Monday, February 1, 2010


"The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground ..."

I had a Kirby Vacuum Cleaner salesman in my living room once. He demonstrated to me over and over again how his beautiful vacuum cleaning system captured so much more dust and dirt than my pathetic old relic. He told me horror stories of how much dust inhabits the average home, of the chemical composition of your average dust sample, and how most household dust is actually human skin tissue. With science, with emotion, with fear he tried and tried to get me to spend the price of a good used car on his beautiful vacuum cleaning system. Strangely, though, the longer he talked the more I felt a sort of kinship with the dust in my house. A sense that I didn't want to get rid of it all. At least, not enough to spend $1500 on his metal-framed high-horsepower suction machine. Besides, I wondered what else might get eliminated by this powerful tool. "Honey, have you seen the cat?"

We come from the dirt, and if we're honest we never get very far from the ground. Humus, that's what it is, that dark stuff that makes the plants grow so well, and so we are human, and at our earthy best we enjoy a good sense of humor, and it's all interconnected. From the Pope down to the paupers, we have this in common. "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return," we say on Ash Wednesday to the hobbling old and to the bright eyed teenagers and to the baby in his mother's arms. We place a cross of ashes on their foreheads, the symbol of death, the symbol of new life in Jesus Christ. As much as we would like to deny it, this is who we are: we are fragile. Psalm 103 is a comfort here; it says that God knows us, and remembers that we are dust. You may expect yourself to be strong, infallible, to soar without error above your humble beginnings -- but God knows you better than that, and in love he remembers the dust you come from.

We invent so many ways to try to get past our origins. Even Jesus struggled when he went home, reading the scripture in the synagogue (see Luke 4) as the patriarchs and matriarchs of Nazareth smiled and patted him on the head and said, "What a nice boy! Why, I remember when he was just this big, Mary!" Is it any wonder so many kids from small towns can't wait to shrug out of the graduation gown and leave home? Many never really go home again. It pains us to go back to the source of our humility. We'd rather live with our illusions. There are still middle-aged men (they look strangely like the fathers of my classmates) in my home town who call me "Clenchy," the tooth-gnashing nickname of my childhood, though they've forgotten why they call me that and they mean nothing but good by it. After this many years away, the nicknames lose much of their sting. So I exercise the grin-lines around my middle-aged eyes and slap them on the back and recall some embarrassing story about our mutual childhoods, and we have a good laugh, remembering.

It's good to go home, back to the earth. Back to the place where I'm Art and Pearl's third son, back to Faaberg Lutheran Church's cemetery where the bones of my parents and their parents and their parents lie, going back to the dust from which they came. The day before my mother's funeral, my father and I walked out in the cemetery so I could see the plot he'd chosen for her, and eventually for him as well. We looked at the view across the fields to the home they had shared for thirty-five years, looked at the row of stately pines around the perimeter of the cemetery as though to keep the dead from wandering off. We looked at the headstones close by -- I recognized many of the names. Dad glanced down at the one nearest to Mom's fresh grave. "Well," he said, "Schroeder's will be good neighbors." He'd lived his whole life with his hands in the soil, and the thought of going back to the dirt was not a fearful thing.

I walk out in the north pasture sometimes when I'm home, down in the far corner. The summer I was eleven Dad and I dug a deep hole into the dirt there to set a corner post. That sweaty afternoon is one of the best memories of my childhood. I look at that post now, leaning into the loose tension of the wires, old and weather-beaten, half-rotten and slowly going back into the soil, and I think about the dust I will someday become. Ashes to ashes, and I will return to the earth. It's incentive to live now with a sense of dependence. A sense of finiteness, of the limits around my life. A sense of humor.

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