Content Warning: This post contains descriptions of a school shooting.
On Ash Wednesday, Christians around the world commemorate the many prophetic verses throughout the Bible that remind us we are formed from ash and will return to ash. It is a call to remember how fickle life is and how dependent we are on God for the very breath in our lungs. This year, coming off a deadly pandemic turned perpetually endemic, facing a continuing and worsening refugee crisis in Europe, and reading new reports on the spiraling climate crisis, it is not difficult to place myself in the mindset of human mortality. We are creatures designed to die. As I have contemplated the end of the world multiple times throughout these last few years, I have found myself calling out for miracles. Miracles for healing, equity, justice. Miracles for restoration and peace. As I have called out for miracles, I’ve heard something in an answer: look around.
The end has always been coming. Before we were alive we were dust. After we live, we will be returned to dust. The transformation from our natural state of dust to this breathing life was never a guarantee. The beginning then, the fact that we’re here at all that we breathe for even a moment, is the miracle.
There’s a temptation here I can quickly turn to if I’m not careful. If all of this is turning to ash, if the beginning is the miracle, what is the point of bothering to fix anything, to waste our precious gifted days by looking towards a better tomorrow?
In many Christian traditions, a focus of Ash Wednesday is on our individual sins that brought Jesus to the cross and hung and nailed him to the wood. I have many Christian friends who reject this notion of personal sin because of the faith they have inherited from their churches who asked them to live in the shame of their sin rather than accept the freedom of the cross. The widespread failure of the church to damn shame instead of gifting mercy is a worthy topic outside the scope of this post.
Instead, many of these Christ followers conceptualize the cross as forgiveness for the systematic, communal sins in which we all play a part. Things like racism and war and homophobia. These sins have, especially in recent years, become contested and hotly debated about whether or not they exist and how we should, if at all, respond to them. Yet, if we take ourselves back to the garden origin myth in Genesis 3, we can see both types of sin right from the very beginning. There is personal sin in the decision of both earthlings to eat the forbidden fruit, and the personal shame they each feel in their nakedness (6-7) and the fingers they point at God and each other to alleviate their guilt (12). But there is also the systemic, relational sin that develops. Their relationships to each other are marred by shame and they become fearful of God (8-11). The punishment God doles out is not individual; it is communal. The systems, the very earth and its mechanisms and the people are cursed (14-19). While I still maintain the perspective of individual sin, for I have, even now, rejoiced in the alleviating of burden and shame, I have also tucked this gift of institutional sin inside.
I’ve mentioned this before in this space but many years ago a childhood friend mine walked into his high school with a gun and killed someone. In the aftermath of that horrific act of individual sin and brokenness, the community turned on the shooter and his family. This was their fault. The shooter made a decision to grab a gun and go into his classroom and pull the trigger. His family gave him access to a gun and failed to prevent this act of violence from happening. There is truth in both of these statements. What the community did not do, or at least, what I did not bear witness to, was looking into itself. No one thought about the words we use to speak to each other, tearing each other down everyday in the hallway of that school, on our social media feeds, and in our homes. We’d never walk into a school and shoot someone, but we tell one another that a life is a waste of space, that a person’s political opinion lessens the value of their humanity. I remember very vividly multiple conversations with moms in this community who said their child didn’t need to go to therapy or get on medications for depression and anxiety because the Lord would cure them or because they “didn’t believe in all that” or because they thought it was shameful to have a problem. Of course, having a mental illness was also not a reason to shoot someone. The shooter should have gotten help and the family should have done more to get him the help he needed. The mentally ill in this community are judged when they get help and exiled when they don’t.
Don’t misunderstand me: the shooter is responsible for his actions. His family may also carry some responsibility. But I think, if we might be really honest with ourselves, we might be a tiny bit at fault too. If it takes a village to raise a child, maybe it takes a village to break a child too. Ash Wednesday is a holiday for sobering revelations about our inequities.
As we look across the world, and we frame this life as a miracle that has been given to us, I wonder if we should feel some burden to steward our gift well, not just in our own individual lives, but also in the ways that our lives intersect. I wonder if we might look at our relationships today and our opinions about the world and the chaos that surrounds us and, just for one moment, think about how we as a body of people have contributed.
When we look at Ukraine, maybe we look for a moment at the wars our own country has fought and the civilians and people we have killed to achieve our own goals. When we look at COVID, maybe we think about the political party statements we have cosigned before we have grieved with those who lost something they cannot replace. We are all connected, seven billion people spinning on a rock that will turn to dust.
Even now, even in the dustiness of it all, in the futility and the mortality, in my shame both individual and collective, I am reminded that the miracle is existing here at all and that is a miracle never promised to me.
As we journey together through 40 long days of lent before the miraculous arrival of spring and life anew, I hope you can remember that none of this matters: Our allegiances to nations that will crumble, our identities as intangible politics, our lives which were spun from dirt and which will be returned to dirt. I hope you remember that because those things do not matter, each gift of a day does. Each breath is a chance to make the kind of world we long to see. May we be the peacemakers and prison shakers. May we enjoy our wives and steward creation. May we repent of our individual and our systemic sins. May we look towards the horizon of bleak nothingness with wonder, awed and humbled that we could be here for even one moment at all.
Bryce Van Vleet is the #1 selling author of Tired Pages and Before We All Die Let’s Have One Last Chat by the Fireside. He also hosts the podcast Death in Dakota and sells poetry art here. You can support him by clicking through blog posts or donating (scroll to the bottom of the page).
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