Breath and Dust

“For dust you are, and dust you will return…”

On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are dust.  That we are frail, that we are limited and that we are broken.  The words of this Psalmist calls our attention as we anticipate the Cross:

 As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. -Psalm 103:14-16

Ok, let me just be real.  I don't like this passage. I have a feeling if you’re honest, you don’t either. I don’t like to be called dust. I don’t like to be told that I’m so frail that I can be blown away with the wind. It makes me uncomfortable.  It makes me feel so dispensable, so – small.  And I don’t like that.  I’d much rather hear that I am significant.  That my life has meaning.  That I am capable of great things. And actually, I am significant – but not for the reasons I thought.

But before we can get to that part, let’s come back to us being dust.  The Psalmist says here that God remembers how we are formed – but do we? Many of us can get pretty busy making our own kingdoms, advancing and expanding, building and refining, on and on.  We become our own gods, moving along in our unending agendas and long string of “have to’s” as though there is no end and no limit. It’s usually not until we get sick, or watch someone we love pass away that we are met with our own fragility.  And when we do – most of us get scared.  We don’t like to face the fact that we could fall apart in an instant, and like the grass – be blown away.

The Invitation

But, I think the Psalmist is onto something – there is an invitation here in acknowledging that we are weak, if we are ready to listen.  He says that the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.  To fear God is to humbly admit that we are small and frail in comparison to the God of the universe.  And the act of acknowledging this truth is the starting place from which His compassion flows. But this forces us to face our weaknesses, which isn’t usually pleasant for most of us.  Myself included.

The other day, I set out to take a prayer retreat.  I had been up against some tough realities in ministry that I couldn’t control, though I tried.  It left me feeling frustrated and helpless and I needed to step away.  But when I set out to rest and be refreshed, I ended up battling depression all day - fighting an emotional slump that made it difficult to engage in prayer and receive what I had hoped. I sensed the Lord urging me to get out and take a walk.  “Maybe the fresh air will help brighten me up.  Or a little exercise, so I can get back to the real stuff of receiving from God.”

As I was walking, I was listening to music and the song “I Am Mountain” by Gungor came on -

I am mountain, I am dust
Constellations made of us
There’s glory in the dirt
A universe within the sand
Eternity within man…

I felt more like dust in that moment than I ever had.  “Yes, Lord.  I really am dust.  I can’t do this,” I prayed.  Apathy, helplessness, restlessness, fear, frustration.  That’s all I could feel.  Part of me wondered if it was pregnancy hormones – but that frustrated me even more since it was out of my control.  I prayed for God to take these feelings away.  How could I expect to try to minister to people like this?  How could I even engage with God like this?” It wasn’t until the end of the day, when I invited God to speak into my emotions, into my limitations, that the truth came out.

The Truth

“Bette, even in your time trying to rest you’ve tried to control it into being something ‘productive.’ The way you’re feeling is just another reminder that you are dust, that I am God, and that there is very little you can control – even your own emotions.  How then can you expect to control the actions of others in ministry?

In this frail moment, God had compassion on me by reminding me that I was dust.  And this time it didn’t make me angry or afraid…it came as a relief.

But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him…

His word to me was this – It is only in acknowledging that you are dust that you marvel at the mystery that I can take dust and breathe into it the breath of life.  When you try to pretend you are not dust, you won’t receive what I have to offer you.

So stop trying to manage the dust!  Acknowledge it for what it is and open yourself to my invitation for you to be filled with something beyond yourself.  Something eternal that takes the limits you have in your humanness and expands them into a form that contains unending life and breath.

These feelings you’ve been experiencing – helplessness, restlessness, fear, apathy, frustration…they are all a part of the process in recognizing your humanness.  It is the outward expression of the truth that you are frail and limited.

The Choice

But you have a choice on what you will do with that – you can go to a dangerous place of bitterness, anger, or guilt at the truth of your limitations.  You can try to control and manipulate your surroundings in response and try to be like god, but fail miserably at it – leading you deeper into helplessness, despair, guilt, anger, and bitterness.

OR you can turn to me in the midst of your limitations, acknowledge them for what they are and allow me to give you eternal resources you need that go beyond your limitations – breath, life, light, power, love, freedom…

When you try to control your surroundings, you are in essence saying, “I got this, I have everything I need to fix it.”  But when you stop, rest, and open yourself to me and to the fact that you actually don’t “got this,” then I do.  And I will demonstrate my power through you.

I give grace to the humble.

 I can only fill what is empty.

I can only heal the sick.

I can only breathe life within that which is breathless.

So be breathless, Bette.  Acknowledge that you are dust, and only then will I, can I fill you.

I mentioned before that I am significant – but not in the ways I thought. I thought that I was significant because of what I do.  That’s what the world tells me anyway.  And it’s telling you that too.  But it is a lie.  In reality, what I accomplish is often just stirring up more dust.  I am not even significant because of who I am.

Our lives are worth only what God makes them – eternity within man.  He chose to fill us with His very breath, and that’s what makes us significant.  The fact that “from everlasting to everlasting God’s love is with those who fear Him,” means that when we acknowledge our dust-ness, we allow ourselves to be filled with His love, with His breath, and in so doing we come alive.  We become eternal.  And we are then invited with Adam to join Him as co-inheritors of a beautiful kingdom in a beautiful story that we never deserved, but that goes on forever.

So let yourself be dust today by acknowledging your weakness.  Today, look your own frailty in the face, and acknowledge it for what it is.  And as you come before the living God as dust, kneeling before Him in humility and weakness, know that you invite Him to fill the weakest, most insignificant parts of yourself with beauty, life, and breath.  And as He fills you, you are given eternal significance.

About the Author
Campus Staff Member, Western Michigan University

Bette Lynn Dickinson has been on staff with InterVarsity for 5 years. She planted Imago Dei Arts Community, InterVarsity's first Arts plant. As an artist, Bette connects her journey as a painter, photographer, and writer in Kalamazoo with ministry to artists. She graduated from WMU with a BA in 2008, a Masters of Divinity from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2011, and was ordained with the Reformed Church in America in 2014 as a Specialized Minister with InterVarsity. Bette and her husband love being parents for their son, Isaiah. You can read more from Bette at