Songscape: "To Dust"

"I will grow from the ground 
after you burn me down."

-Ingrid Michelson, "Fire"

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that (as our minister claimed in this evening's sermon) at least one child has described as "the day all United Methodists begin their diets."

Ash Wednesday begins the journey of Lent, and is a time of putting aside all of those things that hold us back from the fullness of life. For many, that means a time of fasting from behaviors that separate us from God. For some, it is as simple as walking away from things that keep us from rising to our full potential. Whatever your particular connection to Ash Wednesday may or may not be, it is a time of cleansing, as congregational members are reminded that "you are but dust, and to dust you shall return."

This evening my choir did a stunning job of sharing Carl Schalk's classic, "Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God." I know, however, that some of my friends made my piece "To Dust" a part of their Ash Wednesday worship, and it is humbling and inspiring to think that I was present in some way with them during their time of worship. And it reminds me of services at the United Church of Santa Fe, during which we would write all of our failings and/or hindrances on a piece of paper and put them into a fire during Ash Wednesday services (because, being in New Mexico, we obviously had a Kiva style fireplace near the Sanctuary). It was a very real way of "burning" things that have been hurting you or no longer serve you, and this tradition was, in part, the inspiration for the text of "To Dust." Inter-church beaming via choral music: it's what's for Ash Wednesday.

I wrote "To Dust" in response to a very personal time of grieving and transformation while in Santa Fe. I had some very real things to put in the fire that year, and if someone looked at my situation not through the eyes of someone struggling through a survivor's journey to become and remain whole, it might have seemed a little silly. But it was far from silly. It was an extremely complex emotional situation, the doing-battle-with of which made me into a different person. At the time I was frightened of being a different, a weaker, person. But that wasn't ultimately the way it turned out. I became more primal, more vibrantly expressive, and more confident, ultimately pushing me down the creative, musical, and leadership path that I am on today.

So when I say "let my crying come to dust, let my grief be turned to ashes, let my heart be cleansed in flame," the call is both personal and universal. "Let my mourning turn to song." Many of us the creative field do this on a constant basis and understand that sentiment inherently. "Let my sorrow turn to sunrise." Not simply a plea to make everything okay, but that suffering be used to carve out a new day and a new path. "Let my broken spirit rest." Pleas of Kyrie Eleison (Greek for "Lord, Have Mercy") throughout the piece speak not to a God from whom we need to shield ourselves to avoid vengeance and wrath, but rather to One who offers balm for restoration. Eleison has the same root as the Greek word for oil, which was used to soothe wounds. 

the desert blooms

The text goes on to ask for blooming deserts and water through parched lands- not to simply let us endure the desert, but to use the unique properties of "desert" to bring forth the special blooms that only it can provide to the world. The piece concludes with a repeat of the opening idea, but acknowledges that we all need this healing. Not one person. OUR crying. OUR grief. Collective and individual. The need for cleansing and restoration is a universal human experience. "Everyone you meet," after all, "is fighting a hard battle." We can put our hardships, our sins, our faults, our failings, our pain, into the fire and move ahead in the world, still knowing that the experience of having bore them has made us a little more who we are.

"Let our hearts be cleansed with flame."

Out of the fire comes creation. Out of my fire came creation. I have never been the same.
"To Dust," performed by the Senior Choir at St. John Lutheran Church, Blue Bell, PA


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