The season of Lent begins with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The words remind us of our making and of our inescapable demise.
“Remember, O Mortal, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” It’s fancy language for a very literal “come to Jesus moment.” It’s like that old preacher in the second Poltergeist movie yelling into the house, “You are gonna die in there, all of you! You are gonna die!” Because we will die—it’s one of the common threads of all of humanity. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
But in a less depressing way, those words remind us of one of the other common threads of all of humanity. We are breath-animated dust creatures. “Remember that you are dust…” Remember your humanity…
Remember that when you were made as God intended you to be, God took dust and breathed the God-life into it…you are dust and you are Spirit…you are human.
And once upon a time we knew how to live out our humanity; we celebrated life in union with nature and life in union with one another and life in union with God. Once upon time…before we lost our way.
Now we have lost our union with nature, many of us. And we have lost our union with God, some of us. And, most of us, we have lost our union with one another, and we walk around afraid of one another, of the harm that may come to us or to the ones we love. And we look with pity upon those who suffer, or—in the case of some of us—we look with contempt, wondering why they don’t do something to change their situation and make a better life for themselves. And in failing to see their humanity, in failing to recognize the breath-animated dust creature in our sister or in our brother, we have trouble seeing the humanity in ourselves. In failing to see the humanity—people are reduced to issues or statistics; humans become less than human as we discuss their state.
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” He’s not even there, not really. He is someone to be discussed—like many patients in a hospital who can be reduced to an illness or to a list of symptoms—he is someone to be discussed. “Who’s at fault for this man’s condition? Do we blame him or his parents for his blindness?” What’s not said, but can be heard lying under the question is, “Jesus, whose problem is he? Who is responsible? Who owns the mess?”
This man is just an object for theological discussion—he is just an “issue” to the disciples—an issue of sin and suffering. But Jesus recognizes the humanity of the man born blind. Jesus sees more than just the symptom or the issue of blindness; Jesus sees the spirit-breathed dust creature who has become lost, become invisible. His community has lost his identity. The disciples don’t really see him either. And maybe because nobody else really sees him for who he is, he doesn’t really see himself anymore…But Jesus sees him, sees him as he really is and works to restore that original spirit-breathed self.
And what does he use? Jesus uses dust from the earth…and some sanctified spit…and he re-makes the man made from dust into something whole.
An article recently shared by a colleague of mine discussed the benefits of dirt, specifically a naturally occurring anti-depressant:
“Mycobacterium vaccae is the substance under study and has…been found to mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide. The bacterium is found in soil and may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Studies were conducted on cancer patients and they reported a better quality of life and less stress. Lack of serotonin has been linked to depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar problems. The bacterium appears to be a natural antidepressant in soil and has no adverse health effects. These antidepressant microbes in soil may be as easy to use as just playing in the dirt.”
So I really was happier back when I was a kid covered in mud! Maybe it’s when we think we’re “too old” to play in the dirt that we begin to lose a little bit of ourselves?
But it’s mud (and sanctified saliva) that Jesus uses to bring healing to the man born blind—(I wish I knew what his name was…but isn’t that the rub with people who are reduced to “issues” or “symptoms”? We don’t recall names, only the things that make them “other.”)—It’s mud that Jesus uses to bring him back into being.
But then what? Nobody knows what to do with him now!
“The first surprise is the community’s reaction; they do not recognize the man who was born blind. This is so odd. The man has lived in their midst all his life; his neighbors have interacted with him, perhaps helped him cross the street or draw water; they have worshiped with him. Why do they fail to recognize him after he is healed? Is it because the only marker of his identity was his blindness? Has the fact that he was differently abled been the only thing they could ever see in him?
This raises a pastoral issue for any of us who interact with persons who are differently abled. How do we identify and come to know people who are different from us? Do we allow disability to be a defining marker, or are we able to look beyond that and recognize the humanity of people?”*
It is important to see markers that make the experience of others different from our own. It’s a failure to “whitewash” the experience of people of color; it’s a failure to “straightwash” the experiences of the gay community; it’s a failure to “ciswash” the experiences of being trans; it is a failure to take our experience and say that it is a universal experience or the only experience—but we are more than our markers: people of color are people; people identifying as LGBTQ are people; people who are differently abled are people; underneath our markers we are all spirit-breathed dust creatures. And if in the midst of our journey with one another we can infuse the world with a little more shalom and a little more life and if it we can make where we live a little more like the beloved community that God intends, then maybe we can work some healing with mud and sanctified spit the way that Jesus does.
“On a bitterly cold day in February 1846, the French writer Victor Hugo was on his way to work when he saw something that affected him profoundly.
A thin young man with a loaf of bread under his arm was being led away by police. Bystanders said he was being arrested for stealing the loaf. He was dressed in mud-spattered clothes, his bare feet thrust into clogs, his ankles wrapped in bloodied rags in lieu of stockings.
“It made me think,” wrote Hugo. “The man was no longer a man in my eyes but the specter of la misère, of poverty…
During his political exile on the island of Guernsey, Hugo, finding himself at a loose end one day while waiting for a batch of proofs of Les Misérables to arrive, spontaneously invited 10 poor children to his house for a meal.
“The first diner des pauvres, or ‘poor dinner’, was a great success,” says Bellos. “Hugo decided to repeat it every other Tuesday.”
As news of the meals spread, the idea was replicated in the poor parishes of London and other cities. “It ultimately led to the introduction of canteens in publicly funded schools,” writes Bellos. “Free school lunches, which became a universal right in Britain and France only two generations ago, can be traced back directly to the initiative Hugo took.”” (original article here)
As we move closer to Easter, closer to that triumph over the lost parts of our humanity, look for the ways to be engaged in making wholeness a real thing again; look for ways of bringing God’s Shalom into the crowded streets of life; look for the areas where a little bit of mud (and sanctified spit) can restore the dust-breathed spirit creature that God formed you to be.
* Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2010-10-12). Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (Kindle Locations 4436-4440). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.