Dust you are: a call to pay attention


Someone asked her the question, “How do you identify when you’re doing something out of excellence vs out of perfectionism and striving?

Holley gave several responses but this one captured me most: “When I’m doing something out of perfectionism I always feel fear. Our bodies usually tell us when we’ve slipped into striving.”

I’m starting to learn that this is one of the gifts of being body interwoven with soul and spirit: if I pay attention, my body can be a window into what is going on more deeply in me.

The problem is that often enough I’d rather not see. Even when my body is shouting at me through tense muscles, sleepless nights, and irritability, it’s quicker or easier or less scary to take a zopiclone or an ibuprofen and press on with my usual life than to stop and sit quietly with God in the discomfort and ask “What’s really going on here? What am I trying to hide from myself and from You? Why am I afraid to come out of hiding?”

Our culture trains us to hide or override our creatureliness. My medical training ingrained this in me still more deeply. On my first night on call I was taught the words I was to live by: “Eat when you can, sleep when you can, pee when you can.” In a busy twenty-four hour shift, racing from room to room, there wasn’t much room to be human.

I soon learned that doctors are expected to be people who, at the end of a sleepless thirty-six hour shift, can still think clearly enough and respond quickly enough to be handed a scalpel and the life of a patient. There’s no room for error, no room for slowed reflexes or lapses of judgment. No room to be human. And so you learn to ignore the messages your body is sending you. Your body shouts louder. You buy industrial strength ear protection and keep on working. And in the process you forget (if you ever knew) that the body is a gift, one of the primary ways God communicates the state of the soul and reminds us that we are not God but creatures, small and dependent—and meant to be.

I hadn’t known that in plugging my ears against my body, I was also deafening myself to the gentle voice of God.

I keep needing to begin again.

She looked straight into my eyes and spoke the words. Slowly. As though my life depended on them. “Carolyn, remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” I could feel the gentle pressure of her finger on my forehead, marking me with a cross of ash. Ash. Dust. A reminder of my frailty. But not a splotch or a splash or a shapeless blob but a cross, all of my dusty creatureliness gathered up here, safe in the One who Himself became dust to hold my dust safe in the eternal Love of the Creator. I am dust. And I am His.

Just before we were each marked with the cross, we’d read Psalm 103 and I’d realized all over again: I can dare to remember my dustiness because God remembers too.

“. . .for He knows how we are formed,

He remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14)

And—(this is what I need to know!)—

“This remembering on God’s part evokes in God an act of gracious fidelity. The reality of our “dust” does not evoke in God rejection or judgment, but fidelity.” (Brueggemann, “Remember, you are dust.”)

It’s so clear, there in the psalm:

“V. 14 stands as a pivot point between two crucial affirmations about God. Just preceding this verse (vv. 11-13) human transgressions are noted by God and removed; they are made distant, removed as an immediate danger and threat. No big accent is placed on human sin. Human sin is acknowledged and then ignored. What counts is God’s gracious act of removal. . . .

Just following our pivotal verse 14, human finitude and mortality are recognized by God (vv. 15-18). God knows we are going to die, and this awareness evokes in God deep, caring concern:

The steadfast love (hesed) of the Lord is from

everlasting to everlasting . . .” (Brueggemann)

He sums it all up with this enfolding that gives us a safe place to live our frailty:

“Thus Psalm 103 surrounds our “dust” with all of God’s massive faithful power.”

I’d sat, the next day, and picked up the small wooden cross off the table between us. I was preparing to share my heart and I’d known I needed to cling to the cross as I faced my vulnerabilities. The conversation got messy. Or, rather, I did. Tears running down my neck and the pile of soggy kleenexes growing. Our time was full of precious moments of daring to be vulnerable and finding myself loved by God in that place. But I’d hesitated as I’d lifted the small cross from my lap to place it back on the table at the end of our time. I’d been blowing my nose. I hadn’t washed my hands. I’m a doctor. I’m supposed to know better. What was she thinking? Unable to let it go, I emailed to apologize and say that I wouldn’t pick up the cross again. And then, receiving her reassuring response, I realized: I’ve missed the point of the cross if I think I can only cling with clean hands. There’s room for all of me at the cross. Room for my frailty and room for the part of me that wants to hide it, room for the tears that make my nose run and room for the part of me that fears what others will think, room for the bossy perfectionist that wants to ditch my messy body and come to the cross with just my soul, and room for my body that is pushing itself forward and insisting that it wants to cling too, it wants to kneel and dance and cry and be part of worship and brokenness and grace and finding my whole self loved.


Taking it deeper:

Notice how your body responds when you are under stress. Does your body respond with muscle tightness? Diarrhea? Irritability and edginess? Sleep disturbance? Migraines? Dry mouth? Sweating?

List your top three or four. (If you have trouble, ask those close to you to help you notice.) Now (here’s the challenge): pay attention to your body so that when you feel those symptoms you step back and ask God to help you see, “What is really going on for me? What is causing me stress right now?”

(If you’re like me, there may be the temptation to think those things “shouldn’t” cause you stress, or you “should” be able to move past them more easily. Then you might find it helpful to ask, “Jesus, how do you see me right now? How do you want to love me in this place of facing my frailty?”)


(“Taking it Deeper” adapted from Regent College Living Well Forum on Stress and Transition by Rod Wilson, February 5, 2015)

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. KD


  2. Tabitha

    Carolyn thank you for this! Grace to you.

  3. Monique

    Thanks for being vulnerable and for sharing the wisdom of what you are learning in the process of being vulnerable. The photo is so beautiful too.

  4. travellingterri

    Thank you dear friend! I so appreciate this walk together and the relating of heart and questions to each other…. Enjoy your weekend! Terri

    Date: Mon, 23 Feb 2015 21:03:20 +0000 To: kindnessreigns@hotmail.com

  5. Linda

    I needed this…thank you.

  6. Bonita Grace Dirk

    Wow! This is great and very challenging. Thank you especially for sharing the “taking it deeper” bit. Although sometimes the application from your blog is or should be obvious, I think I often don’t quite take it in, or perhaps avoid it so this means I can’t quite avoid it! haha! Very helpful for someone like me.

    I definitely find it challenging to listen to my body, and try to push past it and often find it hard to connect that with listening to God, I sometimes think it is more godly to work harder! eek.

    1. hearingtheheartbeat

      Connecting listening to my body with listening to God is challenging for me too, Bonita. . . hence the reason I’m looking at this!
      And thanks so much for your reflection on the ‘taking it deeper’ bit. I always appreciate hearing what helps (or doesn’t help) people. Not sure I’ll always be able to do it, but I’ll give it a try.

  7. momfan

    So helpful and so beautifully expressed!

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