Home in the dust

By Nate Wall
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“You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

What a shock, the first time someone spoke those words over me at an Ash Wednesday service. No one had ever touched my face and told me I was going to die. Something about it was clarifying, even freeing. I was cut down to size: I was just a creature, not the god I’ve sometimes wished. Still, the moment passed and I was happy to forget the dust and ashes. 

Eleven months into this Time of the Virus, there’s no forgetting. The smudge of ash never leaves our foreheads; those words toll like a bell at every reminder of our shared fragility. Some days I am surprised—and disappointed—at being brought down to the dust for so long. Some days I am weary. 

But God is not weary or surprised. That’s what the Psalmist says. The Lord “knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). Each speck of us was compacted into a fragile body between His hands and quickened by His exhale (Genesis 2:7). He knows. He remembers. 

And more: the Lord loves us because we are dust. His compassion meets our fragility the way an ordinary Dad cradles the body of a newborn (Psalm 103:13). We are dust, and just so we belong to Him. 

And God’s way with us at our beginning echos from Sinai too, says the Psalmist, where the Lord “made known his ways to Moses” (Psalm 103:7). God’s ways are those paths cut through the grass, worn down by His constant footfall among us, spelling out a Name which comes to us as a promise: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8; cf. Exodus 34:6–7).  Our dust is not thrown to the wind. It finds a home, even now, inside the height, depth, breadth and length of God’s steadfast love (Psalm 103:11). Only our mistakes, our sin, falls outside—and only then because “as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).  

None of this hastens the end of a year-long Ash Wednesday. But from our home in the dust, we might discover another surprise in the telltale shadow of a love stretched out high and long over us, and say with the Psalmist, “Bless the LORD, O my soul” (Psalm 103:1).


Nate Wall is a PhD candidate at Wycliffe College, specializing in Old Testament. Nate teaches Greek as an adjunct faculty member, and is writing a dissertation about the poet-preacher John Donne.