Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Dip, downstroke, cross.

“From ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Dip, downstroke cross.

“From ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

A murmured thank you.

Dip, downstroke, cross.

“From ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Crouch down, dip, downstroke, cross.

“From ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”


– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Every year, the Ash Wednesday service is one of my favorite Christ Community services. In the words of our campus pastor, “It’s sadder here,” and he’s right, it is. Beautifully sad. Ever humbling. Sorrow-stirring. 

This year I felt it in my hands first. We had been given gold-painted rings with tags attached and were asked to reflect and write down “treasures we cherish more than Jesus.” Oof. The mental inventory took less time than I’d have liked, and returned more than I hoped for. Confessions of misordered loves and misplaced affections, time misspent, and hopes misplaced swam forward and weighed heavily on my mind.

Moments before, the congregation proclaimed “He is worthy…of all blessing and honor and glory.” We had declared Jesus “holy, holy, holy,” and yet I had a lap full of contrary confessions. Sitting confronted with the hypocrisy alive in my own heart, the weight of the ring in my hands grew. It felt an awful lot like 30 pieces of silver.

I felt it on my shoulders next. Asked to stand, each side of the room was then asked a simple question. Using the same words asked of  Peter the disciple, echoing from thousands of years ago, a voice prompted “Church . . . Children of God . . . Sons and Daughters . . . Do you love me?” As we were addressed, each group in turn clutched our frail golden prize, holding our confessions close, and silently turned our backs. 

Away from the voice.
Away from the cross.
Away from the call of Jesus.

I think this is the most visceral way I’ve wrestled with my fallen nature in a while – which says more to my acceptance of it than anything. Facing my chair, grasping a representation of goods made into gods, the truth hung heavy; while I wish it wasn’t, rejection was the truest expression of my heart. 

What can you do with this weight other than let it consume you? Repent.  Looking guiltily at our hands and the sanctuary walls, we begged, “Come thou font of every blessing,” we offered, “Here’s my heart Lord, take and seal it.” Grace met our cries, and the weight lifted as mercy made tangible invited us to once again turn and face the symbol of our salvation, the cross. 

While normally this portion of the service would bear enough emotional weight to make me pause and ponder, this year I had also been asked to help impart ashes. I knew when I was asked that I was honored, but after touching the foreheads of a quarter of my church family, I can honestly say I had no idea how honored I should be. 

It felt holy. Standing in the corner of the room, thumb gritty and oily with the ashes, offering fellow congregants a soft smile, a black cross on the forehead, and some of the least comforting words I can think of, “From ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” 

It felt brutal to say those words over my older brothers and sisters in Christ, and there were more than a few of them. I crouched down to one woman’s forehead. Moved wispy silver bangs off another’s. My thumb brushed the wrinkles of a grandfather’s forehead. Crosses made of ash drawn where hairlines used to be. 

It felt brutal to say those words over younger brothers and sisters in Christ. I help with student ministries, so I saw students that I knew come through my line. I crouched down to a child’s forehead. Moved the brim of a baseball cap off another’s. My thumb brushed teenage acne scars. Crosses made of ash poked from beneath well-styled floppy hair.

This practice stirred remnants of the invincibility of youth that I didn’t realize still dwelt deep within me. While I wasn’t surprised that the sentiment felt true to say over those who’ve walked this globe longer than I, it was a sinking shock to realize it rang as true for those who have walked less. 

I know mortality is one of the great equalizers. Counter to the side of the human coin imprinted imago Dei lies our finitude. I just haven’t been confronted by it in a while. My life is largely insulated from reminders of it nowadays; my family is currently healthy, and my Facebook feed misleadingly free of CaringBridge pages. But Ash Wednesday wrestles the rose-colored glasses from my face. It demands me to see clearly. To see clearly the presence and cost of sin in my heart. In my life. In the lives of my fellow congregants. In the church. In the world. To see the death bought by our behavior.

That’s Ash Wednesday’s gift. For only from the right, corrected sight can the growth God invites us to come. Only from the admittance of brokenness can come repair. Only from confession can come forgiveness free from shame. Jesus promised the kingdom of God to the mourners, the meek, and the poor in spirit. Ash Wednesday is a means to get us there. A funeral to our pride, a shrinking of our egos, and a preaching of our fallibility over ourselves. Let it be the water that washes me meek and mourning, for the glory of God and the good of my soul.


A Word Spoken for Ash Wednesday, 2021

By Kelli Sallman
Reposted with permission from

From Ash Wednesday to Easter, the Lenten season beckons us to consider our mortality and sinfulness. But that inward look can develop into tunnel vision if we don’t venture up from the depths, into God’s light, to see what He’s doing in this great cosmic battle. And that’s really what we’ve been experiencing this past challenging year—and every year before it and after—the cosmic battle playing out on our home soil. In our distress, we can easily miss this bigger picture, the telescopic view of our Savior and our world, and when we do, we see more dividing lines than unity, more failure than victory.

The three movements of “A Word Spoken for Ash Wednesday” were created for the Ash Wednesday service in February 2021, to help us remember who we are as the church in Christ—and whose we are in this great battle. Take a few minutes to WATCH each movement in video format, created to help you contemplate our complicity in the problem, Jesus’s offer of absolution, and His invitation into something wholly and divinely better.

Based on Isaiah 55; Ezekiel 37:1–14; Ephesians 2–4; 6:10–20
With help from the body: Randy Bonifield, Dawn Heckert, Callie Johnson, Kia Hunt, Bobbie Jeffrey, and Emily Hobbs
Video Performances: Michael Burke, Alyssa Hershey, Michelle Lee


Under the steeple
steeped in truth, full of people,
a darkness persists in the middle of the light.

’Cause while we the people in our pews take an hour away from news
to turn our eyes on Jesus,
in our flesh, we’re priming for a fight.

See, we’ve been stepped on, and the truth, it’s been dumped on,
and there’s a sea of white crosses for the ones
who’ve been imposed on to give their lives
for our freedom.

So we lash out with lashes against the trash talk of the masses
that we see as the crowd
of our country, the overloud
of our culture—the ones who don’t think
like me. In fact, the ones
who are evil, the ones
who need Jesus.

And so we take our Bibles, and we flail them at our neighbors.
We holler like children, “Mom, he started it!” We cry,
“I didn’t do it!” And inside we seethe
at the injustices on earth.

All the while—
in a dark corner of the cosmos, the underworld of the universe,
the serpent nurses bruises and sinks low to sit and watch
the great reality, the show of earth.

He might run scared from a legion of saints
from every region, arms locked
not with religion but relation to the Regent—the King
of kings—the Savior—as we fight a common foe.

But here? There’s just a dust up in the ranks
that need to stand up, that are subdivided
by our make-up and the privilege
we won’t give up.

So Satan, he’s gettin’ cozy as us cretins,
we just mosey on down to the mud pits he set
to trap us in.

Like a sister getting fed up or a brother who won’t put up,
we just bicker till we break up, we argue
and we beat up God’s own image for a mockup of his kingdom.

And the image that we hold up to the world is a soul
that feels so small.
We have eaten and devoured the Word so much
that our spirits are parched, so that our hearts dry and shrivel.
But we deny it.

We might be right, but still wrong
because brother against brother, and
sister against sister, we leave our father and mother
to fight a holy war
all our own.

No grace, no irresistible attraction, no quarter for our enemies.
From dust we were taken and to dust
we shall return, but in the middle, we want
power, we want pride, we want perfection, we want profession, we want protection, we want possessions,
so in our pews, we take our eyes off the redeemer
of the nations,
and we set the world on fire.
We set the church on fire.
We reduce ourselves to ashes.

And Satan, in his Lazy Boy,
kicks his feet up
and laughs.


Jesus stands over our ashes and he weeps—
for his church, his tears clear the air.
Can you see him?

While we wager on our dreams, he fights for our imaginations.
While we wheedle through politics, he fights for our ideals.
While we wrestle over pennies, he fights for our souls.
We fight for our philosophies, our rights, and our security.
He’s not just a lover of wisdom, he’s the wisdom that loves.
He’s not just the defender of right, he’s the righteous defender.
He’s not just the giver of riches, he’s the giver of life.

With the earth as his footstool, his thoughts rise to the heavens,
his arms reach around the universe. His word created the cosmos,
yet his hands bear the scars of sinners. (That bit wasn’t Satan; we did that.)
His heel crushed the serpent but was nailed to a cross. (We did that, too.)

So let me declare boldly the surprise of the gospel,
the mystery of the ages, the foolishness of earth:
We can be so wrong, yet still right
with the Father—
Gentiles share privilege with the Jews.

They’re members of the same body.
They eat at the same table.
They partake of the same promise.

In fact, the gospel gets better than that.
Hold your hats on, my people.

See, the banquet is waiting.

You bet Satan is watching; he has turned up the volume;
he’s perched on his chair to pick off survivors,
to see who we’ll vote off the island.
In his hand is an app that picks the winners and losers,
he swipes and sows more division,
he posts and scorns with derision,
he manipulates the algorithm of the human mind and heart.

But Jesus, standing in our ashes, divine ruler of the cosmos,
lays his sword down.
He lays his stone down.
He lays his body down
and rolls in the dust that is us.
And when he rises, the all-sufficient, the magnificent glory
of God is encased in our own mingled ashes.

The Christ once held his arms out; now, he holds his hands out
and he offers the bread and the wine of the banquet not just to Gentile and Jew
but to socialist and capitalist, to the nationalist and the centrist,
to the populist and the elitist, to the Calvinist and the Methodist,
the fundamentalist and the syncretist, the anarchist and the conspiracist
—and get me, church—
to the rapist and the murderer, the papist, the embezzler,
the racist, the ignorant, the opposition, the arrogant,
the repugnant, the grumbler, the reviler, the complainer,
the promiscuous, the gambler, the drunkard, and the arguer.
He holds his hands out to the liar, the thief, the snitch, and the denier,
invites the tax collector, the fallen woman, the self-made man and his choir.
Are you worried that I’m naming you?
Or afraid he’ll leave you out?
His guest list includes the self-indulgent, the lazy, the jealous, the crazy,
the gossip, the bully, the self-righteous, the unholy,
the pedigreed, the undocumented, the worshiper of idols—
and such are we. Such are we, yet he holds his hands out
and invites us to unity in the beauty of our diversity
to the one faith that can bind us and uphold us;
he holds his hands out so we’ll know him—
so we’ll know him—
so we’ll know him:
the Son of God.

And at the banquet there are two names on the guest list:

First, the unconquerable, the Savior, the unquenchable, the Spirit,
the unchangeable, the Father—and the name we must profess is Jesus.
The other label, despite our libel and our slander, is fully able
to get our nation back to livin’
to get the church back to lovin’
to get our world out of the scorched-earth mud
because our name is

Come and seek.
Come and see.


All across the grieving world, the Christ holds his hands out:
“Come buy wine and fresh milk without cost, without price.”
But while these bones, dry and parched, reach for Jesus,
we look around at devastation
and ask, “How shall we now live?”

In the valley of ashes, we hear a great rattling
as the bones that were battling join together—
bone, flesh, and sinew, every joint held with glue—
every part working properly.
From the ashes we rise.

As with the clay he once formed, Yahweh fashions a new body.
One arm equipped most for justice; the other, more for truth.
This hand, equipped for mercy, that tongue, equipped to soothe.
He empowers one foot to follow; he humbles this leg enough to lead—
Yahweh forms us from every tribe, tongue, and nation, every color, stripe, and creed
and burns away our strongholds—
from the ashes we rise.

He pumps the bellows and stokes the coals and lights a holy flame;
for us, he forges a heart of flesh and reignites us again.
He names love as the stumbling block, recommissions service as our crown,
hammers out his holy Word so we grasp heaven and bring it down.
And though we may not know how to do this, even though we disagree,
this new temple isn’t just me full of God; it’s God housed in we.

The church stands when we understand; from the ashes we rise.
Because as we call ourselves “blessed Christians” and also
“those with a wicked bent,”
we will look to our head that is Jesus to remember why we’re sent.
We will think the thoughts of God and look at others through his eyes,
and speak his words of mercy.          The cosmic battle wages in us,
but we’ll respond as the One who’s wise—from the ashes we will rise!
We will see the down and out, the CEO, the angry, the terrorized,
the journalist, the common man, the woman who took our prize,
the family member who makes it hard to breathe, the victim who just cries,
and we’ll set aside our roar of thunder and our earthquake reprise;
we will bend to embrace all these who thirst and those we once despised
and engage their ears with a whisper:


“Leave the war. Come to the banquet.”

Then the trees will clap their hands, the mountains will start to sing
because the valley of ashes has come to new life—
what was cut off and dry now sprouts green!

At the last, Yahweh dips his finger in the ashes—
see, with this new body he isn’t quite done—
He says, “Put a mark of peace on their foreheads.
Ah! This one is my Son.”