplish anything. God created Adam and Eve and said they were very good before they planted a single seed or built a single temple in God’s honor. We should, of course, follow the call we sense from God and leverage all the resources at our disposal to craft those things that advance God’s kingdom.
If none of it ever works. If bad luck or bad timing, or life itself, gets in the way, you will not be any less of a beloved child of God, fully loved and known, and God is pleased with the effort, for none of the work done in the name of God is ever wasted.
3. We are free
It is easy to understand mortality as a bind on us, that what we can do is limited by our finiteness. That is true, but it can also be an incredible offer of freedom.
Because we cannot do everything, because we are inherently limited, we are free to choose to do whatever makes us feel alive. We can choose to build lives that honor our values, our gifts, our community, our call. In all our disappointments, joys, hopes, successes, and failures, we are still people who are made of dust, and to dust we will return.
There is no success too great, or failure too devastating, to remove us from our place as one of a beloved creation of a God that will one day call us home. No matter how high they seem on this side of eternity, the stakes are always inside of the warm embrace of a loving God. The boundaries of our sandbox of finite existence invite us into playing in that sandbox ever more fully because we know that we are never too far.
May this week’s reminder of the brevity of our lives be an invitation to live them all the more fully, joyfully, and richly, and may that invitation drive us towards our work with non-anxious enthusiasm and boundless creativity and freedom. Our lives here are finite, our scope is limited, our capacity is relatively small, so may we run head-first into it all the more.