There is an old rabbinic story about a faithful Jew who every morning would write down on a piece of paper the words I am but dust and ashes and place the paper in his pocket. Throughout the day he would take out the paper and read it; the words, spoken by the patriarch Abraham in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 18: 27), served as a prayerful reminder of his mortality and humility before God.
One day he showed the paper to his rabbi. The rabbi was moved by his congregant's reverence. But the rabbi took out a second piece of paper and wrote the Hebrew words Bishvili nivra ha'olam - "For my sake, the universe was created.”That beautiful story dovetails nicely with our tradition of Ash Wednesday – remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
"Take these words, as well, and carry them too," the rabbi said. "Let there be balance in your life. Realize that of yourself, before God, you are nothing - but because you are created in God's image, out of love, you possess the greatest dignity imaginable: you are a child of God." [As told by Burton Visotzky in Genesis: A Living Conversation by Bill Moyers.]
And so maybe we need to add the words: Bishvili nivra ha'olam - "For my sake, the universe was created.”
Our Lenten experience is a time for reaching that balance between realizing our humility before God and our identity as God's child. When we are consumed by the notion that we are in total control of our lives, when we have arrogantly self-absorbed because of what we possess and what we have achieved, we should take out the first "paper" & remember the dust on our foreheads: I am but dust and ashes and to dust I shall return.
I was listening on Saturday to “Whad'Ya Know?” Radio Hour on NPR where author and ASU Professor Lawrence Krauss talked a little a bit about our place in the galaxy, and said we were such a small part of it, we were but a dust speck in the universe. We are truly dust and ashes.
But when we feel abandoned, when hope seems far away, when we feel lost in the wilderness, we need to embrace the message of the second sheet: For my sake, God created the universe. I am God's beloved child; I am created in God's image.
As we sit with those two pieces of paper: dust AND our being made in God’s image, think again about the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, our first stop on our Lenten Journey after Ash Wednesday.
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”That is all that the Gospel of Mark gives us with the Temptation of Jesus. A quick snapshot. He was tempted. Out in the wilderness. Angels came.
“I believe that Jesus underwent this ordeal on our behalf, to break open the ground of the heart and make real choice possible for us.” ~ Malcom GuiteMark doesn’t go into the choices; but as Guite puts it, Jesus undergoes that temptation for us, to break open the ground of our hearts and help us to see the choices before us, both our humility and our belovedness. A choice that also invites us to go deeper…
A young man sought out the advice of a hermit who lived deep in the forest.Lent calls us to our own interior deserts — that place within us where we can turn off the noise and shut out the fears and tensions of our lives. It is only in such stillness that we can realize the many manifestations of God’s love in our midst, a love that is difficult to see in all the distractions demanding our attention and hard to hear in all the noise blaring at us.
“I love my wife deeply,” the sad young man said, “and I know she loves me. But she says almost nothing to me for days on end.”
“A love without silence is a love without depth,” the old monk replied.
“But she never even says she loves me.”
“Some people always claim that,” the old man answered. “And we end up wondering if their words are true.”
The monk then pointed to the field of wildflowers surrounding them. “Nature isn’t always repeating that God loves us. We only realize it through His flowers.” [Adapted from a story told by Paulo Coelho.]
Lent calls us to rediscover, in the stillness of our souls, what it means to be a person of faith, what values we want our lives to stand for, what path we want our lives to take on our own journey to Easter. May this Lenten season be a time for attaining that balance in our lives: a balance between humility that leads to selflessness and joy in the ever-present love of God in our midst as we plumb the depths of who we are as God’s beloved children. Amen.