Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Getting Over Ourselves
Remember that you are dust, and that to dust you shall return. From time to time it is good for us to be reminded of our insignificance. I’ve found that colonial New England and Pennsylvania burial yards have a similar bracing effect. During my years of itinerant preaching as General Minister and President, I often arrived early for services and would spend a little quiet time wandering among the weathered stones marking the graves of the faithful with barely legible inscriptions. One particular warning lingers: “As you are now so once was I. As I am now, so you shall be. Prepare yourself to follow me.” The old hymn writer puts it a bit more elegantly: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.” Dust.
There is, I suppose, the trace of an old, flinty, New England spirituality in this. The God of my spiritual forebears was hardly the fire and brimstone caricature of heavenly ire we often imagine. Grace and love were extravagant and lavish in Puritan preaching and piety. But God also inhabited a space of sovereign transcendence irreducible to companionable domestication, friendly or otherwise. Yes, in comparison to God, we are dust.
The good news in this is a bit harder to discern than that of the I’m OK You’re OK divinity our therapeutic culture searches for in the gospels of pharmacology and prosperity. The rocky terrain of our lives, sometimes as uncompromising as New England soil, is something we navigate on our own, accompanied not so much by the friendly companionship of the one we’ve accepted as our personal savior, but by the one who is Lord of the dust, both the living and the dead. Dust you are and to dust you shall return.
I often arrived at those ancient graveyards early on a Sunday morning exhausted from travel, worried about a family member or a relationship, anxious over institutional vulnerabilities afflicting either the church I was visiting or the denominational structures back home, pondering the seeming futility of so much of our ministries. But then I’d think about the men, women, and children lying at my feet, dust now for two or three centuries. Surely they lived and loved as passionately as I do. Surely they worried about their children and wondered about the worth of their work as much, if not more, than I do. Surely they, too, watched a world changing around them with bewildering speed, not always in ways that were pleasing or comfortable. Surely some of them had made a mess of relationships just as you and I are wont to do. And yet, like ever rolling streams, borne away, forgotten. In many cases, even their names were erased by time.
Next to the learned divines and revolutionary heroes are folk who made a travesty of their lives. And yet all are dust, and all are equally and blessedly forgotten, no longer subject to the harsh criticism of their neighbors or the judgment of the church or the anxiety of being beyond salvation, or the burdens of responsibility, or even the self-denigration that led many to crippling melancholy. Dust. And therefore free. Just as you and I will be.
We wear an ashen cross on our forehead not to announce to all that we’ve done bad things, but to remind each other of where we belong in the grand scheme of things. Not God, the Psalmist tells us, but lower than God (even if just “a little”). The spotlight of aggrandizing affirmation or grim responsibility or even shaming judgment does not rest on me alone and certainly not forever. And while that means that we are all eminently forgettable, it also means that along the way from birth to death we are free to love each other, care for each other, and delight in each other as simple, wonderful human beings rather than anxious, wannabe gods. Dust you are and to dust you shall return. In the end it’s really all about getting the job descriptions sorted out.
John H. Thomas