For years Frederick Buechner said that his father died of heart trouble.
In a manner of speaking that’s true. The elder Buechner died of an extreme case of a heart condition that many of us suffer. He finally succumbed to the nagging sense that he was not enough.
Buechner’s father committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. He sat in his running car in an enclosed garage and waited for the exhaust to undo him.
A few days later, they found a sort of suicide note. On the back of a new novel the elder Buechner had scribbled these words, ““I adore you, and I love you, and I am no good.”
|Edvard Munch’s “Ashes”|
Having drifted from job to job, Buechner’s father considered himself a failure. He could not shake the dreadful sense that he hadn’t measured up. Try as he might, he could not justify his existence. He believed that he was not enough and never could be.
That’s a heart condition. Gone untreated, it’s fatal.
Lots of us spend our whole lives trying to treat that condition ourselves by accumulating achievements or making ourselves physically attractive or accruing social status. We scramble through life chasing job promotions, changing our wardrobe, and seeking approval as if we were running for election.
We’re looking for credentials, the credentials that mark us as enough. As worthy of love and tenderness and acceptance. As if the next successful deal, the next implant, the next round of applause will be the one that finally convinces everybody, that convinces ourselves, that we are enough.
The terrible irony is that so long as we try to make ourselves enough, we never will be. There is always another achievement to pursue, always somebody better looking. As soon as the applause fades, we will worry that we’ll never hear it again. Those who have arrived—celebrities, CEO’s, and world conquerors—eventually ask the same question. “Is this all there is?”
One of the things that breaks my heart as a spiritual leader is that religion sometimes treats our heart disease in a way that is essentially no different from how the rest of the world does. Instead of career achievement and sex appeal and social status, religion sometimes substitutes moral purity and ritual piety as the means to prove that we are enough.
This can become especially acute during the season of Lent. Some hear this season’s devotion to penitence as a reminder that, after all, we are no good. We are not enough. And so the spiritual practices emphasized during Lent—prayer, penitence, self-denial, fasting, study—can seem to be the means by which we can make ourselves enough in the eyes of a demanding, judgmental God.
Jesus had nothing of the sort in mind. That’s why he warned us not to practice our piety so that others would approve and said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” Following Jesus is not about making yourself enough. Following Jesus is about learning, over time, that his love for us has already made us enough.
|Mary Cassatt’s “Young Mother Sewing”|
That is what the season of Lent is all about. The game of making ourselves enough will kill us. That’s just not the sort of being that we are. God created us to be enough by turning to a power who is greater than ourselves in an act of radical dependence.
The practice of imposing ashes illustrates my point, so let’s spend a little time thinking about its lessons for us.
Ashes symbolize our mortality. Strictly speaking, they stand in for dirt. Dust. The stuff of the earth. That’s why ministers impose the ashes while saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Dust is the stuff from which we are made. One day our bodies will return to that dust. And yet, we misunderstand the message entirely if we hear only that we were born to die and then face judgment.
Listening with that dreadful filter, we will hear a distorted message on Ash Wednesday. Something like this. Your time is limited, the clock is ticking, the Grim Reaper is already walking down your cul-de-sac. Look busy. Act right. Pray a lot. It’s almost judgment day. Your whole life is about proving your worth to God.
Remembering that we are dust teaches us nothing of the sort. On the contrary, our dustiness demonstrates that God’s love for us is the source of our infinite, eternal worth and the eternal life that God gives in Christ.
Let me explain. From a biological perspective, we are composed largely of water and a little bit of dust. But we are more than the sum of our parts.
We are alive. Sunrises make us gasp, our hearts burst with love for our children, music thrills us and permeates us with nostalgia. We miss those we see no longer and long to be welcomed at our own homecoming. Our minds puzzle, our imaginations leap, our senses reel, and our wills persevere.
|John William Waterhouse’s “The Soul of the Rose”|
The dust under my bed, the mud on my shoes, and the dirt under my fingernails do none of these things. Somehow I am that dust and mud and dirt. And somehow I am more. I am more because God is breathing life into me. To inspire is to breathe in. So, I am inspired dust. So are you.
That we are alive instead of merely a heap of dirt is the result of a decisive, gratuitous act of God. God assembled us from the remains of burned out stars, shattered planets, ancient toenails, dog bones, and discarded tissues. Our parts come from the compost heap of the cosmos.
Just imagine. How could this or that heap of dust distinguish itself from any other heap enough to convince God to animate it? To give it a heart and a mind and a soul that can be stretched and wounded, comforted and lonely, bursting with gratitude and burdened with regret.
Dust doesn’t worry about being enough. It just is. Any life that dust has, it has from God. And God breathes life into dust—inspires dust—because that’s just how God is. Prodigal with his love. Generous to a fault.
Now here’s a funny thing about being inspired dust. We return to dust. Not in the sense that God gives us only so much breath. It’s not that this good thing that God gives us so freely cannot last forever.
On the contrary, once we realize that we are enough because God is enough, we can give the life away that God is giving us. God always has the next breath for the kind of life he gives. The life of dying and rising.
In the life of dying and rising, we refuse to fit in at the expense of making someone lonely or casting others out. We take the hunger and the untended medical conditions of our neighbors personally, personally enough to sacrifice our comfort to meet their need. We refuse to get ahead by leaving others behind.
This is dust returning to the dust. Giving away the life that we have been given confident that the giver will give that life again. Forever.
The imposition of ashes reminds us that God’s love in Christ makes us enough. Enough to be his instruments of love in this world.
This Ash Wednesday sermon was preached at St. James Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Louisiana.