Sunday, June 4, 2017

Dust to Dust

I've had this phrase running through my head a lot lately. Dust to dust. Mostly we think of this in association with funerals -- "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" -- meaning that we, like Adam, are from the earth and in the end, no matter how hard we fight it, we return there. I'm not sure why this phrase, more than the idea of mortality, keeps scurrying around in my mind.

Maybe it's because I'm driving truck these days, and the only days we can be in the fields are the days it's dry enough to raise dust in clouds on the rural gravel roads or the gravel parking lot where I work. Great, unwieldy clouds of dust that cover my parked car and the grass and my nose and mouth and the windshield of my truck. And every other possible surface. Dust.

Whether it's associated or not, for at least a week I've had the Civil Wars' song, "Dust to Dust" stuck in my head. Powerful song. Not really related much to funerals, but there it is.

And for the last couple days, I've been helping my brother build a shed to hold his hay. Like most construction projects, this one begins -- well, it really begins last winter with sitting at the table talking about plans and prints and production costs. But the construction phase begins with measuring and staking out the ground, and digging deep graves for the posts that will provide a skeleton for the structure.

One of our deep graves, with a mallet (not a sledge, thank goodness) for scale. And my foot.

So we have been measuring, and staking, and digging, and digging, and digging. I remember hearing about a story Leo Tolstoy wrote that asked the question, "How much earth does one man need?" It told of a law in pre-revolution Russia by which a man could claim all the land he could walk around in a day. So one particularly ambitious man began at sunrise to run, and ran a long course all throughout the day, rounding the corners in the heat and driving himself to take possession of as much land as he could. As the sun dropped toward the horizon, he stumbled toward his final stake, but just as the sun dropped, so did he -- dead, six feet short of that last marker. How much land does one man need? Six feet.

We work and dig and sweat in the field, and every so often I look into these deep holes and think about graves I have known. I've dug a few, and I've presided at many funerals and many graveside services. As a farm kid, there's something particularly holy about putting a person's last remains into the earth.

While we took a break not long ago in the cool shade under the cottonwoods, I looked up at the fluff from the cottonwood trees blowing on the breeze. At first glance it looked like dust, but it was seeds, the seeds of the cottonwood tree, drifting, trusting on the wind like tiny sailors navigating by the breath of God's Spirit.

I looked around and saw a young milkweed plant not far from my foot:

Growing like a weed, waiting for the Monarch butterflies to return from Mexico and lay their eggs underneath the tender leaves with their sticky white sap. In the fall these same milkweeds will open up boat-shaped seed pods and their fluffy seeds will also drift on the breeze toward parts unknown. I took a picture last winter of a milkweed plant that had not shed its seeds before freeze-up:

I sat this morning and watched the cottonwood seeds drifting on the wind like a dust storm. I thought about all the graves I have known, all the times I've grieved, or helped others grieve, next to a hole in the ground or a hole in their hearts. Grief is hard, and I don't think anyone gets out of this life without at least some of it on board.

It's Pentecost Sunday as I write this. I think about the story in Ezekiel's vision about how God took a bunch of old skeletons and knit flesh on them, and breathed spirit into them, and brought them to life.

From a natural point of view, we are dust and to dust we will return. We hear it on Ash Wednesday like the tolling of a somber bell over our lives. Dust you are. To dust you shall return. Be aware that your life is short, and terminal. Dust to dust.

And yet ...

Jesus said unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. There's something to grief, something to this business of facing the death of things, even of ourselves, that has the potential to bring us to life. If the Spirit of God is in the mix, it is just possible that facing death opens a door to new life. It takes a lot of trust to let your life go. It takes a lot of trust to let go and drift on the Spirit like cottonwood fluff, like the pixie dust of milkweed seeds on the breeze. But God is faithful. If God is anything, he is faithful. And he knows where each bit of fluff comes to earth, and where each one springs to life in his Spirit.

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