The Dusty Gospel

by Blair Ramsey; Genesis 2. 1-7

2020 has been quite the year. At this point, I’m so tired of the joke “hindsight is 2020”. I received my college diploma via UPS on my front steps, learned that Trader Joes has a really good smelling lavender hand sanitizer, have seen people drive down Friendly Avenue with rubber gloves and a mask on, inside their car!!! We stayed home from church and school and barre classes to try and kick this virus to the curb. We put on masks and went to marches to protest police brutality and bring justice to black people across the globe. Nothing I could say would give 2020 enough press. It has been a year. 

Aware of the grief that is present, we have tried to find ways to sustain ourselves in these times. Maybe it’s watching the Atlanta Braves play in an empty stadium. Maybe it’s becoming back porch buddies with our neighbors. Maybe it’s listening to Taylor Swift’s newest album “folklore”. Maybe it’s getting lost in a book. One such reprieve for me has been the book “Untamed”. 

We have two copies of the book in my house, and this week my sister finished the book for the third time. In her book, Glennon Doyle gives an empowering and soulful account of how listening to her own inner voice offered her freedom from the world’s unrealistic expectations and standards . A chapter of her book called “buckets” especially resonated with me. In this chapter she recalls telling her daughter that “maybe when we were born, we were poured from our source into these tiny body buckets. When we die, we’ll be emptied back out and return to that big source and to each other. Maybe dying is just returning- back out from these tiny containers to where we belong. Maybe then all the achy separation we feel down here will disappear, because we’ll all be mixed together again. No more buckets, no more skin- all sea. But for now, you are a bucket of sea. That’s why you feel so big and so small.” 

I was reminded of my smallness this summer during our family’s trip to Holden Beach. Our family has vacationed here for twenty-two years. With five cousins within six years of each other, we have never been plagued with boredom. Throughout the years, our days are always spent being beach bums. When we were younger the nights consisted of sporting matching Land’s End outfits or having shaving cream fights. When we got older, we began to explore the island- finding wild bird sanctuaries, secret mailboxes full of notes, and biking on hidden dirt paths. One night this past June we biked to the end of the island at sunset and swam in the Shallotte Inlet. The sunset was brilliant, a blanket of soft oranges and purples brushed the sky, reflecting into the ocean. Houses and trees on Ocean Isle were but dark shadows in the background. This picture is in the worship guide. My cousin Bella started walking toward the ocean to swim, and I followed her. Taking a quick picture, I captured her silhouette in the bottom right corner. In this picture she appeared tiny, and maybe in this moment she was. But it also seemed in that moment she was a part of something greater, something bigger, something beyond. 

Genesis is the first book that appears in our Bible. Whether you read this book as a story, or as a historical account, it illustrates our place in the world and provides a framework for understanding our relationship with God. A lot happens in this introductory book, including the Creation story. Here, God creates the Earth, night and day, sea and sky, plants and animals, mankind, and then takes a day to rest. The author tells us that “God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being”.Here, we are reminded that from our point of origin, we are dust. This creation is twofold: without the divine breath of life we are particles of dust; but with the breath of life, we become part of something bigger. 

Think of a time that you felt small. Some people call this posture, reverence. Barbara Brown Taylor, an author, teacher, and priest writes about reverence in her book “An Altar in the World”. She defines reverence as the “proper attitude of a small and curious human in a vast and fascinating world of experience…feeling awe in the presence of things higher than itself, and respect for things lower than itself”. To her, your smallness, your dusty-ness leads you to wonder. It leads you to awe. 

I experience this when I think about myself in relation to space and to the universe. I love looking at the stars and am particularly thrilled when I can view the night sky without obstruction of city lights. One of my favorite pictures is The Extreme Deep Field image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009. It is pictured in the Worship Guide. The photo reveals the deepest image of the sky obtained at that time- tens of thousands of galaxies, solar systems, and planets. When I look at this picture, I think of how small I am. I am one human in one suburban city, in one state, in one country, on one continent, on one planet in one solar system that exists in the Milky Way galaxy. But I am also filled with curiosity, wonder, and awe. I feel small, but simultaneously a part of something greater. 

Astronauts call this cosmic zoom-out, the “overview effect” and describe this as a shift in awareness when viewing the Earth from outer space. It is seeing Earth as a tiny ball of life instead of a massive stomping ground. Some have reported expecting to feel an overwhelming sense of fineness, but instead experience deep wonder. I imagine there, in outer space, that astronauts find themselves feeling dusty and connected to a Creator and Creation that existed long before us and will persist long after we are gone.

Leaders today, like Barack Obama, remind us that we shouldn’t discount our dusty-ness because we think our contribution is small. During his speech at the Democratic National Convention this past week, he described an encounter he had with former Civil Rights leader and Congressman John Lewis, who passed away earlier this summer. Obama relayed how years ago, he sat down with Lewis and some other members of the early civil rights movement. One of these leaders remarked “he never imagined he’d walk into the White House and see a president who looked like his grandson”. The man later found out that on the day Obama was born, he was marching into a jail cell trying to end Jim Crow segregation in the South. This man’s stand for Civil Rights paved the way for Barack Obama to serve as president. Recalling this in his speech, Obama said “What we do echoes through the generations”. Maybe that’s part of what God meant when God formed mankind out of dust. Although our actions may feel small in a moment, they set the stage for something larger, and give space for our dust to echo throughout generations. 

When we perceive our actions as small, yet significant and stamped by the divine, we are reminded that our work matters. Our teacher Jesus taught us this when he listened to the children, ate lunch with the poor, shared a drink with the woman at the well, and dined with tax collectors. When we start to think about ourselves as essential parts in effecting necessary and holy change, we find ourselves asking “if not us, then who else? If not now, then when?”. 

If we live out this dusty gospel, then like Glennon Doyle said, we, too, are buckets of sea, and with God’s breath we are part of something greater. 

Buckets of sea,

Notes but also the music. 

Cells but also the dancing body

Minerals but also the solid rock.

Plies and arabesques but also the ballet. 

Meters but also the race set before us. 

We are the syllables to the words that form the sentences of the paragraphs of the chapters that form the stories of this world and our lives. 

This is the dusty gospel.