Dust and Glory
Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash
Genesis 3:19; Colossians 1:24-27
There are two images in modern history that we are unlikely to forget. The first comes moments after the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima that created an enormous mushroom cloud that reduced tens of thousands of lives and millions of dollars in property to dust in an instant. The second comes from the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001. One of the most poignant images was that of the towers collapsing, and the dust and ash exploding out of the rubble. Half of the people who died were unidentifiable in the remains. That horrific fact meant that the dust consisted, in a large part, of the incinerated lives of persons caught in the attack.
Our carefully curated lives have been ravaged by dust, into dust.
These two images illustrate how fragile our lives, our properties and our dreams are. One moment you are working, playing, or sleeping, and the next, all of that can come crumbling down into dust. This year, a microscopic organism called SARS coronavirus-2, even tinier than some dust particles, has reconfigured how we live. Fifty-five million infected. More than 1.3 million dead. The global economy ground to a halt. Our carefully curated lives have been ravaged by dust, into dust.
In Genesis 2, we are told, “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” One chapter later, the Lord says to the first man and woman: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
… “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Dust – the dust of the earth, the dust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the dust of the Twin Towers, the dust of COVID-19, the dust of shattered dreams, the dust of delayed hope and protracted suffering. The dust, in other words, of our creaturely frailty.
Where may we find inspiration and direction, day by day, through a situation that has reduced the aspirations, hopes, and the very lives of the global community into dust? The words of Scripture show us a profoundly simple way: remember that you are dust. Why? Because that is where man began. That is where the Gospel began and from which God made humanity.
The CAC quadrennial theme is the Imitation of Christ (效法基督). When Christ walked the way of the Cross, carrying the Cross, three times He fell under its weight. Three times He had His face in the dust.
To follow the example of Jesus’ ministry is to be committed to a life of service, to seek out the poor, the weak, and the lonely, wherever they are to be found—face down in the dust if necessary.
When I shared news of my ordination as a deacon with my dear brother Rev Edmund Koh, he shared with me a powerful reminder: “Once a deacon, always a deacon.” – Regardless of the leadership responsibilities, Elders, Presidents and Bishops remain deacons, with service to others taking priority over everything else. The Greek word for deacon can be translated literally as grovelling in the dust. All “ministry” is first and foremost “minister-ing” or serving. To follow the example of Jesus’ ministry is to be committed to a life of service, to seek out the poor, the weak, and the lonely, wherever they are to be found—face down in the dust if necessary. We who are followers of Christ cannot shy away from this. To walk the way of Christ is to walk the dusty road.
Yet in Christ, we are not just meaningless dust. In the words of Bishop Richard Holloway: “I am dust and ashes, frail and wayward, a set of predetermined behavioural responses … riddled with fears, beset with needs… the quintessence of dust and unto dust I shall return… But there is something else in me… Dust I may be, but troubled dust, dust that dreams, dust that has strange premonitions of transfiguration, of a glory instore, a destiny prepared, an inheritance that will one day be my own…So my life is stretched out in a painful dialectic between ashes and glory, between weakness and transfiguration. I am a riddle to myself, an exasperating enigma…this strange duality of dust and glory.”
“…So my life is stretched out in a painful dialectic between ashes and glory, between weakness and transfiguration. I am a riddle to myself, an exasperating enigma…this strange duality of dust and glory.”
Paul rejoices in his suffering, he says, because of this mystery given to those who imitate the crucified Christ: Christ in you, the hope of glory. We make our home in the dust, firm in the hope that one day God in Christ will raise our dust to glory. It is for this reason that Paul can genuinely speak of rejoicing in his suffering for the sake of the Colossian church.
In and of ourselves we have no inherent glory. We are destined to be subject to the swirling winds that scatters our pitiful lives like dust. There is no circuit breaker or special vaccine that can change this fact. Our hope lies in the God who redeems the dust of our trampled dreams, the God who restores those who repent in dust and ashes, the One who breathes life into lungs choked by dust. This same God called Abraham out of the dust of the desert and remade Christ from the dust of the tomb. Surely, He will remake and renew us from the dust of this life and make all things new. In the hands of the creative, omnipotent Triune God, dust can be turned into something that genuinely reflects His glory.
Our hope lies in the God who redeems the dust of our trampled dreams, the God who restores those who repent in dust and ashes, the One who breathes life into lungs choked by dust.
There is no denying that the years ahead will be challenging. Those who inhabit this present age must practice a Christian imagination that sees what has been, what is here now, and what is yet to come. We are called to hold together these strands between dust and glory and be faithful to them all. Glorification is God’s work alone. Our call now, as Paul reminds us, is to embrace the suffering. We must learn to love the near side of dust, for on its far side is glory. All of this is possible if, and only if, amid all our pain, grief, and trepidation, we can find the humility, perseverance and courage to embrace the dust – and let God make something beautiful and glorious, out of our dust.
Rev Nathanael Goh Jun Chuen
Sengkang Methodist Church