February 11, 2016

Remember You Are Dust: An Ash Wednesday Exhortation

Steve Jobs, delivering the 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, said this:

“When I was 17 I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, some day you'll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’...We’re born, we live for a brief instant, and we die. It’s been happening for a long time…Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important…Remember that you are going to die.”

Wise words. But are we now taking spiritual advice from Steve Jobs? Only God knows the state of Steve Jobs heart and soul. But I know this: Steve Jobs was raised Lutheran and he just may have heard that quote in church. I hope so, and I hope to meet Steve Jobs in glory someday.

Many of you know I’m a third-order Benedictine—meaning married with kids and living and working in the world. The Rule of St. Benedict admonishes us to “keep death daily before our eyes.” Something the Puritans stressed too. And some of my brothers just may have taken this a bit too far. You hear wild and crazy stories of keeping skulls or skeletons in the closet as a daily reminder of our impending doom. Some reportedly slept in coffins as a nightly reminder. And others would literally dig their own graves, scooping one spade full of dirt each day to remember that we are but dust and to dust we shall return. I haven’t yet gone that far. But I do pray a daily Benedictine prayer that ends with these words: “In the hour of my death, may I be strengthened by your holy presence Lord Jesus.”

Steve Jobs…St. Benedict…but what does the Bible say? Turns out this is a frequent theme woven into Scripture. Hear the Psalmist in Psalm 39: “O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah.”

And again in Psalm 90: “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” What is wisdom? Classical school educators and homeschoolers are very familiar with the trivium: grammar, or just the facts; logic, or reasoning with the facts; and, finally, rhetoric, application as all that hard work is lived out day to day. There’s nothing new under the sun. The language of the Hebrews was knowledge, understanding, and wisdom—we see this pattern throughout the Proverbs in particular. Here in Psalm 90 we’re given one of the keys to obtaining wisdom and living the good life: numbering our days. Could it be that when we come to terms with our own mortality, like Steve Jobs did, that’s when we die to ourselves and truly begin to live?

Let’s turn now to the New Testament and a familiar passage in James 4: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then [poof!] vanishes. Instead you ought to say…” We ought to say what? “Well then, live and let live! I’m quitting my job tomorrow! Got to grab all the gusto I can!” No, that wouldn’t be wisdom but foolishness. Instead, in light of our mortality, we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live. And if the Lord wills, we will do this or that. As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” What is James’ exhortation in light of our mortality? Humility and utter dependence on God for every breath and every day and every detail.

We are but dust and to dust we shall return. Therefore, let us walk humbly and live soberly with God and our neighbors. What does the Lord require of us? Only this: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God—Micah 6:8. The conclusion of the matter, the whole duty of man, is to fear God and keep his commandments—Ecclesiastes 12.

Lent is rooted in the corporate fasts of the Old Testament church and practices that carried over into the New Testament church. For what we have done and for what we have left undone. It was specifically commended to us by the Council of Nicaea, who also gave us the “Trinity” and the Nicene Creed that we profess every Sunday.

And Lent begins tonight, Ash Wednesday, here and now, with the imposition of ashes, with a reminder of our mortality. We are dust and to dust we shall return. This is new to many of us, I know. But it is the universal practice of the Church. At one time, and in parts of the Church today, Ash Wednesday was as big as Christmas and Easter. “But,” somebody said, “I don’t see it in the Bible.” How about this to make it more biblical: let’s break out some sackcloth with the ashes. Do you see it now?

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.

What if you lived the rest of this day like it was your last day? What if you lived every day like it was your last day? Because one day it will be. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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