Ashes and Dust
It’s almost Easter, and as Lent draws to a close, I’m thinking about ashes and dust, about life and death, about resurrection, about the color green.
When you first move somewhere new, especially if you’re crossing cultures or countries, the first few days overload your senses. Colors, smells, sounds, weather, flavors, greetings: the newness is noisy and jarring, and it’s hard to process what is happening. Of course, newness always fades, and what once caught your attention moves to the background. But sometimes it helps to remember what you noticed when you were new.
When I think back to Bundibugyo, I remember the unique and not altogether pleasant smell of drying cocoa, the incongruously large bowls of rice friends served me in small mud rooms while their hungry children crowded in the doorway pretending not to watch me eat. I remember riding my bicycle, dodging long-horned cows as they moved up the red-dirt road. I remember baking pizzas under the shade of bougainvillea as the equatorial sun set, burning orange in the late afternoon sky. And I remember always, everything, green.
Kenya, too, was green but also always moving (or perhaps I was the one who had trouble sitting still). More vehicles, more hustle, much more chai. There were tea fields, and the Indian Ocean, and the great Rift Valley. Students filling up all of the space of the school and the work of my days. The breathless altitude, the beauty of mountains and trees, the bright red blankets of the Masaai, the zebras dotting the horizon, the monkeys running over the roof.
Sandwiched between 2 seasons of green, I lived for awhile in a land of dust. South Sudan was not always dry, but this time of year, at least for the years I lived in Mundri, was dry season. Rains would begin tapering off at Christmastime, giving us a glorious season of warm days and cool (ish) evenings, with low humidity and sufficient food in the market. And then, sometime into Lent, dry season would begin in earnest. There would be no rain AT ALL. The temperatures would be in the triple digits even in the middle of the night. People would burn their fields, clearing them in preparation for planting season once the rain returned.
And so, appropriately, the air of lenten Mundri was filled with ashes and dust. We’d have meetings outside, and I’d find that ashes had landed in my hair. Whenever I biked anywhere, my face and even teeth would be tinted orange from the dusty road. Dusting my desk was an exercise in futility.
This year, at the beginning of Lent, I followed a liturgical tradition of attending an Ash Wednesday service, only now I’m in Charleston, SC, where I have been planted for the Spring. In church, we sang and prayed and confessed our own brokenness, shared bread and wine, and we went forward and had ashes placed on our foreheads as we heard the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
And for the last weeks, I have been marked by dustiness.
While I’ve been reconnecting to life in the United States, life in Mundri and throughout South Sudan has grown increasingly difficult, and there is much more for my friends there to be concerned about than heat and dust. Many of them are at a risk for their lives. I am conflicted and confused about how to think about it, both grieving how difficult things are the world over, and also finding a strange desire to hide from all of the hard emotions that accompany knowledge of war wrecking a place I once called home.
My work, as you may know, has primarily been in the area of counseling and mental health therapy in recent years. I feel privileged and humbled to battle death and his companions every time I enter a counseling office. Whether I am working with people struggling with trauma, loss, depression, suicidality, addictions, or any of the myriads of reasons people come for counseling: there is always a fight for hope and life and light to win out over darkness, shame, and death.
And yet, I’ve been wondering about all the hard things happening in places I care about, and especially about my role in the midst of a broken world. So, I’ve done what I usually do when I’m wondering about things: I’ve gone on lots of walks and runs in creation, I’ve talked to lots of people who are smarter than I am, and I’ve read lots of books.
In the last couple of days, I’ve read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Have you read them? If not, you should stop reading this, and start reading those books immediately. They are not for the faint of heart, but they both address important topics, and they are beautifully and eloquently written. And, for my purposes, they address issues of death, suffering, and fairness in helpful ways.
At one point near the end of Just Mercy, when referring to a death penalty case, Stevenson says, “We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt—and have hurt others—are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us…We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and as a result, deny our own humanity.”
Perhaps that is what Ash Wednesday, this season of Lent, and even my own season of quiet reflection in Charleston are all about. Remembering our brokenness, our neediness, and how that unites us. I am grieved and perplexed by violence in Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya; and also by violence in Brussels, Paris, and Charleston. It makes me both angry and strangely lackadaisical as I feel unable to do anything helpful and so just want to look away.
But, this week before Easter takes us back to the story of a God who became man, who made his home in the dustiest of places, who was falsely accused, imprisoned, and sentenced to the death penalty. He was a Prince of Peace who lived in a culture of violence, and he brought healing and hope, bread and water, and sometimes wine. He also wrestled with the cup of suffering He would drink down, and He took into Himself the mystery of injustice to mercifully purchase justice for us. This is something I can’t comprehend, and yet it matters infinitely in this world of violence and death.
I’m spending time at the place where Christ’s love meets my own brokenness, and trusting that there I will find the way to then consider how to respond to this broken world. As Kalathini wrote when he was looking death square in the face, “I returned to the central values of Christianity-sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness-because I found them so compelling. There is a tension in the Bible between justice and mercy…The New Testament says you can never be good enough: goodness is the thing, and you can never live up to it. The main message of Jesus, is that mercy trumps justice every time.”
Right now, I’m sitting in my favorite downtown coffee shop, writing in the bustle and hum of mid-afternoon. It’s sunny, 75 degrees, and beautiful in a way that only Charleston Spring days are. It’s about time for me to head out, and as I walk to my car, I’ll pass homeless men and women, sitting with signs, hoping to receive something. On my drive home, I’ll pass Mother Emmanuel church, where less than a year ago senseless violence wrecked this community. There is grief to be seen as soon as you scratch the surface of any setting.
From here I can see that trees are beginning to burst into bloom. Across from me, a young military cadet sits down, and cheerily talks with a veteran he doesn’t know, looking with kindness at a stranger’s pictures of grandkids and listening to war stories when he should be studying. My caffeine has been carefully curated by the barista, my afternoon has been productive, and I think I have time to squeeze in a run before meeting friends for dinner.
Things are beautiful, hopeful, and yellow. A film of dusty pollen covers everything, tinging sidewalks, coating cars and throats, leading to sneezes and complaints. But without this yellow dust, there would be no blossom, no bloom, no green new life bursting forth everywhere. Anticipating and already experiencing the coming beauty of everything blooming, I’ll take today’s dustiness in stride, accepting watery eyes, a parched throat, and a dirty car as a part of the process of new life coming.
So much of life is mystery, and there is loss we may never understand, but as we are in the midst of these dusty days, let us live in the light of resurrection, looking for hope and light to burst forth in the least likely of places. And, in a world of digital impatience, let us read the books and go on the walks and have the conversations that continue to move us out into the complex, challenging, beautiful world.