“To Dust You Will Return” But Not Now! Not Like This!
I’m wrestling with the juxtaposition of Ash Wednesday with the Parkland school shooting, but this much is clear. When the pastor made the sign of the cross on our foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return” he wasn’t talking about death like this. Not anytime…not anywhere…not for anyone.
I’m convinced that the voice within us which shouts, “No! This is not the way it should be! This is not the way these lives should end! This is not what our children ought to have to face!” is nothing other than the voice of God, shouting in the depths of our souls with “groans too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)
The cross on our foreheads is the dark stain of our mortality; the dusty reminder of our need for God’s mercy, forgiveness and cleansing. It’s appropriate that our first response — one we have experienced far too often! — is to cry:
Lord, have mercy!
Christ, have mercy!
A Time for Shouting
But tears, moments of silence, and the promise of “thoughts and prayers” are not enough.
The Old Testament lesson for Ash Wednesday was Isaiah 58. It opens with God shouting:
Shout loudly; don’t hold back;
raise your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their crime,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
God mocks a people who seek God as if they were “a nation that acted righteously.” God accuses them of saying they want to be close to God, but “you do whatever you want…oppress all your workers… quarrel and brawl…hit each other violently.” In classic Hebrew style, God sounds like a Yiddish grandmother from Brooklyn saying, “Oy vey! You call this a fast?” (58:5)
Enough with the thoughts and prayer, already!
God blows off their phony piety and their smarmy self-righteousness and calls them to direct actions that demonstrate their faithfulness to God’s way of doing things.
Isn’t this the fast I choose:
releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
setting free the mistreated,
and breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
and bringing the homeless poor into your house,
covering the naked when you see them,
and not hiding from your own family?
With God’s command comes God’s promise:
Then your light will break out like the dawn,
and you will be healed quickly.
Your own righteousness will walk before you,
and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and God will say, “I’m here.”
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the finger-pointing, the wicked speech;
if you open your heart to the hungry,
and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted,
your light will shine in the darkness,
and your gloom will be like the noon.
The Lord will guide you continually
and provide for you, even in parched places.
He will rescue your bones.
You will be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water that won’t run dry.
They will rebuild ancient ruins on your account;
the foundations of generations past you will restore.
You will be called Mender of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Livable Streets.
Is God Fed Up with our Prayers?
I have no doubt that God has shared our tears, felt our pain, and heard our prayers after Columbine, Sandy Hook, Pulse, Charleston, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Parkland and the rest of the 200 school shootings that have become a uniquely American tradition since Sandy Hook. They break the heart of God.
But reading Isaiah, I can’t help but think that God is fed up with all of our “moments of silence,” our half-staffed flags and our empty rhetoric about mental illness and school safety. I hear God shouting that it’s time for righteous anger and redemptive action. And there is plenty that we could do!
- It’s time to reduce the incessant flood of violence that passes for entertainment in movies, on TV and video games. Why not fast from all this stuff during Lent?
- It’s time to tone down the mean-spirited shouting that permeates our deeply divided political culture. With Lincoln we could hope, “The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
- It’s time to build trust in healthy relationships, strong families and visionary faith communities.
- It’s time to increase funding for our public schools (instead of reducing it or diverting it to private schools) in order to provide guidance counsellors, social workers and support for teachers who are called to teach our children, not to die for them.
- It’s time to reject the narrow political ideology that has been crafted around a sick distortion of the Second Amendment. Whatever happened to “a well regulated Militia”?
- It’s time to reinstate restrictions on gun purchases for people with a record of mental illness or criminal violence.
- It’s time to stop the unregulated sale of weapons at “gun shows.” (In Florida it’s as easy to buy a weapon as it is to buy a car.)
- It’s time to decide that no one (including some of my best friends whom I love and respect) really needs an AK-47 or AR-15, the weapons of choice for the school shootings.
- It’s time to institute nation-wide background checks. (95% of the people in the US want this!)
- It’s time to “fast” from voting for any politician who receives funding from the NRA.
- It’s time to repeal the “Dickey Amendment” that prevents the government from studying gun violence.
- It’s time to increase support for social service agencies in our communities.
Perhaps then — if and when we get down actually doing something about gun violence — our “light will shine in the darkness, and [our] gloom will be like the noon.” Perhaps then we can “rebuild…the foundations of generations past.” Perhaps then — and only then — we will deserve to be called “Mender of Broken Walls, Restorer of Livable Streets.”
All I know for sure is that even if God isn’t fed up with our meaningless “thoughts and prayers,” I’m sure that I am! It’s time to do some shouting.
May God’s peace comfort the afflicted and may God’s Spirit afflict the comfortable.