Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lent 01: Chided by a Giant Grizzly

Remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return.


I was granted the opportunity to take a course at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena recently as part of my doctoral program at Columbia in Atlanta.  (This class is the main reason I have been too overwhelmed to post anything since Christmas!)  Since I am rarely ever in California, the hiker in me wanted to take full advantage of my time there.  But this desire for the natural world wasn't just about hiking/sightseeing, it was about my need for solitude, retreat, and renewal.  So, I decided after class concluded on Friday to drive north to Yosemite National Park for the weekend.  I got there on Friday in time to hike - more like wander - around Mariposa Grove, which is where one can find a number of the infamous Giant Sequoias.  As I meandered through the forest, I prayed that God would meet me there and speak with me.

Remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return.

It was stunning to stand at the base of trees taller than the Statue of Liberty.  One, affectionately called the Grizzly Giant, is 96 feet around and 27 feet across!  These trees hardly seemed real.  The forest was so quiet.  I passed only a few other admirers along the way.  As I walked I tried to listen.  I know that "the heavens declare the glory of God," so I sought to quiet my spirit and listen to what these natural wonders might declare to me about God's glory.

Remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return.


When I began the hike I picked up a brochure at the trail head.  Within it was the expected descriptions of the tress as well as a simple map to help you get to each crop of tress scattered about in this expansive area.  Unexpected, though, was that nature's declaration of God's glory and God's own word to me during this time of solitude would be published there.  The words of poet Edwin Markham:

"The sequoias belong to the silence and the millenniums. Many have seen more than 100 of our human generations rise. They chide our pettiness standing here among the transitory shapes of time."

What a stunning personalization of these trees.  I read these words and then stood there alone in the quiet forest with my neck bent back trying to capture the whole tree in my sight.  I felt humbled before something greater than me.  I realized that long before my grandfather drew his first breath this tree stood there strong, quiet, alive.  I realized that long after my grandchildren draw their last breath this tree will stand there strong, quiet, alive.  At that moment I was indeed chided by this tree that was sprouting from the earth about the time Mary was groaning in birth pains in a stable in Bethlehem.  I felt intensely the pettiness of human concern that rises and falls so quickly from the perspective of these giant redwoods.

Remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return.

An awareness of the pettiness of my recent questions, concerns, stresses, deadlines, etc. carried me through the weekend.  The next day I hiked for miles through Yosemite Valley ruminating on the magnitude and power of the mountains there.  Those great walls of stone spoke over me the same word about the fleeting nature of my life.  My life span will pass as something less substantial than the clouds of mist that roll over those mountains everyday.  And this awareness was freeing, incredibly liberating.  All the pressure I had allowed myself to feel, all the weight I had chosen to carry was released in knowing that my life is but a breath, my life is like the flowers of the field... a vapor in the wind.

Remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return.

That night as I camped out I saw one other natural wonder that I had almost forgotten existed - the night sky open and unobstructed by light pollution.  Before I climbed into my sleeping bag that night, I gazed again in wonder at the expanse of darkness littered with innumerable, ineffable stars.  I embraced the joy of this sight that my life in Atlanta disallows on a regular basis.  I stood contemplating the images I'd seen that day and the reality of my pettiness.  And then I was privileged to see right before my eyes in a very tangible way the significance of my life - a shooting star.  It lasted less that two seconds.  Surrounded by ancient stars in an ancient sky covering ancient mountains this little flicker of light flashed before me.  

Remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return.

Today is the Lenten season begins.  This morning I made my yearly trip down to All Saints in midtown for their 7:30am Ash Wednesday service for the Imposition of Ashes and Holy Eucharist.  There were a few prayers from that service that will form the kind of fast in which I will be participating this year.  But before I write about, pray about, experiment with, and deal with all of that, I wanted to take note of my own mortality.  As a part of this service the people gather and kneel at the altar as the deacon walks by and rubs ash in the form of the cross on each person.  And to each and every person he says,

Remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return.

In that silent sanctuary I heard his voice gently, compassionately, and rhythmically say this phrase over and over and over.  And I remembered those trees, mountains, and stars.  I remembered that my life at best is a flash of light in a night sky much larger, and much more ancient, than me.  I remember that I am but a breath.  I remember that I am free.  I remember that I am mortal.  I remember that I am but dust and to dust I will soon return.  And remembering this changes me.  It alters that way in which I walk in this world.  It forms in me a different mind knowing that there are trees towering over me reminding me of the ancient world in which I live and the pettiness that can so easily overtake me.

Remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return.


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