Blessed by Ash and Dust: The Gift of Vulnerability and Limit

vulnerability 11

I continue to reflect on Psalm 103, where the Psalmist fleshes out the meaning of the name for God given to Moses at the burning bush: Yawheh or Jehovah, which is often rendered “Lord” in all caps but God explains in Exodus 3 by saying “I am Who I am”, “I will be who I will be”.  This name, I suggested, comes from the Hebrew word “to be” and seems to mean something like “the One who Exists”, “the One who Lives” as opposed to the empty images for God we invent in our various self-made religions.

In Psalm 103, the Psalmist fleshes out who this Living One is by celebrating each of the places in which we experience Them.

Last time I looked at the presence of God found in the grace, mercy, and lovingkindness that embraces all of our lives.

I feel a need to focus in again on part of the section of Psalm 103 we just explored:

“14 For They know how we were made;

remembering that we are dust.

15 As for mortals, their days are like grass;

they flourish like a flower of the field;

16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,

and its place knows it no more.

17 But the steadfast love of the One Who Lives is from everlasting to everlasting

on those who fear Them,

Their righteousness to children’s children,

18 to those who keep Their covenant

remembering to walk in Their commandments.”


chaplain 1

One of the most moving experiences of my training to become a chaplain was working Ash Wednesday at UNC Hospital.   Each of us chaplain residents, paired with a chaplain intern, were given a container full of ashes and asked to go to every one of our patients and nurses in our assigned part of the hospital offering to leave a grayish smudge in the center of their forehead through extending the imposition of ashes to them,.

In a singular way, there was something to this act in such a place of sickness and healing, death and rebirth,.  Our taking this Biblical symbol of mortality and fragility and placing them on the heads of those in the in-between space on the edge of life and death, sickness and healing had profound resonance.    As the words “ashes to ashes, dust to dust; remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” echoed with each blessing, the way in which each life hung in the balance, dangling at a hair’s breadth, was tangible. Dust that was once living palm leaves which pictured Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, now burned down to dust & ash, revealed the tenuous situation not just of those laying in hospital beds but us all.

ash wednesday vulnerability


I wrote a poem during my year of chaplain residency which reflects much of this feeling:


Life Angel

ash wednesday 3

At night I hear your soft feet dancing

hummingbird wings aflutter beneath

the echoes of footfalls on tile floor,

sharp voices crying out “breathe”,

the snip of scissors cutting cord,

and husky words echoing “its a boy”


AngelI feel your wings overshadowing us

as I sit beside the bed-side

of a brown haired man,

tubed, wired, and worn beyond his years.


Your wings fall firm as a hand

joining mine on shoulders wet with tears

I see you dance O Sister Spirit

a-glitter with florescent hallway lights

twirling like flowers caught in spring wind

swirling in the many-hued patterns shining bright

upon monitors buzzing over patient bed sides

the dances which end where life begins


“Sister Death,” sweet Francis called you,

but I know your true name: Life Angel.

lady wisdom 2


What amazed me about this experience was not so much how tangible our nearness to death, disease, vulnerability felt, but instead how readily people embraced, even sought out, these ashes and this blessing, while at this point.  When I began the task, I felt self-conscious.   How could it be good pastoral care to remind very sick people that they were but a stone’s throw from their life ending?  Surely, they did not need to even more fully feel how on the brink each of their lives were, did they?


ash vulnerability wednesdayYet the reminder that they are mortal, limited, with no more strength than dust or permanence than ash, was embraced as a gift and comfort by so many people.  Receiving these ashes acted as  a reminder, perhaps, that they did not need to believe in such moments it was all up to them.  No, rather, they could like a child rest in the care of a grace and life wider and deeper than their own wisdom, sturdier than their own strength which they could feel faltering as they lay in their beds.  The ways in which their eyes would brighten or tear up at this reminder was a lesson to me.   There is a gift in accepting our vulnerability and our limits.


One of my favorite quotes, written by spiritual writer Marianne Williamson, perhaps captures this well:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (Return to Love).

dying child 2Williamson intends her words as a reminder of our own power which so much in our lives teaches us to deny.  I think there is a sense in which some of us need this reminder.  Some of us, whether through abuse or through others dismissing us, or a culture that minimizes the ability or voice of people like us, walk away feeling powerless over our lives.  We do feel the need to shrink, to be less than we are in all our fullness.  When this is us, we might fear believing we have God-given beauty, power, and strengths.

Yet what I experienced on those hospital floors was the flip side of this cosmic coin.   I witnessed people who were facing deeply into situations beyond their own power and ability.  They felt all alone, overwhelmed by the enormity of pain, illness, and loss.  In such situations the thought that it is up to us, of our own inner immense power, can also be negative.  More than that, it can be downright overwhelming.

In her book The Intimacy Factor, counselor Pia Melody talks about the many ways in which we can become damaged in our ability to relate in life-giving ways to ourselves and others.   She speaks at length of ways in which as children we can get the message Williamson’s quote is meant to address: that we are powerless, worthless, unable and undeserving.   Yet she also talks about how we can also get the message while vulnerable children that we are far too powerful than we need to be.

Children, for instance, who learn that it is their job to take care of the adults in their lives, meeting the emotional needs of hurting and depressed mothers and fathers, or looking out for alcoholic or drug-addicted adults to make sure they are safe, can deal with this by overcompensating.   Such a messaging in our upbringing can make us feel it is all up to us.  We stand alone, and if negative things happen, it is clearly our fault.  We can beat ourselves up, blaming ourselves for the difficult situations we face.  Alternately, we can feel responsible.  We must know the answers all the time.  We must do all the work on our own.   It is up to us.  And most of all, we must never need or seek help, for that is weakness.

mother helping child find way

I see this in my work with the sick, the dying, and their families.   People feel somehow it must be their fault they or someone they love has gotten sick.  If only they had caught the disease’s symptoms.  If only they had been more healthy or pushed the one they loved to make healthier choices earlier.    If only…

Actually, this deep guilt, grief, and shame flows from a part of ourselves that has been taught we are so responsible, we must also stand in a place reserved in Christian spirituality for God alone.  For what we are saying is “I ought to have known everything”, “I ought to have been all-powerful”, “I ought to need no saving”.    When such feelings arise, being reminded of our limitedness, our vulnerability, can be a pure gift.    Through that act of ash being placed on people’s foreheads, the promise of this text in Psalm 103 is made tangible, felt on our very skin:  God knows that how we are made, God knows that we are dust.  God knows we are limited, impermanent, with only so much time, energy, and capacity. It is not despite our vulnerability we are embraced, loved, supported, by God, but with full knowledge of it on God’s end.

God calls us too to embrace our limits, our vulnerability.  To know it is ok if we get exhausted, ok if we get overwhelmed, ok if some days it is all just too much.

To know that it is ok that, when we face the weight of the world’s problems, we only have so much we can do.   To know it is ok, too, to reach out for help.

Facing into our vulnerability allows us to accept and embrace life and, ironically, to find our own power to be a support to others, and to be ones who bring beauty and healing to our world, even more deeply.  It is not through ignoring our vulnerability, limits, and pain that we can become these vessels of beauty and healing but rather through facing them and accepting them as a part of the gift of who we are.

I want to spend the next few posts sharing a bit about what embracing our own vulnerability looks like and how this embrace of our vulnerability can be an experience of the living presence of God.

Please join me on this journey and share your own experience as well.

Your progressive redneck preacher,





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